Everything you clearly don’t know about the Islamic veil controversy

The Gazette today began its five-day series Identities about reasonable accomodation, and their timing couldn’t have been better. The Bouchard-Taylor commission is beginning its public consultation tour of the province (Montreal is the last stop on their trip at the end of November), and a pair of conflicting rulings have been issued concerning the rights of Muslim women to wear veils in upcoming provincial and federal by-elections.

The first article, Generation Accomodation (“Gen A”? Please. Can we stop making up terms based on some 50-year-old white guy’s bastardization of popular slang? It doesn’t make you sound cool. And let’s especially stop it with “Generation X” spinoffs before we run out of letters.)… anyway, that article gives the first results of a survey of 1,001 Quebecers commissioned by The Gazette and Leger Marketing. It shows (PDF), unsurprisingly, that views toward minorities and accomodation are directly related to age, with older get-off-my-lawn types being less tolerant. It holds for almost every question, except those separation-of-church-and-state issues like hanging crosses in schools or allowing people to get time off work to pray.

This is paired nicely with an article by Jason Magder about how university students feel about the issue. In a nutshell: This is a non-issue and old people need to get over themselves.

One says yes, one says no

This week, Elections Canada ruled that veiled women may vote without removing the veil, provided they give two pieces of ID (one with their name, one with name and address) or have someone vouch for them. Meanwhile, Quebec’s chief electoral officer is vowing to use special powers again to enforce the opposite, requiring them to display their faces before voting.

The Elections Canada decision has naturally provoked a lot of outrage. In Outremont, five women voted in burqas in protest to prove a point. I don’t know what the point is, exactly, but there. Meanwhile, the Elections Quebec decision has had at least one person screaming RACISM!

It’s all about election law

Why the difference in rulings? It’s partly about the differences between federal and provincial election laws. Elections Canada changed their rules this summer to conform with Bill C-31, which “requires” for the first time that voters provide photo ID. Previously, the law did not require electors to present photo ID to vote or even register. In fact, for voters who received a voter information card in the mail, the law didn’t require identification documents of any kind.

But the new law doesn’t actually require photo ID. That’s simply presented as one of three options. Voters can instead choose to present two pieces of non-photo ID (one with their address), or having another identified elector vouch for them.

The reason the law is so liberal is to make sure everyone can vote. Though the vast majority of electors have photo ID and permanent addresses, some don’t. They could be homeless, or live in a situation where they don’t drive, don’t use medical services and haven’t had need of a passport, or they could be living off the radar for all sorts of bizarre reasons. Still, in the tug-of-war between voter fraud and voter disenfranchisement, Elections Canada preferred to risk increased voter fraud if it means getting more citizens to vote.

So the decision to allow veiled women to vote by taking advantage of the other two options is entirely consistent with Canadian election law. In fact, it’s entirely consistent with Canadian election law as passed by the House of Commons with specific changes to rules on voter identification. In other words, Stephen Harper’s claim that it’s Elections Canada who is “overstepping its bounds” and “making its own laws” is complete hogwash. Don’t blame Elections Canada, blame the government. (As the CEO says, it’s up to Parliament to change the law, not him.)
The regulations at Elections Quebec are somewhat more strict. There, you can’t register to vote on election day, and they require photo ID. But there too, you can vote if you swear an oath and either provide someone to vouch for you or produce two “documents” to establish your identity. Technically there’s little difference when it comes to identification, but the wording in spirit is more restrictive.

Still, it required special directives from the chief electoral officer to require women identify themselves, even though the law doesn’t require them to present photo ID.

The controversy elsewhere

The controversy is over the use of the niqab, a veil which covers the face. It is part of the wider concept of hijab, which promotes modesty among women (and to a lesser extent men).

The controversy has already come to a head in Europe, where it has inflamed religious tensions, ironically in an area you would think would be the most open-minded when it came to religion.

Among the most interesting debates on the subject involve Aishah Azmi, a British Muslim teacher who was fired because she wore the veil in class. As you might expect, she filed a complaint that she eventually lost. The argument used against her mainly had to do with the idea that, because the students could not see her face (and her lips moving as she spoke), their education was suffering. It’s a bit of a stretch, but still a valid complaint.

Meanwhile in Florida, Sultaana Freeman (an ironic name if I ever heard one) sued the state over the right to be photographed with her veil on for a driver’s license photo. She too lost her case.

Islam isn’t any different

Islam discriminates against women. That’s not surprising. All major organized religions discriminate against women. And the more conservative or fundamentalist the view, the more discrimination there is. Unfortunately, many areas where Islam is practiced are underdeveloped and rife with religious conflict. (And others, like Indonesia, are simply dismissed in arguments.) So just like anti-gay war-mongering conservatives took power in the U.S., anti-women war-mongering conservatives took (or seized) power in many Middle-Eastern Islamic countries and impose their backward religious beliefs on the populace. And just like Christian conservatives who oppose gay rights, Islamic conservatives cherry-pick quotes from centuries-old religious texts and present them as direct order from God.

