Bill Seeks To Ban Muslim Veil In Quebec
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The controversy over Muslim clothing is not limited to Europe. A bill introduced in Quebec, Canada, would bar women from wearing the niqab while they're giving or receiving public services.
Again, the niqab is the veil that leaves only the eyes visible. If passed, the legislation could affect women in a number of settings -government offices, schools, doctors' offices and more.
Quebec's Minister of Justice Kathleen Weil sponsored the bill and I asked her why she thinks it's necessary.
Ms. KATHLEEN WEIL (Minister of Justice, Quebec): For reasons of security, identification and communication. When you come forward, either with you're rendering the service or you're coming for to get the service, the employee, the person that you're dealing with needs to see who you are and needs to communicate properly with you.
But you can wear a hijab and you can wear the cross around your neck, you can wear other religious symbols - that's not the issue. The issue is not any comment on this particular form of dress. It really is for very pragmatic reasons, that people need to be able to communicate with you in the normal way that people communicate, which is with your face uncovered.
NORRIS: Help me understand something. If this is based on issues of security and communication, would it not be possible to allow for someone who's either delivering the services or receiving the services to work in private, or to move to the side to make sure they can have a photo taken, or have some other form of identification, so these women could dress in the way that they needed to or wanted to, or the way that that their religion prescribe and still not run afoul of the law?
Ms. WEIL: Well, you know, it's a draft legislation. We're going to have hearings. There will be experts. There will be ordinary citizens that will come forward and express their point of view.
I would tell you there's been such a broad consensus; 95 percent support here in Quebec for what we are proposing, which really sort of lands up being a reasonable limit. And that's a very Canadian concept; it's based on our particular Charters of Rights, both Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights, that you can - religious freedom is an absolute freedom. You can require some accommodation.
NORRIS: Now I don't mean to be flip in any way here. But I want to quote to you a Canadian columnist. You perhaps have even read this column in the Globe and Mail up there. He asks: Has there been an epidemic of fraudulent impersonation raging among the provinces few dozen niqab wearers?
That same columnist wonders if the big tent of Canadian democracy just got smaller with this proposed legislation. To that you say what?
Ms. WEIL: Well, you know, we've seen lots of opinions. And what's interesting is there's a real disconnect between some of those opinions and what people say and what people feel. And when you talk to just about everybody - I think 80 percent of Canadians agree with this approach - they see it as very pragmatic. And...
NORRIS: But the women who wear a niqab are, of course, in the minority. They're small in number...
Ms. WEIL: And there's...
NORRIS: ...and then they don't necessarily agree with the majority, of course.
Ms. WEIL: Well, this is where the debate will be launched, right? I mean, this is where people will come forward. You know, we're going to see how the group's - a lot of Muslim groups are in favor of this. We're not banning the hijab or anything else. We're not making any comments about when they leave this area where they're in interaction with somebody who's providing them services.
We've had many...
NORRIS: Are you asking them to make a choice, though? Because, again, they're wearing this because it is prescribed...
Ms. WEIL: Well, that's...
NORRIS: ...within their religion. And if they want to receive these services, they'd essentially have to remove their veil. They'd have to...
Ms. WEIL: They do. They do. Which they do.
NORRIS: But that seems like a Hobson's choice - a tough choice to have to make.
Ms. WEIL: No. Well, it wouldn't appear that it is and that's the interesting part. When they do, they do often. We have a lot of...
NORRIS: But just because they do doesn't mean it wasn't a difficult choice. I don't mean to go round and round with you. But...
Ms. WEIL: No, but...
NORRIS: ...because they ultimately do it doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't excruciating.
Ms. WEIL: Well, the Quebec (unintelligible) has already ruled on this as - we have decisions of the human rights commission saying that, you know? And it's not really an issue.
Now, it's been always on a case-by-case basis, so what we're doing is pulling together all of these sort of individual cases and establishing some rules. Because, again, under our Charter of Rights, there is an article that talks about reasonable limits for all religious freedom.
NORRIS: Minister Weil, thank you very much.
Ms. WEIL: Okay, thank you very much.
NORRIS: Kathleen Weil is Quebec's minister of Justice. She was speaking with us about the bill she proposed that would bar women from wearing a niqab while giving or receiving public services.
The niqab is a traditional Muslim veil that reveals only the eyes.
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