By Catherine Integlia
Edited by Simon Kidd
On October 31st, as I was on my way home, I witnessed a grown man pass the STM tolls wearing a full face mask. No one stopped him, no one bothered to tell him he should take it off, and no one even cared to identify him. Mind you, there’s no reason to feel intimidated; masks are worn simply in the spirit of Halloween. What is scary about this scenario is that, on any other day, a woman could be refused entrance to the metro for simply expressing her culture and religious beliefs. This is apparently due to safety concerns, but this example demonstrates that those concerns are merely a thin veneer to gloss over the real issue. In the light of Quebec’s Liberal Party passing Bill 62, Quebecers have been compelled to take part in a controversial discussion: How can we live in a secular society while steering clear from infringing on basic human rights such as religious freedom? Where do we drawn the line? More importantly, have we crossed it?
With municipal elections quickly approaching, tensions are rising. A voice recording of an electoral officer advising election officials on how to enact this law began circulating on social media this past week, and revealed the hostile nature of this new law. The electoral officer is heard advising the election officials that women wearing a niqab or a burqa will be denied their right to vote. He states that “if [they] don’t [deny them], [then they] are not doing their job.” As a feminist, I am utterly appalled by the widespread support of this bill. Women have fought tirelessly to obtain a political voice and the right to vote in Québec. A century has passed since women have obtained these rights, and the introduction of this law is a step backwards for the rights of women from certain cultural backgrounds. Muslim women are no different than Christian women or secular women: they are all Canadian citizens and they all reside in Québec. Women must be allowed to express their religious freedoms, which are guaranteed through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The question becomes: why are women being denied their right to vote based on their expression of religious devotion? The prime minister of Canada agrees, stating that “it is not the role of the government to tell women what they can or can’t wear.” Some see the Burqa or the Niqab as oppressive or a product of the patriarchy. If a woman chooses to express herself in this manner, then it is not a symbol of oppression.
In response to widespread criticism about Bill 62, the Liberal government has responded that bill was not exclusive to the Niqab and the Burqa, but also restricted face coverings such as ski masks or sunglasses. They also state that it will only be for identification purposes, which contradicts their original statement that “any face covering would have to [be] remove[d] for the entire duration of a bus ride, or any other interaction with a publicly-paid service.” Taking off a ski mask or sunglasses when receiving public services is not as significant of taking off a religious garment. It is clear that this Bill is targeting a small minority; and that islamophobia and sexism are becoming normalized within our society.
Identification remains an issue that must be solved; however, women who wore the burqa or niqab had always removed their garments for security reasons without objection prior to the enactment of this law. We could easily diffuse this situation by being more sensitive towards women who wish to express their spiritual devotion. The example of the electoral officer advising election officials on the process of voting demonstrates that applying this law inevitably leads to bigotry, insensitivity, and abuse of positional authority. The Liberal government has stated that “anyone affected can apply for religious accommodations.” With the elections less than than three days away, it would be nearly impossible to provide these accommodations in time for the municipal elections. This unrealistic deadline prevents women affected by this bill from voting. Rather than providing a safe atmosphere, this bill lead to further demonization of the small percentage of women who wear these garments.
On Sunday, I will cast my first vote. This is a crucial moment for me because I know the history behind both the suffragette movement and the battle to acknowledge the rights of minorities. It breaks my heart that some women will not be given the right to vote. The power lies in our voices, which have not yet been silenced; we must use it to fight for true equality and freedom of expression.