(This is one of the reasons I’m not crazy about organized religion. People do things that are immoral because they take a religious text (or religious leaders) at their word without question. A power this strong to make people do evil things is just plain bad.)

Nobody asked for this

Ironically, though most arguments in favour of bans on Muslim veils suggest they are trying to help oppressed women free themselves from the shackles of religious pressure, in few cases do people actually talk to these women before making their decisions.

So that’s exactly what The Gazette’s Jim Mennie did, kinda. He spoke to Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal and asked him some questions about the controversy.

When you talk to Canadian Muslim leaders, you start to understand a few things that put this in perspective:

  1. There are only a handful of Quebec Muslims who wear a veil over their face constantly in public.
  2. None of them spearheaded any campaign to gain this right. In fact, this debate only serves to bring negative attention to them that they don’t want.
  3. Even strict interpretations of Islamic law allow veiled women to reveal themselves for identification purposes, though some may require that a woman perform the identification.

I’ve met some Muslim women who have varying levels of coverings. They aren’t stupid, or scared, or timid. And whether they’re coerced into covering themselves by their religion, their families or their cultural communities is a question only they can truly answer. But the same could be said of anyone who wears a crucifix around their neck.

It’s a question of rights

I’m not crazy about silly religious rules. Nor am I crazy about children being forced into a particular organized religion from birth. But banning niqabs doesn’t change the social pressures being put on women. Instead, it merely takes away from everyone the right to wear what they want. It’s a right that’s being threatened on the other side of the scale too.

In U.S. cities, officials are debating bans on baggy pants. Atlanta councillors are using words like “epidemic” and “major concern” for pants that show underwear. Dallas is considering a similar measure. I’m not a fan of these pants, in fact I think they look idiotic. But just like bans being considered against wearing face veils in public, it’s an attack on a right that’s being waged solely because someone in power doesn’t like the way someone else dresses.

Blogs have the last word

Reaction to this issue is mixed in the local blogosphere: Houssein says there are limits to accomodation. Kate says it’s a valid issue but blown way out of proportion. And the Antagoniste points out that nobody in the House of Commons had an issue with the election law that allowed veiled women to vote when it was first proposed.

What do you think?

UPDATE (Sept. 11): The Globe spells it out clearly, as does The Gazette’s editorial writers and columnist Don Macpherson.

3 thoughts on “Everything you clearly don’t know about the Islamic veil controversy

  1. zara

    Great summary of this latest fracas. I think the media is blowing things way out of proportion and worse, aggravating the situation. While I do have a problem with any religion that discriminates anyone, and while it is clear that Islam is hard to beat when it comes to discriminating women, I do think that we should not start getting into what people should or should not wear (that baggy pants thing is a great example of how these kinds of things can get completely out of hand — I can not believe that is for real). The thing is, as others, like Kate, have pointed out, this seems really simple to solve.

  2. princess iveylocks

    As anyone who has ever used a fake ID can attest (*cough*), relying on photographic resemblance is a poor method for accurately proving one’s identity.

    I don’t really understand what the worst-case scenario is. Is Elections Canada anticipating massive voter fraud from veiled Muslim women? Will everyone mask themselves prior to standing in the voting line to avoid being recognized? Does this discriminate against non-Muslims unfairly? No, no, and no. The hypothetical risk is a vague spectre, not a concrete reality that must be circumvented at all costs.

    Personally, I think more ID should be shown to vote. But I see your point about homeless people. Maybe they’ll implement a fingerprint system down the road to ensure 100% verification of identity at the poll booths.

    I’m concerned that Muslim women will turn away from voting because of this ridiculous fracas. For God’s sake, people, Canada won’t become a radical theocracy because a few women with veils submit ballots.

    Steve, what’s the policy on veiled passport photos?

  3. HCD

    There was a time within the living memory of many still with us when voter fraud was rampant in this province.
    This may partially explain why older people are wary of voting security issues. (Vote early; vote often!) It is also generally known that many cemetary residents (dead people) voted regularly in provincial elections. Even more recently, in the 95 referendum voter fraud almost changed the outcome and possibly history. Voting manipulation and fraud could easliy happen again if we are not vigilant as a society.

    I have no objection to ID verification behind a private screen, by members of the same sex, and of the same religion if necessary.

    Even if this scenario applies only to a handful of individuals, this debate is healthy in our society. The goal of a free vote that is free of fraud and widely percieved as free from manipulation may require a marginal compromise from a few individuals. So be it!


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