Commentary by: Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton, ON
It’s absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Quebec’s National Assembly passed a bill that will require civil servants and members of the public seeking government services to have their faces uncovered. Known as Bill 62, this legislation will affect Muslim women who wear religious face coverings such as a Niqab or Burqa.
To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.
The reality in Canada today is if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it’s absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec’s lawmakers.
I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mas, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.
I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to “strong reactions” from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.
Bill 62, which the Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée describes as a first in North America, is the culmination of a long conflict in Quebec around the province’s religious minorities that I personally view as an extension of the province’s vigorous protection of its French language and culture that makes them suspicious of those whose behavior or beliefs they perceive as a threat to their “Frenchness.”
Meanwhile, those who are critical of Bill 62 are left with few details of how the law would be applied in a variety of circumstances, as the regulations have yet to be written, and municipalities such as Montreal that are blatantly opposed to this bill are demanding to be exempted from it. The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses and doctors — and their professional standards of practice that require they provide medical service to all patients who present themselves for care — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.
To many people who view these “foreign customs” through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.
Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.
Brampton-based Surjit Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer who has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, Toronto Sun and other publications. He is a member of the New Canadian Media Collective.