As part of the Niqab series, we reproduce here an article by Haroon Siddiqui, the Editor Emeritus at the Canadian newspaper, Toronto Star. Haroon is an Indo-Canadian journalist who has been associated with Toronto Star for almost three decades. Toronto Star is widely regarded as a left leaning Canadian newspaper. Haroon is a member of the Order of Canada for advocating “fairness and equality of opportunity” at home and “a broader role for Canada in the global village”. Haroon has also come under criticism for being “Toronto Star’s resident Islamist”, and justifying Islamic extremist atrocities as nothing but a payback for US foreign policies.
Quebec, the French majority province in Canada, is the first North American battleground for the Niqab battle. After a woman refused to remove her Niqab in French learning class, she was removed and the Quebec Minister for Women Affairs called Niqab an “ambulatory prison”.
The new bill in the Quebec Provincial Assembly would disallow veiled women from dispensing or receiving public services. Women will not be allowed healthcare services or to attend universities if they do not show their faces. Jean Charest, the Quebec Premier (equivalent to Chief Minister of a province in Pakistan) summed up the proposed bill in two words: “Uncovered Face”.
There are almost 1 Million Muslims currently living in Canada. The Muslim society constitutes just about 3% of the Canadian population. Haroon points out that it is perfectly reasonable for a woman to show her face for identification purposes when accessing public services, applying for drivers license etc. Yet after women have shown their faces, and their identities are established, is it fair to expect them to stay unveiled against their wishes while they receive public services? Is this where state crosses the line of reasonableness and wanders into unchartered territory of imposing upon someone’s religious beliefs, no matter how radical these beliefs may appear? Particularly when Quebec Government’s own survey showed that less than a few hundred Muslim women prefer to don niqab. Questions are asked: Is the Quebec Government singling out Muslim women in the name of niqab legislation?
The primary argument in this article is not whether the niqab is a good or a bad dress for women. The argument here is where a secular society properly balances the demands of safety and reasonableness against the rigid beliefs of its few members. I believe this debate will not remain confined to the Western societies and at some point will enter the dialogue in Muslim majority countries.
This article comes out defending the right of Muslim women to don Niqab. Tomorrow’s article will be an argument against the Niqab as a practical dress fit for a secular, or for that matter, any society.
Picking on Muslim Women Smacks of Hypocricy
By Haroon Siddiqui, Published on April 4, 2010 in The Toronto Star
I do not like the niqab/burqa. It makes me uncomfortable. But that’s not a good enough reason to argue that it be banned or, worse, that those wearing it be denied public services, including education and even health care, as Quebec is proposing.
Based on even majority public opinion, a democracy cannot discriminate because of dress – religiously dictated or otherwise. It couldn’t do it in the same way that it wouldn’t sanction lynching, should the masses be baying for it. The rule of law wouldn’t have it.
What if society collectively decided to change the law to permit lynching? It could. But citizens would retain the right to argue that such a law would be an ass.
That’s the stage we are at vis-à-vis Quebec’s bill on the niqab. Hence the myriad arguments.
• The niqab is just another manifestation of multiculturalism gone mad.
No, it is a case of freedom of religion, which includes “the right to show it,” as Quebec’s own commission on reasonable accommodation said in its 2008 report.
• The duty to accommodate religion is not limitless.
As stated by the commission, “a request may be rejected if it leads to what the jurists call `undue hardship,’ which can take different forms such as unreasonable cost, upsetting an organization’s operation, infringing the rights of others, or prejudicing the maintenance of security and public order.”
That may have been the case with the niqabi woman in Montreal who was thrown out of two French language classes. She was said to be making excessive demands. She said she was being true to her faith. She went to the Quebec human rights commission.
That’s a good way to work through such competing claims. The case, however, is a poor excuse for Jean Charest’s legislation.
• The niqab may not be a religious requirement.
I agree. So do an overwhelming majority of Muslim women, including observant ones, who do not wear it.
But that does not negate the right of those who believe it is a religious requirement. That a majority of Jews do not wear the kippa, or that many Sikhs do not wear a turban, does not negate the right of those who do.
• It is essential to see the face for the purposes of I.D. documents and security.
Absolutely. The state can lay down the law that a niqabi show her face for a passport, driver’s license, health card (as the Quebec health board has already held). She should show her face at immigration and customs, etc., or even when collecting her child from daycare. But there are no reported cases of niqabi women objecting to any of that.
• The niqab is “a symbol of oppression,” decreed by Islam or the men of the household – father, brother or husband.
Let’s assume that it is. Whose business is it to end the practice – that of the state?
Let’s say that it is. But she would invoke her freedom of religion, also her freedom of choice of dress. What then?
Would our argument be that we do not recognize her sovereignty, even though we accept the right of a woman to abortion on the basis of just such individual autonomy?
Or would we argue that a niqabi woman is too dumb to decide for herself or is under the sort of severe oppression that we assume she is, without having to prove that she is?
Feminists would have had greater credibility had they also been campaigning against the inferior status of women among Catholics, Hutterites, Orthodox Jews and other faiths.
• The niqab impedes integration.
Yet the proposed cure may be worse than the disease. Charest’s bill, if passed, would isolate them even more.
• The niqab dilutes the secular nature of society – Quebec’s, in particular.
The Constitution recognizes the supremacy of God. The Quebec National Assembly displays the crucifix. Some Quebec municipalities begin meetings with a prayer. Catholic and other churches are given tax breaks.
Fo Niemei, director of the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Race Relations, asks: “Do we withdraw funding for the Jewish General or require that the hospital remove its Jewishness because the state shall not fund or support religious expression?” The niqabi women are not demanding any favours anyway, only their rights.
TO SUM UP:
Picking on Muslim women smacks of hypocrisy or, worse, the pathology of “bigots and chauvinists who, like bullies, direct their vitriol toward the weak,” American academics Sener Akturk and Mujeeb Khan wrote in Turkey’s English-language newspaper Zaman in an article headlined How Western Anti-Muslim Bigotry Became Respectable.