TORONTO – A coalition of concerned individuals and organizations said Tuesday that Bill 94 further entrenches gender inequality, marginalizing and isolating Muslim women who wear niqab.

“Our arguments are based in overriding legislation in our country,” said Zahra Dhanani, Legal Director at the The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) and a member of the No/Non Bill 94 Coalition during a press conference at the Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto.

“Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of religion and Section 15 guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the law.”

She said Ontario based legislation affirms how dangerous it is to identify a group that has historically been oppressed and further discriminates against them.

“We believe that the impact of this legislation is exactly that – discrimination, marginalization and isolation,” said Dhanani.

In Bill 94, the Quebec government argued that if it’s general practice for a service provider and a client to show their faces during service provision, “and that if an accommodation involves an adaptation of that practice and reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it, the accommodation must be denied.”

But the Coalition said that the niqab is neither a health or security concern nor will it lead to communication problems between women with niqab and other non-niqab wearing people and submitted a brief to the National Assembly for their consideration.

But many women’s organizations, including the No/No Bill 94 Coalition, were not invited to make oral deputations during the hearings held on Tuesday. So they organized a Day of Action that included a press conference, rally, email blitz to the premier and a video.

“We’re exceptionally concerned about women who wear niqab will experience when they go to seek services, especially if they are survivors of violence,” said Dhanani.

Coalition member Zainab Zafar started wearing niqab five years ago and attends Ryerson University. She said she’s never experienced racism on-campus or traveling in downtown Toronto.

“Of course, wherever there was a need for me to take off my veil for health or identity purposes, I’ve taken my veil off,” said Zafar. But she’s shocked that a government would force women who wear niqab to take a step backwards in society.

“If such a Bill is considered what would be the difference between a Canadian and an oppressive society that exists in the world today?” asked Zafar. “Canada should not force a woman to take off her veil while other societies might force them to wear it. Let women have their freedom of choice.”

But freedom of choice wasn’t the only concern raised at Tuesday’s press conference.

“It (Bill 94) invites a climate of violence because it builds intolerance,” said Amanda Dale, Executive Director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. “It gives license to feelings of discrimination that people may harbour.”

Dale said that’s what is going to happen when a government starts to “legislate against a display of your identity.”

A lot of women have already experienced violence for wearing niqab.

“Women come to us saying they’ve experienced an increased license on the streets of Toronto to be sworn at, spat at, pushed or shoved,” she said. “This is not a climate that Canada wants to exacerbate.”

So as Quebec moves forward with Bill 94, Dale and her colleagues fear that women all over Canada will pay the price.

“It’s a copycat piece of legislation and it has no place,” said Dale.

Similar legislation has been passed in European countries, particularly Belgium, Italy, France and Germany, where women have reported increased acts of racism and attacks on Muslim men and women. “We’ve heard of serious forms of Nazi based attacks against Muslim communities,” said Zahra Dhanani.

“We’ve seen all kinds of marginalization and isolation that has occurred in education, employment and service provision. The consequences of wearing niqab (in these countries) includes not only paying a fine but it includes imprisonment.”

If Bill 94 is passed, the No/Non Bill 94 Coalition is very concerned that similar legislation will pass in other provinces, eventually resulting in a Federal Bill.

“W’re here in solidarity with women in Quebec,” said Dhanani. “But we’re also here because there’s Liberal politicians provincially and federally who have supported this Bill. Other federal and municipal politicians have made statements in favour of this Bill.”

“If this Bill is applied, what kind of life will I be living in Ontario?” asked Zainab Zafar.

“And if I am to move to Quebec, what kind of treatment will I be receiving? This is a complete threat to our community and to women specifically wearing niqab. I won’t have the right to go and study, go the hospital or express myself.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.