Quebec’s National Assembly passed Bill 62 on Oct. 18, 2017. Reminiscent of previous iterations that targeted ‘large’ crosses, turbans, kippahs, and hijabs, this law bans public workers like teachers and doctors and anyone using public services — like public transit, libraries, schools and public childcare — in Quebec from covering their face all in the name of secularism and security. These two key premises may at first seem credible, but let us examine them.
Quebec promotes secularism, the removal of state affairs from religion. Lawmakers state that this bill was passed to promote secularism. However, Islam is the only visible religion affected by this. Muslim women have the choice to cover their whole face with only their eyes visible for religious reasons with niqabs or burkas and this law directly challenges that freedom of choice. Where security is concerned, this law assumes that people covering their face with a niqab or burka are security threats. A quick search through Google Scholar with the keywords Canada, niqab, burka, security, threat and violence shows no data, no news reports and no evidence suggesting that people wearing a niqab or burka are actually a threat to the safety of Canadians. In fact, the articles from this search showed that it is the people wearing face coverings who are the victims of violence and abuse at the hands of ignorant outsiders trying to eradicate or ‘liberate’ them. Thus, the idea that this demographic is a security threat is also false. Another point to consider is how many people actually wear a niqab or burka in Quebec or in Canada? It is a tiny proportion of the population. Why, then, have public officials spent inordinate amounts of time and money creating and passing legislation on such an issue? When none of the premises seem valid, we must ask ourselves what is the real purpose of this ban.
Let us come back to the idea of someone covering their face for religious or non-religious reasons. If Sarah covers her face with a niqab because it is a part of a faith that she embraces, and Stephanie wraps a scarf around her head and face, not for religious purposes but because there is a blizzard outside, do we feel equally threatened by both? Do they both get labeled a security threat? Will they both realistically be denied public services? If the answer is no, then know that a likely explanation for this law is a fear of Islam. This should not be characterized differently from any other instance of institutionalized discrimination. It is a clear sign of marginalization couched in political rhetoric, and its message is ‘You have no place here’ and, ‘You do not deserve the same rights as other Canadian citizens.’
This law was introduced in Quebec, but it is the first of its kind in North America and it affects students and citizens here and across the country, spreading the message that xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization are okay, especially against Muslims. As old mistakes are repeated, let it be our responsibility to remind policy-makers that stripping citizens of their right to practice and follow their beliefs is something they tend to regret in retrospect.
Maryam Qureshi, University of Calgary student