Muslim woman fights order to unveil, testifying in Canadian court

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TorontoA Muslim woman is to appear in a Canadian court in March to contest a judge’s ruling that she must unveil while testifying against two men accused of sexually assaulting her.

The case pits the woman’s freedom of religion – in terms of which, she says she is obliged to cover her face – against the rights of defendants to face their accuser in court.

In October, Ontario Court Justice Norris Weisman ruled that the woman must remove her niqab (a face veil that reveals only the eyes) while testifying. Defence lawyers had argued that they must be able to assess the woman’s demeanour to tailor their questioning.

The names of the woman and the accused are protected under a publication ban.

The woman’s lawyer, however, told the Toronto Star newspaper that complainants in sexual assault cases find it “difficult and often traumatic” to testify in court. “During such times of great anxiety,” he said, “the courts should respect religious rights and practices that bring comfort and sustenance, particularly when they do not undermine the fairness of the proceedings.

“Weisman said he reached his decision after finding the woman’s religious belief “is not that strong … and that it is, as she says, a matter of comfort.” The woman, who has worn a niqab for five years, acknowledged she had unveiled for her driver’s license photo, he noted. The judge’s statement is “a dangerous one”, said Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. While Hogben does not believe that the Qur’an commands that women cover their faces, “I don’t think anyone can assess who has more faith than anyone else,” she said.

The case should not be viewed as a clash between religion and the rights of an accused, asserted Hogben, who is also a trained social worker. As an alleged victim, the woman could be feeling vulnerable. “It takes a lot to accuse someone of sex assault,” Hogben said.

Some observers have noted that witnesses in Canadian courts occasionally testify via closed-circuit television or from behind screens when there are safety concerns.

There are about 580,000 Muslims in Canada but few Muslim women wear the niqab.