Head Coverings and Courts: No Simple Solution

by Richard M. Landau (@Richard54) in Toronto

So a woman is told she can’t testify in a Quebec court while wearing a hijab. The Prime Minister speaks out against women wanting to take the oath of Canadian citizenship while wearing a niqab, which makes only a person’s eyes visible. 

Let’s weigh what facts we know.

If the Quebec justice is going to be totally consistent, then no one – no Muslim, no Sikh, no Jew, no Christian will be permitted to testify in her court while wearing religious gear. So, if you are a nun in full habit or an elderly woman given to wearing head covering… no mercy, strip for the judge. I guess that also means if any of Quebec’s three Roman Catholic Cardinals (not to mention numerous archbishops and bishops) are subpoenaed to court, they too would get the same heave-ho. After all, it’s all equal treatment under the law. 

Did the justice think through the significant implications of her action? Probably not.

But those who argue on the side of absolute religious freedom also have a flawed argument. Since when has our society been compelled to acknowledge that all must accept every self-declared religious or creed-based observance? Do we let the child of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in need of a blood transfusion, die? No.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]We need to remember that freedoms, when exercised, will sometimes permit behaviours we frankly don’t like. Welcome to the rule of unintended consequences.[/quote]

If we are going to say that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects all forms of religious expression even forms of dress, are we ready to allow members of the Digambara sect of Jainism and the occasional Hindu sadhu (holy man) to stroll naked through our streets as they do in parts of India? In fact, Canadians of a certain age may recall how the members of the Freedomite sect of the Doukhobors in BC paraded naked in public as a form of religious protest, while practicing arson and bombings. After all, if we are going to look the other way (literally) over public displays of nudity during Pride Week, why get upset over a simple face or hair covering? We need to remember that freedoms, when exercised, will sometimes permit behaviours we frankly don’t like. Welcome to the rule of unintended consequences. 

All of which begs the question, is some practice worthy of Charter 2 protection just because someone says it is? Will someone show me where in the Bible it is made compulsory that Mennonite men have to wear suspenders? What about the Hutterites in Western Canada who argue that they shouldn’t have to be compelled to have their photos taken for drivers’ licences – on religious grounds? Which religious grounds, you ask? “The second commandment,” they answer. You know that one about not making graven images. Well those poor Hutterites need to brush up on their aleph-beth-gimels because the Hebrew prohibition is against making graven images/likenesses/tokens of the Almighty, not images of Shemp and Lucky Hildeberger, or you and me. Oh, and if you are opposed to all graven images of people, then that means you’re also going to have to remove the mirrors from your vehicle, lest you catch a glimpse of an image of a human. And, if you take the mirrors off your vehicles, well then, I don’t think you should be allowed on public roads. Game. Set. Match. 

In other words, just because you say your religion compels you to do something, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to acquiesce to your reasoning – even though our religiously ignorant courts fold and capitulate at the very hint of the religion word. Our judges and even the politicians have little understanding of legitimate religion, and yet, they are quick to cede ground to it or make pronouncements about it. 

Why the Niqab Bothers Us

First, some facts. No less an authority than Sheikh Tantawi of Cairo, a leading Islamic scholar, rejected the belief that the niqab is a religiously ordained form of dress. Tantawi and others say that niqab is not fard (obligatory) nor even mustahab (recommended). In fairness, there are sects who do support it. It should also be pointed out the niqab has cultural roots that predate the advent of Islam. Culture 1, Religion 0.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]I wonder, if we compel all people to reveal their faces in public, what implications would this have for someone who veils his or her face due to a birth defect or disfiguration or an outside worker wearing a ski mask on a cold winter day?[/quote]

Which brings me back to why the niqab bothers us as a society. I know that many of my fellow Canadians regard the wearing of a niqab as anti-social and a refusal to engage. They feel that the wearer is making a statement that ‘my loyalty is to my faith, not my nation.’ Others feel that those wearing a niqab are looking down on the established order and the social contract. After all, our experience and our culture historically link covering of the face to deception, subterfuge and recently, evil ISIS henchmen, or even a bunch of guys bluffing and deceiving each other while… playing poker!

How many of the niqabis were raised by mothers and grandmothers who also wore the niqab? In other words, are they wearing it because that is their tradition – or out of some misplaced sense of anti-social piety and a superiority complex that is sometimes ascribed to those who wear the niqab?

Here again, let’s be measured and fair. Why all the fuss? There are literally only a handful of women in Canada who have chosen this type of garment. I wonder, if we compel all people to reveal their faces in public, what implications would this have for someone who veils his or her face due to a birth defect or disfiguration or an outside worker wearing a ski mask on a cold winter day? Oh, and before you get too smug, consider this: 1 Corinthians 11 talks of women covering their heads, as does 1 Timothy 2. Or, as another example, Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair because of its “sexual potency”.

See, this is not as simple as we think, is it?

So, weighing the facts, let’s make a case for sensible accommodation. In other words, Hutterites need photo IDs and mirrors in their cars… baptized Sikhs need to wear helmets for hockey, motorcycling and even construction sites. Niqabi women will reveal their countenances to the authorities when passing through airport or security checkpoints, and as I am told, they do that now.

Calm down everyone, it’s only a handful of women wearing the niqab. It won’t irreparably damage our society, even though a good many of us find it off-putting and extremely anti-social.


Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.  He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.

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