Quebec Premier Jean Charest has proposed a bill to ban women from donning the niqab, or face veil as pictured above. Those who wear the niqab would be banned from accessing government services.
Bill 94 would require an uncovered face in plain view for the purposes of identification, communication and access to government services. Services cover everything from obtaining a driver’s license to attending university to receiving health care.
“Two words: Uncovered face,” Charest announced, according to the Toronto Star. “The principle is clear.”
Charest continued with, “This is not about making our home less welcoming, but about stressing the values that unite us…An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state.”
But Bill 94 does not promote gender equality or any sort of female liberation. It is instead another form of male oppression controlling a woman’s choice.
The niqab may seem oppressive to some. But banning it does no more for women’s liberation than does banning short skirts. If Charest wants to work towards gender equality, then he should focus on getting men and women paid equally for the same work, or lowering the rate of sexual assault in Quebec. Instead he is threatening to cut off services for tax-paying citizens who adhere to a form of dress he disagrees with.
The Toronto Star points out that in contrast, Ontario has made accomodations for women who don the niqab, such as allowing women to go into a separate room with a female staff member to take an identification photo. In other words, the government is able to keep records of everyone and provide services while respecting the woman’s religious beliefs.
The Muslim Council of Montreal estimates there are 25 women in Quebec who use the niqab. In addition, only 10 people or less than 0.00009 per cent of cases of the health board’s Montreal office last year were niqab-wearers who asked for special accomodations. There were 0 cases in Quebec City. So why is it imperative to ban something that is worn by relatively so few people in Quebec?
The bill is an exaggerated response to a manufactured crisis that will allow the government to deny women services to which they are entitled. A truly democratic society is one in which all individuals have the freedom of religious expression and a right to access public services.
Although touted as a step toward gender equality, Bill 94, if approved, will perpetuate gender inequality by legislating control over women’s bodies and sanctioning discrimination against Muslim women who wear the niqab. Instead of singling out a minuscule percentage of the population, government resources would be better spent implementing poverty reduction and education programs to address real gender inequality in meaningful ways. Barring any woman from social services, employment, health, and education, as well as creating a climate of shame and fear around her is not an effective means to her empowerment. If Premier Charest’s government is truly committed to gender equality it should foster a safe and inclusive society which promotes and protects all women’s personal autonomy. Standing up for women’s rights is admirable. “Rescuing” women is paternalistic and insulting. Further marginalizing Muslim women who wear niqab and denying them access to social services, economic opportunities and civic participation is unacceptable.
Forcing a woman to reveal part of her body is no different from forcing her to be covered. Both the Conservative and Liberal parties have expressed support for Bill 94, which raises the very real possibility that similar legislation will be proposed across Canada. We demand that Bill 94 be withdrawn immediately, as it has no place in a democratic state that values autonomy, liberty and justice.