Over the past few months, the story of Naema Ahmed’s expulsion from a French-language class in Quebec over her refusal to remove her niqab, a piece of clothing that covers its wearer’s face except for the eyes, has stirred a media frenzy and debate over the meaning and practice of Canadian multiculturalism and citizenship.
Bill 94, authored in Quebec two years after the release of the Bouchard-Taylor commission’s report, is the first piece of legislation in North America that bans face coverings from public and government buildings. In the name of “public security, communication, and identification,” the bill enshrines the denial of essential services to women who wear the niqab.
Commentators suggest that the bill has received overwhelming and broad support in Quebec and outside it. A much-cited Angus Reid online-poll that surveyed a sample of 1,004 Canadians found that 80 per cent of respondents approved and 16 per cent disapproved of Bill 94. Put differently, four out of five Canadians are today likely to be in favor of this legislation.
If these are accurate reflections of the political reality and public opinion in Canada, this alarming support for Bill 94 raises some questions: What are the narratives that enable the writing of the bill and the broad support it is receiving across Canada? What are the consequences of this legislation for Muslim Canadian women who wear the niqab, Muslim Canadians and religious minorities? How do we unpack the announced intentions of Bill 94 from their real and material effects on Muslim women in Canada?
To understand why Canadians are today faced with Bill 94, a bill whose writers seek to redefine and delimit the principle of accommodation as it is understood and practiced in self-proclaimed multicultural states like Canada, I begin with some general narratives that have become, with the aid of the “War on Terror” and Canada’s military involvement in this war, staples in our everyday lexicon. The byline of this often repeated story goes something like this: Muslim women are oppressed via an inherently misogynistic text and age-old religious practices and traditions that are fundamentally incongruent with western notions of modernity, secularity, and progress. Head and face coverings, particularly face coverings, are products of Muslim women’s false consciousness and evidence of Islam’s control over Muslim women’s sexualities.
In the case of the niqab, the narrative that is told over and over again is that a liberated woman would not freely choose to cover her face. In Quebec, a good Muslim woman, in the interests of security, communication, and integration, should remove the piece of clothing unanimously declared offensive by public officials and fellow citizens alike. A good Canadian citizen, after all, is one who cedes the will of the majority and respects laws and regulations formulated in the interests of upholding Canadian values, including Canada’s commitment to immigration and gender equality. Canada, as the chorus goes, is a secular state that respects difference.
Repeatedly we hear that Canadians are freedom-loving folks who object to tyranny, battle against oppression, and protect the weak. But what do these stories, powerfully wielded by state officials, media, and the military, conceal? What narratives do we write out when we construct ourselves as protectors and saviors and render Muslim women objects of our benevolence and good will?
The rationalizations given for Bill 94 have broad consequences for Canadian women today. This bill strengthens the already choking grip of the state over public funds and facilities. It restricts who may and may not have access to universal medical care and education — services guaranteed to Canadian citizens through the Canadian Health Act and both the Quebec and Canadian Charter of Rights. The bill also permits state officials in Quebec to declare in what manner citizens may deliver and receive state services or what face they may put forward when interacting with or on behalf of the state.
As Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest reminds us, “If you are someone employed by the state and you deliver a service, you will deliver it with your face uncovered… If you are a citizen who receives services, you will receive them with your face uncovered.” The neutral language used here conceals that it is predominantly women who wear face coverings. Therefore, it is women whose faces this bill seeks to uncover and whose rights it abrogates. By extending the Canadian state an unauthorized invitation into Muslim women’s closets, the proponents of Bill 94 maximize state control over women’s bodies and day-to-day choices of dress and religious practice.
Bill 94 is borne out of a masculine logic that projects men as guardians of women’s independence and free will, rendering women dependents in constant need of state protection. As residents and citizens in need of state protection, we are to believe in the magnanimity of the writers and supporters of the bill. We are told that Bill 94 does not target one group or another but that it affirms the secular nature of Quebec in particular and Canada in general. To more readily absorb this historical and political distortion, we are reminded of the tyranny of religion and blinded to the dangers of staunch secularism.
But what is missing from these truncated narratives and accounts is the frightening exploitation of the democratic process and the irreverence for human rights and human lives at the heart of Bill 94. As we cheer Canada on for its brave and moral stance, we understand only the value of not allowing this group to publicly demonstrate its religious beliefs. But we also become oblivious to the state’s siphoning of rights and absconding of obligations to religious minorities in Canada.
