Policy, Inequality

Quebec just banned the niqab. But reality’s a bit more complicated than that.

The bill requires niqab- and burka-wearing women to uncover their faces while receiving government services.

The Quebec government passed Bill 62 on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, which requires people wearing “face coverings” to remove them while receiving or giving public services, such as riding public transportation, going to a library, or meeting with a child’s teacher at a public school. It’s unofficially been dubbed the “niqab ban” because it primarily targets Muslim women wearing the niqab or burka in public. The bill is in step with France’s ban on face coverings, which also heavily discriminates against Muslim women and their religious garments.

In a twist of disturbing irony, supporters of the bill claim the legislation is one of “religious neutrality” and  Premier Philippe Couillard stated that “The principle to which I think a vast majority of Canadians by the way, not only Quebecers, would agree upon is that public services should be given and received with an open face. I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that.”

Those in support of the niqab ban argue that this new requirement is just another way to diminish the presence of religious symbols and promote secularity, which has evolved as a response to the historical, overwhelming presence of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec. Premier Couillard has also stated this restriction is needed for proper communication and identification.

However, many Muslim women have spoken out against the legislation, noting that it is discriminatory, invasive, and misogynistic to tell women what they can and cannot wear. Alia Hogben, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women stated, “It’s up to the individual woman to decide how to show her religiosity,” and explained that all Muslims are fearing for their safety now, since this bill so obviously targets them.

This bill also comes as a slap in the face as it is implemented less than a year after the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in January 2017, where six people were murdered. At the time, Premier Couillard called the shooting a terrorist attack, but now he’s promoting a measure that will only fuel hatred toward and bring negative attention to Muslims, particularly Muslim women.

At a time when hate crimes against Muslims have more than tripled from 2012 to 2015, this is not the action the government needs to take to ensure inclusivity and protection for historically oppressed communities. Forcing Muslim women to change their lifestyle in public only fosters the notion that Muslims are “other” or “less than.” This measure does nothing to address hate crimes or bigotry directed at the Muslim community in Quebec; instead, it targets women who wear the niqab or burka and forces them to adjust the way they practice and display their religion and personal choices of dress. The niqab ban specifically puts pressure on Muslim women to change their ways of life for the artificial sake of “better communication.” It will likely make Muslim women – even those who do not don the niqab or burka – a target for ridicule. It absolutely makes their bodies objects to be policed.

This ban is a direct attack on the Muslim community in Quebec, and will probably have lasting, negative impacts on how Muslims view the government. There is undoubtedly already a rift forming, with tensions rife with fear and distrust.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has already spoken out, calling the niqab ban dangerous and discriminatory. The organization points out that the rules violate Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that he doesn’t support the new rules, but also refrained from promising any federal intervention.

Bill 62 is a direct attack on Muslim women and their right to dress how they wish. It is a blatant disregard of religious freedom and only marginalizes Muslims further. It is not a bill that promotes dialogue, understanding, or tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims in Quebec. It is a disgusting attempt to oppress women’s individuality and tear away their privacy.