GUESTVIEW: Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square

February 6, 2009

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner

A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square.  This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman’s choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon “our way of life.”

(Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver’s license, 27 May 2003/pool)

While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity.  Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new.  It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview.  There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.

What seems problematic in the current debate, whether in Toronto or Milan, is the implication that Europeans and North Americans are willing to tolerate differences, but only up to a limit.   Some differences seem too threatening for them to consider seriously.  They seem to think some differences should be made invisible.  Thus, and perhaps inadvertently, the opponents of the niqabwho see themselves as the defenders of collective identity – call into question another value and practice that is central to Western democracy: open dialogue in the public sphere.

Ever since the Enlightenment, Westerners have agreed that tolerance and open discussion in a public space helps prevent violence and fosters community. It is a proud tradition. The great moral effect of creating a public space was that people from different traditions, with different views and different styles of conversing, could join in a shared process.  Tolerance – putting up with something you do not agree with – is understood here as an uncomfortable but necessary virtue.

(Photo: Female Saudi pharmacist in Jeddah, 4 June 2007/Susan Baaghil)

In deliberative democracy, each side or point of view must be given a chance to express itself and be subject to deliberation.  No side of the debate should be suppressed or dismissed without due consideration. However the niqab, when allowed into the public square, is a message that by itself questions the very boundaries of what is public versus private.  It is a mode of dress that suggests a different social order, a different public square.

Should people who cover their faces (and their mouths) speak and deliberate in the public square with those who do not?  There seem to be several good reasons for saying yes.

While it may be genuinely strange for us to encounter people with their heads and faces covered, it need not violate the principles of public space or democratic discourse.  Orthodox Jews are not supposed to shake hands or interact too closely with the opposite sex. This is accepted.  Advocates of public space need to recognize that if the public is genuinely democratic, every minority voice needs an opportunity to participate on their terms.  While this necessarily changes how discourse takes place, it is possible that the change will strengthen rather than threaten the collective.

Secondly, if women wearing a niqab are not permitted to engage in the public square in Western societies, the ripple effects may even impede the democratization of Muslim societies and keep Muslim women out of public life.  People who hold their religious values dear may choose — or worse, be forced — to remain out of the public square if they are not permitted to enter on their own terms.

(Photo: University graduate in Sanaa, Yemen, 30 July 2008/Khaled Abdullah)

If a community cannot express itself publicly in a way true to their own identity, what will this lead to?  Who will it exclude? What effect will such exclusion have, not only on the community at large, but on minorities’ ability to integrate in a way that maintains their identity?  And what will the impact of slow democratization in Muslim nations have for women’s rights and the larger global fabric?

There does not seem to be an easy answer, either to these questions or to the debate at hand. But deciding what makes the public square public and how people participate in public deliberation goes beyond the simple debate of religious freedom and national identity.  What is important for now is that someone spearhead a healthy discussion that seeks to think through these nuances, as opposed to the current polarized debate that simply compounds a growing divide between communities. Sadly, some who call for a dialogue with Muslims start with the proviso that Muslim women follow their standards for what is properly public.  This is not a partnership-based beginning.  Rather it will be the communities who move in the direction of real conversation, with openness to change, that will deserve to be called defenders of the pubic sphere.


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I am not anti-Muslim or pro-Muslim, but I like the idea of ”Faith in the public square”, something that has been forbidden for most Christians in the past 50-200 years.So if these guys can do it, why not, it’s a free country (I am libertarian).

Posted by Rollo1 | Report as abusive

It is unfortunate that the Niqab is “THE” conversation when it comes to discussing Muslim women. Muslim women’s issues should not be limited to dress or appearance however, for some reason society can’t seem to move past this subject when discussing Islam and Muslims.Muslims for the most part, already participate in the public realm on every level as do Sikhs in thier turbans, Jews in their yamakas and nuns in thier habits.

Posted by SMB | Report as abusive

I think this article does a very good job of highlighting the basic issue of tolerance and equal opportunity in a democracy. It is not an issue of faith in public sphere because it is humanly impossible to keep Faith, or the faith of ‘No Faith’ out of public sphere. The foundation of democracy is really equal opportunity and respect for differences.

Posted by FS | Report as abusive

I’m not trying to prove that Reuters does not necessarily agree with opinions in guest columns, but I would like to say that the authors’ comparison between the niqab and the way Orthodox Jews behave towards the opposite sex in public doesn’t seem to stand up. Not shaking hands is one thing, but covering the face to the point that the judge and jury cannot see all facial expressions as they would with any other person in the dock is another. The face is part of a person’s identity and non-verbal communication (both voluntary and involuntary). Jurors can be influenced by blushing, wry smiles or other facial expressions that would be fully visible if the woman wears a hijab but mostly hidden if she wears a niqab. If niqabs are allowed for defendants in court, Muslim women would be able to disguise these expressions while women of other faiths and all men would not. Do the authors think this is not an important aspect to consider?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

If these people want to immigrate to the USA and assimilate like everyone else and practice their religion in private, that’s fine. Otherwise they should remain in their native countries.

