This week, a Quebec judge has heard arguments on ‘Bill 62’ – the controversial provincial ban on wearing face coverings, such as the niqab, in certain public spaces. Bill 62 has been in place since October and has already impacted on niqab wearing women who work as public sector employees, attend public universities or make use of public services, such as transport or healthcare. The plaintiffs to the new legislation are Marie-Michelle Lacoste, a Canadian-Muslim woman, as well as the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Their approach in challenging the Bill has been two-fold. Plaintiff lawyer Catherine McKenzie interrogated the constitutionality of the new law, particularly in the ways it contravenes Canada and Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which both enshrine the right to equality and religious freedom. McKenzie then proceeded to detail the ongoing harm that veil-wearing women are now exposed to, referencing affidavits from Muslim women who have experienced increased harassment since the Bill was instituted.
Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has responded to the Bill with varying degrees of criticism. Initially, he stated, “It’s not up to the federal government to challenge this, but we will certainly be looking at how this will unfold with full respect for the national assembly.” The next day, the Prime Minister was more overtly critical of the overbearing sentiment embedded in the legislation, arguing, “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing.” Conversely, Quebec’s Premier, Phillippe Couillard has been more consistent, addressing protests against the ban, “We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face. We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine.”
Indeed, this selective definition of what constitutes a ‘free and democratic society’ is at loggerheads with the probability that such a society might be multi-faith or inclusive in nature. In a dominantly Roman Catholic demographic, Quebec’s Muslim community constitutes 1.52% of the population. This community is exposed to casual and extreme racism alike, including the shooting of six people at a Quebec mosque in January this year by a far-right supporting university student. Rather than addressing a genuine security threat, this political gesture acts to bolster existing de facto discrimination towards the Muslim community and then alienate them on de jure terms.
Despite Quebec’s labour-intensive investment in upholding ‘religious neutrality’, Bill 62 is distinctly discriminatory and repressive in its failure to accommodate the civil liberties of the province’s minority Muslim population. While the liberal majority who were responsible for passing the Bill defend its secularity in pointing to the lack of explicit reference to the niqab or burka, much of the rhetoric surrounding the policy is devoid of cogency. For example, many advocates for the Bill have argued that a ban on face veils is an extension of the commonplace ban on wearing motorbike helmets in banks or high-security facilities. However, it is the religious motivation for wearing a face veil that transposes a blanket ban on face coverings from a casual exercise in the name of security to a breach of fundamental human rights. Ultimately, Bill 62 codifies an asymmetry of harms, in the vein hope that excluding a population of little over one hundred women attempting to practice their faith will protect a population of 8 million people from themselves.
This unsolicited politicization of the face veil extends across the trans-Atlantic in France, Austria, Belgium and Turkey, where similar bans have been imposed. Drafting of a face veil ban is also underway in the Netherlands, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, encouraged the bill, stating it should be put into place “wherever legally possible”, while Interior minister Joachim Herrmann, stated that “concealing your face is at odds with this culture of communication.” Particularly as more than a million newly arrived refugees look towards integrating into Germany, this misguided sense of duty to preserve ‘domestic security’ at the cost of religious freedom poses great concerns for long-term stability.
Instead of embracing these minority communities, such governments are disseminating an unfounded bias towards the Muslim community. There is no room for ‘public interest’ but only ‘public fear’ in this unsolicited politicization of the veil; it has become a blank slate onto which Quebec and many European policymakers have projected a host of unrelated political insecurities.