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March 31, 2010

Niqab or no Niqab

Mohamed S. Kamel

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After weeks of struggling over the niqab issue, the Quebec government introduced Bill 94, which, if it passes, will create a one-of-a-kind law.

It will force everyone to uncover his or her face when seeking any service from governmental agencies, and to deny a work opportunity to any face-covered individual.

I hesitated for a long time before addressing this issue.

After the bill was introduced—and after being pursued by many individuals, associations and media outlets—I found that I could not run from it any more, especially after the widespread, nonsensical feedback from various parties.

Why did I hesitate?

Because we Muslims are not ready yet to face ourselves, and practise what we preach. It is very easy to stand up for individual rights, and we should do so on every occasion, but it is not easy to stand up for the community and society’s rights to build the future we are looking for.

Does anyone know a niqabi who applied for a position in the government?

Does anyone argue that a person could not be served while the face is covered?

This brings us to two issues: why this bill was introduced and what will be the consequences if it passes into law?

The Quebec government, like any government, is looking to its long-term survival, internally and within the public.

Internally some of the party’s members are double-talkers and even hatemongers.

Within the public, the government does not want to give rival parties a chance to use this opportunity to strengthen their positions.

But why now?

It has been two years since Bouchard-Taylor Commission—The Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—presented its report and recommendations to the government, the same government that established the commission during election period.

Since then, there has been no provocative issue that could divide Quebec society into Muslims and non-Muslims.

To the contrary, Muslims have started to feel more welcome, and the general public has become more accepting of the reality that Muslims are part of Quebec society.

This development has made Islamophobes and hatemongers unhappy, but the niqab issue has been like a wish come true, thanks to the ignorance of Muslims and non-Muslim in Quebec.

When a niqabi woman was expelled from a school, wise people advised her not to go to the human rights commission, because by doing so she would open the reasonable accommodation can of worms at a time when the issue is calm.

Some foreigners did not understand that. They supported her case to the commission, and ran to the media to defend her. Yes, they are foreigners because they don’t understand Quebec society’s dynamics or even have a basic understanding of their community.

Such Muslims and non-Muslims have tried to link the niqab issue to the hijab issue.

Some of them say all religious symbols must go, while others call the niqab issue a war against religious rights.

In reality, both are wrong.

The niqab issue should not be treated as a question of religious rights because it has been addressed from the communication and personal identification side.

The hijab issue cannot be addressed at the same level, and therefore has nothing to do with these concerns.

If some are trying to use this occasion to impose their religion as a form of closed-minded secularism (laïcité fermée), we say “no” to them.

Our society has accepted open secularism (laïcité ouverte), which promotes mutual acceptance and the “living together” concept. Open secularism defines the separation of church and state very clearly. It does not recognize a state religion, but defends an individual’s right to practise and live by private religious believes.

When are we going to be really part of Quebec society and its future? This will not be accomplished by talk, but by action. This will not happen unless we consider ourselves as one society, not divided into Muslims and non-Muslims.

The niqab issue is the hot potato in today’s Quebec, and this issue will make or break our living together concept.

Are we ready to understand or we will still run with our baseball bat, swinging at hatemongers and Islamophobes without understanding the affect on the society as a whole?

Yes, there is no place for the niqab in the work place, and yes, the niqab could be a threat to security.

But, do we need a law for this? I don’t think so.

If the society finds that it is essential, the law should be more specific to limit the possibility of discrimination that we are starting to notice. This can of worms has been opened.

Is there a wise person ready to help close it, or is it too late?

Mohamed S. Kamel: is an engineer and a recognized project manager professional (PMP), a freelance writer, the editor of I.N. Daily, co-founder of the Canadian Egyptians for Democracy (CEFD), Alternative Perspective Media (APM-RAM) and the former president and co-founder of the Canadian Muslim Forum (FMC-CMF). He lives in Montreal. He can be reached at

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