Canada’s French-speaking province is generally known for its progressivism, yet Quebec’s parliament has just passed a law that will ban Muslim women from wearing facial veils.
It was a startling scene, by Quebec standards.
About 200 men and women were lined up along bus route 80 during a blustery Friday morning rush hour on Parc Avenue in downtown Montreal. The protesters were wearing surgical masks, scuba-diving masks and other face coverings.
They didn’t board any passing buses: it was a symbolic gesture to show how Muslim women wearing face coverings would now be banned from taking public transport. At least three bus drivers who passed also covered their faces in solidarity.
The so-called 'religious neutrality' bill, or Bill 62, was passed by the province's National Assembly in late October. It forces Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka to uncover their faces in order to access public services. Ministers said the law would apply to any niqab-wearing women attending or teaching at a university or public school, or using public transport, be it bus or train.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a writer and college professor based in Montreal, organised the protest two days after the ban was passed and made headlines across Canada. She chose to hold it along Parc Avenue, where some women who wear the niqab reside.
“We just came together to do it – two friends of mine. Our three kids go to day-care together. We were horrified that these women wouldn’t be able to access public services while they're veiled.”
Jezer-Morton doesn’t actually know any Muslim women personally who cover their faces. “I only see them when I’m on the bus. It’s clear this is a population that uses public transit. It’s such a basic human right to take away.”
But it’s also clear that a majority of Quebecers favour the niqab ban. A recent poll indicates that 76 percent of Quebecers back the law. In contrast, 40 percent of Canadians living outside Quebec believe women should be prohibited from visiting government offices while wearing a niqab.
Ban ‘necessary for security’
It’s not the first time the provincial government has struggled to reconcile its religiously homogenous and pious Catholic ethos with a robust, growing Muslim minority.
A previous provincial government led by the nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ) sparked a heated debate in 2013 when it proposed a charter of values banning any figure of authority from wearing “ostentatious religious symbols” such as a cross or hijab. A crucifix continues to hang in the National Assembly, however.
The proposal died when the PQ lost to the Liberal Party in the 2014 provincial election.
In a press conference on October 24, Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee, defended the ban, saying it was necessary for security and communication reasons. Her attempt to ease the rules on how the law is meant to be applied came three days after the Montreal bus protest – and mounting criticism in both left- and right-wing press across Canada. Her earlier comments were widely understood to mean that veiled Muslim women would be denied access to public transit, healthcare and other services if their faces are covered.
But these people can still cover their faces once they have taken their seat on the bus, or are browsing bookshelves in a library or sitting in the waiting room for their doctor’s appointment, she said. “It’s the interaction that’s important,” she told reporters.
Nonetheless, the law has since been challenged by civil liberties advocates in the Quebec Superior Court provincial court.
The legal challenge, filed on November 7, contests a section of the province's religious neutrality law under Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Such blatant and unjustified violations of freedom of religion, as well as of the quality guarantees of the Quebec and Canadian charters, have no place in Quebec or Canada," argued the plaintiffs, which include the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who converted to Islam and wears a niqab. "These violations cannot be justified in Quebec's free and democratic society."
Starting a dialogue
Even before the law was passed, Quebec saw a torrent of public emotion from residents who believe Quebec culture and society are being threatened by a radical interpretation of Islam. On August 20, hundreds of supporters of a far-right group called La Meute rallied in front of the National Assembly. La Meute, which means ‘Wolf Pack’, has until recently existed mostly online through Facebook.
Niqab-wearing women in Quebec now say they are shocked and afraid to leave home for fear of being targeted.
“I had a lot of emotions when I heard about this first,” said Fatima Ahmad, a 21-year-old Montreal-born university student, who chose to cover her face one year ago. “I was in shock that this could pass in Canada, because it’s not something you would expect to happen in Montreal.”
“Canada is one of the greatest countries you can live in. You have freedom of everything – and it guarantees the right to wear niqab. I was confused as to how I would function as a person in society.”
