I suppose it’s time to address the rather large and noisy elephant floating between the margins of Aristotle’s lackey.
Just last week, the National Assembly passed a law banning the niqab from such critical public spaces as universities, government offices, daycares, and hospitals receiving government funding. The support for the ban has been strong throughout Canada, with an 80% approval rating according to a survey conducted by Angus Reid. Criticisms have been sparse, coming primarily from an unsure Muslim community, various lawyers, scattered academics, and select university papers.
But the general discussion on this matter has just been a mess, with a near complete avoidance in English-speaking Canada of the question of the role of identity. Given the provincial nature of this legislation, however, I will limit my discussion to Quebec.
As mentioned briefly in an article last month by Sheetal Pathak (“Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves,” Commentary, March 18), the Canadian Muslim community is itself divided on this issue. Unlike the hijab, there’s no real consensus on the status of the niqab. A small minority see it as an obligation – or at the very least, the superior form of the modesty principle prescribed by Islam.
While this debate is legitimate, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand – the discussion on the matter within the Muslim community needs to move beyond the question of necessity. If there are women who believe it is their religious obligation to wear the niqab while living in North America, then that choice must be respected.
That cyclic debate along with broader reductionist debate on “choice,” grossly undermine women’s agency and completely overlook the greater context of Law 94 and the persistence of a discourse ultimately not about gender equality, secularism, integration, or identification, but about identity. And just as identity politics create a limiting framework for political discourse, identity politics can and often do create limiting platforms for legislation and issues regarding minority populations.
Quebec is not France. But like French identity, Quebec identity is built upon a shared linguistic and ethnic heritage as embodied by the historical interactions between church and state, epitomized by the near-total rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution.
And like France, Quebec has seen a surge in its immigrant population – which challenges a system long sustained by the province’s homogeneity. It is understandable that the majority of Quebeckers – outside Montreal especially – would fear the erosion of an identity with a tumultuous past. Quebeckers are, after all, a minority within Canada so the issue of identity is already fragile.
While this fear is understandable, it is not justified and it certainly should not be the source for any law. With only a few dozen women in the province actually wearing the niqab, how much of a problem does the covering actually cause? France’s proposed ban on the burqa, recently judged unconstitutional by an advisory board, affected only 367 women out of 5 million Muslims. How necessary is a law for an exception – especially at the expense of appearing hostile to a significant and growing minority? What’s more, where exactly is the line drawn? When does “reasonable” accommodation become “unreasonable”? Can any demand be unreasonable if it’s made in the name of identity and ideology? Is it unreasonable if by the minority and reasonable if by the majority?
All of this is not to ignore the obligation upon the Muslim community itself, as with any other ethno-religious group, to sincerely engage with such issues and ask themselves what is a “reasonable accommodation” to ask of the state. But this question and its implications are to be addressed and dealt with by the respective communities themselves as it hinges on their own identity and place in society.
For many, a law that discriminates against an exception may not be really consequential to the “big picture” in a negative or a positive way. It is, however, crucial that we consider the sort of framework this persistent debate and this particular legislation create for future discussions on matters concerning minorities. This discussion is not black and white, nor do I wish to even hint at such a claim. There are, however, some factors which play a stronger role than others and we must pay heed to their influence.
But until we get to future debates, I’ll keep rocking flashy and colourful scarves that my students seem to love for as long as I can.
Sana Saeed will write once more in this space before disappearing. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, the version of this article printed and put online on April 1, 2010 was an earlier draft not ready for print. The text above is the correct version of the article.