Face Coverings in Public? Civil Rights Aren’t Enough

A few times now I have criticized the public regulation of face coverings such as has been imposed this week by the Quebec government: here in the Vancouver Sun, here for “Context,” and most recently here for American readers of Religious News Service.

But I don’t feel great about it.

I have no issue with head scarves, of course, whether worn by observant Muslim women on a city bus or by Grace Kelly in a convertible on the Côte d’Azur. But I am always disquieted by the masks of niqabs and burqas.

I recognize, and have defended, women who assert that they freely wear these things, whether to celebrate their heritage, observe standards of modesty, or even signal their sympathies with certain Islamic/Islamist groups. I may not admire that heritage or agree with those standards, and I may despise those groups, but I will defend a Canadian’s right to do as she pleases with what she wears, so long as public safety isn’t compromised.

Leaving aside the political declarations—if you want to say you admire ISIL, go ahead, and the RCMP and CSIS will add you to their lists—it’s the other issues that bother me most because those face coverings also symbolize a heritage of female subjugation. And it pains me to know that many Canadian women feel they must wear these things on pain of ostracism from their communities, disapproval and possibly disinheritance from their parents, violence from their husbands, or even honour killings from their families or in-laws.

Women under such pressures must be helped to escape. They must be offered an adequate range of social services: from initial protection in a shelter for themselves and their children, to welfare, to education and job training, to whatever restraining orders are needed to keep them safe. Support for multiculturalism has never meant we are obligated to let anti-Canadian values fester in our midst.

Language training in one or the other of our official languages must also be mandatory so that girls and women can capably access those services. Exceptions can be made—for elderly immigrants, perhaps, who are living out their last years in the care of their families. But making language training mandatory—and testing language ability for renewal of visas—can actually empower women, for then no parent or spouse can forbid them from receiving it.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

3 Responses to “Face Coverings in Public? Civil Rights Aren’t Enough”

  1. Dawit

    good idea about mandatory language training. I grew up in Ethiopia in places with lots of Muslims. Do not remember seeing the full body covering until I was sorting my parents pictures and then I knew I had seen things like in the pictures but it was extremely rare. I maintain that the full body covering is a cultural hangover and not necessarily part of Islam. Our town where I lived for grade 9 was Muslim majority. When we traveled back to Canada I saw the full covering somewhat in Yemen and Egypt. Head scarves were common for Protestants, Orthodox and Islamic women. Dawit

  2. Jordan

    Thanks for this piece. I appreciate your expansion on your earlier position that face covering should be allowed, by encouraging us to at the same time do much more to empower Muslim women. There is one point that I wish you’d elaborate on.

    You mentioned that we should require language training for visa renewal so that no one can keep a woman from learning English or French, which we as Canadians value. How do you see that as different from requiring faces be uncovered, since the covering of faces could also be forced on women, and requiring by law that they be uncovered would equally keep that from happening? Is it a matter of degrees? I.e. we value uncovered faces (and the integration and value-changes that that could bring), but not as much as we value our official languages (and the doors these open)? Thanks!

    • John

      The required language training would serve many good purposes, but in this context it would empower women to get out from under any oppression they are in fact experiencing. Requiring every woman to uncover her face might help some, but would hinder others who veil themselves for legitimate reasons–that’s why I’m against such regulations. No one can be harmed, however, by learning an official language and, frankly, all immigrants should be required to do so, in my view.

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