If you’ve been following Canadian news at all, you might have heard about a new bill that passed in Quebec. Bill 62 which essentially mandates that you cannot access public services, including bus transportation, if your face is covered.
This is just the latest in a history of bills aimed at specifically targeting Muslim women, including the horrible Values Charter and many other suggestions. They parrot similar laws passed in France, also aimed at the increasing number of refugees from Islamic countries.
The bill is racist, plain and simple. It is legislative legitimization of said racism, giving bigots a convenient cover for discriminating against brown people. Yes, Islam is a religion, but the social perception of “Muslim” is of someone with darker skin. Additionally, there is a tendency to presume that all brown people are Muslim. Many Sikh people and Indian people of various faiths have faced discrimination in Canada and the US, with a strong implication that the bigot in question assumes them to be Islamic.
The law is meant to restrict the access of people ascribing to what could be called more traditional Islam, specifically women who wear the burka, niqab, or any other religious garb that covers part of the face. It’s usually framed as an issue of security, arguing that “anyone could be under there” or alternately something about restriction public displays of religion – ignoring of course the prevalence of people who wear crosses or other Christian symbols.
Regardless the framing, the fact that it is Muslims who are specifically being targeted is publicly understood to the point of being mentioned in most media articles regarding the Bill.
Whenever a bill like this comes up, the same conversations come up. A frequent defence of this type of racist law is the appeal to feminism and victim protection. The idea goes as follows: that the majority or – or some number – of women who wear the above mentioned garb are frequently forced into it by abusive men and family members.
The argument, from a social perspective, is a complicated one.
On the one hand, it is ridiculous and insulting to assume that all women who wear these outward displays of their faith do so out of fear and enforced obligation. It undermines the ability of women to make their own choices. It is based on stereotypes of Islam that equate fundamentalism and extremism with standard practice. It is based on racist ideas about the nature of men of colour. It ignores cultural context and the fact that some of these women may be choosing to continue wearing these garbs despite freedom not to, because the cultural upbringing makes it a matter of comfort.
On the other hand, it is not uncommon for liberals to ignore and dare I say, whitewash, the reality that while it would be stereotypical and prejudiced to claim that all women who wear different forms of veils all do so under duress – different pressures do exist on Muslim women, encouraging them to wear the veil regardless of their own feelings. These can be social pressures from the community you belong to, much how Christian communities can pressure their own children to conform to a certain set of standards and rules. The threat of gossip, tarnished reputation, a drop in social hierarchy, all of these can apply felt but not visible pressure on someone to act a certain way despite their own feelings.
Additionally, it is not unheard of for some of these women to face violence, either physical or emotional, from friends and family for failing to follow the expectations outlined for them. Frequently the threat comes from male relations, but can be reinforced or supported by female members as well. Again, this is not limited to the Muslim community but also happens in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and assorted other religious communities. In our rush to reasonably and correctly defend people from racism and Islamophobia, it is important that we not ignore existing realities either, and silence the people who most need to speak out.
Islamic modesty conventions are just as harmful and just as influenced by sexism as Christian modesty conventions. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Regardless of the truth, whether all veils are oppressive and a symbol of victimization or not, the laws restricting their appearance in public are NOT going to help the women who wear them. In fact, the laws are going to put these women in more danger.
A woman who is being forced to wear certain clothes by an abuser, is not going to suddenly be able to appear in public without them just because the law says they can’t. Instead, these women are going to be forced into deeper isolation, prevented from being able to use public transportation to get around, get work, see the doctor, get a health card, or apply for social services. Social isolation is actually one of the goals of abusers. If their victim isn’t in contact with anyone, they won’t have anyone telling them that they deserve better or that what they are experiencing is wrong. They won’t have the networks and connections necessary to help them escape should they wish to do so.
Limiting a person’s ability to work also forces them to rely on others for financial matters. It means they are more vulnerable to financial abuse, since their ability to make their own money is restricted.
If a woman in a Niqab cannot take a bus, how is she supposed to get to a battered women’s shelter? If she cannot get a health card, how is she supposed to go to the hospital to get treatment for injuries she was subjected to? How is she supposed to report what is happening to the police? How is she supposed to apply for food stamps, or disability, or welfare?
The fact that this law actively supports abusers and even participates in said abuse, just shows how terrible it really is. If the goal is as claimed, to help limit the oppression of women from certain religious traditions, then they are going about it in the exactly wrong way.
Preventing social isolation and encouraging more community participation is a much better way of circumventing abuse and helping victims get access to services needed to be able to leave their abusive situations.
In truth this law is about one thing, making women of colour less visible so that the government and white people can pretend that they don’t exist, and to discourage others from coming there. It’s discriminatory and actively harms women. It is a racial justice issue, a feminist issue, a domestic violence issue, an immigration issue, and a clear charter violation. With luck it will be struck down swiftly and with extreme prejudice.