March 20, 2010

Quebec has made two recent rulings related to the niqāb – the body-covering garment worn by some Muslims. In one, a woman was barred from a free French language class unless she removed her niqāb; in the other, a woman wearing a niqāb was denied her demand that a woman take her medicare card picture.

In the first incident, the school insisted that the instructor must see the pupil’s face to correct pronunciation. Quebec’s Immigration minister has backed this decision after pressure from the Parti Quebecois for failing to protect Quebec values. The woman has now lodged a human-rights complaint. In the second incident, Quebec’s Human-Rights Commission ruled that she must uncover her face and that she does not have the right to insist on being served by a woman while revealing her face.

These rulings bring up many points for discussion:
1. How should Quebec values be defined in a multi-cultural country?
2. How does wearing the niqāb endanger Quebec society?
3. Is Quebec being unreasonably punitive in these rulings?

In the first case, I understand the instructor’s reasoning but don’t understand the expulsion of the student. It should be based on her advancement in the class if the same rules apply to all students. And secondly, even if her French suffered from not getting full instructional value, it is her loss – this is common practice in most courses. The fact that they expelled her from two separate schools in such a short time leans towards a purposeful targeting.

Regarding the second case, I agree that people must be identified in certain situations like voting, airport checks, and in obtaining official government identification, but does it hurt to provide special accommodations for the few cases that ask for it, especially when they probably have women on staff? (only 10 out of 146,000 applicants asked for this accommodation). This starts to smell more of Quebec being idealistic and punitive than of any semblance of a real problem of accommodation.

These topics about the degree of cultural submission and about the degree of tolerating other cultures is a complex one that requires clear, calm discussion. There are multiple points that are valid from both sides of the argument. I follow a simple rule: I tolerate anything that does not hurt someone. I know this is very subjective, but it guides me through my daily interactions quite well. My main issue with the Quebec rulings is that they seem to mimic France’s recent rulings on the same issues. I would like a Quebec that can think on it’s own within the Canadian context and not just mimic the mother country thoughtlessly.


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