National Post Not 'worn,' but 'borne'

National Post - Friday March 26th, 2010

means, "Hats off to you, Quebec."

With the announcement of Bill 94, barring the niqab in publicly funded spaces, Quebec has dared to tread where the other provinces, feet bolted to the floor in politically correct anguish, cannot bring themselves to go.

The new bill will proscribe face cover by anyone employed by the state, or anyone receiving services from the state. That covers all government departments and Crown corporations, and as well hospitals, schools, universities and daycares receiving provincial funding.

I can't remember a time when Quebecers were more unified on a government initiative. Apart from the odd imam crying "Islamophobia!" and a clutch of disgruntled fundamentalist Muslim husbands, all of us -- separatists, federalists, left-wingers, right-wingers, Christians, atheists, democratic Muslims, francophones, anglophones, allophones--are happy a line in the sand has been drawn on reasonable accommodation.

This bill has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with integration and equality. As Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James said when the case of a Muslim French-language student recently brought the issue to a political tipping point, "If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face."

It doesn't matter if there are only 20 women in Quebec wearing the niqab. Even one is too many. When there are few, and the law easily implemented, is precisely the time to grasp the nettle, and send a clear message to those considering it: In our country, the covered female face is incompatible with gender equality, incompatible with our society's civic ideal of social reciprocity and incompatible with our communal sense of decency.

We will hear criticism of Bill 94 from the usual bleeding hearts, who will bleat that we must respect the "customs" of other cultures. They will say women must be free to "wear" what they want.

They don't get it. Some of these women may, as in France, have adopted the niqab for ideological purposes (a serious problem in itself ), but most niqab-wearing women are virtual prisoners, who have never known, and would be afraid (with reason) to exercise their "freedom of choice."

For those confused liberals who instinctively hate the niqab but feel guilty about banning it, it will help them if they understand that the burka and niqab are not "worn," but "borne." The niqab is not an article of clothing; it is a tent-like piece of cloth supplemental to clothing. Full cover is worn as a reminder to the "bearer" that she is not free, and to remind the observer that the bearer is a possession, something less than a full human being.

The question of full coverage is therefore not one of tolerance, or rights, or choice, or freedom of expression. It is a question of social and civic propriety. No citizens can be said to be free if they cannot exchange a smile with their fellow citizens. And no citizens can be psychologically comfortable sharing public space with other citizens who refuse to be seen.


It is no use pretending fully covered women do no harm to the social fabric. They arouse internal disturbance in others: a mixture of self-consciousness, pity, guilt, fear (of the men who own them) and resentment, the last because in any encounter with them we feel shunned, and cannot "read" their expression, which is a necessity for both social and security reasons.

France is set to ban the niqab and burka completely, a tempting but perhaps a somewhat draconian solution. Quebec's linkage of a ban to all activities involving taxpayers' money strikes the right balance between freedoms accorded to the individual in his or her private life and respect for community standards in the public spaces we collectively support.

Democratic Muslims will thank Quebec for the ban, which other provinces should emulate, and as for undemocratic Muslims -- well, if democracy wasn't what they wanted, why are they here in the first place?