We can dislike the niqab, while still respecting religious freedom

As some would have us believe, Quebec’s Bill 62 doesn’t explicitly mention niqabs or burkas, and anyway, such face coverings are cultural and not religious. Therefore, we’re told, that the renewed debate about the niqab and freedom of religion is completely unnecessary.

If only that were so.

The bill is very much about promoting “religious neutrality,” and by specifically targeting religious face coverings, it’s pretty clear that we’re talking about the small segment of Muslim women who wear the niqab. And, as we saw during this debate in the 2015 federal election, there are many Canadians who are quite uncomfortable with the niqab and not opposed to government efforts to curtail its use.

It’s possible that the Quebec government is not pandering to such sentiment, but if not, it’s hard to grasp what they’re trying to accomplish here. What is the problem in need of solving, exactly?

The state should indeed be religiously neutral, but it’s a bizarre interpretation of that concept that it would somehow involve curtailing the religious practices and expressions of individuals. There may well be government or public sector jobs where face-covering — religious or otherwise — may be problematic, but there does not appear to have been any attempt by the government or supporters of this bill to define this.

bus driver, for example, should probably not wear a face covering, but why is it of concern to the government or anyone else that a bus passenger might? This is, at best, a solution in search of a problem. In all likelihood, though, it’s a clear attempt to discourage the wearing of the niqab. Given that, it’s almost certainly destined to be struck down as unconstitutional.

I’m sure few Canadians would be upset if the percentage of Muslim women who wear the niqab declined. It is indeed a manifestation of more fundamentalist streams of Islam, and the idea that women’s faces need to be hidden from society and certainly such an idea is not in keeping with the values of our society.

While the vast majority of Muslim women do not wear any sort of face covering, we should not pretend that it is not religious in nature. There are some Islamic scholars who believe it is an obligation, and even if they happen to be theologically incorrect, it is not the place of Canadian governments or courts to make that determination. Freedom of religion protects sincerely held religious beliefs, as it should.

The argument is often made that women are forced to wear the niqab by their husbands or indirectly through pressure from their imams and community members. Even if this is true, which it undoubtedly is in some cases, punishing these women for wearing what they have no choice of wearing in the first place seems rather counterproductive. It merely discourages them from ever leaving the house and further isolates them.

Being able to participate in Canadian society and being exposed to the open discussions that can and should occur about religion and gender equality, is a much more effective way of countering the kind of ideology that spawns the niqab. But we should also not assume that women are immune from succumbing to such fundamentalist views. We see this in fundamentalist Mormon communities where, as much as polygamy seems anti-women to most Canadians, many women believe just as fervently as the men do that it is God’s will.

Canada is not a society where the niqab is the norm, and it is not unreasonable to want to keep it that way. We should be free to voice such opinions and denounce religious fundamentalism in all forms.

Conversely, though, people are free to hold such beliefs, and so long as they do not impose them on others, they should be left alone by the state

As much as we do not like the niqab, that principle should prevail here.

Rob Breakenridge
 is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Calgary’s NewsTalk 770 and a commentator for Global News.

Originally published on GlobalNews.ca. Republished with permission.

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