Secularism vs. Religion and dealing with the niquab

Posted on March 28, 2010 by

In the article Quebec Will Require Bare Face for Service, it is revealed that as a result of a recent Quebec decision, muslim women to Muslim women will need to uncover their faces if they want to deal with the Quebec government. It states “people’s face-coverings will not be tolerated if they hinder communication or visual identification“. This is a controversial and very polarizing issue, but one that needs intelligent debate, not superfluous dogma and rhetoric, a debate that needs to be aired in public if we are to move on as a diverse, multi-cultural society instead of a closed-minded, stagnant one.

Society is is a collective “something” we have a duty to work within for the betterment of all. We must attempt to have balance, and sometimes that means upsetting the apple cart, even when someone tries to play the “religion” card to avoid playing by society’s rules. If we want the benefits of society, we must abide by society’s rules. It is only fair to those who are paying for the administration these services (we the taxpayers) that we have a right to ensure the government protects these services from being misused by those who may be ineligible.

Canada is an immigrant nation and a secular nation. Just because the immigrants of the past were mostly of the “Christian” faith, that does not guarantee it will remain that way in the future. As a matter of fact, current immigration trends show predominantly Asian and Middle Eastern religions for new immigrants. But that shouldn’t be a concern because freedom of religion (or ‘from’ religion as the case may be) is the right of every citizen, and the rights of any one religion or group are not permitted to override the rights of society (represented by a secular government). It was a great, forward-thinking piece of legislation that guaranteed these freedoms. Any Canadian is free to practice the religion of their choice, and any other Canadian is entitled to agree or disagree, so long as they follow the rules of society. In this way, the rights of the many do not simply override the rights of the few. This quote fits: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”. I can choose, but cannot be forced to be a Protestant or a Jew or a Catholic or a Muslim or an Atheist. I am also protected from being required to abide by any particular religion’s rules, edicts, dogma, or anything else. Like all other parts of society, religious groups have a right to express their opinions on issues, but do not make the final decisions. We are all accountable to the rules of society above all, and in my opinion, this is a good thing.

Some would argue “but only muslim women cover their face” and “it is discriminating against muslim women for them to be forced to wear a niquab”. I have also been told (but can’t confirm) that the wearing of the niquab isn’t even written in the Qur’an, it is the result of some form of edict by one of the branches of Islam. That’s irrelevant. All religions are permitted to practice their traditions and beliefs, all all religions have traditions and beliefs that may seem quirky or dated to outsiders. Some Jews wear a kippah, fundamentalist Jews can’t work on the sabbath, some Amish can’t use modern technology, some Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t allow blood transfusions, some Protestant women can’t cut their hair or wear pants, Catholic priests can’t be women nor can they marry, devout Catholics eat wafers and drink wine and believe it transforms into the flesh and blood of Jesus, Sikh men wear turbans and carry ceremonial knives… I could go on forever. Whatever the religion, any Canadian has the right to join it or leave it and decide if they want to follow the traditions. Forcing outside opinions on them isn’t permitted, so long as they are abiding by society’s rules.

Getting back to the identity issue, when we remove religion from the equation, the decision is very easy to make. Without proper identification, anyone with a stolen or forged identification could receive the services by hiding their face. I should be required to remove a ski mask if I am wearing one while attempting to procure the services of a government institution. Why let religion complicate it? This issue should not be a religious one at all, but an issue of personal identification. However, that doesn’t mean society can’t also be flexible.

In this particular case, for the sake of a very few requests and in the spirit of accommodation, ensuring a female employee at the government agency views the unveiling rather than a man, regardless of how trivial it may sound to most of society, is a small accommodation that could easily be met, so long as the woman wearing the niquab was also willing to accommodate and wait until a female employee was available to help her. If none were available, she would have to decide if she truly wanted/needed those particular government services, and if she did, as long as all reasonable attempts to locate a female employee to identify her were taken, she would be required to identify herself to a man if she wanted/needed the services. Society trumps religion, but in a fair manner.

In the case of my ski mask example, I should be required to show my face for proper identification. I could then put the ski mask back on if I wanted. Same scenario as the niquab example, I simply removed any religious undertones.