Unreasonable accomodation

Banning the niqab harms more than just Muslim women

Last year, Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration approved the expulsion of a permanent resident from a French language course at CEGEP St. Laurent for her refusal to attend class without her niqab, a garment that covers all of a person’s body except their eyes. The woman was unwilling to unveil herself in the class because men were present. Last week, the CBC reported that Quebec’s human rights board, the Commission des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse, is reviewing a complaint from the student, a Muslim woman originally from Egypt (“Niqab-wearing woman pursues Quebec college,” March 2, 2010).

In Canada, we often discuss Muslim women’s dress in terms of religious freedom, framing it as a part of the debate over secularism, immigration, and multiculturalism, or – particularly in Quebec – “reasonable accommodations.” And sure enough, the school’s excuse for expelling her was that the woman’s insistence on wearing the niqab was “unreasonable.” According to the administration, the clothing interfered with the student’s ability to communicate by not allowing the teacher to see her lip movements, which they say is necessary in language-learning classes.

What I find “unreasonable” is forcing someone to choose between their identity and their education. Ironically, if she never learns French, she’ll never integrate into Quebec society – and she’s unlikely to accept French if she has to choose between that language and her identity.

I’ve followed this issue in both Quebec and France for years and have noticed that these frames tend to portray the struggles of Muslim women, who may also be immigrants or people of colour, as unconnected to those of other marginalized groups – as unique cases.

But how society treats people who wear the niqab has implications for other groups – particularly people with disabilities, trans people, and the queer community as a whole.

Who decides what’s reasonable? Cis employers, when they determine that it’s “reasonable” for trans people to use the bathroom for their assigned sex, regardless of gender presentation, or that it’s “reasonable” to have trans people use separate bathrooms from other employees. The sighted, when they decide what’s reasonable for the visually impaired. The able-bodied, when they decide for those who cannot walk. People without mental illness, when they decide for the mentally ill.

The dominant groups decide what’s reasonable for groups with much less political and social power. The people actually affected have little say.

The queer movement also has a stake in whether the niqab becomes outlawed. If the state bans the niqab from the public sphere, it provides a precedent for banning various other kinds of dress, including gender-variant clothing. Such a move would also undermine non-discrimination laws based on gender expression because the niqab clearly expresses gender (though, of course, it conveys more than just that aspect of identity). Queer people should have these protections to live their lives with a bit more freedom from bigotry.

Banning the niqab is another means of enforcing conformity – the exact opposite of what the queer movement seeks to achieve.

Some may note that this case also included requests from the student wearing the niqab to be separated from male students. That’s a more complicated issue. But the administrators didn’t expel her because she wanted to segregate herself from male students – they expelled her for wearing the niqab.

On that, the school is simply wrong – and other marginalized groups should support this student’s complaint, even if they wind up with strange bedfellows.

Quinn Albaugh writes in this space every week. Tell them what you been thinkin’: binaryforcomputers@mcgilldaily.com.