Is the province of Quebec really proposing a law that could prevent Muslim women from getting medical treatment if they refuse to uncover their faces? That is one of the possible scenarios in the misguided anti-niqab bill announced by Quebec premier Jean Charest this week.
The proposed law is a clumsy, politically-charged hammer. The niqab issue, however, is one that demands flexibility and common sense — not laws and threats.
Of the 200,000 or so Muslims in Quebec, maybe a few dozen women wear a niqab, a veil that covers the entire face except for a slit for the eyes. To draft legislation singling out such a tiny minority suggests the law has more to do with pandering to fears about immigration — specifically, the failure of some immigrants to integrate — than solving any real, non-aesthetic problem posed by niqabs.
If the goal is to promote integration, the anti-niqab bill might have the opposite effect, because it could make these Muslim women even more isolated. Facing a choice between accessing public services or wearing the niqab, some might choose the niqab. This will hinder the goal of increasing contact between new immigrants and mainstream society.
The anti-niqab bill is clearly meant to be a political statement, and an ostentatious one at that, not unlike the infamous code of behaviour drafted by the Quebec town of Hérouxville in 2007 that prohibited all sorts of practices, real or imagined, that are associated with immigrants. The joke was that Hérouxville had virtually no immigrant population.
There might well be situations in which it is unreasonable for a woman to wear a niqab. But there are more effective ways to deal with these than laws created mainly for their political appeal.