A little over four weeks ago, on October 18, Quebec’s National Assembly passed a religious-neutrality law that prohibits people wearing face coverings from receiving public services or working in government jobs. The ban means that one cannot wear a veil on public transit, while attending class in a public school, or when receiving assistance from any government or government-funded body.
The stated purpose of Bill 62 is to “establish measures to foster adherence to State religious neutrality”—basically to ensure Quebec’s founding principle of separation between religion and government. Additionally, the liberal government of Quebec cited security concerns to justify the ban, with Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée stating that, “we're trying to ensure that we can identify people.” According to a recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, Quebec’s francophones seem to agree with Vallée, as 91 percent of native French speakers in the province support the law. Furthermore, 67 percent of Quebec’s anglophones join their French-speaking counterparts in supporting the bill.
The bill, however, has been met with much criticism. Though not mentioning the burqa or niqab explicitly, Bill 62 affects Muslim women who choose to cover their faces as an observance of their faith. Some claim this to be a direct attack against Québécois Muslims. President of the Muslim Council of Montreal Salam Elmenyawi said that the law perpetuates the stereotype that the Muslim community within Canada “is dysfunctional and needs to be corrected.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a challenge to the ban, mentioning that the government should not dictate what a woman can or cannot wear (though he softened his statement by emphasizing that the federal government would not challenge this bill). Others are more vehemently opposed to the law: in a statement with Al Jazeera, Montreal human rights lawyer Julius Grey said that it violates freedom of religion, equality rights, and unimpeded access to healthcare.
Responding to the outcry, the law has since been relaxed to say that a person must unveil only to provide identification at the beginning of a service—for example, when boarding a bus—but can then cover up for the extension of that service. It has been further stipulated by Vallée that “we do not have the intention of setting up an uncovered-face police.” The question of whether or not a veiled woman who refuses to unveil will be kicked off of public transportation or denied medical treatment remains subject to debate.
Canada is not the only country grappling with the veil ban conundrum; there are similar laws around the world which, in various capacities, ban face veils. To determine the future of the veil ban in Quebec we must understand how other countries legally justify their respective “burqa bans” and whether they actually accomplish their stated goals.
Perhaps the most infamous example, France became the first European country to ban the public wearing of face veils in 2011. The legal justification of the ban went beyond concerns of public unrest and religious tension and tied the legislation to two French principles. The first is that of laïcité, a strict adherence to secularism which has been observed in France since 1905 but has its roots in the French Revolution. The second principle is that of women’s rights. As for whether the ban accomplishes its stated aims, some argue that the law has increased religious tension in France, as many Muslim women feel targeted by the ban. One unnamed woman who brought the case against France to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2014 argued that the ban is “inhumane and degrading” and against “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” But the ECHR, after much scrutiny, chose to uphold the ban, siding with Paris’s claim that the ban promotes the French ideal of “living together.”
France’s neighbor, Belgium, also had its burqa ban challenged in the European Court of Human Rights after an onslaught of criticism. Belgium had passed the law in 2011, with the principal justification that, according to Belgian Parliamentarian Daniel Bacquelaine, the need for mutual recognition in a free society. In July of this year the Court found that the ban was necessary for a “democratic society,” similar to its justification for upholding France’s burqa ban.
A few hundred kilometers southeast of Belgium, Austria has also implemented a burqa ban, though this one has not exactly worked as expected. Austria implemented its version of the ban in early 2017 and since then has faced issues of police over-enforcement of the law. Instances of this include officers stopping bikers wearing scarves and people dressed in costume. Though the Austrian ban’s direct effect on preventing security threats is questionable, no opponent has brought a case against it to the ECHR.
Hypothetically, if Canada were in the jurisdiction of the ECHR, Quebec’s legal justification of Bill 62 would hold up. However, the only entity with the authority to affect the law’s fate directly is Canada’s federal government. But, as exemplified by Trudeau’s aforementioned statement, it appears the federal government is unwilling to interfere in the issue for the foreseeable future. Further, because these bans in Europe have not been struck down by their respective governments, a precedent has been set in the Western world that these bans are acceptable and justified, meaning Bill 62 most likely has a future in Quebec.
Regardless of whether or not the bill remains in place, its very conception may be a model for other Western countries seeking to adopt their own versions of the burqa ban. Now that Quebec, a province modeled off of French ideals, has joined some of Western Europe in implementing a burqa ban, there is a large body of reference that other countries can draw from in drafting their own bills. In fact, Denmark—often praised for its progressive social reforms—and Norway are currently considering their own interpretations of the veil ban. If these two countries choose to follow Quebec’s example and adopt the veil ban, we could see a trend towards the end of the full-face veil in the Western world.
Molly McCammon is a Staff Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.