‘I think Palestinians deserve an apology’: Canadian educator ‘shocked’ at blatant racism of Ontario legislature's keffiyeh ban

What seemed like a 'flash-in-the-pan' issue has turned into a controversial debate that's divided Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the House Speaker, and political parties

It’s been days since a surprise announcement from the speaker of the Legislative Assembly in Ontario banned the keffiyeh, citing it as a political statement. The scarf is a part of the identity of the Palestinian community and has left many in the community reeling over the news.

“I was shocked. It feels obvious that they’re saying to us Palestinians that we’re not welcome. Usually, racism and discrimination are much more subtle,” said Beisan Zubi, a Palestinian-Canadian anti-racism and equity educator.

The keffiyeh symbolizes different parts of Palestinian heritage, from the trade routes through Palestine to the fishnets representing its ties to the sea and the curved lines representing olive trees.

Ontario House Speaker Ted Arnott cited that the keffiyeh is considered more of a political statement in the current climate and could cause division among politicians and anyone if worn in the legislature.

“It’s extremely politically sensitive, obviously. But procedurally, I believe I’ve made the right decision in the sense of past rulings of speakers, precedents and traditions. And in my opinion, having done the research, it appeared to me that the keffiyeh is being worn to make a political statement,” said Arnott.

Beisan Zubi, Palestinian-Canadian equity and antiracism educator launched https://www.antipalestinianracism.com/ for educational resources on how to combat discrimination against Palestinian people.
Beisan Zubi, Palestinian-Canadian equity and antiracism educator launched https://www.antipalestinianracism.com/ for educational resources on how to combat discrimination against Palestinian people.

Zubi has created educational resources and teaches about anti-Palestinian racism. Zubi said that when she heard the announcement, her first inclination was thinking about her Charter of Rights and Freedoms being violated for discrimination based on ethnic origin.

“I was completely horrified, and the conversations I’ve had with different lawyers, they all feel...confident that this would not pass the legal test in any Ontario Human Rights tribunal,” she said.

I think it needs to be struck down; I think it needs to be apologized for, and I think Palestinians deserve an apology for this.Beisan Zubi, equity and anti-racism educator

MPPs have worn kilts, kirpans, vyshyvankas, and chubas in the legislature, and none of the attire has been considered political symbols in need of suppression.

“There's nothing offensive or untoward about our cultural dress, and we should be allowed to have the same rights as any other Ontarian when it comes to accessing the House of Representatives and observing what happens there,” Zubi said.

She’s not alone in her thoughts. Ontario Premier Doug Ford called for a reversal of the keffiyeh ban in a statement issued Wednesday. Ford said the speaker, and nobody else, made the decision.

"I do not support his decision as it needlessly divides the people of our province. I call on the Speaker to reverse his decision immediately," Ford said.

Speaking at Queen's Park last week, Arnott said he would reconsider the ban with unanimous consent from MPPs.

"If the House believes that the wearing of the keffiyeh in this House, at present, is not a political statement, I would certainly and unequivocally accept the express will of the house with no ifs, ands or buts," he said.

Two motions which required unanimous consent to strike down the ban did not pass. Sources say several Progressive Conservative MPPs voiced their opposition. PC Party MPP Robin Martin, who represents Eglinton–Lawrence, voted against last week's unanimous consent motion.

"We have to follow the rules of the legislature; otherwise, we politicize the entire debate inside the legislature, and that's not what it's about. What it's about is we come there and use our words to persuade, not items of clothing."

When asked if she had defied a directive from the premier, Martin said, "It has nothing to do with the premier; it's a decision of the speaker of the legislative assembly."

Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie and NDP leader Marit Stiles have called for a reversal of the keffiyeh ban. Zubi said she thought everything would be fixed following Doug Ford’s statement, citing his opposition and wanting to reverse the speaker’s ban on the keffiyeh. She was stunned to learn that it wasn’t the case.

“I was honestly hoping it would just be a flash-in-the-pan and it would be over, so now we’re in a position where people have doubled down and continue to polarize this issue and us as a community,” she said.

Zubi, who frequents the legislature, has worn her keffiyeh a handful of times, along with other staffers. Earlier this week, Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama was kicked out of the legislature for defying the ban, and wearing a keffiyeh.

Zubi admitted that she doesn’t accept or believe the ban is legally enforceable.

“I don't accept it, to be quite honest. I think it's unjust. I think that a cultural dress in a society like Canada, where they speak of it as a cultural mosaic, should be allowed,” she said.

During the 2021 federal election, Zubi ran with the New Democratic Party in Kitchener Centre, where she said she experienced a great deal of xenophobia and anti-Palestinian racism to her face. It didn’t discourage her then, but she said being inundated with hate for celebrating their culture could significantly impact a younger person.

“I see so many young Palestinians right now who are trying to navigate a world that they see hates their identity and hates their culture and hates their community,” she said. “I think Palestinians kind of grow up recognizing that anti-Palestinian racism has always been a facet of our lives in Western society.”

The last keffiyeh manufacturer in Palestine, Hibrawi has had backorders, and is almost always sold out. To Zubi, that, coupled with the fact that she sees more and more keffiyehs daily, clearly indicates that things are changing in society. She added that while some are committed to making Palestinian people seem like the bad guys, it is clear to her that the tides have turned over the past six months.

close-up of a Palestinian headscarf or kufiya. The traditional black and white headscarf of the Arab man (Keffiyeh). The weave forms a diagonal path
close-up of a Palestinian headscarf or kufiya. The traditional black and white headscarf of the Arab man (Keffiyeh). The weave forms a diagonal path

“When I wear my keffiyeh, I get looks or comments. What has changed, though, is the solidarity,” she said.

As for the political situation, Zubi noted that in her discussions with other groups, many agreed the ban was a tough pill to swallow — and they would test the strength of the ban in a legal setting.

“I think this is a case in which you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. This furthered the silencing, the erasure and racism against Palestinians from Conservatives,” she said.

As for Arnott, Martin, and other PC MPPs who have kept the keffiyeh ban in place, Zubi said she hopes they will come to terms with the harm they are perpetuating and the fear they’re mongering.

If a scarf is causing such consternation, you need to look in the mirror and reflect on why that is, not discriminate against an entire group of people.Beisan Zubi, equity and anti-racism educator

Zubi noted that she intends to wear her keffiyeh to the Ontario legislature the next time she is there.

“I think that there will be pushback, and Palestinians and those who support us will continue wearing their keffiyehs, I know that,” she said.