Posted by RFL | Report as abusive

This site on Islam is a brief illustrated guide for non-Muslims who’d like to understand Islam, Muslims (Moslems), and the Quran (Koran) . Also, . May GOD let all of us live in peace and harmony. Thank you.

Posted by DAV | Report as abusive

Perhaps I am being naive, but it’s absolutely shocking to learn that the legal process in any western democracy would require anyone to remove articles of traditional clothing as a basic condition of being allowed to participate.One can easily imagine elements of dress that might reasonably be considered a challenge for the average community to incorporate. But the traditional veil worn by millions of women all over the world hardly seems to rank!It seems obvious to me that in some cases — perhaps many cases — the veil is a political tool used by men to control and ultimately suppress women in the public sphere. But in cases where a woman wishes to wear it, whatever we suspect the dynamics behind this desire may be, it seems obvious that the solution starts with basic respect for a person’s right to cover their own body with fabric in whatever manner they desire. Forcing them not to do so clearly produces a hostile environment in which their honest participation cannot possibly be expected.Even as an agnostic born and raised in New York, I would question the dedication to freedom of anyone whose tolerance fails to extend even this far.

Posted by Gregory Ross | Report as abusive

RFL must be pure native american to speak that way, or just an ignorant/arrogant idiot of some kind.It is funny, people who claim to be tolerant can’t tolerate people with different values. But they travel to intolerant countries, do buisness there (not to mention all the killings in hundreds of thousands) but they can walk around the way they want (women with open faces etc). Does it mean, saudis for example are more tolerant (in general obviously, there are some extremists in every place, whatever they call themselves, from “freedom edurarers” to terrorists)?Whoever RFL is, must be a native american, since everyone else in US also a “comer” and brougth their own culture and imposed it on native americans, killing whoever tried to protect their land.

Posted by realitycheck | Report as abusive

Tom Heneghan raises some very interesting questions in his post above. But I would ask him to consider for a moment how his face would look if required to appear in public without pants or underwear. I suspect this is how many Muslim women would experience a public appearance with their face exposed.If someone appearing in court is required to present themselves in a manner which causes profound emotional distress, isn’t that inherently unfair as well?

Posted by Gregory Ross | Report as abusive

Interesting conversation, but please explain what a “freedom edurarers” means.

Posted by hmm | Report as abusive

[…] Go to article… […]

Posted by QALAM — Around the Muslim World » Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square | Report as abusive

I agree with Tom Heneghan. In addition,we must be reminded that the manner of exercising freedom of expression and religion in the public square is different from testifying in court. We have Rules of Procedure where everyone is bound to follow if he/she ought to seek relief from the court. One of the factors that Judges consider, being a trier of facts is the facial expression. This is very much significant in determining the credibility of the witness, plaintiff and the accused. One cannot invoke his religious belief especially if foreign to that place to obstruct justice or violate the Rules of Court. The fact that she migrated to a country whose Justice system is different from Sharia renders the immigrant to follow the laws of that country. If she cannot adopt to the system, then better go back to where she came from. Besides, this is analogous to a Christian who works in an Islamic country who is obliged to follow their law such as the wearing of scarf or niqab or not to bring Bible or worship publicly in their Church!I’m just reminded what Pope Benedict the XVI said; that Muslims must observe mutual respect and reciprocity. He who wants his rights to be respected must learn to respect the rights of others.

Posted by Daniel Rosaupan | Report as abusive

Recently, in Alberta, Canada, there was a small controversy regarding members of the Hutterian Brethern, refusing on religious grounds, to have their pictures taken for the new Alberta driver license. Hutterite members were not issued their licenses. After a successful appeal to a higher provincial court, Alberta Hutterites were issued their licenses without their pictures based on their religious rights. There was little fanfare as a result, and the average Albertan went about his/her own business without missing a step. The Canadian niqab issue will result in the same because of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in spite of the beliefs our current right-leaning PM and his struggling government.

Posted by Terry Brennen | Report as abusive

It seems that everyone is ignoring the fact that in our western culture, covering up your face is subconsciously an indication of ill intent. I don’t believe we should bend in this regard when it comes to a court of law, unless we implement procedures that allow the court to verify the identity of the person on site, if not on sight. That may include fingerprinting.And besides, it’s not a requirement of the religion. Modesty mostly means wearing a headscarf, which even my grandmother did when she went out of the house.

