Veils spark courtroom clothing debate in Ontario, Canada

The issue of whether the courts or Parliament should decide if a Muslim woman can wear a veil while testifying was at the centre of arguments on the first day of a potentially landmark hearing at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The court must determine whether a 32-year-old Toronto woman, who is accusing her uncle and cousin of sexually abusing her while she was a child, can testify against them while wearing a niqab.

A wide range of suggestions was put forward by lawyers representing the woman, the defendants, the province and five interest groups. The three-judge panel appeared reluctant to turn the case into a referendum on the use of the niqab in Canadian society and other social issues. It will likely be several weeks before the court issues its ruling.

When a lawyer for the Muslim Canadian Congress, which is opposed to women wearing the niqab, noted that the complete outfit restricts the ability of a lawyer in court to see not only her face, but the body language of a witness, the panel interjected. In its argument, the Ontario government urged the court to avoid imposing any general rules. Instead, a “legal framework” should be created that would be applied in individual cases. Under the suggestions put forward by the province, it would likely be more difficult for a witness to wear a veil at the actual trial, because of the impact on the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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