On Quebec’s Decision to Ban the Muslim Niqab

One of the most frustrating battles I have had to fight as an Arab woman living in the West is that of breaking down the pervasive Western stereotypes of Arab women. Indeed, it is a most difficult task to decode that which has been encoded in Western minds for centuries on the East (or the Orient as per Edward Said’s words), and to counterpart the misconceptions with a true existing representation of a changing, progressive modern-day reality, one characteristic of Arab women standing defiant to oppression and to any practices that may bring about gender bias and inequality.

However, all progress is decelerated when an incident as the recent one in Quebec takes place where a Muslim woman demands her right to wearing the niqab (a Muslim headwear which covers the whole head leaving only the eyes exposed)!

Last Wednesday, March 25, Quebec legislation tabled the decision mandating that all Muslim women and others will have to uncover their concealed faces when dealing with Quebec government services. The bill dictates that anyone obtaining, or delivering, services at places like the provincial health or auto-insurance boards will need to do so with their faces uncovered. The legislation also states that face coverings will not be tolerated if they hinder communication or visual identification.

This ruling is an outcome of a complaint filed earlier this month with the province’s Human Rights Commission by Naïma Atef Amed, of Egyptian Arab descent, after she was kicked out of a government-funded language class for new immigrants in Montreal. Amed demanded that she is allowed to deliver an oral presentation with her back facing the class, reportedly due to the presence of males in the classroom, but the instructor denied her request and asked for her niqab to be removed for purposes of the oral language presentation.

Premier Jean Charest defended the school’s decision, saying that people who expect to receive public services must show their face. And Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James explains that Quebec immigrants sign a contract in which they are asked to make a moral commitment to Quebec’s values, including secularism, gender equality and respect for the francophone majority. “You make the choice to come to Quebec — you are welcome,” said James, “Immigration is a plus for society — but values must be respected, and I remind you that the majority supports these values.”

“How do you feel about this?” I am often asked. Well, in simplest terms, I am a Westernized Arab woman who is an advocate of gender equality and a defender of feminist principles. The problem for me stems from the roots of the matter where expectations demanded of a Muslim woman are by no means applicable to men, and the most blatant of all is the Muslim niqab—Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be to see a man walking around with a head-cover concealing his face and only revealing his eyes? I strongly believe that the niqab is an oppressive form of discrimination depriving women of their basic right to an identity, and one justified in the name of religion!

Moreover, I stand against any extremist conduct at any level, whether religious or other, and I perceive the Niqab as an extreme religious practice. It is important to make clear that I am not addressing the hijab covering the hair, but the act of covering a face with a niqab where only the eyes are exposed, and specifically when carried out on Western soil.

Although the Niqab happens to be a common sight in the streets of a Mulsim country, the opposite does not hold true. In the midst of Westerners, this practice could never pass in a subtle manner. A woman wearing the niqab in the West ironically draws more attention to her face and looks as odd as one would by wearing a long black coat on a summer beach!

As an Arab woman raised in the West, I fully understand the importance of keeping to cultural traditions and religious beliefs, but I have also learned the importance of assimilation. It is understandable that immigrants seek to preserve the old, but they must also embrace the new. And if the new happens to conflict with their own beliefs, then they might as well remain in their original homelands where they might feel a better sense of belonging and acceptance.

I would also like to make clear that I am not implying one needs to shed his/her identity in another country. In fact, when not taken to extreme measures (as is the case with the niqab), the hijab covering the hair can make a positive statement about celebrating religious beliefs or cultural traditions as is the case with an Indian wearing her flamboyant silk Sari or a Pakistani wearing her traditional Salwar Kameez.

On the counter side, a Western woman seeking opportunities in Saudi Arabia would have to abide by the laws of the country and is forced to wear the hijab in public. Moreover, a Westerner would never attempt to wear a bikini-top in the streets of Damascus as it would be an act of extreme measures and deemed offensive by cultural practices and religious beliefs.

And the reciprocal holds true—From a Western perspective, the niqab stands as a symbol of oppression and extreme fundamentalism, and is furthermore offensive to many in the West. When discussing this topic with a friend of mine, Anita Savage, a Westerner of American and Swiss-European background, she states, “From a Western point of view, a hair cover like the Muslim women’s hijab or the Jewish men’s Kippah stands as a symbol for religious humility and modesty; however, when the niqab is worn in our country, it becomes a very insulting statement to Westerners. To me, it is a form of accusation that implies we are a degenerate society to whom a woman is afraid to show her face! But what they are afraid of? And, if they feel so threatened by our Western men (or by men in general), then perhaps they should stay within the walls of their house and avoid encounters with men! We try our best not to offend immigrants; however, our culture does not support this type of extremism, and I don’t think we should tolerate it either!”

