Quebec Law Would Bar Niqab from Public Services

Published: March 25th 2010

A woman wearing the niqab
Pic: wikimedia commons

At a press conference in the provincial capital today, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced legislation, Bill 94, that would bar women from wearing the face covering veil, or niqab, while using public services. In practice, the prohibition means that a niqab wearing Muslim woman would not be able to see a doctor at a hospital or even attend a university class without removing the veil from her face. The law would also cover public sector employees, even if they have no contact with the public. “Two words: uncovered face,” Charest told reporters. The bill would not ban religious attire that does not cover the face, including kippahs, turbans and hijabs.


The law is intended to better define the balance between so-called “reasonable accommodation” of religious minority cultural preferences with Quebec’s secular traditions. Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, who presented Bill 94, said accommodations for religious differences "cease to be reasonable when they impose an excessive constraint on a department or (public) organization in terms of the costs incurred, its impact on the proper functioning of the organization or on the rights of other people." The issue has regularly made news over the last few years. For example, a Montreal YMCA tinted its windows to prevent youngsters from seeing women exercising in response to a request by Jewish Orthodox members, for example. Just this month, a woman was ejected from Quebec language class for wearing the Niqab. Most infamously, the Quebec town of Herouxville released a “code of conduct” released in 2007, which outlined opposition to many real and perceived minority cultural practices, including stoning.


Supporters believe Bill 94 will better define the limits of reasonable accommodation, helping to defuse these conflicts. They also believe it reflects French cultural values, including a respect for gender equality. Critics of the niqab say they subjugate women and their right to equality. Christine St-Pierre, Quebec's minister responsible for the status of women, described niqabs as "ambulatory prisons." St-Pierre said on Wednesday that Quebec is a “world leader” when it comes to gender equality and with Bill 94, “we prove it once again.” The Parti Quebecois, meanwhile, argued that the Bill does not go far enough. Party member Louise Beaudoin argued that Quebec should amend its Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include "the fundamental values of the Quebec nation, notably the equality of women and men, the primacy of French and the separation of the state and religion."


Critics charge that the law would, ironically, isolate women who wore the niqab, by denying them to access to most state institutions.  Such women may choose, or be forced, to stay at home rather than remove the veil in public. In addition, Quebec’s Commissionon reasonable accommodation found in focus groups that there is insecurity among native Quebecers regarding immigrants. Shama Naz, a Montreal resident, told the Toronto Star that since the law only targets Muslims, but not other religious symbols, it will come across as “hypocrisy. A lot of Muslims will think it's racially oriented. Everybody else goes on wearing whatever they want to express themselves."


Related articles: (niqab, bill 94, quebec muslims, charest)
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