"Discriminatory" Ontario Legislature Ban on Keffiyehs Sparks Protests

The Ontario NDP has stated it plans to defy the ban when the legislature resumes sitting next week.

Canadian Anti-Hate Network

Source: DXR/Wikicommons

In a move labelled as discriminatory, Ontario’s provincial legislature banned the wearing of the keffiyeh, a culturally significant garment to Muslim and Arab cultures. 

In a decision made by Speaker Ted Arnott, the patterned scarfs were barred from being worn inside Queen’s Park. Items that are considered to be making a political statement are not permitted and exceptions require unanimous approval from members to be allowed. 

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Despite all four provincial party leaders calling for an end to the ban, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford who said the restriction “needlessly divides” people, a motion by NDP leader Marit Stiles was defeated when several conservatives voted against it. 

With the legislature scheduled to resume sitting on May 6, Stiles said in a video message posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the NDP would begin to defy the ban if it was not repealed. 

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, one of the largest advocacy groups for Muslims in Canada, said on their social media that MPPs from multiple parties intended to also disobey the ban. 

The keffiyeh, or a hatta, is a garment typically made of cotton traditionally worn by Arabs and Muslims from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. While typically the black and white scarf has become synonymous with Palestinians, there are multiple other traditional patterns and colours that carry a variety of different meanings.

"The keffiyeh is worn by Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians, it is cultural attire, just like so many other things are," Stiles said previously about the ban.

"And we live in a diverse province, and people, I think, have a right to wear their cultural heritage, their cultural attire and show their pride in their heritage."

The ban has resulted in reports of several individuals being turned away from entering the legislature, including a group of Arab lawyers who attended Queen’s Park for a meeting. 

According to the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA) after attending a meeting at the end of March a member wearing a keffiyeh was allowed access. Two ACLA lawyers returned on April 23 to attend a meeting with Stiles, though they faced issues when attempting to pass through security.

“They both were wearing their black and white keffiyehs and visible clothing that featured a black and white keffiyeh print. They presented themselves at security with identification, the meeting was verified and a visitor pass was issued,” the statement reads. “Before they were allowed to proceed to the security screening area, they were informed by security that their keffiyehs would need to be removed.”

They were reportedly told that they could wear the keffiyeh when inside of Stiles’ office or other private areas, but were barred from donning it in the building’s public spaces.

On the floor of Queens Park itself, independent Member of Provincial Parliament, Sarah Jama was asked to leave for wearing a Keffiyeh on April 25. 

“Sarah Jama, you are named. You must leave the chamber,” Arnott told her during question period last week. 

While she refused to leave, Jama was not allowed to vote, participate in committee proceedings, and more for the rest of the day. 

“This is a cultural piece of clothing. Every party leader has spoken up about how this ban shouldn’t exist. The premier has spoken about this ban needing to not exist. And yet his own members, the Conservatives, are the ones consistently saying 'no' to the removal of this ban,” she told reporters according to CP24.

The response to the ban from other civil society organizations has been condemnation.

A director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Anaïs Bussières McNicoll, said the argument underlying the position that the Legislative Assembly is “somehow not the place for politics” is questionable. 

“It is not up to the Speaker to decide that a piece of clothing that unquestionably bears a cultural significance is now necessarily being worn as a political prop,” Bussières said in a statement. “Labeling a culturally significant piece of clothing such as the keffiyeh as a political prop, and banning it as a result, is discriminatory towards Arab communities and is a direct attack on freedom of expression.”

Likewise, the NCCM called the attempt to remove Jama for wearing the keffiyeh a “shameful day in Ontario’s history.”

“This is anti-Palestinian racism,” the organization wrote on X. “The keffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian cultural identity.” 

The ban also resulted in a protest by the Ontario Federation of Labour on April 26, with a march outside Premier Ford’s constituency office and over 100 calls to Ford’s office directly demanding he pressure members of his party to prevent the repeal of the ban.


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