The authors of Bill 94 state that their legislation safeguards “public security, communication, and identification.” To do so, section 6 of the bill makes a “general practice” of having public service users and providers “show their face during the delivery of services.” Public security, the bill implies, rests on recognizable and acceptable forms of communication. These include establishing eye contact and ascertaining certain physical characteristics in a manner that does not create constraints on public employees and services.
Laden with ableist rhetoric, Bill 94 renders sight as prerequisite for communication and identification. But what of blind, deaf, and disabled people in Canada? How does the state interact with citizens and residents who do not communicate via traditional forms of communication which privilege the senses of sight, hearing, and touch? Can disabled residents and citizens adequately represent the interests of the state? If the answer to the last question is yes, then why do we accept the state’s discriminatory stance against women who wear face coverings? Traditionally, Canada has developed means of accommodating difference. Bill 94 intends to undo this tradition, redefine its parameters, and delimit its scope. Those who find the principle of accommodation contentious or who view it as burdening state resources argue that all citizens and residents must be subjected to the same laws and regulations. They contend that no one can be held above the law. I agree.
If state law regulates that a person must reveal his or her face for the purposes of identification, then residents and citizens, men and women, must comply with this law. But those who argue for respecting the right of women who wear the niqab do not suggest that Muslim women can now choose to cover when applying for health identification card or a driver’s license. After all, even in Muslim majority states, women who cover their faces are compelled by law to show their faces for purposes of identification. It is hardly an onerous task to employ a female public servant to take a Muslim woman’s picture, without a face covering, and away from a male gaze. Is it unreasonable to accommodate a woman who can, for reasons of faith or personal belief, only reveal her face to another woman?
Two decades ago the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the right of Sikh Canadian men to wear turbans when serving in the Canadian Armed Forced and the RCMP. If the principles of religious freedom and reasonable accommodation can (and should) apply to Sikh men as the highest court in Canada has surmised, why cannot they be extended to Muslim women who cover their faces? Is the principle of reasonable accommodation one we hold dearly only when it serves the strategic and military interests of the state?
More than anything else, Bill 94 reveals some deep anxieties and fears felt in Quebec specifically but resonating throughout Canada. The main, but unstated, question underpinning this bill is one about Canada’s identity: What is Canada’s face, its writers appear to ask? What will Canada look like a year, a decade, or a century from now? Which, or more importantly, whose values will it honor and uphold? The unstated premise here is that the more Muslims are allowed into Canada, the less western (and Christian) Canada will become. Although cloaked in the language of secularism, Bill 94, like the authors of the No Bill 94 Coalition tell us, must be viewed as “an exaggerated response to a manufactured threat.”
But this threat, in the eyes of the writers and supporters of the bill, is not manufactured at all. It is real. It is already internalized: Muslims are amongst us. They represent a rapidly growing population. In fact, latest accounts from Statistics Canada suggest that by 2017, Muslims in Canada will have grown 160 per cent from a little over half a million, which is what the population is estimated to be at today. Muslim women who wear the niqab pose a particular risk to the assumed homogeneity of the Canadian state because they seem unwilling to assimilate into Canadian norms. They appear to reject multicultural Canada and therefore both embody and display the unarticulated threat of Islam’s demographic and ideological takeover. The tension here is between an imagined national collective and an increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious Canadian citizenry.
Rather than reconstitute its relationship with its colonial past (a past that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vehemently denied) and present in relation to indigenous peoples, Bill 94 occludes that tension altogether by making Muslim women who wear the niqab new targets for state management, control, and manipulation.
If it is true that, as Wahida Valiante of the Canadian Islamic Congress has told the Canadian Press, there are only approximately 25 women who wear the niqab in the entire Quebec province (a province of 7.5 million people), why the insistence on writing and debating this bill? Why the sudden and exclusive focus on face coverings? What makes the burqa so worthy of such broad government and public concern?
To begin to address these questions, we must unveil the stated intent from the actual effects of Bill 94 on the lives of Muslim women. We will need to question the political forces spearheading this piece of legislation in this conjuncture in Canada’s history. But perhaps even more importantly, we ought to bring to focus the women’s whose lives, interests, and experiences will be altered irrevocably if the writers and supporters of Bill 94 have their way — women like Naema Ahmed. Because if we cannot stand for the rights of the few and ostensibly least visible, what is it that we can stand for?
Dr. Dana Olwan is an assistant professor of gender studies and Arabic at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.