“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.