‘Reasonable Accomodation’ falls short

Quebec’s Bill 94 is currently pending in the province’s national assembly, and if successful, would essentially bar women in face veils from accessing basic health care, child care, education and other public services. This bill was introduced by Madame Kathleen Weil, Quebec’s minister for justice, and has been widely approved by Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest as well as our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Primarily, this document deals with the subject of “reasonable accommodation,” along with addressing the greater gender inequality and security concerns in the province. However, these concerns have consequently fallen into a rhetoric that is limited to a woman’s clothing choices. Estimates on the affected populations in Quebec would suggest that there are, at most, 100 face-veiled women in the province.

Given the amount of support the proposal has received, what becomes obvious is the immense influence these women must have in threatening the mere fabric of Quebec, and maybe eventually Canadian society as a whole. A majority of polls conducted shortly after the proposal of the bill in early 2010, including the Angus-Reid online poll, which surveyed approximately 1,000 Canadians nationwide, found an overwhelming 80 per cent agreed with the premises and implementation of Bill 94.

Although a basic understanding of why a woman might choose to wear a face veil would be quite helpful in introducing this topic, it is not particularly necessary in arguing against Bill 94. Furthermore, I would argue that personal beliefs vary a great deal, and warranting such an explanation runs the risk of misrepresenting veiled women collectively, rather than treating them as individuals who are capable of making their own choices. However, what can be understood is that the veil is most often present in a woman’s life in order for her to live in a dignified manner, and thus in accordance with her own will. This, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is what constitutes a human right.

Many will argue that the veil is not mandatory in Islam, a religion most of these women belong too. However, even within our own charter of rights and freedoms, freedom of religion is neither based on the acceptance nor on the approval of majorities or “experts,” but rather guarantees individuals the right to make decisions based on their own interpretation of their faith. Most supporters also focus on a belief that women do not choose to wear the veils, but that they are forced upon them by the men in their lives. The argument thus entails that we must “save” women from their fate, without taking into account the possibility that women can also choose to veil themselves. Indeed, what we seem to forget most is that underneath the veil are real human beings who are capable of making choices for themselves; and whether we like them or not, we must respect their rights to make them.

While it is true that some women may have been forced to wear the veil by their families, we should then be punishing the oppressors, not those we deem to have been “oppressed.” It has often been argued that religion is inherent of gender inequalities, but the same can also be argued of secularist societies today, which by and large, are created for and by men. Does the average Canadian woman — of which half by the age of 16 experiences some type of physical or sexual assault, and on average earns 70.5 cents on the male dollar — really live in a more gender “equal” setting than her veiled co-citizen? Or do veiled women alone suffer through systems of gender inequality in Quebec?

In essence, what it comes down to is that the bill in Quebec is insisting on denying women access to basic social services so long as they continue to wear a garment that is disapproved of by the communities in which they reside. What is also insisted upon is for these women to lift their veils and conform, before they are again accepted into the public realm. Does the scenario sound familiar? Is it truly any different to force someone to wear something than to force them not to wear something? If we want to continue to put Canada on a human rights pedestal, we must face up to our own hypocrisies. We must recognize the consequences this bill will have on the women we claim to protect.

Bilan Arte is a second-year arts student, and co-founder of the Students Against Bill 94 student group at the University of Manitoba.