Bill 94 was tabled at the National Assembly last Thursday. If passed, the law would bar Muslim women wearing the niqab from accessing public services – including all government offices, universities, hospitals, community health care centres, schools, and daycares.
Premier Jean Charest has said that the proposed law will advance the value of equality and secularism in the province, and that uncovered faces will improve security, identification, and communication in Quebec’s public sector.
The bill’s opponents say that the legislation would impede religious freedoms and shut Quebecker Muslim women out from the public services to which they are entitled. Others have called it a hasty response to political pressure following the expulsion of a niqab-wearing student from a CEGEP in Montreal.
The Daily sat down with two women from the Montreal area to discuss their views on the niqab, the ban, and reasonable accommodation in the province. Though the bill has garnered international attention, local women wearing the niqab have yet to weigh in on the debate and the bill’s implications.
Sheeba Shukoor, 25
The McGill Daily: When did you start wearing the niqab? Why?
Sheeba Shakour: I started wearing the hijab when I was 15. Niqab wasn’t something I really understood at first, and the same goes for hijab as well. Upon doing research I found the niqab to be a manifestation of hijab, and I did research, and I went back and decided to wear it. I am still a student of knowledge so I can’t say with expertise, but from what I have learned from now, is that it is more of a concept: separation between men and women, and one part is to lower your gaze.
Another part of this is that the wives of the prophet wore it when speaking to his companions. It is said that when you ask them [the wives] for something, ask them from behind a barrier, and we know according to narration and tradition that the wives of the prophet did in fact cover themselves. They are our role models and we wish to emulate them.
With regards to an obligation for women, I can’t comment on this, because I can’t speak with knowledge, but it is something encouraged in Islam and it is something for purification – it is pure for your heart.
MD: What difficulties have you encountered while wearing the niqab?
SS: For two months I was wearing the niqab and right now I am not wearing it, but I really miss it, and I want to wear it again. But with the niqab I found that my relatives at home were more skeptical about it than third parties. Many Muslim people are not understanding of [even] the hijab. They don’t understand the niqab which is even harder to grasp. It helps to have support from family members.
In the West and in the media you get scrutinized for it…. Someone asked me in grocery, “Ma’am, did you pay for everything in your bag?,” and they think I am trying to hide something…so a challenge is that I have to be more articulate and outspoken, and I have to be nice to people. I want them to know that I don’t want to be intolerant, and I wish to be tolerant of others, and that I don’t want to impose anything on anyone, but that I would respect this tolerance in return.
MD: Why did you stop wearing it?
SS: Mostly I guess because my husband wasn’t very much for it. I was the one who said I wanted to wear it, but people would say that he forced me to wear it. He felt conscious of the fact that perhaps they would think that he is blameworthy when in fact it was my conscious choice and decision. So I decided that maybe not now, I won’t wear it for awhile to see, and I guess there [were] other things going on…. But inshallah [god willing] when things settle down, and I have time…I would like to wear it again…. It is a sacrifice [and] it is not easy to do, but you feel like you are doing it for a noble purpose, then it doesn’t matter so much what people think or say because you know that you are doing it for God.
MD: Do you think the niqab could make other people feel uncomfortable?
SS: I think it can make people feel uncomfortable, but I think that’s because they might not be sure why it is being worn. Personally I don’t remember any experience where I felt I was making people feel uncomfortable in any way, and when I was wearing a niqab I was making more of an effort to be friendly with people, and to say hello so that people could see past what I was wearing. There is a lot to a person’s intellect and personality and that can be expressed with or without the niqab…. I don’t think it made anyone feel uncomfortable in any way, and when I did wear it I was very conscious of the fact that I was wearing it. In fact, I was the one who felt a bit nervous, especially in the beginning. But it is something that has become a part of me and I don’t find a problem in wearing it. I can’t think of an actual experience when others said that they found it offensive or disturbing in any manner.
MD: What are your thoughts on the bill? Why do you think this ban is being considered?