She has not taken the bus since. “In the first week or so [after the law was passed] I didn’t go outside because people would target me even more. I’m less motivated now to go outside to use those services.”
“I also never used to have a phone,” she adds. “But I got one soon after because I was very fearful. Safety became a big factor.”
Ahmad said she understands why so many Quebecers are hostile to the niqab – but wishes they would start a dialogue instead of harassing her.
“It’s rare for Muslim women [in Canada] to cover their face so most people don’t have any clue about the niqab and they see it as extreme. Their first impression is to ban it because they're not comfortable with it. If they had a dialogue they would feel less uncomfortable,” she adds.
Since the ban was legally challenged in court, Ahmad has initiated that dialogue through Facebook where she invites people to ask questions and clarify misconceptions about the face veil. She has a following of over 4,000 people.
And while harassment and discrimination are a part of everyday life, Ahmad clearly has a thick skin. “Most people just curse at me. A lot of people say 'this is Canada,' or 'go back to your country.' Someone else tried to pull my niqab once. But most people are fine with it.”
The 21 year old is in her second year of an undergraduate degree in early childhood education at the prestigious McGill University. She recalls her parents being unhappy and worried when she told them she would start covering her face – her mother doesn’t wear the niqab. She went ahead and did so nonetheless.
“Just because someone wears something [different] it’s not something you should fear,” she said. “People should understand that we're not here to impose ourselves, just to practise our faith. How we each connect with God is different.”
In a statement released shortly after the ban, Suzanne Fortier, the principal of McGill University, said that "inclusion is a fundamental value of the McGill community," and promises that nothing will change as a result of Bill 62.
“All members of the community – faculty, staff and students – should continue to carry out their functions and activities in the same manner as they did before the new law," the statement said. “The university has the obligation to accommodate religious differences, and it will continue to do so."
Dozens of other women across Canada who wear the niqab seem to share Ahmad’s background and rationale for wearing it. A study two years ago of 81 niqab-wearing women in the country revealed that the majority of women are young (in their 20s or 30s), born outside of Canada (but began wearing the niqab after they arrived) and university- or college-educated. All the women believed they should show their faces for identification purposes when required and said they would not refuse if asked to do so.
“I was quite surprised to see their patriotism of Canada,” said Lynda Clarke, professor of religions and culture at Concordia University in Montreal, who authored the study.
“It’s pretty clear they're individualistic and don’t follow any male authority. They don’t quote law or scripture; they talk about personal reasons for doing this, like comfort, pleasing God and freedom. They are highly personal ideas. There doesn’t seem to be a movement and there's no male direction [behind their decision].”
Ban is ‘condescending’
Kathryn Jezer-Morton, for her part, said she would not hesitate to publicly protest again should the legal challenge in court fail to fall through.
“The policy is condescending because it’s based on the presumption that you can dictate to a woman how she dresses. It’s preposterous. I was born here and I consider Quebec to be this really progressive place.”
This makes the ban all the more odd, she adds. As an American citizen, Jezer-Morton said, living in Quebec after residing in the United States helped her to appreciate Quebec’s progressive ways.
“I had paid maternity leave here and my day care was subsidised. There are all these protections for women that make life wonderful here compared to women in the US,” she said, referring to Canada’s maternity leave and childcare subsidies, which are considerably more generous than those in the US.
“But then there’s this really egregious exception – which is that we're persecuting this small group of women who are covering their faces. That to me is morally repugnant. There is the stark contrast between the way I’m treated and the way these women are treated. It’s a stark double standard.”
“I understand emotionally where this [opposition to the niqab] comes from,” she adds. “It has to do with being a minority in Canada. People are worried about the changing nature of Quebec. You could call it racism if you want to but it’s also reflective of a minority group who's afraid of disappearing. But their concerns should be addressed in a way that doesn’t oppress this population.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since denounced Bill 62, saying governments should not tell women what to wear. But federal officials say Ottawa has yet to decide whether to intervene in the legal challenge.