Commentary  Banning the veil is an exercise in futility

The farce of "security, religious neutrality, and protection of women"

“ I didn’t recognize you for sh*t!” my friend called back at my greeting as I biked past her the other day. My everyday commute has me covering my face while biking in this sunny, yet freezing, city: helmet, sunglasses, and a scarf covering  my neck and face. I am certainly not identifiable.

Many can probably relate to this in public spaces. We all hide our faces – particularly in the winter – and that does not make a significant difference in everyday political society. No one is really concerned with not seeing peoples’ noses and mouths on the bus. Yet the niqab captures peoples’ attention–and not because people genuinely believe that seeing someone’s nose, mouth, and hair will make us safer. Rather, the fact is that the veil is racialized and symbolically represents a class of people which a majority of Quebec (and Western society) is afraid of and intolerant towards. There is no epidemic of niqabi women posing systematic danger to the everyday Quebec resident in public spaces.

Even lawmakers are not pretending this is about security this time around. While supporters of Bill 62 may exhibit some rage about security-despite the fact that most niqabi women believe that they have a responsibility to remove their veils when they need to be identified-the bill is supposedly addressing religious neutrality. I say “supposedly” because while it is deemed secular, ministers scrambling to justify it will hop from the religious neutrality foot to the security one if it serves as a more convenient defense.
If we assume, for the sake of argument, that Quebec (whose legislators deliberate under a crucifix) is concerned with secularism, fine. I’ve been non-religious for long enough that I can personally deliberate on what best fosters a religiously neutral society. I fail to see how a niqab ban in public institutions is actually going to promote religious neutrality. First, Quebec is positioning this problem as though niqabi women are a prominent demographic–when there is an estimated 50-100 women in total who wear the niqab. I find it hard to believe that 100 women (at most) are standing in the way of a strongly secular Quebec.

Second, the bill does not stop women from wearing the niqab generally; only when enforced in use of public services. This perhaps discourages but does not eradicate the practice of wearing a niqab–it only excludes women from wearing it in various places. It thus inconveniences niqabi women, but doesn’t really do much for the province.

Third, the bill does not target any other expressions of religion, Islamic or otherwise. Even if we assume that the target is just Islam, this bill does not target all expressions of Islam; it does not ban all forms of veiling (e.g. the hijab), or any other accessories with Islamic symbolism. If this is at any point brought up, advocates of Bill 62 will simply hop back onto the “security” foot again–until security’s consistency is attacked, at which point they’ll then hop back to ‘religious neutrality’. Repeat the cycle ad nauseum. 

When these arguments get tiresome, the final argument that the West loves to jump onto is that issue of non-consensual veiling. People will argue that laws like Bill 62 are necessary because ‘many’ women who wear the niqab do so under coercion. Personally, I take this concern very seriously. I do not doubt that some women are forced to veil. 

But let’s get into the pragmatics again. What exactly is this  bill going to do for women that are forced to veil? Will the abusive man in her life suddenly acquiesce when Quebec will not allow her to ride the bus anymore? Somehow, the man in question is abusive enough to force a woman to cover most of her face and body, and to continually divorce this woman of her will. Yet he will crumble when he realizes that she can’t go to public school or ride the bus in niqab, and so end his abuse forever.

It seems ridiculous, but this is a common narrative. The trope of the “coerced niqabi” is often contrasted with the “empowered western woman”, who paradoxically finds empowerment by publicly appealing to the male gaze. We thus define agency through that lense; a white woman’s agency is the archetype of agency itself.  Arab and Muslim niqabi women who do not emulate white standards cannot be seen as agents. Instead, they are docile objects that can be saved by the power of the mighty Quebec legislature.

In sum, Bill 62 is pointless and geared at a made up problem. The three common arguments for banning veils in this case–security, religious neutrality, and protection of women–are inconsistent and sloppy. It’s clear that the motives behind this bill are dishonestly racist at worst, pointless at best. Security, religious neutrality, and the protection of women are all genuine concerns, but Quebec is taking the wrong approach if it purports to tackle them.