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Face Veils and Justice

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An abridged version of this piece was published in the Toronto StarVeils and justice

February 04, 2009
Faisal Kutty

Here they go again. Muslims just don’t give up trying to change our values and roll back hard fought rights of equality and justice. Though this time, we may have nipped it in the bud early – but should we?

Ontario Court Justice Norris Weisman’s “admittedly difficult decision” to force a complainant to testify without her niqab, or face covering, in a sexual assault case has unleashed a torrent of discussion and debate. Again, the usual suspects with too little knowledge, appreciation or understanding of the complexities of the issue have jumped into the fray.

The ruling once again brings to the fore questions surrounding the limits of accommodation in a liberal multicultural society. But this time, in a novel twist, the clash pits a person’s religious right with the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to due process and procedural fairness; namely that of being able to face his or her accuser in open court. Obviously, both are important rights in a liberal democracy.

The niqab – which a small fraction of orthodox Muslim women use to cover their faces, and not to be confused with the hijab or head covering, is attacked by some as a symbol of oppression and by others as a badge of political Islam. By others as a public-relations nightmare for their “moderate” or more palatable versions of Islam. By others as something that should be compromised in the two-way dance of accommodation. And still by others as not compulsory or even totally unnecessary from a strict Islamic legal point of view.

True, the vast majority of Islamic scholars do not believe it is fard, or compulsory. A few acknowledge that it is recommended. And a very small fringe believe it is compulsory. But even these jurists will defer to Islamic rules of necessity (darura) and public interest (maslaha) to sanction its removal in certain official and medical contexts, ranging from identification to security needs.

It is also interesting to note that scholars are unanimous in holding that the face must be uncovered during circumambulation of the Kaaba in Mecca, during what is arguably considered a peak moment of Islamic spirituality.

Many non-Muslims are quick to oppose this practice, to borrow the idea and phrase coined by Professor Sherene Razack, “to rescue the imperiled Muslim woman.” Sadly, many Muslims are also quick to speak out against this woman’s right to practise her religion as she believes it should be. Understandably, they are worried about the potential backlash from mainstream society.

All of these people miss the point, however, and there is a need to think through the issue in a more holistic manner. The question of the niqab in court must be tackled without resorting to fear and reductionism.

First, from the religious rights perspective, the law is clear and logically consistent with the core values of liberal democracy. In Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, a case that tackled the definition of freedom of religion under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the majority accepted a definition that included any practice the individual sincerely feels is connected to religion, regardless of whether the practice is required, sanctioned or mandated by a religious authority. In other words, a person who claims rights to freedom of religion does not need to demonstrate that they were denied rights to worship in accordance with the manner required by a religious authority. Building on prior case law, the Court held that it was enough to demonstrate an individual’s religious belief and that the practice was connected to this belief – though practices sanctioned or required by religious authorities are also protected.

The reasoning was consistent with the desire to ensure that secular governments and courts should not be placed in the position of determining which religious practices are authentic or not.

To determine whether an individual belief is sincere, the Court followed the American lead in advocating for a minimally intrusive evaluation of an individual’s beliefs. Courts must only determine that religious claims are made in good faith and not feigned. The majority also held that courts should tolerate changes in beliefs; the individual’s beliefs held in the past or from time to time are not relevant to those claimed in the present.

From a religious rights perspective, the woman has a clear right to testify with her niqab. The judge seems to have discounted the significance of her belief because she was not unequivocal in stating how much she believed in it. Surely she cannot be expected to communicate the technical legal standard she needs to meet, particularly given that English may not be her mother tongue. Clearly, as the record and context show, she had a genuine belief in it even though she may not have used accurate language to convey her conviction.

Contrary to what some have argued, exposing her face for her driver’s licence photograph in the past does not void her right to insist on it in the present, as the Supreme Court clearly articulated. Moreover, this cannot be equated to open and public testimony in the presence of numerous men and the added stress of courtroom formality.

Muslim groups and individuals – well-intentioned but misguided and trying to champion a better public relations image for Islam and Muslims – clamouring to distance themselves from the issue, must understand that religion is something personal. In line with the Supreme Court decision, it must be defended on a personal level. They must ask whether they really want to start allowing external forces and/or even others from within to dictate what of one’s religion is mandatory and what is not.

Today it is her niqab, tomorrow it will be her hijab, next it will be his beard and eventually it will be your right to educate your children in religious schools, which are teaching “hate” and “un-Canadian” values if you believe some of the anti-Muslim and anti-religion rhetoric that passes for debate and informed comment on Muslims and Islam.

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Toronto-based lawyer (, writer and academic. He is currently an assistant professor of law at Valparaiso University School of law and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. Faisal has published articles in the Toronto Star, National Post, Montreal (more...)

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