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Make no mistake. The niqab ban is not just Quebec’s problem. It’s Canada’s problem.

Yusra Javed talked to former politician Farheen Khan, National Post columnist Barbara Kay, student Aima Warriach and former Ontario Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, to report on why the niqab ban is not only Quebec's problem, but Canada's problem.

Drawing of a woman in a hijab. Her left eye has a maple leaf in it, her right is green. There are chains across the left side of the drawing and doves on the right

A simple piece of rectangular cloth — only slightly bigger than a handkerchief — has become the scapegoat for the Quebec government to conceive one of the biggest wars on religion in Canada since the banning of turbans on soccer fields (because wearing a turban on your head while kicking a ball with your feet is a “safety hazard”).

Quite frankly, that’s how preposterous Bill 62 really sounds. The bill was passed in mid- October by the Liberal Majority National Assembly of Quebec to prohibit people who cover their faces from providing or receiving public services.

Really, this is just a way of avoiding saying it “prohibits Muslim niqab-wearing women from giving or receiving any public services.”

France had the courtesy of calling it a niqab ban. Anyone who calls it anything but a niqab ban is kidding themselves. Because what other Canadians would cover their faces while going to the hospital, riding a bus, dropping their child off at daycare or renewing their driver's licence?

The fact that the previous title of the bill described it as “an act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality” is a dead giveaway to the province’s direct attack against the local niqabi.

But former politician Farheen Khan, who ran for MP of Mississauga Centre in the 2015 federal election, emphasizes that the issues with Bill 62 are not just associated with Quebec. They are part of a rising national issue of Islamophobia which must be addressed.

“We’ve seen this bill under different names…over the last ten years or so,” Khan says. “We saw...niqab banning during citizenship ceremonies introduced by our own Stephen Harper in 2015. So it's not a complete shock.”

Khan has written and spoken out to the media about the impact of Islamophobia on the lives of women in Canada post-9/11.

“There is a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in [Quebec],” says Khan. “That’s why we saw the shooting in Quebec happen, the Mosque [shooting]. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen elsewhere in Canada. It’s not to say that Islamophobia doesn’t exist or that there is no anti-Muslim sentiment [elsewhere].”

The best case scenario for the Quebec government is for Bill 62 to spread across the whole country and “assimilate” all Canadians.

And that’s exactly what supporters of the niqab ban like Barbara Kay, a National Post columnist, hope to achieve. After a series of aggressive tweets celebrating the passing of Bill 62, she caught the attention of many media outlets for her beliefs that face coverings are a form of oppression.

In a recent interview, Kay asserted her hope that Quebec’s law might lead to the Supreme Court finding what she called “a social right, the right for free men and women to meet and greet each other in the public forum with open faces.” This would overrule Muslim women’s right to wear religious face coverings.

“Muslim women who have been oppressed in Islamic countries and have come here precisely because they wish to get away from this kind of gender inequality, I would say this is a highly triggering thing for them,” says Kay.

Many Québécois share the same values as Kay. An Angus Reid poll conducted in September found that 87 per cent of the province either strongly or moderately supported the legislation.

“When you [are] giving a certain freedom to people who...are not using it to enhance their integration into society, but to withdraw from society...when critical masses start doing that, it becomes an issue of social cohesion,” says Kay.

It’s important to note that Quebec has its own bill of rights known as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which is separate from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The two charters are largely analogous, but Quebec’s charter includes a line that states: "In exercising his fundamental freedoms and rights, a person shall maintain a proper regard for democratic values, public order and the general well-being of the citizens of Quebec.” It adds: "In this respect, the scope of the freedoms and rights, and limits to their exercise, may be fixed by law."

That, combined with their history of secularism, makes Quebec laws almost completely untouched by religious influence.

In France, the right to ban niqabs was even upheld by the European Court of Human Rights after it was challenged by an unnamed woman, a French citizen and practicing Muslim. Belgium experienced a similar challenge for its ban on burqas and other full-face Islamic veils. In both cases, the court decided that banning the religious face covers was not discriminatory, and that cooperation among the whole state was more important than the rights to face cover in the public sector.

However, Aima Warriach, a first-year political science student at Ryerson, believes these anti-niqab beliefs are emphasized by people who are ignorant to Islam.

“[Kay’s position] clearly indicates she hasn’t met a Muslim woman observing niqab out of her own volition,” Warriach wrote in a Facebook message. “Canada praises itself for her multiculturalism yet forgoes the rights of her fellow Canadians for cheap votes.”

Warriach, who wears the niqab, has been very vocal against Bill 62. Speaking out on her YouTube Channel Niqabae Chronicles, The Globe and Mail and many other Toronto-based media organizations, she emphasizes on the underlying themes of Islamophobia enacted with the law.

“People are so focused on undressing Muslim women instead of addressing the real issues we face,” Warriach wrote. “It is equally inappropriate and hypocritical to say that to be Canadian means you have to embrace a standard of living that only privileges those at the centre of these systems of freedom.”

In their arguments, Warriach and Kay bring up a similar point, confirming what the debate over Bill 62 is really about. They highlight that the controversy of this bill is not over public safety or identification issues, but assimilation.

To put it simply, the Quebec government believes that wearing this extra layer of clothing is different, and therefore wrong for society. The Quebec government wants to legalize assimilation of everyone into one brand of French Canadian, while condemning “wrongness” based on indifference.

Ontario Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, made it clear that the Ontario Liberal Party condemns Bill 62 and that it is a clear form of Islamophobia.

“We have a very close working relationship with Quebec, but on this particular issue we fundamentally disagree,”Naqvi says in an interview. “Our view is that this legislation disproportionately would impact women who are sometimes already at the margins, and would push them into further isolation.

In fact,” Naqvi added, “we took the opportunity to speak in our legislature the day after the Quebec bill was passed. [Premier Kathleen Wynne] spoke personally, very directly to the issue, making the point that we do not agree with this type of law. We will never bring such a law in Ontario.

We recognize...that the work around making sure everybody is included in a society is not easy work,” Naqvi says. “But when we say that diversity is our strength, it has to be more than words, and we should be able and willing to do that difficult work.”

The banning of a religious symbol integral to some Muslim women to practice their faith says a lot about the tolerance and beliefs of Canadians. Even if we’re assured that Ontario will never enact a law such as this, if we ignore the conversations of banning religious clothing and don’t stand up for our religious rights, we’re hypocrites for laughing at our friends south of the border.

In the meantime, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims are taking Bill 62 to Quebec’s provincial court. But as turban-wearing soccer players had to be vigorously debated in Quebec before the ban was overturned, it will take a lot more time to see if Quebecois women will be able to keep their veils.

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