Doing secularism wrong

There’s nothing progressive or feminist about Quebec’s Bill 62

You cannot emancipate women forced to wear the niqab abroad by forcing women here to remove it.
Photo: Sean_Marshall

Quebec’s niqab ban isn’t feminism at work; it’s just one more heinous example of society regulating women’s bodies.

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The province’s new religious neutrality bill banning face coverings for public servants and individuals using government services has been met with confusion, protests, and a court challenge.

The impulse to regulate women’s clothing and behaviour harkens back centuries.

Despite enjoying support from many people inside and outside Quebec who defend it as a necessary step to emancipate women and communicate our society’s egalitarian and secular values, all the highly discriminatory legislation manages to do is marginalize and stigmatize a tiny percentage of a community already reeling from daily racism and Islamophobia.

Controlling women’s clothing

At its very essence, Bill 62 is no different than the various burkini bans put in place in many French cities last year, which sought to limit the amount of clothing worn by Muslim women on beaches. On these same beaches, not long ago, modesty police measured bathing skirt lengths to make sure they were not too revealing. In the early ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the bikini was considered too provocative. Today, police officers roam beaches to ticket women for wearing too much.

The common denominator in both Bill 62 and France’s burkini bans? Pressure on women to submit to society’s ever-changing mores and a dress code symbolic of a certain message that the majority wants to espouse.

This, of course, is old news. The impulse to regulate women’s clothing and behaviour harkens back centuries. When women’s bodies are viewed as public property, they become a battlefield for politics and religious doctrine.

Going as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, magistrates controlled what women could wear. The gynaikonomoi (controllers of women) were appointed to survey women in public and enforce rules about what could be worn. If women were found to be clothed immodestly, the men had the power to fine them or rip their garments off them. Self-appointed controllers of women are still walking the streets: the hijabs and niqabs of Muslim women are removed with alarming regularity these days.

Blaming women

Throughout history, women’s sexuality has been reined in by men for whom their skin taunts, titillates and distracts. Women, it seems, are solely to blame for men’s inability to control themselves. In some cases, female students as young as 10 years old are being sexualized and told to cover up, teen girls are told their bra straps are distracting to male students, and only last year female students in Montreal were told by police that they were “asking for harassment” by wearing short uniform skirts.

There is nothing progressive or feminist about forcing women to remove an article of clothing.

At the same time that too much skin is an issue, a 15-year-old Muslim girl was twice banned from class because her skirt was too long.

Which is it? Shall women cover up or disrobe for you? Is a little skin okay, but too much anathema? Is a woman wearing a short skirt “too slutty,” but one wearing a face covering “too antisocial”? Are breasts encouraged on runways and red carpets, only to be shunned while feeding a baby? When do women ever get a say in this never-ending game of What Not to Wear?

Trampling rights in the name of secularism

“Of course, the burkini debate is not only about feminism. It is foremost a debate about the visibility and presence of Islam in France,” wrote Alissa J. Rubin in the New York Times.

In Quebec, too, the issue isn’t the attire itself, but what it represents. Though fewer than 150 Muslim women in Quebec wear the niqab, most of the province’s political parties wouldn’t think twice about trampling these women’s freedom and rights in the name of secularism.

The simple matter is, you cannot emancipate women forced to wear the niqab abroad by forcing women here to remove it.

There is nothing progressive or feminist about forcing women to remove an article of clothing. It’s as regressive as forcing a woman to wear a niqab if she doesn’t want to wear one. Ultimately, the issue isn’t about the niqab or burqa, but about women’s right to choose.

In today’s world, both religion and secularism have become rationales for government oppression. Bill 62 is discriminatory and anti-democratic, continuing a long history of policing of women’s bodies. History will look back at this moment of legal repression as just one more example.

Muslim women in the niqab or burqa of their own volition don’t need “saving’”; they need to be left alone.

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