I also asked the opinion of Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma (USA) for his opinion on the subject, and his reply was, “If the government can make a compelling case that removing the niqab is necessary for state security and anti-fraud measures, I am for it. I am sure that women’s modesty can be protected through additional measures, such as allowing a male relative to be present at the interview if the woman asks for it, or by being interviewed by a woman officer.”—Yet another example truly reflecting the respectful, accommodating, accepting, and understanding nature of the educated Western mindset.

I will end my article by posing a question that has always weighed very heavily on my heart: Will there ever come a day in human history when all barriers, whether separating faces, sexes, or peoples, be lifted for the sake of a universal humanity?

Ghada Al Atrash Janbey is a mother and weekly columnist in The Daily Townsman Newspaper, Cranbrook, BC, Canada. She can be reached at: ghadaalatrash@live.com. Read other articles by Ghada, or visit Ghada's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on April 17th, 2010 at 9:51am #

    We are a symbolic class of life; thus, it matters, to me,
    what such symbols as niqab, cross, swastika, yarmulke, expensive gown, ferrari, mansion, black robe, diamond mean.
    All these are symbols; each having a specific symbolic value. Being symbols, they cannot be dichotomized into symbols and non-symbols.

    However, pious people do dichotomize what cannot be split in two; or three, four, z categories. And by doing this they tell us tacitly: eh, these are ‘religious’ [read please criminal] signs and we are demanded to wear them. Look, they might say: these are not ordinary symbols! So, u can’t treat them as laic symbols!

    In an extremely confused world, such behavior makes matters worse for all of us; yes, even pious people.
    Most business people know how detrimental wld be to their business if they wld wear turban, cross, kippeh, jihab, diamond, etc., in office.
    They know such symbols say a lot; much or all of it much antihuman, warlike, rejectionist, etc. tnx

  2. observing said on April 17th, 2010 at 1:00pm #

    The core of this debate should be about the ability of government officials and others to expediently identify those they are dealing with. If some Muslim women feel strongly enough that their religion should take precedent over their ability to access government services and civil rights including voting, traveling under a standard photo-based passport and driving, then fine. But do not demand equal access and rights if you are not prepared to conform to the minimum identification standards of modern society. There are times and places where we all would like to remain anonymous, especially as surveillance cams multiply out of control and the police state metastasizes, but hidden faces are not the norm here, and likely will never be in any open and free society.

    Women have been showing their faces to strangers since humankind walked out of Africa, and neither the world nor the universe seems the worse for it. And exactly where and why did the facial veil/cover custom originate? It seems most clear that it came into most common use in desert societies… where all people wisely shielded their faces against the harsh climate. But might women have kept their faces covered as much as possible to remain more beautiful for their men?

    According to Wikipedia, Assyrian law 13th century BCE allowed only noble women to wear veils, whereas common women and prostitutes were forbidden to do so. The major modern justification for the niqab seems to be a handful of religious texts. contested even within the ranks of Muslim scholars.

    This is not really about religion, it is a local custom dragged out of its rational context of time and utility. Zeus isn’t striking anyone down with lightning bolts anymore either.

  3. Rehmat said on April 17th, 2010 at 8:46pm #

    Canada is a multicultural society, but due to pro-Israel politicians and government officials and mainstream media propaganda – Muslims who make Canada’s largest religious minority – are targeted the most for their religious beliefs, especially since September 11, 2001.

    A small Quebec town Herouxville published a code of conduct for migrants which among other things advised them that it was unacceptable to “kill women by stoning them in public, burning them alive, burning them with acid, circumcising them, etc.” Maybe the town elders were not aware of the survey that they were living in the society in which more than 23% of school girls have sexual experience before the age of 13.

    In February 25, 2007 – A referee ordered 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour of the pitch during a National tournament game for wearing Hijab. Her team and four others walked out of tournament in protest.

    In December 2007, the bosses of Quebec’s two major unions told the Bouchard-Taylor commission that Muslim public servants, teacher and judges should not be allowed to wear Islamic symbols (Hijab, etc.).

    In December 2007, the Alberta Soccer Association put a temporary ban on Al-Ikhwat (Sisterhood) soccer team from playing for safety reasons (13 of its 18 members wear Hijab) – CBC, December 6, 2007.

    Family of 14-year-old Safaa Menhem demanded an apology from the referee who refused to allow her to play indoor soccer while wearing Hijab – The Gazette (Montreal) November 26, 2007.

