Imagine you’re a young university student in Montreal, when you wrench your ankle badly. You head to the nearest hospital, expecting an exam and perhaps an X-ray. Instead, the person behind the registration desk takes one look at you and says the hospital staff can’t help you – you need to go elsewhere.
The reason? You’re wearing a veil that covers your face.
This is exactly the kind of scenario women in Quebec, Canada, might confront if the provincial government adopts Bill 62, proposed legislation that would prohibit people from receiving public services if their faces are covered. The bill, currently in parliamentary hearings, would also forbid public employees from wearing face coverings unless required for their jobs.
Quebec’s Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée called the bill an issue of “public safety,” noting that “public services have to be offered and received with the face uncovered for security, identification and communication purposes.” Some of the bill’s supporters argue that the ban would advance equality between men and women, on the theory that face coverings symbolize the subjugation and abuse of Muslim women. In reality, the bill would target and cause tangible harm to Muslim women and girls who wear the niqab or burka, which cover their faces. Restricting access to employment and services – potentially ranging from health care to domestic violence shelters to education – is not only blatant discrimination but a violation of their fundamental human rights.
The state can authorize “accommodations,” so long as such allowances don’t threaten security or hinder required identification or communication. But rather than banning face coverings and then permitting reasonable accommodations, the government should simply establish guidelines on appropriate ways to identify and communicate with people wearing face coverings in various circumstances. Instead, it has proposed a ban that represents political posturing of the worst kind.
Like France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria, Quebec is among the growing number of places attempting to dictate Muslim women’s dress under the guise of security and – ironically – respect for women’s rights. Such ill-advised legislation can violate women’s rights to education, health, and freedom of religion, among others. And instead of protecting women who may be coerced or forced to cover their faces these bans simply isolate them, pushing them further away from public life.
These types of bans reflect deeper trends towards intolerance that need to be curtailed rather than legitimized. According to one study, Islamophobic incidents increased by 38 percent in the year following France’s passage of legislation banning face coverings. In 87 percent of these cases, women were the victims.
Contrary to Canada’s central government, which has modeled a spirit of tolerance and inclusion in response to the refugee crisis, Quebec risks heading down a path towards intolerance and exclusion – and it is women and girls who will pay the highest price.