Posted by Robert Pratt | Report as abusive

This kind of (not so) funny business happens only in democracies where the constitution, law makers, law enforcement and judiciary sit with citizens at the same table (not literally, hope you understand) to resolve litigations. None of this ever happens in Islamic nations. Strangely, freedom is demanded more forcibly here than in those countries immigrants ( or their ancestors) come from, nor there will be any newspapers to write this kind of stories of freedom there. Gandhi once said and I cannot forget this: ‘It is scary to belong to majority’ (in nations where freedom and equality are for all).

Posted by New Immigrant | Report as abusive

This article misses the point of the judge’s ruling entirely! The accused has a right to face his/her accuser, a right established in order to avoid the abuses of anonymous testimony. For the defense attorney…and the jury…to gauge the reliability of the testimony, the judge deemed that the jury should also be able to see the witness’s facial expressions clearly. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty provides for safequards like this, in part because it is very difficult to defend oneself against such a charge. This article also does not mention that the woman in question has a driver’s license with a full face photo that is used as a public identity document. As a result, male police officers and other officials can and do see her face. What takes precedence here…the right of the accused to a fair trial, or the comfort level of this woman (as she indicated to the judge)? To reduce this to a discussion of religious expression in the public domain is to miss the point of the judge’s ruling completely!

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

[…] going to play into the exoticised-niqabi-woman trap by posting one here.)  What did impress me was this article, which actually had pictures of, get this, women in niqab doing stuff!  One was testifying in […]

Posted by Disorder in the Court: the Niqab and the Courtroom in Canada « Muslimah Media Watch | Report as abusive

Gregory Ross, I don’t think your analogy really works. It would be embarrassing for anyone to appear in public naked from the waist down because we usually only show ourselves like that in an intimate situation. But women who wear niqabs or burqas don’t wear them all the time. They regularly show their faces to other women and to men related to them. That could be dozens of people, maybe more. So they live with the two options normally discussed in western countries (veil or no veil) plus a third (no veil under certain conditions) that gets left out of this debate.French Muslim girls who normally wear hijabs in public but have to take them off to attend their state high school also use that third option. Imams here tell those girls they can make an exception because the law bans hijabs in school and they should not let that block their education.Speaking of the law, your analogy is also weak because there are laws pretty much everywhere against indecent exposure, whereas there are no laws against showing women’s faces — not even in Saudi Arabia.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Hi,The conversation around facial expressions is fascinating. While jurors and judges and the rest of us certainly look at facial expressions in making our evaluations of people, facial expressions have a range of meanings in different cultures; even within cultures, people use the same facial expressions to mean different things in different contexts. A smile of awkwardness looks like a smile of happiness, but they both look like a smile, and the same situation might make the same person feel awkward or happy, depending on a range of contextual factors. I might also get angry at a child who is smiling in what I think is an inappropriate situation to be smiling but the child may not be intending to smile out of disrespect or dishonesty.Also, I am curious about whether judges and jurors get any “tutoring” in deciphering the meaning of facial expressions, and if yes, what they are told– it all seems rather inexact! Facial expessions and other non-verbal cues can be governed by religious precepts. Perhaps not seeing someone’s face in a multicultural context can help a bit since non-verbal cues and their meanings are not universal. Would be curious to hear any replies.

Posted by SS | Report as abusive

But there is a slight difference between public space and public service. I can imagine a Muslim woman who is drafted into the US Army must be required to remove the Niqab on many occasions, not least in battle.Just so, the use of a driver’s license is not a right (of speech, or worship, etc.) but a public service and in certain ways a privilege, and not every can enjoy it (poor eyesight, too young, etc.). College scholarships typically require my social security number. I have the right to refuse that information, but then I can’t demand the scholarship either.

Posted by Daniel Meeter | Report as abusive

The hijab has had its place in Western culture as an accepted garment for ages, as worn by Catholic Nuns, but the niqab does not have any such place. The key difference is the ability to identify an individual. The idea that a woman or man could give testimony against a person and be unknown to this person is absurd. In the US Constitution we have ‘Amendment 6 – Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses’, and it states “…to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him…”I don’t see this as a issue of modesty, but as one of rudeness.I can accept the hijab and have accepted the denial of a hand shake due to cultural taboos, but the niqab won’t ever be accepted … keep it out of the public square.

Posted by Peter Young | Report as abusive

There was a similar case in Toronto a few years agowhereby a local Toronto transit bus driver refusedto allow a female passenger wearing a veil to enter his bus using her pass (photo id) because he was not able to identify her.

Posted by Dorothy Hasinoff | Report as abusive

Maybe we can consider the adagio:”My rights and duties end when starts yours…and viceversa”…More if all we wish to grow as Human Beings.

Posted by Maria | Report as abusive

Wearing a mask on the street is illegal in many places.Check your local laws. Some states and jurisdictions have laws restricting the wearing of masks in public. Others don’t. The penalties for violation of mask laws also varies.Some examples:1) It is a Class 6 felony to wear a mask in public in Virginia except in very limited circumstances, and protection from the elements is not included in that.2) In West Virginia, violation of their mask law is only a misdemeanor, and protection from the elements is specifically permitted.