    The Canadian Press reported on May 14, 2007 – Muslim women who participate in competitions sanctioned by the World Tae Kwon Do Federation will not be allowed to wear Hijab. The ruling came in response to two Muslim girls being banned to take part in a competition in Longueuil, Quebec.

    11-year-old Hagar Outbih was banned to participate in a judo tournament in Winnipeg because of her Hijab – Canadian Press, November 19, 2007.

    On May 21, 2008 – the Bouchard-Taylor commission in his report submitted to Quebec provincial government concluded: “There is nothing wrong with Hijab. It’s no real threat to Quebec values. And most women wear it here by choice, not because of coercion.”

    However, Israeli ambassador Alan Baker was not happy with the commission ruling. He showed his concern (reported in Globe and Mail, May 8, 2008) over the growing number of Muslim Canadians who might cause a shift in Canada’s Middle East policy. He said that Muslim communities have had impact on foreign policies of such countries as France (Muslims elected a Zionist Jew, Sarkozy, as President of France, right!!!).


  4. MichaelKenny said on April 18th, 2010 at 7:06am #

    From the European perspective, the niqab is a public order issue. People who conceal their faces are regarded as inherently frightening. The Usual Suspects have indeed been trying to set people at each other’s throats but fundamentally, Europeans regard how people dress themselves as a matter for themselves. Freedom of religion implies that people have the right to dress (and eat!) in accordance with their religion but they must not impose their religion on others by forcing them, for example, to accept restrictions on normal European social customs.

  5. observing said on April 18th, 2010 at 9:08am #

    I am ONLY addressing the niqab, not other forms of dress, custom and religious expression. Conflating the niqab with various generally accepted Muslim customs is stepping out of context of the original article.

    A mask is a mask. Masks are not appropriate in an open free society where photo cards are a primary form of verifying identity.

    Any Canadian citizen or landed immigrant could “voluntarily decide” to wear a mask in public for any personal or religious reason. But they would be required to remove same to get (for example) a Drivers License or a Passport, and would be required to show their face to a police/Customs officer or election official for identification if the situation warranted.

    But Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab should not be so required? Would they prefer to be fingerprinted and taken to the police station where ID verification can be done instead? Or perhaps retinal scans?

    At what point does the extremity of this particular piece of religious dress dogma become apparent?

  6. observing said on April 19th, 2010 at 9:03am #

    @ Rehmat:
    Again, out of context. What a law passed in Quebec has to do with Jewish women in front of Tel Aviv brothels or an underwear bomber’s possible connection to Mossad is beyond me.

    To me this is about generally accepted Canadian identification strategies in regular administrative and enforcement situations, not attempting to detect “terrorists” or impose some particular religious/social mores.

    And FYI, retinal scanning is currently commercially available technology, just considered too socially intrusive and costly for general ID use… yet.

  7. hayate said on April 19th, 2010 at 11:41pm #

    This is a strange article. For one thing, how many women in Canada wear these things? I would gues just a few. The controversy is over civil access to benefits, not criminal identification. If the person lies about their identity, they’ve committed a crime and can be investigated in a regular manner. I really don’t see the big deal about allowing these women to wear these things since it is not a criminal investigation, just a person seeking benefits.

    If a country treats a person like they are under a criminal investigation when they seek lawful benefits, then their is something serious wrong with that country. It’s excessive police state tactics. It’s also treating the person as a criminal when they have committed no crime and there is no reasonable reson to suspect they have.

    It’s quite obvious the real reason for the unreasonable obstinacy by the guv here is anti-Muslim bigotry. And i’ve no doubt that is the motivation of the posters supporting this here. Especially the whinging little snitch called jon s who appears to be more concerned with shutting out opposing views than anything else. I bet he’d be singing another tune should his guv come up with an equally prejudicial reason to deprive him of his right to wear a yarmulke when visiting the social services.

  8. observing said on April 21st, 2010 at 9:03am #

    Real simple for you. This is about identifying the person, not prejudice.

    If a WASP male Druid showed up in his ceremonial mask to access gov’t services, not only would he be denied service, it is likely the police would be called and he would be carted off to the station or mental institution to explain himself.

    And if a Jewish man wore his yarmulke over his face, HE wouldn’t get access either.

    I don’t really care about the petty politics going on behind this little tempest in a teapot. I’d bet neither do a huge majority of the rest of Canadians, or even the majority of Canadian moderate Muslims.

    Lose the mask, all will be fine. Too bad we have to pass laws to enforce common sense.