Bill 94, tabled last week in Québec City, is entitled An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions. Its central provision, section 6, reads as follows:
The practice whereby a personnel member of the Administration or an institution and a person to whom services are being provided by the Administration or the institution show their face during the delivery of services is a general practice.
If an accommodation involves an adaptation of that practice and reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it, the accommodation must be denied.
The Bill is applicable to all government sectors and to many public institutions, among them, daycare centres, public school boards and health facilities.
In essence, the government is presuming that interacting with a woman wearing the niqab who works for the government or is seeking a governmental service is an undue burden.
In our view, this general prohibition is vague, will lead to abuse and further marginalization, constitutes a denial of freedom of expression and religion, and is unnecessary.
The Bill will lead to abuses.
The language of the Bill is vague: is there any situation where communication is not implicated? In essence, this Bill could have the effect of denying women who wear the niqab the ability to get any governmental service or to work in the public sector. This forces an unreasonable choice for women : to choose to abandon some of their religious preferences, or to stay home.
There could be a serious impact for women in terms of access to jobs, access to healthcare and prevention of violence. Because the terms are so vague, it will be difficult to define a narrow range of application. Although this may not have been the intent of the Act, the language may provide grounds to many civil servants to completely reject or ignore women wearing niqabs.
The prohibition constitutes a denial of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
The niqab, like any other dress code or religious symbol, should not be regulated by government. Many pieces of clothing may hinder communication and identification: scarfs, tuques, or even baseball caps. Does the government need to see, for proper identification and security, one’s hair as much as one’s nose or mouth? What will come next? Much government-citizen interaction do not require a facial identification, it is often sufficient to give one’s name to obtain services. Will it now be required to always show ID?
Many people have voiced their objections to the niqab and argued the following:
- the niqab is not required by the Muslim faith,
- it is a symbol of inequality of women, and
- it speaks to a rejection of modern values, which would undermine the possibility of integration in Québec and Canadian society.
All three reasons suggest that wearing a niqab is constitutionally protected. First, the freedom of religion does not only protect the rituals that are mandated by different religious orders but rather the possibility of expressing one’s own devoutness and spirituality. Many people are more devout than others: many people wear religious signs, including Catholic priests and nuns, members of the Orthodox Jewish faith, and some members of Sikh and Buddhist faith. Are we to say that the government should regulate the religious signs of all these people if they happen to seek a governmental service or be employed by the government?
Second, the philosophy behind the niqab may very well be repugnant to women’s equality: it is only worn by women to shield them from men. It seems to reinforce the notion that men cannot control their sexual urges and that women must hide in order to protect themselves. This is against women’s equality. However, many other signs are also reminiscent of women’s inequality in religious orders: many traditional religions impose different obligations on men and women and whether it is the Catholic nun’s veil or the Mennonite long dresses, the images of inequality are quite prevalent. In addition, were the government wanting to prohibit serving anyone who wears garments that speak to women’s inequality, it may find that the list is very long: high heels, corsets, pantyhoses could all be analysed through the lens of women’s equality. The real equality message is to let women decide what they want to wear and to allow them to go out, find jobs and obtain healthcare.
Finally, many think that the niqab is a sign of rejection of modernity and Western society. If it is, then it is a form of political expression that should be respected. Why accept a T-shirt that speaks against outrageous consumerism, the war in Afghanistan or killing trees and not a sign, like the niqab, that may speak against the excesses of modern life?
No freedom is absolute and the law of accommodation already takes this in account, allowing the claimant and the employer or service provider to come to a practical solution. Legitimate security, communication and identification concerns are addressed in an individualized manner.
The prohibition is unnecessary.
There is no accommodation crisis in the land. Very few women wear the niqab, very few ask for accommodation and in general, accommodations are provided reasonably in light of the overall costs and availability. Although people may disagree with individual rulings of the Québec Human Rights Commission, it does rule on an individual basis when claims of accommodation are made. This is the appropriate forum. Ruling in abstract and preventing all women who wear niqab from seeking health care or work in governmental offices does appear to create a crisis rather than invite an intercultural dialogue.
In conclusion, when the City of Québec sought to prevent Jehovah’s witnesses from distributing their tracts without a permit, it was no doubt acting with popular support and in the interest of “security concerns.” When the province of British Columbia attempted at the beginning of the 20th century to dislodge the Doukhobors, it relied on security interests as well. However, targeting minorities is always a loss to our democracy: it proposes the elimination of difference and the homogenization of society, it breeds stereotypes and encourages intolerance. It also punishes people who are doing nothing more than trying to live their lives according to their own moral compass. Wearing a niqab is not a serious threat. It does not hurt anyone. There is no need for Bill 94.