Quebec Niqab Ban: No/Non to Bill 94!

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Last week Jean Charest, premier of the province of Quebec in Canada, proposed legislation that would ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab/face-veil.

How does Quebec intend to ban the niqab? By refusing essential services to women wearing one. From the Toronto Star:

[Bill 94] effectively bars Muslim women from receiving or delivering public services while wearing a niqab.  According to the draft law, they would not be able to consult a doctor in a hospital, for example, or even attend classes in a university.  Two words: Uncovered face,” Charest told reporters during a press conference in Quebec City. ”The principle is clear.” However, Charest reaffirmed the right to wear other religious symbols, such as crosses, skullcaps or headscarves, which was met by some as evidence of hypocrisy and discrimination…

Charest explained that the legislation, Bill 94, demands a face in plain view, for reasons of identification, security and communication. He further clarified that even public-service employees who do not interact with the public – the majority of the provincial bureaucracy – would also not be permitted to wear the niqab…

The legislation doesn’t stop at driver’s licence or health card offices. It encompasses nearly every public and para-public institution as well, including universities, school boards, hospitals, community health and daycare centres.

There are many things about this bill that are horrendous.  For example, that whole universal healthcare thing – of which many Canadians are so proud – will become pretty UNuniversal; since if you’re wearing a niqab you can’t see a doctor.  Bill 94 returns us to suffragette era politics, where some women (i.e. white ones) got the vote while others didn’t; since if you’re wearing a niqab you can’t vote.

To me one of the most appalling things about Bill 94 is that it is actually being sold as a gender equity thing. More from the Star:

Critics of the niqab say they subjugate women and their right to equality. After a woman was removed this month from a French-language class for refusing to remove her niqab, Christine St-Pierre, Quebec’s minister responsible for the status of women, called niqabs “ambulatory prisons.” On Wednesday, St-Pierre said Quebec was a “world leader” when it comes to gender equality, and with Bill 94, “we prove it once again.”

How many times does it have to be said that gender equity is about giving women the right to make their own choices?  If a woman’s choice is to wear a niqab, BARRING her from wearing one by removing access to work, childcare, healthcare and education is the absolute opposite of gender equality.

I cannot say enough how disgusting and dishonest this is.  If this bill was motivated by a real concern for women made to wear the niqab against their will, wouldn’t it make more sense to partner with organisations for Muslim women and/or organisations for women fleeing abuse and violence?

Instead, this legislation is being championed primarily by white men and women who are not Muslim.

Since I am getting too apoplectic to be articulate, let’s see what other people are saying about Bill 94.

The Non/No to Bill 94 Coalition writes in their statement:

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….“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.

Jessica writing for Bitch points out the silliness of the whole “identity theft” defense, and also asks why there aren’t more feminists getting het up about this:

“Let’s be honest. The majority of identity theft is done by people WITHOUT head coverings. To date there hasn’t been any records of impersonation by someone wearing a niqab.”

Now the intersection – what are feminists saying about this issue?

To me this is an obvious feminist issue through and through, and it goes way beyond a human rights injustice. I’m checking myself as an ally to Muslim women, and supporting their right to bodily autonomy and self-determination.

However I’ll tell you this much – the amount of mainstream feminist response I’ve read regarding the lack of inclusion of contraception and abortion in maternal child health from Canada’s Conservative government in the G8 summit far exceeds the coverage I’ve seen regarding the niqab ban. In fact, I’ve barely seen any feminist press at all on the niqab ban. And I’m not surprised – reproductive rights gets lots of feminist attention, even if not mainstream media coverage. Intersecting race and culture? Not so much.

Krista at Muslimah Media Watch quotes a few statistics that brings to light the completely unncessary nature of Bill 94:

The only thing I want to do here is highlight part of this article, which puts into context just how overblown the whole issue is:

One Muslim group argued Wednesday that Quebec’s political oxygen was being unnecessarily sucked up by debate over a microscopic number of cases.

The Muslim Council of Montreal says there may be only around 25 Muslims in Quebec who actually wear face-coverings.

Of the more than 118,000 visitors to the health board’s Montreal office in 2008-09 only 10 people — or less than 0.00009 per cent of cases — involved niqab-wearers who asked for special dispensation. There were zero such cases among the 28,000 visitors to the Quebec City service centre over the same time period.

So, everyone who’s freaking out about how Quebecois culture as we know it is going to crumble if people are allowed to wear niqab can probably breathe easy.

Quebec is using precious voter time and money (and let me tell you, as a Canadian that money really is precious – Canada’s social resources are notoriously stretched) to cause a national (perhaps international) scandal over 25 women.

So again, let’s be honest.  This is not about the 25 women in Quebec who wear niqabs.  Like the minaret ban in Switzerland or the burqa ban in France, (and these legislations similarly kick up a huge amount of fuss over a tiny portion of the population), this is about Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, of which Quebec (and Canada) has a rich and storied history.  This old Feministe article from 2007, written around the time that Quebec released an earlier set of legislation barring women wearing the niqab from election polls, does a pretty good job of recounting that history.  If anyone has more recent data please send it our way.

The worst part yet? Polls suggest a majority of Canadians support this bill.

Please visit, forward and join the Non/No Bill 94 Coalition.  Their website is here, and this is their full statement:

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has proposed legislation which, if approved by the National Assembly of Quebec, would deny essential government services, public employment, educational opportunities, and health care to people who wear facial coverings. Bill 94 specifically targets Muslim women who wear the niqab (face veil). 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.

We invite all individuals and groups of conscience inside and outside of Quebec to publicly or privately endorse this statement by emailing their name(s), location (city, state/province, and country), and contact information to nonbill94 [at] gmail [dot] com

The Non/No Bill 94 Coalition is made up of concerned individuals, organizations and grassroots movements that are demanding that the proposed Quebec legislation, Bill 94, be withdrawn immediately.

Image from the Non/No Bill 94 Coalition