Banning the veil: Quebecers do it better (than France and Belgium)



Political expediency is a helluva thing. A little over a month ago, news broke that Quebec education officials removed a Muslim student named Naema Ahmed from her French class because she didn’t want to remove her niqab. (I had the pleasure of writing about the case here.) Shortly thereafter the Quebec government introduced Bill 94; should it become law, as expected, the wearing of face coverings while receiving any government or government-funded service will effectively be outlawed.

Justice Minister Kathleen Weil swore to me that the timing was par hasard, but the timing of the bill was rather brilliant: it was widely supported not only across Quebec but throughout the rest of the country and by two of the main federal parties, “a rare show of national unity rivalling even that seen during the recent Olympics,” as couple of dudes put it recently. It consolidated the Quebec government’s support and gave Jean Charest a temporary reprieve from his lengthy downward slide. Political gold, in other words.

But what is truly canny about Bill 94 is what isn’t in it. That is to say, there isn’t a single mention of the niqab, hijab or even a Darth Vader mask anywhere in it. Rather, it says that anyone giving or receiving a government service “will do with their faces uncovered.” Sure, there is a bit of preamble about equality of the sexes and not favouring one religion over another by the state, but the law effectively say that any face covering–religious, non-religious, halloween- or weather-related–must be removed when, say, you are getting your licence renewed, or what have you.

Now, I ain’t here to opine about the merits and/or folly of banning face coverings of any sort (we here at Maclean’s have professionally angry people for that sort of thing), and smarter people that I believe the law, if and when enacted, is ripe for a eventual charter challenge. Still, by not expressly mentioning the N- or H-word, the proposed law will be relatively easy to enforce. The gist is this: wear whatever you want in public, just make sure you doff whatever’s covering your face when dealing with the state, be it a niqab or a ninja mask. By couching the law in terms of the “proper functioning of the ministry”, the bill dodges the obvious religious pratfall–one which that the French and Belgians fall right smack into.

Like Jean Charest, Nicolas Sarkozy is in a bit of a pickle with the voting public. Massively unpopular, the French President has been flailing about, looking for something, anything, to regain the rightist electoral flank. His answer: l’enfer, c’est le niqab, and should be banned outright, everywhere. Ditto Belgium’s lower house, which recently voted to enact a similar law.

Unlike Bill 94, the French and Belgium laws specifically target one type of garment, which makes for a particularly onerous conundrum. Specifically: how do you enforce it? Volunteer patrols? Niqab police? This would put Belgium and France in the illustrious company of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which have roving bands of men who harass (or worse) women who don’t follow a specific dress code. Strange bedfellows indeed.

This video, crafty as it is, shows the absurdity of a blanket niqab ban: you can cover your face if you happen to be asthmatic, or want to dress up as a surgeon, but not if you adhere to a particular strain of Islam. Enforcing it will be folly at best; at worst, we’re in for a witch hunt. If Belgium really wanted to target a religious practice they might have done like Quebec: that is to say, pretend you aren’t targeting anyone at all.

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Banning the veil: Quebecers do it better (than France and Belgium)

  1. the bill dodges the obvious religious pratfall


    Not for the legal constitutional issue Mr. Lecky wisely anticipates.

    The test isn't are you being singled out specifically, the test is whether an unfair distinction is being drawn. the sikh community won it's case despite a school ban on all weapons including a kirpan, for instance. Creating an arbitrary and unnecessary barrier to receiving public services that makes it more difficult to participate in one's religion won't pass constitutional muster.

  2. Rather, it says that anyone giving or receiving a government service “will do with their faces uncovered.”

    I sure hope the doc "giving the government service" of taking out my appendix will have her face covered during the procedure…

    I sure hope the Hydro-Québec worker replacing a blown transformer in -45C can still keep his face covered in wool while atop the cherry-picker…

    I sure hope the riot police on the receiving end of broken bottles and rocks launched from "progressive" supporters of "social justice" will be permitted to keep their face shields…

  3. *Cough cough* Looks like I have Sars. I'll just take off my surgical mask and head on down to the crowded hospital to get this thing looked at.

  4. There was an interesting book review about ordinary Germans during Nazi rule. http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/04/27/why-didn%E2%80

    Of course, it is impossible to really understand another point in time, the unstated nuances & assumptions, background events and their perceived importance… yet perhaps in a much smaller context and consequence, Canadians now should understand what German's felt in the 1930's.

  5. So what service, precisely, is the hydro worker receiving from the government as he balances on his cherry-picker?

  6. See, here's the thing. This thing would not have made such a splash if it were 'merely' wearing a face-covering. It is only when the underlying unspoken prejudice becomes overt and spoken that we begin to resent it. What was the tipping point in this debacle? When the face-covered lady began to insist that men in her classroom should not be in her line of sight and should not be able to look upon her. That's what this is about. It is about the insistence that "other men do not look at my woman." This was actually stated to a friend of mine recently. He lives in predominantly Moslem high-rise. As he followed a veiled woman and a man into the elevator, the man said to him, "Would you please respect my wife and cast your eyes down and do not look at her, nor travel in the elevator with her." My friend complied. He said that he was aware that if he had responded in any other way, he firmly believed that this woman would be punished as being somehow responsible. I have come to the conclusion that for Canada to tolerate these attitudes is to allow ever greater encroachments upon our personal freedoms and to allow a tyrannical and pernicious set of values to gain equal weight with what we thought were our treasured values of equality, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

  7. When the face-covered lady began to insist that men in her classroom should not be in her line of sight and should not be able to look upon her. That's what this is about.


    Actually, the proposed legislation doesn't address this at all. The proposal is silent on whether men must or must not look at women.

  8. Hydro-Quebec is a crown corporation. The worker is a giver of the service, not a recipient.

  9. What does "par hasard" mean? I ask for the 83% of us who are not bilingual.

  10. My girlfriend on the other hand is not silent on whether I must or must not look at women.

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