April 13, 2010 -- Little more than one hundred years ago, women did not have the right to vote anywhere on Earth. Over the course of the twentieth century, this measure of women’s second class status faded away, and women’s suffrage gradually became all but universal. Today, every frontier is open to women—including the final frontier, as at this very moment, a record four women are circling our planet aboard the International Space Station. 

Given the advancement of women’s rights, it is hard to understand why any woman living in a free country would voluntarily cover her face in public. Yet some tiny minority of Muslim women living in the West do choose to wear the niqab, a full face veil. A Quebec law proposed late last month, Bill 94, would interfere with that choice. It would entrust top government administrators with the power to forbid public sector employees, as well as those using government services, from covering their faces if “reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it.” The controversial proposal has touched off a fierce debate within and without the Canadian province on what it means to be modern, tolerant, and free.  

The Cover Up

Why do some women choose to wear the niqab? They believe (though many Muslims do not) that the Koran obliges them to cover their faces for modesty’s sake. They also believe the Koran is the word of the one true God, just as Christians believe the Bible is. And for a true believer, what God says, goes, no questions asked.
 
To be blunt, this is hardly a good reason to do anything. Without even entering into the question of whether or not there is a God, how do believers know the Koran accurately expresses His wishes? How do they choose between competing Holy Books? What if their chosen book is the mischievous work of the Devil, meant to lead them astray?
 
The only way to overcome these objections, ultimately, is to have faith, which means: to suspend one’s rational faculties. But if there is a God, wouldn’t He want me to use my God-given intellect to determine, as best I can, what is right and wrong? My mind tells me that every man and woman should be free, as long as the similar rights of others are not infringed. This means that women should not be forced to cover their faces, as they have been and still are in some parts of the world. As a symbol of such oppression against women, it is easy enough to see why the niqab is offensive to many.

Access Denied

Does this mean, though, that women should be  prevented, using the full force of the law, from wearing the niqab? A majority of my fellow Canadians seems to think so. According to a March 26 Angus Reid poll , 95 percent of Quebecers, along with 75 percent of Canadians in the rest of the country, support the aforementioned Bill 94.  
 
Granted, the proposed law does not forbid women from wearing the niqab at all times. It only forbids it when they are seeking educational, health, or administrative services from provincial public institutions. Also, as associate law professor Shauna Van Praagh pointed out recently , liberal democracies regularly “express substantive values” in ways that limit religious freedoms. These include “rules about harm to children, which send messages to religious communities and individuals about their attitudes to blood transfusion and corporal punishment.”
 
But refusing to allow a child to receive a blood transfusion can literally condemn that child to an early death. Does a woman wearing a veil pose any similar kind of threat to anyone? And can forcing doctors to refuse treatment to women who wear the niqab really be justified by the same logic that overrides some parents’ objections to life-saving transfusions? 

Freedom of Association

Perhaps some people are concerned about the need to identify veiled women who request government services. According to Dr. Ahmed Shoker, a professor of medicine and regional director of the Canadian Islamic Congress, Quebec’s proposed law is both inflammatory and unnecessary for purposes of such identification. “Muslim scholars agree that it is allowable for a woman to prove her identity by revealing her face as deemed necessary.” Forbidding face covering altogether rather reflects a “lack of seriousness in accepting Islamic traditions and religion-based practices.”
 
Much as I think the niqab is a bad tradition, symbolic of oppression and resting on shaky, mystical grounds, I agree with the good doctor. Bill 94 is institutionalized intolerance. It is unworthy of a modern nation. I may find wearing the niqab offensive, but I also find wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt offensive, and I have no need to ban that sartorial choice. People should be allowed to offend each others’ sensibilities. To quote the great Thomas Jefferson, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
 
As for “substantive values,” how about expressing a little official toleration? Freedom demands that we resist the impulse to impose one-size-fits-all, top-down “solutions” on people who have not initiated force against anyone. Individual teachers and doctors should instead be allowed to make their own decisions about whether or not to associate with people whose behavior they may or may not find offensive. If we want a society where people get along, we have to be willing to let people who can’t get along go their separate ways.  

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