Women gather to protest against Quebec's proposed Charter of Values in Montreal in September 2013 (Reuters)
A Canadian judge has stayed parts of a controversial Quebec law banning full-face veils in public spaces in a victory for civil liberties groups that had mounted a court challenge.
Judge Babak Barin suspended the part of the act banning face coverings for anyone working in or accessing public services, on the grounds that it was unconsitutional and discriminated against Muslims.
The judge has asked for the government to enact guidelines for how the law will be applied and how exemptions might be granted.
Quebec's government passed Bill 62 in October, arguing that it was designed to address public safety and was religiously neutral because masked protesters would also be affected.
"We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face,” Philippe Couillard, the premier of Quebec, told Reuters in October.
"We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It's as simple as that."
Critics have said that the law unfairly targets the minority of Muslim women in Quebec who wear the niqab and the burqa, full-face veils. Some have suggested that such Muslims would be unable to access public services such as transport systems, health services or public libraries.
The court challenge against the bill was filed by a coalition of Muslim and civil rights advocates, and Warda Naili, a Quebec woman who converted to Islam and wears a niqab.
The judge "recognised the immediate harm the law was causing to the people it affects outweighed any theoretical public purpose of the law," lawyer Catherine McKenzie, who represents Naili, told Reuters.
In October, Naili told MEE that she had already been abused for wearing the niqab in public and that the bill made her feel like a second-class citizen.
“It's already difficult what we're living. We're already living [through] threats and insults. Now this will increase the aggressiveness" of members of the public who are against the niqab in general, she said.
The National Council for Canadian Muslims welcomed the ruling "as a successful first step," its executive director Ihsaan Gardee said.
Quebec's Liberal government is defending the law in court, saying it does not discriminate against Muslim women and is necessary for reasons of security, identification and communication. The act's name refers to "religious neutrality" and "accommodations on religious grounds".
"I'm not unsatisfied with the judgment because there's no mention that the law contravenes the charters [of rights]," Couillard told reporters on Friday, as quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The bill has also pitted the regional Quebec government against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who said in October that his government was looking into the legislation.
"I don’t think it's the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn't be wearing," the prime minister was quoted by the Guardian as saying. "As a federal government, we are going to take our responsibility seriously and look carefully at what the implications are."
Quebec had about 243,000 Muslims out of a population of 8 million, according to the 2011 census.
In January a gunman walked into a Quebec City mosque and shot six people dead. A French-Canadian university student has been charged as the sole suspect.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Denmark plans to institute its own ban.
Wherever face veils go, controversy often follows. In January, almost as soon as a new rule kicked in that bans students from wearing veils and other clothing on campus that obscures their faces, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) added a religious exemption, following accusations of discrimination. Despite speculation that the policy was connected to the October arrest of a Muslim former student suspected of planning terror attacks, a spokesman for the college said that the rule had been implemented for safety reasons and was not directed toward any particular student group.
While the incident was ultimately a minor one at this private institution, only two of the more than 4,000 students wear veils it was the first significant flare-up in the U.S. since a Florida woman sued the state in 2002 for refusing to allow her to wear a veil in her driver's license photo. (She lost on appeal.) Meanwhile, the debate over head coverings has been raging in Europe and parts of the Middle East over whether schools and other institutions can ban Muslim clothing such as the hijab (headscarf), the niqab (veil with an opening for the eyes), or the burka (piece of fabric that covers the entire face and body).(See pictures of Muslims in America.)
England and France both have rules that allow for the restriction of such clothing in schools. The same is true in Egypt, where a Cairo court recently supported the secular government's decision to ban students from wearing the niqab while taking examinations. The decision, which joins another ruling in this predominantly Muslim country that forbids women from wearing veils in dormitories, is ostensibly designed to prevent students from disguising themselves to take tests for others.
In the U.S., the Education Testing Service, which administers several national exams, requires photographic identification, such as a driver's license or school ID, in order to take the SAT. For the GRE graduate-school exam, a photo must be taken at the actual test site. In both cases, ETS asks people taking the test who may be wearing a veil to remove their face covering in order to be identified and prevent any fraud. "We have not had any issues related to this policy," which has been in place for more than a decade, says Mark McNutt, an ETS spokesman.(See the underreported stories of 2009.)
One reason why religious head coverings have yet to emerge in the U.S. as a significant issue is because of the tiny number of American Muslims who actually cover up. "It's very unpopular," says Jamillah Karim, an assistant professor in religious studies at Spelman College. "A minority of a minority of Muslim women here wear the face veil. It's just not practiced enough where it would become an issue at schools."
Wearing the niqab is viewed as a more conservative practice, distinct from the more commonly seen, and largely stigma-free, hijab. American Muslims, by and large, are reluctant to appear too conservative, says Kathleen Moore, professor of religious studies at University of California at Santa Barbara. "While they are struggling internally to be tolerant of each other's viewpoints about religion, they are also struggling outward to negotiate rights with the broader American society," she says. "From their voices, you hear that the face veil is something that shouldn't be practiced because it can be associated with extremism."(Read "Will France Impose a Ban on the Burqa?")
Sarah Jukaku, a fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan and president of the school's Muslim Student Association, has a few friends who choose to cover their faces. They've never had problems with taking any tests ("If there's only one person in a class who chooses to wear a veil, I think the teacher would be able to easily tell if they're the one actually taking an exam," she says) or with discrimination from fellow students. In fact, says Jukaku, the pressure may come from somewhere unexpected their own families. "A lot of my friends who choose to cover their face, or even just their hair, go against their parents," she says. "Their parents are worried about a backlash against their daughters." Yet here in America, as demonstrated in the brief but negative response to MCPHS's policy, backlash can travel in many directions.Read "France's Proposed Burqa Ban: Why Americans Might Want to Consider It Too."Read "Why Tony Blair Is Right About the Veil."See the top 10 everything of 2009.