Banning the niqab
Excluding women who wear the veil is not the way to advance equality.
Dateline: Monday, April 05, 2010
by Christine Overall
Na´ma Atef Amed has twice been forced out of government-funded French language classes for new immigrants in Montreal. The reason is that she wears a niqab, a face veil chosen by some Muslim women. As a philosopher, I'm interested in whether the reasons used to defend this action are justified.
Officials first said that wearing the niqab interferes with education. "Pedagogical principles" and "pedagogical objectives" require that the face be exposed.
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It doesn't seem likely that someone is going to commit fraud in order to take a French course.
This is an odd claim. Amed's niqab would not prevent others in the class from learning, unless language learning specifically requires that others read her lips. Even so, this student is only one of many; it can't be all that important for others to hear her speak.
But perhaps her niqab affects her own education. Maybe the real issue is that the teacher can't see her mouth and know if she is forming the words correctly. Yet students often do things that may (or may not) compromise their capacity to learn, such as skipping classes or failing to study.
Instructors may advise them not to do it, but they don't usually bar the students from the classroom. After all, this woman is an adult; she can make her own choices about her education — and suffer the consequences if she makes bad ones.
So, there aren't solid pedagogical reasons to bar a niqab wearer.
Premier Jean Charest offered a different claim: People who expect to receive public services must show their face. There are clear circumstances where such a practice is justified — those cases in which deceit, fraud, and even violence would be facilitated by the veil. No one going through airport security clearance should expect to wear a niqab.
But it doesn't seem likely that someone is going to commit fraud in order to take a French course. Of course, it may be necessary to confirm a student's identity for the purpose of writing a test, but sometimes the teacher will know her voice and can identify her that way, or she can show her face, in private, to a female staff member, who can confirm she is who she purports to be.
There is a wider issue that many niqab critics raise: the matter of "integration within Quebec" and reflecting the province's values. Indeed, in Quebec's statement of "The Common Values of Quebec Society" the province is explicitly defined as "a secular society," where "Men and women have the same rights." Christine St. Pierre, Quebec's minister for the status of women, called the niqab and burka "ambulatory prisons" that violate a woman's right to equality.
Perhaps, then, the Quebec government's concern is the meaning of the niqab as discerned by others in the class. Maybe the government fears that allowing Amed to wear the niqab will cause others to assume that Quebec society approves of this sort of treatment of women.
But such a conclusion seems unlikely. The niqab's public meaning is different here in Canada than it is in predominantly Muslim countries. In Canada, niqab wearers are rare, and alternative ways of life for women are clearly evident.
Permitting a woman to wear the niqab in a language class would simply give others the message that our society is open to differences, not that niqab-wearing is endorsed. If a student with a pierced eyebrow and tongue stud sits in class, no one assumes that the government is encouraging other people to get multiple piercings.
Another possibility is that the government is worried about the wellbeing of the woman herself. For this, it would be best to know what Amed herself has to say. I suspect the Quebec officials believe she has not chosen to wear the niqab.
But it's condescending to simply assume that she is suffering from false consciousness. Online first-person accounts suggest that wearing the niqab in western society feels empowering and creates privacy, as well as being a form of religious observance. The niqab surely is central to Amed's life and identity: she chose to drop the French language courses rather than give up the niqab.
Some argue that the real issue behind Quebec's condemnation of the niqab is a fear of its own past, which was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. The niqab appears to threaten the secular nature of Quebec society.
Indeed, that secularity is worth preserving, but doing so does not require the removal of all individual religious symbols. Surely the modern classroom can accommodate the Christian cross, the Jewish yarmulke, and the Sikh turban, among other personal adornments. Regardless of one's religious beliefs, these symbols deserve respect as cultural artifacts.
Thus, there does not seem to be adequate justification for ejecting Na´ma Amed from her language class. Indeed, the ejection is tyrannical. It's unconscionable that the weight of the Quebec government has come down on this woman.
Ironically, her experience has probably reinforced her desire to wear the niqab. It may create an "us versus them" feeling for her and her family, and send the message that Quebec society is powerfully biased against Muslim women.
In the end, Amed is not going to integrate into Quebec society at all if she can't learn its official language — if, indeed, she cannot even sit in a classroom without being forced to leave.
Christine Overall's essay about banning women who wear the niqab can be found at the address below.
Christine Overall, FRSC, is Professor and Queen's Research Chair in the Departments of Philosophy and Women's Studies at Queen's University, Kingston.
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