Posted by Ayla Wang | Report as abusive

I feel at this time my life, and the things that I have learn in my 55 years on this earth, I am not the judge of how peolpe of different faith have to appear in public, we are all on this earth for short time and when we close our eyes and have to walk through those gates, Oh did I say gates, Well that what I believe, we all have our life to deal with, Why we just can’t get alone with each other. I look at life like this, if you take the skin off my body you would not not know who I was! we are all made different, and we stand for different things…..

Posted by Jean Coaxum | Report as abusive

What an absurdly dishonest column. The issue is face recognition and facial expressions; nobody gives a hoot what your culture is and you’re welcome to it.Apparently men of the Indian Sikh religion are required by their religion to carry a kind of scimitar. Are they to be allowed on airplanes? What about recent converts?Oh it’s a meaningful issue, but nowhere near as simple as this exercise in whining suggests.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

SARAH, MAT, Glad to see you joined issue in this current dialog. Your points on democratization and the requirements of open communication were well taken and clear. Two points I would have liked to have read are: 1) The legal issue of the right to “face” an accuser vs. prevention of further damages, 2) The importance of visage (viewable face)vs listening to the human being and from the heart. Granted that a face is a most communicative set of muscles, is it necessary to behold it in some or all circumstances? Who truly needs to “see the face” of Mohammed or Jesus to behold their messages?

Posted by Bill Leicht | Report as abusive

Nuns don’t participate in “in the public realm in every level”, they are a very small group (almost invisibly small nowadays in many Western countries), with specific and very limited roles. They are volunteers, and they are free to leave the convent and walk the streets in miniskirts if they wish. Thus an analogy between nuns and Muslim women as a whole – who did not volunteer to be female – is completely invalid.

Posted by Oliver Chettle | Report as abusive

[…] going to play into the exoticised-niqabi-woman trap by posting one here.)  What did impress me was this article, which actually had pictures of, get this, women in niqab doing stuff!  One was testifying in […]

Posted by Face-ing Justice: The Niqab in Canadian Courtrooms « Muslim Lookout | Report as abusive

The great concern by Americans with the niqab is clearly Islamo-phobic. Never mind that it is a symbol of patriarchal dominance and oppression. Its forced use predates Islam, Christianity and Judaism going back well over 4000 years.So for now we will not tolerate the niqab so that the authorities can make sure our papers are in order. Besides who cares about State and local ordinances? No one obeys speed limits or traffic lights. Or are laws just for some of us to follow?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

In a lot of ways western culture has shown that there are cases in which individual rights give way to the public interest. The famous example of not being able to yell “FIRE!” in a movie theater full of people as an act of free speech. We have naturalists who could happily spend all day in their birthday suit but they would be charged for doing so in public. So when it comes to issues such as removing face coverings in a court of law or for a driver’s license photo I think that too falls under one of those cases of justifiable infringement on personal liberties for the public good. If anything we should have more concern for the rights to protest and free speech being quashed such as they were at the Pittsburgh G20 meeting and such as they are/will be for the Vancouver olympics. That infringement on rights seems far more threatening to society then the removal of a face covering in a court of law.

Posted by Orgizmo | Report as abusive

I believe that any culture or religion which is acceptable to its people should be allowed to exist in other countries so long as it does not infringe on the laws or beliefs of the host peoples of said country.HOWEVER, I can fully understand the reasoning behind a judge ordering the unveiling for judicial purposes. The whole whole ordeal actually seems fairly straight forward to me.

Posted by Trevor | Report as abusive

The niqab provokes us like we Western women would lying topless on their beaches.When we deal with someone, we want to see their face. We want to be able to deal with everyone, also with women. Face to face. This is not no longer a man´s world.Without this possibility, we feel that our communication is disabled. The niqab offends our values.In Rome do like the Romans…

Posted by Armand Bogaarts | Report as abusive

At home they can wear full space suit, but in public space they should respect local customs. I found hijab is offending. It is a half hearten argument that they cannot take hijab off because of their religion. They came to the West by free will. Most of them seek economical benefits. I am sure that they had pictures taken without hijab when it came to immigration documents. So it was a question of right price.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

What if some German immigrant decided to wear a brown shirt and Swastika armband claiming it a part of his cultural heritage? Is it acceptable? (Hint: in Germany it would be a criminal offense.) Hijab and other symbols of militant islam are no more acceptable than Nazi symbols.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

[…] going to play into the exoticised-niqabi-woman trap by posting one here.)  What did impress me was this article, which actually had pictures of, get this, women in niqab doing stuff!  One was testifying in […]

Posted by Disorder in the Court: the Niqab and the Courtroom in Canada » Muslimah Media Watch | Report as abusive