Niqabs and niqab bans: Both are wrong

You know the phrase “fashion statement.” The clothes we wear can be as much an attempt to draw attention, to attempt anonymity or to fit into a tribe.

Most men my age, at least in Canada, are attempting that anonymous-member-of-the-tribe look with our golf shirts and jeans. We’re saying “We’re regular guys, just give us what we want without wasting time trying to connect with us.”

Niqabs, the traditional face veils worn by some Muslim women, do all three jobs: call attention to the wearer, identify their membership in a group and produce anonymity.

In Canada and in most of the West, they also have another effect: they make most other people deeply uncomfortable. Hence the restrictions imposed on them in several jurisdictions, most recently Quebec.

The Quebec National Assembly just passed Bill 62, banning public workers as well as anyone receiving services from provincial or municipal officials from wearing any kind of face covering. That means that a woman wearing a niqab will not be able to borrow a library book or get on a bus or metro.

It’s a controversial decision. Its supporters say it enforces Quebec’s secular culture and it is not aimed at any particular religious group.

That’s transparently false. It’s anti-religious for the simple reason that there is one particular, if small group of Muslims who believe that wearing a face veil is a religious practice.

And as for not allowing ostentatious religious symbols on public property, when will those who want to enforce Quebec’s secular nature take down the giant crosses in the National Assembly or on Mont Royal?

I’m opposed to both sides

Personally, I don’t think anyone should wear a face-covering except for protection from the environment. Have you ever waited for a bus in Montreal in February?

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a Muslim, and I will not pretend to understand the faith. At the same time, I do not believe that any piece of cloth can bring a person closer to God. Not a niqab nor a hijab, the head scarf, nor a kippa nor a plain black suit nor a beard nor a turban.

“It’s a sign of my faith.” Exactly: an outward signal that you choose to display. To the women who say not being allowed to wear a niqab in public means they won’t be able to go out at all, I say: That’s your choice. Don’t expect me to cry about it.

I’ve heard the arguments by women who choose to cover up that doing so forces men not to look at them as sexual objects, but to focus on their words, behavior and character. That’s the same argument that women are to blame for sexual harassment and rape. No. It’s up to men to respect women and treat women as people. It’s not women’s responsibility to hide part of themselves in order to force men to respect them.

Some countries that have banned face-coverings have done so because they are part of a culture of oppression of women. And there are countries that force women to cover their faces in public. It’s an oppressive, hateful practice that dresses itself up as “religion.” I reject that idea.

This is the double-edged sword of this debate: the niqab is a symptom of an oppressive society. Even women who choose to wear them have to acknowledge this.

And it’s unequal. Men don’t have to wear them. And we in Canada believe in the equality of men and women. If you don’t believe in that, you’re out of step with Canadian society.

What problem does this law solve?

Quebec’s law was not written to prevent people from wearing balaclavas or scarves. It’s intended to prevent women from wearing the niqab. The language about any face-covering and support of the secular culture is spin, designed to dance past the issues that blocked previous attempts to legislate the niqab out of existence.

Is this what we want? Image from Pinterest

Less than a century ago, cops would patrol public beaches to measure the length of women’s swimwear, to make sure they weren’t offending public decency. Is that where we want to go back to?

No. This law is about the niqab, and it will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court in a couple of years.

The bottom line

Women, if you want to wear a face covering for whatever religious reasons you have, I believe you should go for it. I reject your justification and reasoning, and you’re going to have to accept the criticism and judgement of the rest of society.

I support your right to wear, or not to wear, whatever you want. But I don’t have to respect what you wear, nor do I have to agree with your reasons for wearing it.

And if any government truly wants to be secular, they’ll take down all religious symbols, including giant crosses.

There. I think I’ve offended everyone.

About the Author