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It was with a great sigh of relief that all right-thinking Quebecers saw the PQ crash and burn in last spring’s election. The authors of their own defeat, the PQ’s primary strategy had been, via a “values” charter, to stir up animosity, in the name of nationalism, towards members of religious groups that demonstrated love of their faith through visible accessories, notably the Jewish kippa, the Muslim hijab and the Christian cross.
The proposed charter would have banned such symbolism in public services. But in spite of most Quebecers’ firm commitment to secularism in the public domain, the Charter went too far in the proposed suppression of freedom of expression for popular comfort.
The niqab is not simply #4 on a list of religious symbols.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard campaigned on a far more inclusive platform that reassured targeted minorities of their secure place in Quebec society, which helped to win his party a majority government. But he did not entirely reject the legitimacy of the need for a gesture articulating the line between freedom of expression and behaviour – or to be more precise, what one might call sartorial lamination – that is considered unseemly in a free society. I speak, of course, of the veiled face, or the niqab.
In today’s National Post, the editorial takes M. Couillard to task for moving forward on his promise to regulate against face cover in the giving and receiving of public services. The editorial errs, though, in suggesting that the regulation was prompted by Mme Marois’ Charter, stating that “the only reason ‘values’ were ever in the spotlight was because the PQ spotted a wedge issue.” That is not the case at all where face cover is concerned.
M. Couillard is merely reviving Bill 94, which was tabled in 2010. Bill 94 proscribed face cover for women in service-providing government institutions, including licence bureaus, hospitals, schools, courts, and other institutions that represent the official face of Quebec. The principle behind Bill 94 was a refusal to endorse the lower status of women that is represented by the veil. As Quebec immigration minister Yolande James forthrightly put it at the time, “if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face.”
While the PQ’s Charter of Values received but tepid support in Quebec, according to polls of the time, Bill 94 was approved of by more than 90% of Quebecers. Indeed, Bill 94 was approved of by 74% of Canadians. Virtually all Quebecers, and the vast majority of Canadians understand that the niqab is not simply #4 on a list of religious symbols. Face cover is sui generis. It strikes to the heart of social reciprocity, which is the basis of a healthy society.
The niqab is not a religious obligation; it is a cultural custom. It is not “clothing”; it is a mask. It is not politically innocent; it is associated with a form of Islam that endorses the oppression of women. In Europe, moreover, the niqab had also been adopted by extremists as an overt political statement in support of radical Islam, and that was the main, and certainly justifiable, impetus for banning it. The fact that we have not seen mass violence in Canada or that Canada’s immigration situation does not resemble France’s or Belgium’s is irrelevant to the niqab debate. One doesn’t need to suffer violence to feel psychologically intimidated, precisely what the niqab’s effect is on those Canadians who refuse to be dictated to by political correctness.
Nothing reduces a woman’s opportunities to integrate into public life more than a face veil, which advertises her lack of personhood. Many women – we don’t know the numbers, but one is surely too many – are forced to wear the veil. Of those who wear it voluntarily, many if not most have never been exposed to gender equality as a norm, and have no idea what a “human right” is. We do them no favours by endorsing their continued ignorance.
The niqab is not a “values” issue. It is a “principles” issue. Either we believe in gender equality or we do not. Either we believe that in a free society, citizens show their faces to one another in trust, or we do not. Either we are a democratic rather than a tribal society, or we are not. We do not permit public nakedness because we are not animals. We should not permit full cover because we are not things. M. Couillard is fulfilling a principled promise that was made five years ago, and he is right to do so.