A peek behind the veil

Last week, Quebec’s chief electoral officer Marcel Blanchet created a flurry of controversy by announcing that Muslim women who wear the niqab…

Last week, Quebec’s chief electoral officer Marcel Blanchet created a flurry of controversy by announcing that Muslim women who wear the niqab would be allowed to vote in the provincial election without showing their faces.

Amid cries of outrage and even death threats Blanchet was forced to invoke emergency powers to reverse his decision with only three days left till election time.

According to Sarah Elgazzar of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada, “These women regularly uncover their faces to identify themselves, and they never asked for any kind of accommodation.

“This controversy kind of hunted them down and they didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Montreal economist and niqab-wearer Shama Naz agrees, “Muslim women have no problem identifying themselves for security reasons. If they had spoken to me they would have known I wouldn’t mind identifying myself at the ballot box.”

In Canadian elections, a voter is not normally required to prove her identity.

She gives her name to the deputy returning officer, the poll clerk checks to see if the name is on the list of electors, and if it’s there and not struck off as having voted, they give her a ballot.

If someone’s already voted in her name, she’ll need to produce identification.

In that case, there would be no point in raising her veil unless she could produce photo I.D.

The whole silly incident was a manufactured crisis.

It had nothing at all to do with the security of the vote, and everything to do with the recent squabble in Quebec over “reasonable accommodation,” that is, how far should the province bend to accommodate immigrants and ethnic minorities?

Multi-culturalism took a giant step too far when Ontario and Quebec flirted with the idea of court diversion programs based on Islamic Shariah law.

Shariah is not a single, unified code.

It’s practiced differently in different countries, and by different sects, but it always makes judges of priests, and it often makes victims out of women.

Under Shariah law Afghan women have been beheaded for adultery, Pakistani women sentenced to gang-rape in revenge for crimes committed by their male relatives and Nigerian girls beaten for becoming pregnant after they were raped.

Not surprisingly, the idea met serious resistance in Ontario and Quebec, and had to be abandoned.

But from that point on, it seemed that a certain portion of society had drawn battle lines, and were determined to fight.

With the threat of Shariah behind them, Quebecers began to grasp at lesser outrages: headscarves on soccer fields, men banned from pre-natal classes with Muslim women.

When a Montreal YWCA frosted a window rather than expose the Hassidic synagogue across the street to the gyrations of the spandex crowd, members signed a petition for “the right to see and be seen” while exercising. According to a spokesperson for the pro-ogling lobby, “It’s like (they’re) forcing us to wear the veil.”

Matters went from silly to vicious in January when the town council of Herouxville passed a resolution described as a “life code” banning all kinds of practices the councillors regard as un-Quebecois, from the wearing of the kirpan, a ceremonial Sikh dagger whose use in Canada is protected by a Supreme Court decision, to throwing acid in women’s faces.

It further censures covering one’s face except on Halloween, failure to sing carols at Christmas, and beheading one’s wife.

Herouxville had thousands of e-mails in support of the life code, and other Quebec municipalities expressed an interest in similar resolutions.

This undercurrent of xenophobia has percolated beneath the surface of the provincial election campaign.

Action Democratique Quebec’s right-wing leader, Mario Dumont, has proposed a “Quebec constitution” that would specifically limit accommodation for non-Quebecois cultures.

In a letter to the people of Quebec Dumont said, “We must make gestures which reinforce our national identity and protect those values which are so invaluable to us.”

ADQ is scoring well at the polls, and it’s not just because they’re promising to cut taxes and get tough on welfare recipients. With 59 per cent of Quebecers describing themselves as slightly to moderately racist, Dumont has positioned himself as the tough guy who will stand up for the province’s treasured national identity.

If the right wing populist doesn’t say that this means persecuting Muslims, he knows that the thousands who supported the Herouxville resolution will read it that way, and approve.

Herouxville’s racist attack on Muslims was presented as an expression of outrage against fundamentalist abuse of women. Between 1974 and 2000 in Quebec, an average of 17 women per year were murdered by their husbands. In 2000, 43 per cent of Quebecers reported having witnessed an act of spousal violence directed against a woman.

When it comes to outrage about violence against women, there’s no need to direct it all at Muslims: there’s plenty to go round.

Religious fanaticism is archaic, sexist, and hateful, and the world would be a better place without it.

How much better is anti-religious fanaticism?

Open and pluralistic societies don’t exist so that we can impose openness and pluralism on people who choose to live by codes we find distasteful, any more than they exist to license extremism.

It’s good that there’s a debate about reasonable accommodation.

It’s a shame that debate has to descend into racism and buffoonery.