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.