LONDON, Ont. -- When she first decided to cover her face, Afia Baig had to sneak out of the house.
She was a 20-year-old medical student in Pakistan, and her parents couldn't believe she wanted to wear the veil worn by some Muslim women.
"My father was totally against it," she said, recalling her decision to cover her face.
"I had to hide from him to get out of the house."
Baig said she felt called to wear the niqab after reading the Qur'an.
"For that first year, every family member would come by to give me a lecture -- 'Oh, you don't want to cover,' they'd say. But I was young and strong-willed."
That was 36 years ago and Baig -- a mother of four who now lives in Mississauga, Ont. -- has been wearing a niqab ever since, not because she feels coerced by any man in her life, but because of choice.
A new report released Wednesday in London by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women suggests Baig's choice resonates with the majority of women who cover their faces in Canada.
According to the study -- Women in Niqab Speak -- presented at Brescia University College, none of the women who took part felt coerced to wear the niqab by husbands or by their religious community.
They did so of their own accord, based on their interpretations of their religion, researchers found.
Eighty-one women who wear niqabs took part in the study with 45% believing it's necessary for a Muslim woman to wear one and 47% said it was not necessary, but advisable.
The study was done as a response to the "growing national conversation" about the niqab, the council said.
That conversation has been heated since last year when the Quebec government proposed the Charter of Quebec Values that would ban public employees from wearing religious symbols at work.
The council of Muslim women is against such a ban, saying it violates religious freedom.
"The face or head covering is not mandatory in Islam, but the (council) supports the right of a woman to express her religiosity as she wants," executive director Alia Hogben said.
"We're against Saudi Arabia and Iran for requiring head coverings, and we oppose Quebec for banning them."
There are few niqab-wearing Londoners. None attended the launch, though a woman in the small audience said she knew of a group of about 20 -- many of them converts to Islam.
Women in niqab are most often seen on Western University's campus and are usually international students from countries such as Saudi Arabia studying English, said several people at the launch.
Council representatives said the study was an eye-opener to those within the Muslim community and the broader community because there's a general perception of the niqab as a symbol of oppression or a rejection of Western society.
"They were doing it because it made them feel closer to God," project co-ordinator Sahar Zaidi said.
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ABOUT THE STUDY
- 81 women who wear niqabs participated
- 45% believe it’s necessary for a Muslim woman to wear a niqab
- 47% said it was not necessary, but advisable