Sunday, May 17, 2009

Veil Controversy Rocks Quebec

Last week, La Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) voted to support the right of women to choose whether to wear religious 'signs' in the public service.
"No obligation, no ban," was how it was described.

The fact that FFQ has been accused by opponents of having been infiltrated by radical Islamists (although there is no evidence) underlines the fact that emotions are running high on this issue.

For once it's not a French/English thing, but it still remains an "Us versus Them" type of debate, something all too common in Quebec.

The resolution started a firestorm of controversy that has re-ignited the "Reasonable Accommodation" debate, pitting the radical women's rights group, which supports all manner of freedom of choice, against a the majority of Quebeckers who are mostly opposed to the idea of religious dress in the public service.
Some radicals believe that a veil of any sort is a symbol of male oppression and should not be tolerated in any form in public. There are also those who believe that the state should present a secular and neutral face to society.

Lost in the argument is the fact that the Federation never made any specific references to any sort of veils, but this seems to be the bone of contention between the two camps and is the subject of fierce media discussions.

Most of us agree that the state has, not only the right, but the obligation to limit or ban religious customs that are in opposition to society's basic principles and tenets. Customs such as animal sacrifice, polygamy or the unequal treatment of women are rightly disallowed. But whether these interdiction should extend to dress and specifically whether public employees should be allowed to wear religious regalia while serving the public on the governments behalf, is an open question.

Sadly, it seems that the debate is taking on an 'all or nothing' tenor, as extreme positions on both sides of the issue are being advocated without consideration to the 'reasonable' part in the 'Reasonable Accommodation' principle.

Since most of this polarized debate is based on the veil, let's look at the issue from a middle or 'reasonable' perspective.

Below is the headscarf (Hijab), worn by some Muslims. It is the most common of all 'veil' type of coverings. Those who wear them don't seem much different from anyone else in mainstream society. From cashiers to students, to lawyers and dentists, the majority of these women are modern and seem to be fully engaged in society. While some say it is a symbol of enslavement, I can't really see it.

It's not any different from what some Sikh's, Jews or Christians wear and I don't see anything more offensive than what is pictured below. It seems that these symbols are personal and I've never been proselytized by any of these people. In fact I tend to trust these people a bit more than the average person, but that's just me.

But that's not the case here the 'niqab, or burhka, veils that cover part the face.

Women who wear these veils are sending a very direct message to those around them, a message that is decidedly negative.
I've heard many explanations for why the veil is worn and I can't say that any of those reasons are justifiable in an open society as ours.
Some describe it as a benign modesty shield, but it is really a device, imposed by men to
hide women's faces from other men and to publicly brand the women as a possession.
Masks in our society have always denoted a negative image. Much of how we interact with people is based on expression and body language and theses types of veils infringe on the public's right to interact in a normal and acceptable fashion.

Cowboys robbing stagecoaches, Bank robbers, Terrorists. From childhood our image of the mask is something evil and rightfully so, it is an attempt at deception.
Some western countries such as Holland, France Germany and Turkey have already placed limits on veils in public and we should consider limiting face-covering devices, regardless of religion.

As for a scarf, turban, hat or a skullcap, we should accept them for the inoffensive symbols that they are and allow people to wear them even when working in the public sector.


  1. Just as someone does not need your permission or understanding to be a man and dress like a woman, or to change their gender, or to be a woman and dress like a woman but covering her face. That is the blessing of freedom of expression.

    No one is hassling women who dress in mini skirts with heavy cleavage, assuming this muslim woman with her covered face shows identity and reveals it when needed, what's the big deal?

    1. I think the problem is, Ahlam, that they are *not* revealing their identities when needed, else it wouldn't have garnered the press coverage it has. Believe me when I say that, as a news reporter myself, I am not interested in a religious woman who covers her face to honor her religion - or whatever - but I am keenly interested in someone who refuses to reveal her identity in Western society, particularly in these times. Law trumps religion where public safety is concerned, every time. Were we to base our (U.S.) laws on religion, it is likely no non-Christians would be walking around so freely and openly as they do today.

      I would take a step further and say that Muslim women who live in Western countries should feel doubly grateful that they do not have the worry that - should their husband suspect they have been unfaithful - her husband can throw acid in her face and not be concerned about the legal ramifications. That's what this article is about - not a glorification of the freedoms of living in a Western culture, but a critical analysis of why Eastern women insist on wearing burka-like garments when they know the dangers and implications wearing such garments impose.