Face Coverings in Public? Civil Rights Aren’t Enough

yemen women

A few times now I have criticized the public regulation of face coverings such as has been imposed this week by the Quebec government: here in the Vancouver Sun, here for “Context,” and most recently here for American readers of Religious News Service.

But I don’t feel great about it.

I have no issue with head scarves, of course, whether worn by observant Muslim women on a city bus or by Grace Kelly in a convertible on the Côte d’Azur. But I am always disquieted by the masks of niqabs and burqas.

I recognize, and have defended, women who assert that they freely wear these things, whether to celebrate their heritage, observe standards of modesty, or even signal their sympathies with certain Islamic/Islamist groups. I may not admire that heritage or agree with those standards, and I may despise those groups, but I will defend a Canadian’s right to do as she pleases with what she wears, so long as public safety isn’t compromised.

Leaving aside the political declarations—if you want to say you admire ISIL, go ahead, and the RCMP and CSIS will add you to their lists—it’s the other issues that bother me most because those face coverings also symbolize a heritage of female subjugation. And it pains me to know that many Canadian women feel they must wear these things on pain of ostracism from their communities, disapproval and possibly disinheritance from their parents, violence from their husbands, or even honour killings from their families or in-laws.

Women under such pressures must be helped to escape. They must be offered an adequate range of social services: from initial protection in a shelter for themselves and their children, to welfare, to education and job training, to whatever restraining orders are needed to keep them safe. Support for multiculturalism has never meant we are obligated to let anti-Canadian values fester in our midst.

Language training in one or the other of our official languages must also be mandatory so that girls and women can capably access those services. Exceptions can be made—for elderly immigrants, perhaps, who are living out their last years in the care of their families. But making language training mandatory—and testing language ability for renewal of visas—can actually empower women, for then no parent or spouse can forbid them from receiving it.

Those closer to these situations certainly will have better solutions than I can imagine. And I know that in a free society horrible people are still going to be able to do horrible things. We can’t completely protect such women as they try to make their own way in the world.

But I recognize that we are in the midst of a contest of values. The best thing we can do is to convert our neighbours to a different way of seeing public life and women’s place in it.

To do so, however, we Christians need to search our souls, and our families and churches, to make sure that we offer a true alternative…and then offer it.

We must say no to the sexism that remains in our own circles, the silencing and “disappearing” of women that takes place still so often in Christian organizations. We don’t make women wear face coverings, but in many contexts—particularly where money, power, and honour are to be had—they might as well be invisible for all the respect and attention they are paid, if they are allowed to be present at all.

Only then can we engage our Islamic neighbours with a truly alternative ethic, a genuinely liberating regard for girls and women. Only then can we have the integrity to welcome them to a different status, a much bigger world of possibility. Only then can we also pose a vision of manhood that ennobles men, rather than confuses or emasculates them.

Only then can we purport to treat women the way our Saviour did. And that will be good news indeed.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).