Shama Naz, a mother of two young girls who lives in the Montreal suburb of Kirkland, visited the emergency room of the Lakeshore General Hospital last Sunday after her eldest daughter accidentally poked her left eye with a pencil. A native of Pakistan, Naz wears a niqab, a garment worn by some Islamic women that covers the entire face save for the eyes. A few days before, the Quebec government had announced legislation that would force her to remove her niqab to receive any government service; though it isn’t yet law, she wondered half-jokingly whether she would be turned away at the hospital.
She wasn’t. Her niqab stayed in place until she was able to see a doctor; then, as she has done countless times while writing exams, taking passport pictures and going across international borders, she took it off—without the prompting of the doctor, who happened to be a man. “Law or no law, it’s just about common sense,” Naz says. “For me, it’s never been an issue.”
Soon enough, Naz will be compelled by law, not only common sense, to doff her niqab whenever she visits the hospital, goes to school, has her licence renewed, or avails herself of any other service provided or funded by the provincial government. Introduced last week, Bill 94 is the ﬁrst legislation in North America to place a de facto ban on any religious face coverings in any government building—including within the walls of every government-subsidized high school, CEGEP and university in Quebec.
Quebecers have risen in support of the bill, and in a rare show of national unity rivalling even that seen during the recent Olympics, the rest of the country is largely behind them, according to a recent Angus Reid poll, which found that 95 per cent of Quebecers, and three out of four of non-Quebecers, approved of Bill 94. The issue has brought together the governing Conservatives and the Liberals, both of which were quick to endorse the bill, while even the Bloc Québécois (no friend of the current Quebec government) agreed with certain aspects of the law, albeit tepidly. Even certain Muslim groups praised Bill 94 as an example of moderation.
“Two words: uncovered face,” said Quebec Premier Jean Charest last week, after tabling Bill 94. “The principle is clear.” His national assembly colleagues were even more unequivocal. Cabinet minister Christine St-Pierre called religious face coverings “ambulatory prisons,” while Parti Québécois immigration critic Louise Beaudoin said any religious head coverings, not just the niqab or the more restrictive burka, are examples of “submission of women, of regression, and a subjugation of all our freedoms.” Bill 94, Beaudoin says, is “anemic.” Translation: the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Beyond all the rhetoric is an enduring and familiar narrative playing out across much of the Western world: to what extent religion is to be accommodated by the governments of secular societies. In France, the Sarkozy government is attempting to ban the niqab and burka outright, though the spectre of court challenges will likely cause it to back off somewhat. In November, Switzerland voted to ban the construction of new minarets, the turrets that typically adorn the roofs of mosques—a policy several right-wing parties are considering for the entire EU.
In contrast to these radical measures, Weil says, Quebec’s bill is a “common sense piece of legislation”—a happy medium between what she calls the “pur et dur secularism of France and the Parti Québécois” and carte blanche for every religious whim and practice in state institutions. The bill doesn’t actually mention the niqab or the burka; rather, it mandates that in government institutions, people must, for reasons of “security, communication and identiﬁcation,” show their face during the delivery of services.
In practice, however, there is little doubt whom this bill targets: the handful of Islamic women in Quebec who wear face coverings as a demonstration of modesty, piety and subservience to God—the only religion in which some practitioners still do so. Many Quebec Muslims feel targeted by the Quebec government, and say the scope of the proposed law is disproportionate to the small number of niqab wearers (estimated to be between 24 and 90 in all of Quebec).