Idil Issa is a board member of Paroles de Femmes and a freelance writer based in Montreal.
As a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair but not her face, I am not personally affected by Quebec's new law banning face coverings while receiving public services such as taking a city bus. It would be easy for me to ignore the law's broader meaning. Saying nothing would, in fact, make me more palatable to some Canadians, who draw the line of religious freedom at face coverings. Instead, it has stirred and jolted me out of complacency. We must speak out against this so-called religious neutrality, and see Bill 62 for what it really is: politicizing and fear mongering toward an easy target.
I have been writing about Islamophobia for years, including misguided hatred and fear of the veil. I write about this not out of personal attachment to the garment, but out of a sense of broader outrage, born from my love of democracy, freedom, and justice.
That this is even considered a public issue at all is remarkable, given that I have only ever met two niqabis – neither of whom represented any danger to society at large. The first, whom I met in my childhood, had a bubbly sense of humour, spoke Chinese, and was the kind of person who was both humble yet extremely intelligent. She was the type that might casually drop a comment about teaching herself ancient Sanskrit with a dictionary over the summer. The other veiled woman I currently know via social media tweets pithy and hilarious commentary about her life as a niqabi steampunk goth, with a distinctly feminist bent.
These women should not be political targets. That Quebec has framed these women as such outrages me. But what is next? Will I let this momentary outrage subside, as it dawns on me that perhaps the religious accommodation issue in Quebec would be put to bed by this bill? Will I tacitly condone, through inaction, the sacrifice of the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms and rights of my fellow Muslim Canadians who choose to veil their faces, knowing that their exclusion from society might ensure my inclusion? Will I do these things, knowing that making these concessions might make me palatable to Quebec society?
I already feel twisted into Cirque du Soleil-like contortions in my efforts to be the model minority, worthy of the rights guaranteed to all. I was the valedictorian of my graduating high school class; I am bilingual; I volunteer my time in my community. And yet, I am the perennial Other, the Unknown, rising to play my role during each election cycle, like the villain in a Saturday morning cartoon.
Muslim women in Canada are cast as the blackest of political demons, the most frightening of ghosts. Willful ignorance of my personal story and the personal stories of my fellow Canadian Muslim women allows for politically expedient narratives that chill the blood and quicken the pulse.
It is far more compelling to imagine that Muslim women represent a danger to society than to learn about the reality of my penchant for Tim Hortons' pecan butter tarts, my stints as a lifeguard and a Parliament Hill tour guide, and my belief, as a native Winnipegger, that the intersection of Portage and Main really isn't that cold.
This bill supposedly ensures the religious neutrality of the state. What is so laughably obvious is that it targets one demographic specifically: Muslim Canadians. There are no mentions in the bill of ceremonial daggers or balcony sukkots. Pulling on the skein of religious neutrality, one unravels a long history of religious accommodation in Quebec and Canada. The founding social contract of Canada was one of religious accommodation. There would be no nation without the resolution of the Manitoba schools crisis, meeting the demands of French Canadians, throughout the land, to be educated in their religion of choice.
Current efforts involving religious accommodation, unlike what historical revisionists would have us believe, are not the imposition of recent immigrants on a timeless bastion of rationality, modernity and secularism. They are the continuation of a long and deep history of the concessions we all make to live together harmoniously and build something greater than the sum of our parts.
Niqabi women, frequently discussed yet seldom consulted, play an outsized role in our political discourse and will now play a lesser role in our body politic. Freedom of conscience is perhaps the only sacred thing within a secular state – the freedom to be an atheist or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Christian. A free society should honour the life, choices, and dignity of all of its members. A bill that could lead to the denial of government services on the basis of religion does not conform to this ideal.