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Quebec Uncovers: Veils, Conspicuous Religious Symbols Banned

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Last Wednesday, a controversial bill passed by the Quebec National Assembly caused conflicting opinions to arise among many residents of the Canadian province of Quebec. Bill 62 is a disputed bill that falls under religious neutrality of the state and declares that anyone giving or receiving public services must have their face uncovered. Public services include any state-funded services, such as schools, hospitals, libraries, ministries, and public transportation. Although the bill never directly mentions traditional female Islamic face veils, niqabs, and burqas, it means that women who wear full-face veils will have to remove them when doing anything from using the metro to going for a checkup. Citizens may apply for a religious exemption to the law. However, the committee who reviews the proposals will not be put in place until next July. The religious exemption must also comply with “equality of the sexes”. The bill also does not outline a procedure for what to do if someone refuses to remove their face covering or if a covered person asks to be served.


Bill 62 is a less severe version of Bill 60, the Quebec “Charter of Values” introduces by the Parti Quebecois in November of 2013. This bill would make it illegal for employees of the government or any public organization as well as people giving or receiving public services to wear overly conspicuous religious symbols such as turbans, yarmulkes, hijabs, niqabs, burkas, or overlarge crucifixes. Bill 62 died when the Parti Quebecois was replaced in the 2014 election by the liberal party.


Though Bill 62 is less regulatory than Bill 60, its official goals are the same: “to guarantee the religious neutrality of the state and the equality of men and women.” Supporters of the bill say it is meant to unite citizens under a common Canadian identity, instilling a sense of equality and adherence to common values in all Quebecers. Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee says the bill is about “living together in harmony” and establishing guidelines on religious neutrality. Liberal Party Leader and premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, another supporter of the bill, states that “We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”


Those against the bill, however, see darker implications in its passage. Many in the Muslim community say the law is discriminatory and unfairly targeting them. Muslim women feel as though officials would rather they stay at home and hide from society than express their religion openly by wearing a burqa or niqab. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, revealed his negative opinion of the bill by saying “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing.” Though it is unclear how much power the federal government has in this provincial affair, he promised to look into the law and see whether it violated the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Bill 62 may be the first of its kind in North America, but it is hardly the first in the world. In 2010, Syria banned full-face veils in schools and universities in an attempt to curb radical Islam and promote equality. Bassan Kadi, a leader of the Syrian Woman’s Observatory group, stated that “The important thing: niqab is a very big kind of violence against women”. The women underneath the niqab are a “victim”. France passed a similar, but the more restrictive law in 2011, banning full-face veils in all public spaces. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president at the time, called Muslim veils an “assault on French values of secularism and equality of the sexes”. Belgium also banned full-face veils in public in 2011 to “guarantee the conditions of living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. The most recent country to place a ban on full-face veils is Austria, which banned facial coverings in courts, universities, and public transportation in May of 2017.


   The consensus among supporters of bans on Muslim face veils seems to be that the veils are detrimental to a united, secular society. A woman wearing a veil in public is a noticeable, often stark contrast and supporters argue that this is too blatant and distracting a display of religion in a secular country. Another reason legislatures cite for passing Muslim veil bans is the equality of sexes, as some see the fact that only women are expected to wear the veils as sexist and unfair. Legislatures argue that veils are a tool used by Muslim males to oppress Muslim females, creating an unequal power dynamic. In some cases, husbands force their wives or daughters to wear the veil. Supporters of the ban view the veil as a cage, preventing the woman beneath from fully interacting with others and from truly being part of the country. A full veil sets women apart from other citizens, and supporters argue that this is alienating not only to other citizens but the women herself.


A ban of the veil, however, might be just as alienating. Opposers of the ban see it as a symptom of the rising Islamophobia and xenophobia sweeping many countries today. They believe the ban to be a violation of the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in a democracy, stripping women of their ability to choose how they wish to express their faith. Many Muslim women wear a burqa, niqab, or hijab not because they are forced to or believe themselves inferior to men, but because it helps them feel closer to their faith, and directly connected to Allah. Quebec Muslims feel that their faith, culture, and communities are being directly targeted. To them, the ban sends the message that the Muslim community is not wanted. Although this legislation was intended to bring citizens together, so far, it has only driven them further apart.

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