I am an atheist. I think all gods and religions are human creations that were invented to serve us for a variety of emotional, social, cultural and political reasons. As valid and laudable as many of those reasons might be, I still can’t bring myself to believe they actually exist.
That said, I would fiercely defend anyone’s freedom to believe in whatever deity or spiritual code they choose. As long your belief does not infringe on my own fundamental freedoms, I think we’re both stronger by defending each other’s right to follow our own conscience.
I set this stage because I am myself outraged by the public outrage currently being expressed over the wearing of the “niqab” by a tiny minority of Muslim women in Quebec. It’s come to the point that the Quebec government is preparing legislation that would outlaw this piece of fabric that a few ultra-observant Muslims wear to cover their faces as an expression of their religious belief.
Quebec’s so-called “Liberal” government has introduced Bill 94, which would cut off all public services to anyone wearing the Muslim face covering. This includes all education services, from grade school through Cegep and university. Even worse, neither would any of these ultra-orthodox Muslim women be allowed to receive health care from a public clinic or hospital.
Let’s make this absolutely clear. If passed, this law will be a collective statement that we all believe it’s more important to let a woman die than to respect her religious belief if it offends our own.
Much less would we allow such a woman to learn about our values and practices in our educational institutions. We would rather keep her isolated and ignorant, unable to understand her new country, its traditions, cultures or, of course, the languages we speak.
You’d think we were under attack. That hordes of niqab- and burka-clad extremists were overrunning our public institutions, dictating our cultural and religious practices, and for good measure, blowing up our subways and airports.
Just writing it demonstrates how absurd it all is.
In fact, the best estimate is that fewer than 25 women in all of Quebec actually wear the niqab. Of them, as one lonely observer noted recently, only 10 showed up at the Montreal office of the provincial health board last year, out of a total of 118,000 visitors.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that any religion that requires hiding women from general view is warped, to put it simply. But then, I think all religions require a huge suspension of our usual sense of skepticism. I don’t discriminate.
In Canada and in Quebec, however, all women have the legal right to dress in the manner they choose. We don’t allow a conclave of male arbiters to dictate fashion to half the population against their will. While gender-based social and economic inequality is still a reality, every woman in Canada has the absolute right to dress the way she wants.
That will end if Bill 94 is passed, however. As a society, we will have collectively decided that these 25 women in Quebec have no right to public education, health care, child care, or any other public service we all take for granted. Just because they don’t meet the fashion sense of a majority that has been hopped up on a few hysterical fears that have had the effect of making millions of us lose their common sense.
It’s not just any woman who covers up for religious reasons, such as married Hasidic Jewish women who wear wigs, or certain Catholic nuns who are almost as covered up as are this handful of Muslim newcomers. No, we will have collectively decided to focus all our outrage and umbrage on a tiny minority of extremely vulnerable, mostly poor and incredibly isolated women.
It boggles my mind that normally generous and tolerant people are among those leading the charge – as if depriving the weakest among us of education, health care and all the other basic services that we have a right to expect in a civilized society will somehow lead to the liberation of these women.
Ostensibly, this was all triggered by the case of Naïma Atef Amed, a young Muslim immigrant who repeatedly refused to remove her niqab in a government-sponsored French-language class, and was ultimately expelled. Apparently, she wasn’t very pleasant in her refusal, an element that has been strongly emphasized in the many media reports that portrayed her and her stance as completely unreasonable.
Evidently this woman wasn’t humble enough when being dictated to by her betters. How dare she assert herself, as if she has a right to her own beliefs. Yes, I am being sarcastic. But this is essentially what we are saying as a society by our collective response to this tiny incident of intolerance by a public institution.
Ultimately, the only thing we will ensure by this manner of reaction by our government is that women like Naïma Atef Amed will never integrate, will never learn French (or English for that matter), will never learn about the many principles of a liberal democracy that we think we are defending. Instead, this woman will remain isolated in a hidden bubble of poverty, ignorance and oppression.
As a result, we will all be collectively poorer, more ignorant and more oppressed.