Apartheid of the niqab

Barbara Kay, National Post · Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010

In April, Belgium became the first Western country to ban face cover in public. France, which has for years banned all religious veiling in its schools, followed suit. Last spring, police in Italy used a 1975 law prohibiting public face cover to fine a niqab-clad woman. A conservative backbencher has called for a ban in Britain. A face cover ban in Spain came very close to passage this year.

It would seem that a weightless piece of cloth is turning out to be to mighty multiculturalism what Kryptonite was to Superman. Not just in Europe. Quebec's Bill 94 seeks to ban face cover in government-funded institutions, including courts. An interesting legal story in Ontario, pivoting around the pernicious imported custom of veiling may, let us hope, spread the trend to the rest of Canada.

The Ontario Court of Appeal has declined to decide the issue of whether or not a veiled woman may testify in court. In 2008, when ordered by a Superior Court judge to remove her niqab in order to testify against two kinsmen accused of sexually abusing her when she was a child, a 32-year-old woman known as N.S. balked. The trial has been on hold for the past two years because the appeal court found that the lower court judge had not conducted a proper inquiry into the woman's religious beliefs. The appellate court has decreed that cases must be settled on an individual basis, with all court players employing "constructive compromises" in order to "reconcile competing interests."

Competing interests? That would suggest similarly compelling arguments. There are no competing interests. In our culture, we do not veil our faces. We do not hide our identities. We treat women as equal citizens. We do not place the burden of family honour on women. We do not believe that male sexual desire can only be controlled if women transform themselves into non-persons. That is our interest.

What is the other "interest"? A custom brought to our country from cultures shockingly backward in their treatment of women. In many, if not most cases women are not veiled by choice. Where it is not their choice, complaining to authorities is not an option. The same men who believe it is permissible to force a woman to cover her face often believe it is permissible to punish a woman for seeking protection outside her kinship circle.

Our responsibility to make sure no woman is subjugated to the will of others trumps religious tolerance for a custom that disgusts -or should disgust -- any man or woman raised in a democracy.

Religious freedom is not absolute and may not be adduced in every single situation. There is a reason Europe has finally woken up to the dangers of allowing women to walk around veiled. There are neighbourhoods in Europe where unveiled women are first singled out for notice, then insulted, then threatened. Some have been raped. In the French suburb of La Courneuve, 77% of veiled women report that they wear cover in order to escape the censure of Islamic morality patrols.

As Istanbul-based journalist Claire Berlinski noted in a hard-hitting denunciation of the niqab in an August National Review article, "Unless [veiling] is stopped, the natural tendency of this practice is to spread, for all veiling is a political symbol as well as a religious one, and that symbol is of a dynamic, totalitarian ideology that ...will not be content until every woman on the planet is humbled, submissive, silent and enslaved."

Veiling is gender apartheid, tout court, and entering the word "religion" or "belief" into the discussion does not soften the harshness of the practice. The same cultures that approve of veiling often either approve of or wink at female genital mutilation and polygamy. Is there a competing interest in these practices too? No free citizen should find an "interest" in any of these practices that can actually compete with our cultural value of treating women with equality, respect and dignity. Some cultural customs are morally superior to others. The strength of our social and civic fabric depends on our recognizing and acting on this truth. Ban face cover in court. Ban it in all tax-funded institutions.