The following is a thought-provoking piece written by Janet Epp Buckingham, Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, about a law introduced by the government of Quebec that bans women from wearing the niqab when working in a public office or receiving services from a public office. As Janet writes in the article, this is an issue that Christians may have a particular interest in.
By Janet Epp Buckingham
The government of Quebec caused a furor when it introduced Bill 94 on March 24. This law bans women from wearing the niqab when working in a public office or receiving services from a public office in Quebec. The niqab is a full face veil, usually leaving just the eyes visible.
According to news reports, only about 25 women in Quebec wear the niqab. This is not really about good public policy but about scoring political points.
Quebec's rationale for this bill is gender equality. The government sees the niqab as evidence of oppression of women. Premier Jean Charest made the intent clear in his press conference: "Two words: uncover face."
But if it passes, this bill could have a very serious impact on Muslim women who currently wear the niqab. It will limit their ability to obtain a wide variety of public services, including medical services and even attending school and university.
I confess I have always found myself unnerved by women wearing the niqab. I think it is the resemblance to a mask that makes me uncomfortable. I know some women wear the niqab to protect their modesty. But being confronted by a black scarf where a face should be always startles me.
Aside from the National Post's Barbara Kay, the English press has been opposed to this new law. It violates our most cherished principles as Canadians: tolerance and choice. But Barbara Kay says that this is not a choice about what women wear. She rightly points out there are many places where we do not have choice about what we wear. Men would not be permitted to wear masks on a children's playground, for example.
The first question we should ask is if this is a religious requirement. If it is, it is not only a human rights issue, but one that Christians have a particular interest in. Clearly, we do not want to see anyone's religious practices inhibited unless they cause actual harm. And even though the Quebec government promotes this as an equality issue, Christian practices are not always gender equal. Catholics and many Protestants do not have female clergy, for example.
But while Tarek Fatah, a Muslim commentator in the National Post, is adamant that the niqab and burka are not requirements of Islam, other Muslims argue that they are, or could be.
We have had some of these discussions even within Christianity. I attended Bible college with a woman who always wore a head covering. She argued to the rest of us that this was a religious requirement.
Women in Saudi Arabia are required by law to wear the niqab outside their homes. Salafi Muslim women in other countries will also wear it. Some Muslim women regard it as a symbol of devotion to Allah in the same way the hijab is. But no doubt, some women are coerced by their husbands or fathers to cover their faces.
If women are used to wearing the niqab and immigrate to Canada, they will feel strange going bare faced. They may even regard it as shameful.
If Canada is to welcome immigrants, how much should we accommodate their cultural practices? It does seem rather intolerant to force a woman to remove an item of clothing that is perfectly normal and even required in another country.
Is there any rationale, other than requiring conformity with our Canadian cultural expectations, to require women to bare their faces?
Many Islamic states have clothing police that require men and women to dress with a certain level of modesty. There is a certain irony that when they come to Canada they are forced to take things off, rather than put them on.
Since Quebecers live with language police who order them to have signs in French, they may be willing to live with a government that tells them how to dress. Or perhaps they are only comfortable with a government that tells other people how to dress.