What Hampstead can learn from Syria and Tunisia

By Dan Delmar on July 22, 2010

In their fight to prevent the Quebec government from passing Bill 94, niqab and burqa-wearing Muslim women have found support in the most unusual of places: The most heavily Jewish town, statistically, in the entire province. 

The face veil – the dehumanization of women – is where most reasonable people would draw the line. And evidently leaders in jurisdictions like France, Belgium, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt agree, having adopted various sorts of niqab restrictions. Why does Hampstead purport to know what is better for Muslim women than a growing number of Muslim nations?

The Quebec government suspended public hearings on the proposed law before the summer, prompting speculation that it will be scrapped. This despite public opinion being largely in favour of a niqab law; according to polling firm Angus Reid, 95 per cent of Quebecers and 80 per cent of Canadians are in favour. 

That hasn’t prevented Hampstead city councillors from recently passing an odd resolution – unanimously, no less – calling for the scrapping of the proposed law which would make face-coverings like the niqab prohibited in public institutions. 

“It is a serious infringement of those women’s religious freedom,” reads the motion. Bill 94 “violates the sexual equality provisions of the Canadian and Quebec charters as only women wear niqabs and therefore only women are being restricted in what they can wear.”

Why would a council that represents the largest proportion of Jews in any Quebec town go out of their way to weigh in on an issue that affects a fraction of Muslim women in this province and (presumably) no one at all in Hampstead? Is it a heart-warming gesture of cultural rapprochement? 

That is perhaps how Mayor William Steinberg, who put forth the motion, hoped it would be perceived; as an attempt to build bridges between communities often at odds. Instead, Steinberg and the entire council showed a lack of understanding of the Niqab issue.

Muslims in Quebec and around the world have largely rejected the niqab or burqa. It is in no way a religious requirement of Islam. Pointing to the Charter’s religious freedom provisions, as Hampstead has, is a stretch. Remember that the Charest government has come to the conclusion that their law would likely survive any possible court challenge. 

The origins of the niqab and burqa lie in the more extreme (and among Muslims, disputed) forms of Wahhabi Islam that took root in Saudi Arabia. Its use was not a founding principle of Islam. As leaders at the Muslim Canadian Congress have pointed out, there is no mention in the Qur’an of a need for a face-covering of any sort (the Qur’an, naturally, speaks of modest dress, but many argue this is in reference to the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, and not all Muslim women). Even inherently misogynistic Sharia law contains no reference to the niqab. 

Just because a small faction of Islamists say the niqab is a religious requirement, does not make it so. Nor does it make it acceptable, in the name of religion or anything else, to drape women – and only women – in a dark sheet, covering their faces and entire bodies, even in the scorching summer sun.

It is peculiar that the councillors cited “sexual equality” in their motion. Although it is worth noting that there are many examples of gender inequality across the monotheistic faiths, this manifestation of Islam, however, is the only one that advocates the covering of the face. It robs women of their identity and freedom, whether they are conscious of it or not. 

A question for Hampstead councillors: How is the law banning niqabs in public institutions a sexist law, but the niqabs themselves not inherently sexist?

Although advocating government intervention in the homes or private places of worship of niqab-wearing women would be taking the State’s reach too far, in the public sphere, it is a different matter. I do not believe any Canadian should have the right to wear a mask in public, whether it is at a hockey riot, at the licence bureau, at a hospital or in bank. It poses inherent security risks and renders the most basic of human interactions and transactions problematic. 

The most troubling part of the Hampstead motion actually has a lot more to do with Judaism than Islam. 

“Discrimination against any minority inevitably leads to discrimination against other minorities,” the motion reads, “and to an intolerant and racist society.” 

Setting aside the façade of cultural rapprochement, this seems to be the crux of the Hampstead councillors’ twisted logic: First they will come for the niqab, and then they will come for the yarmulke, the beards, the wigs... 

The councillors had the chutzpah to ask the Quebec government to “carefully reflect upon the poem written by pastor Martin Niemoller after he was released from a German concentration camp following World War II:” 

“They came for the Communists, and I didn’t object — For I wasn’t a Communist,” the poem reads. “They came for the Socialists, and I didn’t object — For I wasn’t a Socialist. They came for the labour leaders, and I didn’t object — For I wasn’t a labour leader. They came for the Jews, and I didn’t object — For I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me — And there was no one left to object.”

With their oddly-worded motion, Hampstead councillors have now joined the pantheon of politicians who use absurd Holocaust analogies, much like American Tea Baggers, who compare President Barack Obama to Hitler and his healthcare plan to Nazi genocide. 

It is unfortunate to witness local leaders use this type of cheap scare tactic to curry favour with their constituents.  There was only one Hitler; only one Holocaust. Hampstead councillors should know that better than most Quebec politicians and they ought to think twice before getting carried away with alarmist analogies.  

An attempt by the Quebec government to force a handful of misguided religious fanatics to show their faces in public institutions is not a slippery slope toward religious intolerance; it is simply reaffirming Western values and adapting to a multicultural tapestry in flux. It is legislating common sense, putting into law what a free society must protect – transparency, openness and equality of the sexes.


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