Whether they admit it or not, virtually all Westerners hate the niqab and burqa for the anti-democratic ideology and misogynistic gender relations they signify. Many are increasingly willing to say so.
Why does political correctness fall away when it comes to the niqab? Because other Islamist inroads, like Sharia banking, happen offstage, so to speak. They are not “seen” by the public. But the niqab is open to the collective public gaze. Individuals responding to their own discomfort observe that discomfort mirrored in other people’s faces, which in turn emboldens them to protest. Politicians know grassroots support when they see it and several Western leaders have seized the moment for legislating partial or full niqab bans.
Parallel to the parliamentary efforts now advancing in France and Belgium, Quebec recently tabled a new law, Bill 94, which will ban the niqab — or any face cover — when extending and receiving public services in such institutions as courts, hospitals, schools, and licensing bureaus.
It is no accident that Quebec is leading the way in North America on this file. Quebec, apart from multicultural Montreal and its diffuse northern native populations, is the last bastion of ethnic homogeneity on the continent (with a not-unrelated tendency amongst ethnic québécois to politically incorrect candor), a province where obsession with cultural preservation drives the political agenda.
Since the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, cultural preservation has become synonymous with the linguistic hegemony of French. But Catholicism, however vestigial in terms of practice and influence, still rallies the loyalty of québécois in the face of perceived challenges to their cultural security.
Because the controlling hand of the Catholic Church fell particularly heavily on women in the past, Quebec is also the most militantly feminist of Canadian provinces. Female politicians exert a powerful influence over all social and cultural policies and disbursements here. The galling sight of veiled, depersonalized women in this women’s rights stronghold arouses far more animus than any multiculturalist ideal can counter.
The decisive move, approved by 95% of Quebecers (a rare moment of political accord uniting federalists and nationalists) and 75% of all Canadians, followed a cultural tipping point, arrived at in November 2009, when a niqab-clad Egyptian woman, Naema Ahmed, was expelled from a government-run French class. This was done for pedagogical reasons, not religious ones; hostile to suggested compromises in advancing phonological competencies for which the teacher’s direct observation of her mouth is crucial, she exhausted the administration’s patience. Notable in her case, however, is the fact that the school felt so hamstrung by political correctness and dithered so long, the government stepped in to order the expulsion.
Ahmed’s indifference to the sensibilities of her classmates and her general belligerence were helpful in reinforcing the public’s impression that she was making a political rather than a religious statement. That she later tried to re-enroll, still veiled, in another French course — unsuccessfully — and promptly filed a complaint with a human rights commission gives the whole caper the earmarks of an Islamist shot across the bow.