SS: It is something strange, this whole effort of reasonable accommodation in Quebec. People from different backgrounds, different ethnicities could come together and be part of this society. In many ways, by passing this bill, not only are people being marginalized, but they are being deterred from being part of society just because they have a different view on things. In the case of the lady wearing the niqab and was expelled from college, I don’t think it should have gone to higher levels – that a bill is passed. It could have been resolved at the college, or by an intermediary coming in…and resolved it without it becoming something applicable to the entire province. Education is a right for everyone in this country, and I can’t understand why a different manner of dressing should [prevent] someone from seeking knowledge.
MD: Do you think you were able to interact with the wider public while wearing a niqab?
SS: I wasn’t rigid about it, in the sense that I would try not to make it so blatantly obvious. I would wear subtle colours, not black. It was summer that I was wearing it, and summer tends to get hot. So I would wear pastel colours, not something that would make me stand out – something that will help me blend in. I remember even having to board a flight, and I was more than willing and able to remove it so that they could identify me, and it doesn’t take long to get on the plane and to go about your day.
I think a lot of women are already understanding of that if they are asked to identify themselves…they understand that safety and security is important. In many ways the bill is reasserting something that was already understood, and not only that but it went a step forward to limit people.
Dayna Ahmed, 28
The McGill Daily: Why did you start wearing the niqab?
DA: I started when I was in Concordia, and I thought I would never wear it, but alhamdulillah [thank god] I read more about it, and the more I grew in spirituality, I realized that this is part of my religion and this is what my creator wants me to do. After awhile I met a sister who wears the niqab in Concordia and I started asking questions; what is the stance [of the] niqab in Islam, and as I read more I realized it is the right thing to do. The sister who was wearing the niqab, and the way she was really convinced me. She was covered and she was doing her masters. The way she was, the way she was talking, the confidence she had…that is what compelled me to wear the niqab.
You need more confidence to do it…and that really attracted me to it.
The niqab makes me conscious of my creator. It’s very out there, and it’s very visible, very different, it makes you very conscious of your creator, why you are here, what is the purpose of my life, its a protection, a reminder, a way of coming close.
MD: How do people react to you when you wear the niqab?
DA: It’s been seven years now, and yah, I finished my undergraduate wearing a niqab, and it was really great at Concordia. I didn’t have any problems. Very few people would really make comments, and the people who make negative comments are the people who don’t really know…but in some areas, like south side when I was in Concordia I would never have any comments, but maybe in other places I would. If people asked me politely I would tell them, would you like me to tell you why I am doing it? But it scares them because they just want to comment. They are kind of scared when you want to make a conversation. People who want to know would ask, but some people have already made up there mind, they don’t want to know why you are doing it, but they have the stereotype in the media, and they just want to make comments, and throw their anger at you.
MD: Does the niqab limit how you can interact in public?
DA: Most of the things, you know the drivers license, passport, was all really good. I would ask for a lady when getting ID’s…and most of the time it would be ok if there is something they would provide something. Alhamdulillah even for my exams, I would not feel anything. People were ok with it, they were really accommodating. And it was not like I would unreasonable. I was traveling to the states and they didn’t have anyone female, and they would just understand and asked me to come in a corner with my husband, and I did. It was something reasonable to do because there was no other person, but it was something that they couldn’t provide, and that’s only happened once.
MD: How would the ban affect your life?
DA: It will really affect my life in many ways. I finished my undergraduate but if I ever wanted to continue, that would affect me, and lot of people who want to get further higher education. What’s so funny about the bill, that I don’t understand really well, is that it is not very clear. I don’t know what it means…is it that I can not go into the building? Is it about removing the veil? If it is a female or a necessity, I do remove my veil, so I don’t know what the bill is helping us to do. The bus is also a public service, does that mean that I have to take off my veil? I don’t know how it will affect me because I don’t know what it is implying. The bus, the metro, that would affect me because once in awhile I use public transportation.
MD: Were you surprised by the proposed ban?
