The anti-niqab legislation newly passed in the Quebec legislature comes amidst a longstanding debate about “reasonable accommodation” for religious views and a more recent debate about sexual harassment and assault, the “me too” campaign that sees women everywhere describing unwanted sexual advances and attacks. It’s worth seeing these two issues as related.
I’m a woman so, naturally, I have my “me too” stories. I too have experienced routine harassment and open assault, dating way back. Sometimes it seemed relentless: multiple propositions, day in and day out, just because you were walking in the streets or taking the subway or even going for a jog. Some guy would proposition you and then shout abuse when you declined to engage. I was eighteen when I went for a solo walk in the woods and was assaulted. That was also the year that I stopped wearing makeup. A visiting cousin persuaded me to put on some of hers. But within five minutes of leaving the house, I’d received so many catcalls that I rubbed it off, and never wore the stuff again. To wear makeup seemed to be taken, by the men on the street where I lived, as issuing a sexual invitation.
If there had been a veil option, I think I would have taken it. Anything to make those propositions and gropings stop. It’s hard to say: “but listen to what I have to say” when attention is being continually directed to how you look or what you wear or other female attributes. That’s why sexism—or racism—in the university is so toxic, especially for students seeking a voice: one’s body seems to speak louder than one’s words at a place where words are supposed to be particularly valued. I don’t think Premier Couillard can have any idea of the frustration that women can experience from that onslaught of sexual harassment. Deciding to wear a veil can be, for some women, a little bit like deciding not to wear makeup. It can be a choice for more privacy, less visiblity, less sexualization. It’s not something we should forbid, any more than we should set rules on makeup. Women can and should make up their own minds.
Quebecers have fought hard for women’s rights. They don’t like the idea of women being bullied and they have gone to considerable lengths to oppose it. Many Quebecers, I think, see the niqab as a threat to women’s autonomy and liberty; they think they are protecting women from bullying when they oppose the niqab. Quebec has had some truly horrific experiences of misogyny in recent years: so-called honour killings and the terrible events of 1989 when fourteen young women were killed for supposedly being out of their sphere. It’s no wonder that Quebecers aren’t quite satisfied with an official stance that suggests people can believe what they like and comport themselves as they like, so long as they don’t cause public trouble. It’s no wonder that Quebecers want more searching protections for women. I think the same impulse that makes Quebecers want to “protect” women from the niqab would also make them, on fuller consideration, repudiate anything that would actually provoke bullying, as this ban must inevitably do. They would be the first to leap to the defence of any person they saw being bullied or even arrested for trying to ride a bus.
Cynical politicians have tried to exploit such concerns and direct them towards nativist resentments. But Quebecers repudiated that sort of nativism in the last election and I’ve no doubt they will do so again if the case is squarely put to them. If some people wish to politicize what women put on their faces, then the way for a secular society to respond is not: “Hey, we can politicize it right back at you,” but, instead: “Whatever. Wear a veil or wear five of them; we take no interest in the matter.” Only when we stop sensationalizing what women wear and focus instead on what they have to say, can we genuinely overcome misogynistic bullying. And Quebecers are more likely to come fully around to that view if they, too, are addressed moderately as reasoning beings, rather than attacked as incorrigible racists.
Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University. Her views are her own.