Laïcité Gone too Far: The Niqab Debate in Quebec
Image credits: CTV News
Over the past decade, much debate has taken place in Quebec with regard to Muslim women’s right to wear headscarves and other religious symbols in public spheres. In 2011, the government put forth Bill 94, an “act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions”. This contested piece of legislation essentially prohibits the wearing of the niqab, as chapter 2.6 requires that individuals who work for the government or a related institution, as well as people receiving their services, must show their faces. It goes on to state that “[i]f an accommodation involves an adaptation of that practice and reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it, the accommodation must be denied.”
Indeed, it is quite difficult to imagine a fair debate wherein the voices of the people that are being discussed, i.e. Muslim women, are not at its core.
To me, it is evident that Bill 94 fails to consider reasonable accommodation, the principle that the state should accommodate its citizens short of extraordinary circumstances. It demonstrates no respect to women wearing the Niqab and as the journalist Martin Patriquin argues, veiled women are essentially treated the same as “the guy wearing the ninja mask”. Released in 2008, the Bouchard-Taylor Report on Cultural and Religious Accommodation was put together by the Quebec government as this guideline to reasonable accommodation. The Commission was the first of its kind to examine cultural integration, collective identity, church-state relations and accommodation requests. Though the notion of reasonable accommodation stipulates that the state should only accommodate difference to a certain extent, policies that ban the Niqab have more tangible impacts than any concern about the preservation of Quebec heritage.
Since its introduction, Bill 94 has not been systematically enforced and its constitutionalism is still being contested today. Moreover, the proposal of Bill 62 in 2016, which is legislation geared toward religious neutrality, has since rekindled the debate over headscarves and religious symbols. Somewhat ironically, most of the voices heard during the debate over woman’s attire were those of white men. In her article for the Concordian, Maha Ikram Cherid eloquently highlights this problematic unilateral perspective and argues that from a feminist perspective, the ban on the niqab has no place in Canada. Indeed, it is quite difficult to imagine a fair debate wherein the voices of the people that are being discussed, i.e. Muslim women, are not at its core. This is, however, the unfortunate reality. Though groups such as AMAL Québec (l’Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la Laïcité au Québec) are tirelessly fight for the rights of Muslim women in our province, they unfortunately lack a strong presence at the head of the provincial discourse, opening the door for the normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric and regulations. This lack of representation has jeopardized veiled Muslim women’s freedom of religion.
Paradoxically, by proposing legislation that violate Muslim women’s freedoms, the state itself has become an oppressive agent against veiled Muslim women.
In the discussion about the need to separate religion and the state, many people wrongfully assume that Muslim individuals, and more specifically veiled Muslim women, are those who stand in the way of laicity in Quebec. 10 years ago, when I was in elementary school, there was a faith driven religious class which was available to all students - as part of the provincial educational curriculum. As a consequence of the push for laicity, the religion courses have been completely replaced by courses on ethics. In this instance, separating the Christian religion and the state is a much-needed change because it prohibits people from imposing their religion onto others, which would be a violation of our constitutionally defined freedom of religion.
While eliminating proselytizing curricula from public education invariably promotes a more open religious sphere, restrictions on the Niqab do quite the opposite. Women wearing headscarves are in no way imposing their religion onto others. Since their decision to wear this religious garment does not infringe on the rights of others to observe their religion, why is it that their freedom is being put into question? Many Muslim women are in fact proud of their Quebec heritage, while simultaneously practicing their region. You can be a religious person while also being a supporter of the state in which you live - Christians do it all the time. I think that there is a much-needed conversation to be had with regards to whether the ends justify the means; in this case, the desire for a secular state in no way justifies prohibiting the Niqab. Because cultural affiliation and religious affiliation are not mutually exclusive, advocates for the dismissal of Bill 62 argue that it is an undue infringement on personal freedom which produces no tangible benefits for the province’s laicity or cultural preservation. As Maha states in her article, society has made headscarves out to be a tool that oppresses Muslim women and endangers the state, whereby banning them would benefit both Muslim women and society as a whole. Paradoxically, by proposing legislation that violate Muslim women’s freedoms, the state itself has become an oppressive agent against veiled Muslim women.