Across Europe, discussions are taking place about what local Muslim women wear – specifically the niqab (face veil), burqa (a garment that covers the body, head and face) and the hijab (headscarf). More recently the debate has been taken up in the Canadian province of Quebec. And, as in Europe, the discussion tends to disregard the diversity within Muslim societies, as well as the strides Muslims have taken to integrate and participate actively in their local communities.
Proposed legislation in Quebec may force some Muslim women to choose between the niqab and access to public services. This proposal, commonly known as Bill 94, reflects a narrow-minded view of integration of religious minorities driven by stereotypes.
Quebec became the destination of choice for Muslim newcomers to Canada after immigration rules were relaxed in the late 1960s. Bilingualism was a blessing for the French-speaking professionals and skilled workers in Africa and Asia who sought opportunities abroad. Thanks to Canada’s bilingualism policy, which designated both English and French as official languages, Europe was no longer the only place to look to as a new home; North America's doors had also opened.
Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East arrived to study or fill vacant positions in universities, hospitals and factories. Coming from former French colonies, they spoke fluent French and eased into the Quebec culture. Other Muslim immigrants who did not know the language learned it as a step towards integration. The 2001 census revealed that for more than 50 per cent of Quebec's Muslims French was the most frequently spoken language in their homes, a higher percentage than for many other faith communities in the province.
The 2001 census also found proportionately twice as many Muslim as all Canadians use both official languages – English and French – in the workplace, demonstrating from a language standpoint that whether recent immigrants or long-term citizens, Muslims in Quebec are willing to integrate into the local culture. Yet the niqab, worn by a tiny number of Muslim women, has been seized as the symbol of Muslims’ unwillingness to change and respect Quebec’s values.
By forcing them to choose between the niqab and public services, the Quebec government expects to achieve integration and gender equality. But will it?
If the niqab is a symbol of subordination to men, as Quebec Premier Jean Charest implied by invoking gender equality in defence of Bill 94, the decision to remove it would not be left to women regardless of access to public services as, most likely, their fathers or husbands would weigh the options and influence, if not make, the decision entirely.
Jeered at in the streets and frequently the subject of media stories, women who wear the niqab would only be subject to further restrictions on their freedoms if the legislation passes.
In dynamic societies, change is a natural process. Like in the rest of Canada, Quebec culture has evolved from the intermingling of people of different backgrounds and ideas. The same type of interaction taking place between Muslims and other Canadians, and between Muslims of diverse cultures, is producing change and driving a new Muslim Canadian identity – one that does not sacrifice religion or ethnicity.
Not to be left behind, Muslim women are in fact on the leading edge of this new phenomenon. A recent English translation of the Qur'an by Laleh Bakhtiar, a Muslim female scholar, challenges some of the traditional interpretations by male translators. Muslim women also forced a public debate on the interpretation of Muslim family law when a group of men tried to obtain legal status for arbitration decisions made by Muslim family tribunals in Ontario.
Sensing the mood for introspection, in 2004 a Toronto imam took the unprecedented step of inviting a female congregant to give the sermon on Eid ul-Fitr, one of the two main annual Muslim religious celebrations – and drew surprisingly little public criticism by area imams.
Culture is an evolving norm, especially in a pluralist society. It is the social mechanism by which individuals – comprised of both established members and newcomers – adjust to new situations. Liberal democratic states should facilitate this process, not dictate it by limiting freedoms.
* Daood Hamdani is the author of In the Footsteps of Canadian Muslim Women 1837-2007. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).