Canadian province’s partial ban on niqabs raises legal and political challenges
MONTREAL—As a Muslim teenager in her native Tunisia, Nadia El-Mabrouk never once saw a woman wearing a full-face veil. After moving to Canada, she was shocked to see her first one on the streets of Montreal.
Now the University of Montreal computer-science professor is one of many Quebec residents backing a provincial government ban on the Islamic face covering, called a niqab. “It’s a walking prison,” she said.
The measure, part of a law passed by the National Assembly of Quebec in October, bans women from wearing face coverings when using public services such as buses or libraries. Provincial lawmakers say the law is meant to ensure public security and is among the first of its kind in North America.
A Quebec superior court suspended the ban in December after rights groups asked for a stay until the court decides whether the law is constitutional. Pending a judgment on that question, the law will likely go back into force later this year once the government meets the court’s demand to publish guidelines on how it will be applied.
The law, known as Bill 62, is creating a thorny challenge for the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which will decide by the end of this month whether or not to join the lawsuit challenging the niqab ban or take other official measures to oppose it.
Mr. Trudeau, who has championed both Canadian immigration and women’s rights, has said he didn’t agree with the law, but when it passed, he expressed a reluctance—common among Canadian prime ministers—to wade into Quebec’s provincial politics. “It isn’t up to the federal government to challenge this,” he said.
The law has engendered a fierce debate that reflects broader tensions over immigration and cultural change in Canada and mirrors battles over the full-face veils in France, Germany and other European countries. Like much of Western Europe, Quebec has absorbed an influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries in recent years, though only a small fraction of Quebec’s population uses the niqab.
The veil represents a “political and religious ideology” that is degrading to women, said André Lamoureux, a political-science professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal and a prominent secular activist.
But opponents of Bill 62 say it amounts to a violation of freedom of religion and equal rights. “Feminism is about giving the choice to the women, not dictating to them what are acceptable choices,” said Catherine McKenzie, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the continuing court case against the Quebec government.
Beyond that ideological dispute, there is also confusion over how the law would be enforced. Bus drivers, for instance, question whether they would have to refuse service to women who wear niqabs. Under the court order, the provincial government must publish guidelines on how public-sector agents can apply the rule by June 30. A spokeswoman for the provincial justice department said it would do so “sooner rather than later.”
Marie-Michelle Lacoste, a Montreal resident who prefers to use her Arabic name, Warda Naili, converted to Islam in 2003 and believes she should be allowed to wear the veil if she chooses. The 34-year-old said that after years of wearing a hijab, a head covering that left her face open, she switched to the niqab in 2011 over her husband’s objections. It deflected attention from her face and stopped men from sexually harassing her, she said.
“That’s not the kind of attention I wanted in my life,” she said, speaking through her veil at a fast-food restaurant in a Montreal working-class neighborhood. The niqab is also a more accurate representation of how women dressed when Islam was founded, she added.
But now Ms. Naili says wearing the niqab on the streets of Montreal has made her a target for another sort of harassment. She says strangers once called her “Osama’s widow” while she waited for a bus, in an apparent reference to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Last year, a teenager tackled her on the bus, Ms. Naili says, adding she now rarely leaves the house for fear of abuse.
The backlash against face-covering is the latest sign of simmering social friction here. Anti-immigration protesters have taken to the streets in Quebec and neighboring Ontario in recent months, and last year a shooting at Quebec mosque left six dead and eight injured.
According to the most recent Canadian census, published in 2011, 3.2% of Quebec’s population is Muslim, more than twice the share of 2001. That percentage has likely increased further more recently as the province has been absorbing an influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries under the Trudeau government’s broad immigration program. Syrians made up 10.4% of all immigrants to the province in 2016, the highest share of any nationality, according to the province’s statistical agency.
Official statistics don’t track how many women wear niqabs in the province. Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which opposes the law, estimates fewer than 100 out of Quebec’s population of 8.3 million.
“To design an entire law about them seems somewhat extreme,” said Ms. McKenzie, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
A recent survey by polling firm Ipsos showed 76% of Quebecers supported the provincial law, and 68% of all Canadians wanted a similar rule passed in their own province.
The Quebec government has vowed the law will eventually be enforced, despite the court’s stay.
Bill 62 is a boiled-down version of a stricter ban proposed in 2013 by the Parti Québécois. That law, known as the Quebec Charter of Values, would have banned all religious signs in the public sector but featured a carve-out for Christian symbols deemed a part of Quebec’s heritage. The Parti Québécois subsequently lost 2014 provincial elections to the currently ruling Liberals, who opposed the charter.