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Quebec and its niqab legislation needs to stay out of women’s closets: Paradkar

A bill that seeks to legislate clothing ends up linking emancipation of women to how little or how much they wear. In doing so, it works against choice.

Just as there are many reasons women might choose to wear a little black dress, there are many reasons women might choose a voluminous one that includes a face covering, writes Shree Paradkar.

AP File

Just as there are many reasons women might choose to wear a little black dress, there are many reasons women might choose a voluminous one that includes a face covering, writes Shree Paradkar.

A final debate on a controversial Quebec bill to ban women wearing niqabs and burkas from offering or receiving public services began Tuesday, and a vote likely to be held this week will accept or reject the idea that the best way to stop women from being forced to wear a particular garment is to force women to not wear that garment.

Bill 62, labelled as “an act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality,” is the face of contemporary dog whistle anti-Islamic politics couched as a unique commitment to secularism. Just leave that crucifix hanging on the wall behind the Quebec parliamentary speaker’s chair, please. That’s historical.

The bill comes complete with the thinnest plausible deniability — the law would also apply to masked protesters, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée has said. The bill is also supposed to set vaguely defined limits to religious accommodation.

If governments don’t belong in people’s bedrooms, they certainly don’t belong in women’s closets.

We know this. On Tuesday, an Ontario MPP tabled a motion asking workplaces to butt out of those wardrobes. Liberal MPP Christina Martens tabled a private member’s bill to ban all workplaces from requiring women to wear high heels to work — not just industrial facilities or health-care facilities and such.

Bill 62 should be rejected for the same reason anti-abortionism would be. They are both anti-choice.

A bill that seeks to legislate clothing ends up linking emancipation of women to how little or how much they wear. In doing so, it works against choice.

If you, like me, don’t wear any kind of face covering, this battle isn’t about us. It is, however, about defending the rights of the tiny number of women in Quebec who cover their faces even if you can’t defend their practice.

To be clear, I have no patience for the imposition of modesty on women, especially if those standards of modesty differ significantly from those imposed on men. This applies to expectations that women cover their faces but men needn’t.

I equally detest the ingrained expectation of sexual allure from women that is not asked of men. This applies to the overt sexualization of women’s clothes in the name of liberation — all dressed up, women bare more skin, whether at chi-chi galas or queued up outside nightclubs. All dressed up, men bare little.

Just as there are many reasons women might choose to wear a little black dress, there are many reasons women might choose a voluminous one that includes a face covering. For some it’s a political stance — a statement of defiance against Islamophobia; for some it’s about personal comfort and modesty; for some it is a mark of devoutness; for some it’s unthinking conformity.

Of course, there are those who wear it because they don’t have a choice.

A progressive society would also support women who want to uncover their heads or faces or any parts of their body, but the desire for change has to come from within.

Bill 62 attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. An Environics study shows about 3 per cent of Canadians who are Muslim wear a niqab in public. The numbers in Quebec are not known but it’s also expected to be minuscule.

It’s astounding that a matter that affects so few people in Quebec was prioritized as worth spending precious time and money on.

Vallée told the CBC the legislation is necessary for “communication reasons, identification reasons and security reasons.”

“I find it hard to see how you can have a dialogue when it’s difficult or impossible to distinguish a person’s non-verbal cues,” she said earlier this month.

Sure, it might be uncomfortable, but is there a communication problem that “Pardon?” won’t solve?

How were identification and security — as in women refusing to lift their veils to identify themselves to officials — established as a challenge large enough to require legislation?

An Angus Reid poll this month showed that 87 per cent of Quebecers strongly or moderately support the bill. That makes it not the right move, just a populist one.

Bill 62 was never about religious neutrality. It is about discomfort with overt Muslim-ness. If the conservative Parti Québécois floated a so-called Charter of Values to ban public servants from wearing all obvious religious symbols, the Liberals targeted the lowest hanging fruit of Islamic womenswear — burkas and niqabs.

Even if we were all to agree to being collectively uncomfortable with the idea of Muslim women — or anybody — covering their faces in the public sphere, how did it become so indecent as to be banned?

A few years ago, a woman wearing a niqab came to my hot yoga class. Her abaya restricted her movements, making them risky for her. After a few classes, she stopped coming. I’m guessing she made a choice.

Did her choices affect me? Infringe on my rights in any way? Threaten the future of my country? If Bill 62 passes and she moves to Quebec, to use the bus or go to the doctor she would have to reconsider her religious beliefs or seek an official exemption for accommodation.

There are no such restrictions for the rest of Quebec’s residents.

Tell me again, what’s the definition of discrimination?

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