The Montreal Gazette by Brenda O’Neill and Elisabeth Gidengil 4 September 2013

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’s suggestion that the Charter of Quebec Values due to be tabled next week will assert the equality of women and men is one that may resonate with many Quebec women. Although it remains to be seen what exactly will be banned in the proposed bill, reports suggest it will include religious headgear and other visible religious symbols, in a range of institutions including day-care centres and government offices.

A provision banning face veils in the name of gender equality wouldn’t be new to Quebec. In 2010 a young woman in a French-language classroom was required to leave for repeatedly refusing, despite attempts at accommodation, to remove her niqab in the presence of men, so that the instructor could evaluate her pronunciation.

The niqab is a veil that covers the entire face, leaving only the eyes visible. It is halfway between a burqa, which covers the entire face, and the hijab, which covers the head but leaves the face completely visible.

Bill 94 soon followed, proposing to ban the wearing of face veils by women receiving or delivering public services. While that bill introduced by the former Liberal government was also defended on the grounds of the promotion of gender equality, it died in 2012 before the September general election.

In early 2010, our research group drafted a questionnaire for a survey of Quebec women’s political opinions and behaviour. Given the attention the face-covering issue was generating, we decided to incorporate questions specifically addressing the ban on the niqab into our research project. Later that summer, we spoke with 1,200 francophone women in the province, asking their opinion on the wearing of the niqab under different scenarios: while shopping, working as a pharmacist, teaching in a public school and while voting. We also asked them a set of questions tapping beliefs and experiences that we believed would help explain their attitudes on the issue.

What we found can help to explain why the Charter is likely to garner the support of many women in the province.

First, 65 per cent of the women we spoke with believed that wearing a niqab was unacceptable in all four of the scenarios that we presented. Only 2 per cent, roughly 25 of 1200 women, responded that it was acceptable in all four.

By far the most acceptable scenario was shopping, which 34 per cent of the sample thought was acceptable; the least was voting, acceptable to only 5 per cent of respondents. The public opposition to face veils among Quebec women was found by our research to be strong.

Second, there was significant agreement on a number of beliefs connected to the niqab, and these were clearly driving opinion on the issue. Our findings suggested that most women, 70 per cent, believed that women do not freely choose to wear the niqab. We also found that close to 75 per cent of our sample agreed that the niqab is a visible symbol of women’s oppression. Finally, we found that 65 per cent of the women rejected the argument that freedom of religion gives women the right to wear the niqab. Instead, many see banning the niqab as a step toward the promotion of women’s equality.

Indeed, women in our sample who identified as feminists were significantly more opposed to the niqab. What doesn’t seem to matter for opinion is the degree to which a woman identifies primarily as a Quebecer. Instead, we found a directly proportional connection between the level of discomfort that women reported that they felt when confronted with a woman wearing a niqab and their opposition to the practice. It’s perhaps a mix of support for gender equality and limited exposure to or understanding of a practice that is confined to a tiny minority of Muslim women in the province that helps to explain women’s opposition to the niqab. Tellingly, this opposition was less evident on the island of Montreal, where women are most likely to encounter a niqab-wearing woman.

The proposed Charter of Quebec Values will go beyond Bill 94 to include a ban on hijabs as well as niqabs. Imposing a more encompassing ban on Muslim veils may serve to curtail women’s support for the bill. The premier’s strategy of tying the Charter to women’s equality may nevertheless work, given the number of women in the province who are strongly opposed to face veils like the niqab.

Brenda O’Neill is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary and Elisabeth Gidengil is the Director of the Centre for Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University.