DA: When the bill came, I was kind of shocked. How come they didn’t ask anyone who is wearing he hijab or niqab? How come they didn’t consult us? They presented a bill without asking us, but it will affect us. We live in a democracy, they should ask us, they should ask most of the publics opinion and the people who are going to be affected by it. We are citizens living in this society, we should have a say too. We can accommodate, negotiation, but you have to talk to the people who are going to be affected by it, and discuss what should be the methods of dealing with it.
MD: What are your thoughts on the bill?
DA: I think it is the negative sentiment toward Muslims, which is also the fault of Muslims. We haven’t given good dawah [education] about Islam because most of the people who oppose it know very little about Islam. It’s the ignorance that has spread toward Islam and Muslims, and whatever they hear in the media…. It is also the feminist movement. For so long they have fought against male dominance and when they see a women covering they feel like they are going back in time. So it shows that they don’t know what the hijab and niqab are, it’s nothing about male female equality.
I think that not allowing me to where a niqab; that I have to choose between my religious identity and my Canadian identity, my nationality…. Why should I have to make this compromise? It is my right of freedom, my religious right. It is my religion, and it’s not something made up either, and by wearing it I am practicing my religion. I am practicing my faith. You aren’t making an accommodation for something that is baseless, but something that is there for good reason. I always grew up in Canada, I came here when I was two years old. This is the only country I know. I am a Muslim and I am a Canadian, I am both…. I would be very sad that this country would condemn people for practicing their faith in that way, a country that is known for justness. And I hope people can be more tolerant, in a country that is so multicultural. Why should we not tolerate that someone wants to practice their faith?
Siema Abbas, 33
The McGill Daily: Did you choose to wear the niqab? Why?
Siema Abbas: I chose personally to wear the niqab and the reason I wore it is because I think it something that will bring me closer to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. After researching about religion, I made a decision that this is something that would kind of complete me a bit…. I know for a fact that the prophets’ wives wore it, and that’s something I wanted to emulate. That was the main reason, because we are supposed to follow Qur’an and Sunnah, and if they wore it – that is an example for women, and that’s why I decided to.
MD: How do people react to you when you where the niqab?
SA: There are good days and bad days. Sometimes I walk out and no one really says anything, but most people are pretty much ok with me…. On bad days I will hear comments here and there: the occasional look, the occasional comment, but I haven’t had anyone tell me something too, too harsh. All in all, [some] people are indifferent, some people are curious, others are a bit hostile.
MD: How will this bill affect your life it is passed?
SA: It would kind of be difficult, because me, personally, I go out and I interact: I have a social life. If I go to the hospital, it would limit my freedom to go places. The government is saying that they want to free us, free people who wear niqab. But I don’t think it is really freeing us – it is restricting us. I made a choice to wear it. It is part of my every day life and it would restrict me because I don’t want to take it off.
MD: Are you able to interact with the wider public while wearing a niqab?
SA: I did go to school. I completed my university degree before I wore a niqab, but I chose to go back to a CEGEP. So I went there, and I was in class, and I interacted with people. I didn’t have to wear my niqab in certain classes, but I interacted how I had to, so I don’t see how this would cause a problem. I can speak to people, people can hear me, maybe some people have a negative image of me, but it’s not what I am trying to portray…so I don’t see what the whole uproar is about.
MD: Those in support of this bill have argued that individuals employed in the public sector should not have their faces covered. If you imagine yourself in those positions, do you think you would be able to provide a public service to people?
SA: I think I would be able to…. Doctors and nurses already wear it when dealing with their patients. I have to communicate with the person, and people can hear me when I am talking, so I don’t see what the problem is. So far I’ve never had a problem…communicating with anybody.
MD: Have niqab-wearing women be consulted about the bill?
SA: Absolutely not. I don’t think women have been consulted. If they had been consulted, they would actually say not to have a bill like this. I don’t think that people who wear it like this…but government wants to have this bill because they feel like women are oppressed, so I don’t think they were consulted.