Exploring the hypocrisy and xenophobia of laws banning religious face coverings and concurrent by-laws being introduced that mandate them

By: Sarah Homsi and Michelle Yao, Contributors

This article was written by the Student Health Education Centre’s Research & Advocacy coordinators, in collaboration with Diversity Services.

Back in 2017, Quebec passed Bill 62, in what lawmakers claim is meant to be promoting “religious neutrality”. This law prohibits employees of public bodies, such as government departments, schools, hospitals and public transit, from covering their faces. It also prohibits people receiving services from public employees from having their face covered.

In 2019 in Quebec, Bill 21 was passed, banning the display of all religious symbols from being worn at work by government workers. Despite the tireless work of civil rights groups to appeal this law to the Supreme Court of Canada, Bill 21 remains in place. 

While advocates for the implementation of Bill 62 and 21 argue that there would be guidelines put in place for religious accommodation, this petty form of placation merely demonstrates further that laws such as these are veils for one agenda: limiting religious freedom.

Bill 21 alarmingly prevents Quebec teachers, judges, lawyers and other public sector workers from wearing religious symbols of all kinds. In this article, we would like to specifically highlight the limitations put on the donning of religious face coverings. While they continue to be prohibited in 2020, new laws were concurrently being introduced that mandate face coverings be worn to limit the spread of COVID-19. The hypocrisy in this is astounding.

Appeals against Bill 21 are still being deliberated upon in the Quebec Superior Court. With no ruling announced as of the publication of this article, wearing a face covering in enclosed or partially enclosed public spaces continues to be mandatory throughout the province.

Garments that cover the face and eyes, such as the burqa and niqab, had been previously labelled as a security issue by the Quebec government, which emphasized issues with not being able to see someone’s face. However, during a time where everyone’s face is covered, this argument no longer holds up. It is abundantly clear now that this argument was not valid.

Perhaps because it was never really about security or religious neutrality and more about rampant islamophobia. After all, the disproportionate impact that Section 8 of Quebec’s Laicity Act — which mandates keeping faces uncovered — has on Muslim women in particular has been explicitly acknowledged in the Quebec Court of Appeal. 

Policing of how Muslim women express their religion is pervasive and rooted in Western constructs of feminism. It is ingrained in the notion that how a women dresses indicates her level of freedom. Stereotypes surrounding Islam are perpetuated by discriminatory laws such as Bill 62 and continue to marginalize Muslim women. Muslim women do not experience oppression because of a religion they choose to follow, rather they remain oppressed by a Eurocentric society that continues to enforce assimilation and erasure of culture and religion.

It is long overdue that these discriminatory laws get appealed and we continue to dismantle racist systems and values that uphold many governments. While these laws currently exist only in Quebec, issues of xenophobia are most certainly not isolated. In 2019, The National Council of Canadian Muslims recorded 9 anti-muslim incidents in Hamilton.

When other provinces in Canada legalize discrimination, it sets a precedent that may ripple into Ontario. With McMaster University students and alumni currently spread out across the globe, the implications of such mandates feel as ubiquitous as ever.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has previously reported that new rules and increased reinforcement powers surrounding COVID-19 were disproportionately applied to marginalized communities, with Ontario and Quebec both being highlighted as two of three jurisdictions where disproportionate and discriminatory enforcement was being enacted.

While still prioritizing community wellbeing and doing everything that we can to prevent COVID-19 spread, we should be thinking critically about laws or enforcement measures that discriminate against marginalized folks. If McMaster wants to tout itself for being a leader in “advancing human and societal health and well-being,” these nuances in health-related policy and practice must be considered by our community members.

When a government is expending an abundance of legal resources to uphold a law about how people should be dressed in public, we should be able to trust that it is because they are concerned about a real danger to the public. With the current state of COVID-19, we are given the perspective to see when government intervention is necessary, and when it is not.

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