By: Surjit Singh Flora
After defeating the ruling Quebec Liberals earlier this month, premier-elect François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec announced that some public employees may be banned from wearing religious clothing under a proposed “secularism law” in the province.
Restrictions would be placed on all religious symbols, including a kippah skull cap or a hijab, and would apply to judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards, and school teachers in the French-speaking province.
Last month, the canton of St. Gallen became the second in Switzerland to vote for a ban on facial coverings in public.
The new law stipulates that “any person who renders themselves unrecognizable by covering their face in a public space and thus endangers public security or social and religious peace, will be fined.”
Changing the law to ban items such as Muslim veils or other overtly religious clothing may backfire. But why do countries and other jurisdictions still keep doing it?
This issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.
If a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our Constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it’s absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of the lawmakers who do it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged Mr. Legault to reconsider his suggested ban. “I am not of the opinion that the state should tell a woman what she can or cannot wear,” he said.
I was talking with an older Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the Pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the occasional older woman wearing one to mass, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.
I have strong feelings about this issue that come from my personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to “strong reactions” from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger.
I remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their kirpan in schools, places of employment, and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.
Under the Swiss system of direct democracy, voters in St. Gallen wanted to tighten the rules to punish people who wear face-coverings in public and therefore “threaten or endanger public security or religious or social peace.”
Too many people view these “foreign customs” through the lens of Western sensibilities: women choosing to cover their face, or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind the orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.
Mandatory, not mandatory—to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa, it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our Constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice.
This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of any country or the government.
Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer based in Brampton.