Facing up to the Burqa ban

Quebec has waded in to the burqa fight, and while the legislation that will lead to a limited ban on full facial covering has been suspiciously suspended, the debate of persecution versus xenophobia rages on.

As the French and the Belgians tear back the veil worn by Muslim women, so too is Quebec enmeshed in the same row, raising the most complicated of dilemmas in the globalization of cultures – human rights vs anti-democratic ideology with arguably a dose of misogyny thrown in.

The Quebec government abruptly, and supposedly due to scheduling issues, suspended hearings on legislation – called Bill 94 – which, without actually mentioning the offending garments, will ban the wearing of the niqab or burqa by women engaged in giving or receiving any public services.

The hearings are again, supposedly, to resume in the Fall. However in the wake of the bill’s first real public outing, it is being seen as blatantly anti-Muslim, leaving those who value freedoms such as women being allowed to wear whatever they want, to wonder what other authoritarian tricks the government may have up its legislative sleeve. For those who consider the burqa and the niqab overt displays of oppression, patriarchal control and a sign of no intention to integrate into a new community, the delay in the hearings is a concern the government has lost its nerve.

The essence of the Bill means a woman whose face is obscured except for the tiny slit that allows her eyes to be seen can not teach or be taught in Quebec educational institutions, treat or be treated in Quebec hospitals, practice law or be defended in Quebec courts, or work or receive services such as obtaining a drivers’ license or health card in any of the province’s bureaucracies.

It does not ban the public wearing of the garb outright as the French and the Belgians. Instead it requires that the face be seen in public dealings. On the face of it, so to speak, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, you are required to remove a balaclava when going about all of the above and this is a province which can experience -40c in the winter when balaclavas are de rigueur.

However going bare-faced is not that simple.

The first issue is why has this extremely unpopular government decided to go ahead with a law that is, according to polling over the last year or so, very popular? Well I guess that one has answered itself.

But when governments, which are quite happy for strip clubs to blatantly advertise what they have for sale on Montreal’s main shopping street, start preaching a dress code for women who are too covered, there are perhaps real, and definitely perceived inconsistencies.

Montreal prides itself on being an ethnic melting pot. Immigrants from all over the world celebrate their national cultures in festivals, parades, places of worship, and of course, dress. The rest of the province is not as diverse, evidenced in a farcical experience with a tiny town called Hérouxville which a couple of years ago published a ‘code of conduct’ for immigrants. Part of the code was a ban on the stoning of women and on female genital mutilation. It was blatantly anti-Muslim, and forced a costly province-wide commission on ‘reasonable accommodation’ which did nothing to resolve real issues surrounding toleration of religious differences.

Then came the potential burqa ban with its associated debate as to whether we are in fact talking religious differences. Men dictating what women wear in the name of God is certainly not the sole domain of Islam. Think of what Catholic nuns had to put up with and the fuss when many emerged from underneath their serge habits – headgear included. Look at the deliberately drab dress and wigs many Jewish women are required to wear. In these cases however their faces, and therefore some form of identity, at least are visible.

A persistent issue with the niqab and burqa is that the Qur’an preaches modesty for both men and women, not anonymity for women. Muslim nations such as Turkey and Tunisia forbid the niqab and burqa in public places, and the full body veil has come to represent – to the West at least - the ugly side of patriarchal dominance and female subjectivity. It can not be automatically presumed a symbol of oppression, but that’s a huge cultural ask for many.

Stemming from that is the confusion caused when Muslim women who do wear the full covering claim it is their choice, while others say they are made to on reaching puberty. This debate has been aired publicly in Quebec over the last couple of years and the division remains palpable.

As one side calls the legislation an affront to religious freedom and an attack on minorities, the counter argument posits just as vehemently that the burqa or niqab are not veils but masks which shout the message that the wearer wants to avoid any type of interaction with fellow human beings…or is not allowed any such interaction.

Professional atheist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens, recently extended the argument to ask “pseudo liberals” who defended the burqa, wanting to know what they thought of the Ku Klux Klan’s desire to wear white pointy face-covering hats. They’re a group “dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity” he noted, but why should they be allowed to teach in schools or be served in banks in their face-covering attire? Yes he’s stirring and the Klan is denied such options, but the questions of one rule for some and not others, and the issue of whose choice it is to cover up are nonetheless valid.

The Muslim Council of Montreal has railed against Bill 94 reckoning it to be the “slippery slope” in terms of government infringing on the rights of minorities. It fears Muslim women will be driven out of universities and workplaces into the shadows of marginalization and isolation. Surely under the mask of a burqa or niqab they are already living in the shadows, being without any public individuality or identity?

In Quebec, even though perhaps only a few dozen women dress as such, there is a public undercurrent that a province which took hundreds of years to shake the dominance of the Catholic Church in public and private affairs, has no taste for religious dictates whatever the religion. Bill 94 has therefore reignited calls for the elimination from the public sphere of any religious teachings or overt religious symbols such as the crucifix behind the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, but that’s another fight.

This one boils down to the great elusive in politics – compromise. As cultures merge there’s a necessary give and take. With the burqa, Bill 94 gets that about right, provided its restrictions remain confined to the few cases of official bureaucratic interaction. The complications, as always, will be in interpretation and application of any eventual law.

Bill 94 does not ban full covering garments outright. It demands the visibility of the face in certain engagements for purposes including security and identity. Cover up on your way in, cover up on your way out. The person you are dealing with has arguably just as much right to see who they are ‘interacting’ with.

Perhaps the biggest danger in this legislation is however, that it is a very large and blunt sledgehammer wielded to address a small and precise issue. To date only one niqabi has gone to the Human Rights Commission after her eviction from a publicly-funded immigrant French class, but that was ostensibly for pedagogical reasons including the teacher's inability to see her mouth and judge phonological competency. No finding on a human rights abuse has yet been made. No requests for accommodation from niqabis turning up for public services have been rejected. So what really is the problem?


The scheduling issue cited for the abrupt suspension of hearings could possibly be recognition that a more precise instrument than heavy-handed controversial legislation is required here. And that would be right.