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'It's discriminatory': Individuals refused entry to Ontario legislature for wearing keffiyeh

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Individuals being barred from entering Ontario’s legislature while wearing a keffiyeh say the garment is part of their cultural identity— and the only ones making it political are the politicians banning it.

On Monday, Kitchener resident Beisan Zubi drove to Toronto to listen to Question Period, but she wasn’t allowed in the building because she was wearing a keffiyeh.

The scarf, she said, belonged to her mother.

“It's older than I am. This is something that's been passed down to me. I'm very proud of it,” she told CTV News Toronto.

She said she was shown a printed letter that said no visitors to the legislative assembly will be allowed to wear the keffiyeh.

“In consideration of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the keffiyeh now holds strong political connotations affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wearing the scarf in the Legislative Assembly would be considered a political statement.”

“I was confused,” Zubi said. “Is this the only cultural, you know, where that is banned? Apparently, yes.”

She says it feels as though the government is telling Palestinians they are not welcome at the legislature.

“Are you telling me I shouldn't be proud? Are you telling me I can't participate in our political arenas? What is the message here,” she said.

“That's not appropriate. That's not anything that any of elected officials should be proudly saying.”

Beisan Zubi is seen in this undated photograph. (Provided)

On Tuesday the Ontario New Democratic Party tried for a second time to obtain unanimous consent to reverse the ban, but the motion failed.

House Speaker Ted Arnott told reporters that he heard some “nays” and therefore could not take any action. Arnott was the one who originally instituted the ban, arguing there is a “long-standing” policy about wearing political symbols in the House.

Premier Doug Ford has said publicly that he does not support banning the keffiyeh and has asked the speaker to reverse his decision.

However he said he would not force his party members to vote a certain way.

“Members of caucus are free to support or oppose the NDP motion,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.

What is the keffiyeh?

The keffiyeh is a square scarf traditionally worn by Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs. It has come to symbolize solidarity with Palestinians amid the Middle East conflict.

However for many the scarf is part of who they are.

“It's something that our ancestors have worn for generations. For me, it's become something that I turn to for comfort, for pride, for identity,” Dania Majid with the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association told CTV News Toronto.

Dania Majid with the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association speaks with CTV News Toronto outside of Queen's Park on April 23, 2024.

Majid was part of a group who had been scheduled to meet with NDP Leader Marit Stiles to discuss anti-Palestinian racism on Tuesday. They were told they couldn’t come into the legislature wearing their keffiyeh.

The group refused to do so and held the meeting outside of Queen’s Park instead.

“They’re literally stripping me of my dignity and this is why we decided we wouldn’t take off our keffiyeh to go inside,” Majid said while standing outside of the building.

Zubi also describes the scarf as a comfort garment, noting that Palestinians are raised to be aware of their history and they keep it close to heart.

“The keffiyeh is a symbol to Palestinians and it's for Palestinians. So when non Palestinians try and define it or malign it or change the meaning of it, it's obviously extremely offensive and it's discriminatory,” she said.

“We don't allow other members of other groups to have their cultural garb be defined by people who are not in that cultural group.”

According to Zubi, the symbols on the scarf symbolize trade and agriculture. She also acknowledged that it is sometimes worn by non-Palestinians in solidity with the people.

Is it political?

Arnott has previously defended his decision. saying that the wearing of the keffiyeh is "is clearly intended to be a political statement" at the present time.

“It’s extremely politically sensitive, obviously, but procedurally, I believe I made the right decision in the sense of past rulings of Speakers and precedents and traditions,” he told reporters last week.

One of the members who voted against the motion is PC MPP Robin Martin, who released a statement Tuesday saying that she intends to continue to vote against it

“The rules of the legislature are clear that props and clothing that makes a political statement cannot be worn in the chamber,” she said.

“These rules exist to keep the peace in our democratic institutions and to ensure that we use only our words to debate and persuade each other. I believe these rules are important to the proper functioning of the legislature and must be upheld.”

PC MPP Lisa Macleod also voted against the motion and called the scarf a “very divisive symbol and political symbol in Ontario.” She also suggested the NDP motion to reverse the ban was antisemitic and ill-timed due to Passover.

“I think that these tensions that have unnecessarily spilled over into the Ontario legislature really have been a distraction for the work that we’re supposed to be doing here,” she said.

Independent MPP Sarah Jama wore the keffiyeh in the legislature Tuesday despite the ban. Speaking to reporters she called the ban ridiculous and said she has worn the scarf multiple times in the legislature before the ban.

“Cultural clothing can be made to be political,” she said, while adding that the act of banning a piece of garment is also political.

“To target staff who were trying to enter the building who affiliate with the scarf culturally is wrong. The premier has even come up and said this is wrong, so the speaker really needs to reassess his ruling on this matter.”

Independent MPP Sarah Jama wears the keffiyeh at Queen's Park on April 23, 2024. (Katherine DeClerq)

A group of demonstrators were kicked out of the legislature on Tuesday for protesting after the NDP’s motion to reverse the ban was denied. Visitors to Queen’s Park started to yell when Government House Leader Paul Calandra responded to questions about the ban by talking about how his party has a “diverse caucus.”

The legislature was put on recess for 15 minutes.

When asked if the protest proves the speaker’s point, that the keffiyeh has become a political symbol, Jama said no, explaining that individuals are doing what they feel is necessary to have their voices heard.

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