“Mine is ok but yours is not”

The title seems to capture the attitude of the government of Quebec when it comes to religious symbols. I was listening to “As it Happens” on the radio today. They were covering a recent introduction of legislation regarding the display of religious symbols in government offices, hospitals and schools. The niqāb and burka, were the items mentioned. Referencing the secular nature of Quebec, the legislation singles out religious paraphernalia that covers the face. As the conversation with a female Quebec politician (I presume) went on to discuss other religious items like crucifixes for example which would be deemed acceptable. Clearly a double-standard exists.

This legislative change (if it passes) will only affect women as it is women who wear the niqāb and the burkqa. I have no desire to get into the debate about how a woman comes to wear either garment. Discussing whether it is religious or a woman’s choice is not a salient point to this issue. The bottom line is some women wear these garments because they believe they are required to do so. Yes, it may be more cultural than a religious requirement but it does not really matter because the women wearing these garments believe they must. It is similar to the belief held by Sikhs with regard to their hair – both on their heads and their faces.

The legislation will require women either services givers or those receiving services, in a government office, hospital or school cannot have her face covered. The government believes it has the right to force these women (which, as of last year, numbered 10) to uncover. Citing concerns around identification and service quality, the Quebec government believes it has grounds to force this change on women.

When the conversation moved to discuss other religious symbols like, say, a crucifix, it was deemed an acceptable symbol because it had history in Quebec. Clearly this is complete hypocrisy. If a crucifix is ok on a nun working in a hospital, she can keep it on while at the same time forcing her pregnant burqa-wearing patient to remove her head covering even though her god dictates that she must wear something to cover her face and hair because that is only for her husband to see.

As the discussion went on they discussed the roots of this legislation. It would seem that Quebec fancies itself to be in the same league as France, who as a republic, believes it has the right to impose similar legislation. However, Quebec is not a sovereign nation and while it may be a ‘nation inside a nation’ it does not give it the right to deviate so far from Canadian norms of cultural acceptance in a multicultural milieu. Quite frankly, this legislation defies all that is Canadian. A three or four hundred years of Catholic history does not give it precedence over other religions. Following Quebec’s logic the only religious items displayed should be First Nations.

Once all the arguments have been made and legislation passed, the only people who are going to suffer are the women. If devoutly religious women are forced to uncover their faces in a culturally insensitive government office they are just not going to go there. This means they may forego social assistance applications if they are poor or single parents. Medical care may be delayed until it is too late and forget pre-natal care. What happens with children? How are these women to get medical care for their children?

This legislation is oppressive. Canada welcomes immigrants under the assumption that we are an open and pluralistic society. We cannot open our doors to the world and then impose our values on them when they get here. Instead of legislating these women into silence, we must find a way to accommodate them within our system while respecting their religious beliefs. Creative ways can be found to make this happen. To do this we must have the collective courage of our convictions. As a Canadian, I am disgusted.

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Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 9:20 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. I think this Quebec uncovered-face law reflects a fundamental conflict between two sets of values we espouse in Canada: the rights of people to hold beliefs and express them in a variety of ways, and what we consider basic human rights to which they are entitled.

    You write, “We cannot open our doors to the world and then impose our values on them when they get here,” but we do. For various ethical, sanitary, and cultural reasons, we prohibit and deplore genital mutilation of girls, slavery, shunning of lower castes, stoning of adulterers, ritual cannibalism, burning of sacrificial hecatombs, sky burials in trees, and any number of other activities that some might consider essential components of their faith — and many of which are still commonplace and accepted (or even the law) elsewhere in the world. We do draw a line.

    The question can be whether wearing a burqa is over that line. In terms of interactions with government services, being unable to see a woman’s face is at least inconvenient. So, however, are buildings whose elevators have a “Sabbath mode” where they stop on every floor on Saturdays, so observant Jews do not perform the prohibited work of pushing any elevator buttons that day. On the other hand, should government services be expected to adjust to someone who insists on wearing a Star Wars stormtrooper uniform , with helmet, at all times? Or to someone whose beliefs demand that they be naked?

    A full burqa can also be seen as a symbol that the woman wearing it is the property of her husband and male relatives, who are the only men entitled to see her face. That is what it means in the areas of the world where it is most common. And that is also something we don’t condone because of the basic human rights I mentioned earlier.

    I’m not saying that Quebec’s planned burqa ban is smart policy. And it’s happening in Quebec because, as a tiny French-speaking minority in the sea of North America, francophone Quebecers have long put up barricades to defend their language and past, sometimes unwisely.

    But the line is also sometimes fuzzy. We penalize people for not wearing seat belts, but we permit observant Sikh men not to wear bike helmets because they won’t fit over turbans. People are comfortable with a hospital worker wearing a crucifix; they wouldn’t be if she were wearing an iron eagle with a swastika. In a church or temple, people can preach at the top of their voices that everyone else in the world is going to Hell if we don’t shape up; doing the same in the visitor’s gallery at the House of Commons will get you thrown out by security.

    Perhaps it would be better for the Quebec government to focus on helping women feel a burqa is unnecessary, rather than legislating against it. But those sort of changes can take generations, and many Quebecers seem too nervous to wait. I think there are straightforward ways around the inconvenience burqas pose in some circumstances, but I’m also not surprised that Quebec is where this issue has come to a head.

    • Great points Derek. I would like to respond to some of them:
      – You talk about the things we prevent people from doing here like female genital mutilation. I think we can both agree that it is assault and, as such, would be problematic under our Criminal Code.

      In terms of the burka – I do agree that personally I think it is abhorrent and misogynistic. However, I have no right to enforce my belief on to women who choose to wear it (as I said in the post, this is not a debate about how a woman comes to wear the burka i.e. her husband/male relatives forcing her to do so). In terms of identifying the woman, it sounds like this can be done with little fanfare (see the post after this one).

      Interestingly, Fraser Health is falling over itself apologizing to a Sikh family because a nurse shaved the beard of an elderly man who then stopped eating and died.

      The Quebec law is problematic in many ways. Perhaps the worst for me is the idea that some religious symbolism is ok and some is not. If women can’t wear burka in secular Quebec then all crucifixes should be removed as well.

      The truth is that Quebec is not a secular society. They are in fact a Catholic society where, up until the late 1960s, priests controlled most facets of life.

  2. Even there, there are competing interests. Quebec may be a _historically_ Catholic society, but since the Quiet Revolution it has rapidly become very secular, which I’m sure is also alarming to many there, and an additional motivation for the hand-wringing cultural analysis.

    I agree about the double standards reflected here, but they are more over-arching than that.

    To use my previous examples, if it’s someone’s conviction that they should always venture out in public in a full Star Wars stormtrooper costume, with full-face helment; or conversely, that they should only wear as much clothing as is necessary to protect them from cold (i.e. none in the summer); then they won’t find much support from the public or the state. They may be denied services or arrested, or even psychiatrically evaluated.

    But if many people believe something similar or even more bizarre under the rubric of a religion (i.e. that women should be shielded head to toe, that a realistic sculpture of a man being tortured to death on a cross is appropriate decoration for a schoolroom), that deserves not only acceptance, but state sanction.

    Even on simple matters, someone who chooses to wear a big afro, or an aluminum-foil pyramid hat to block alien mind probes, or even a turban that is not worn for religious reasons, does not receive the reprieve from mandatory helmet laws that observant Sikh men do.

    I find those sorts of double standards pretty weird all round.


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