As Quebec approaches the third anniversary of its ban on face coverings—often referred to as its “niqab ban“—Muslim women in the province are wryly noting the government’s recent change in opinion when it comes to face coverings in light of the global pandemic.
Bill 62—passed into law on Oct. 18, 2017, by Quebec’s provincial Liberal government—specifically prevents anyone from giving or receiving a public service wearing a face covering. Under Bill 62, individuals must have their face visible when riding the metro, renewing a health card, and going to the ER, as well as when working as a teacher, a police officer, or in any other public sector job.
The passing of the bill immediately led to an outcry from Muslim communities in the province for what its implementation could mean for women who wear the niqab, a garment worn with a hijab that covers the nose, mouth, and chin.
Safety concerns were cited as the main reason for banning face coverings under Bill 62. An Ipsos poll conducted soon after the bill passed showed 76 per cent of Quebec residents supported it.
Broadly-defined safety concerns aren’t only used by the government to limit face coverings in the province. More than one go-karting business in Gatineau has rules against riders wearing items which they say can get caught in the wheels, including hijabs.
Amigo Karting, a private go-karting business in Gatineau, doesn’t allow riders to wear hijabs, ties, skirts, or any other loose—or potentially loose—garment, such as turbans. In 2015, the Ottawa Citizen reported a hijab-wearing teen was also turned away from Top Karting, a similar establishment in the same city.
In an email to The Pigeon, Amigo Karting said the rule is solely due to the safety concerns of long and loose garments getting caught in the low wheels of the go-kart.
Sports hijabs are often looser and don’t cover the wearer’s face. The business noted it provides balaclavas, which are similar but not the same as sports hijabs, as an alternative to riders who wear hijabs. The business said clean balaclavas are still being offered during the pandemic.
While private businesses aren’t subject to the same rules as the public sectors affected by legislation such as Bill 62, some Muslim women living in Quebec say rules at private businesses such as this one are hard to take out of the context of the province they’re in.
In Canada, banning religious garments in the name of safety seems to be a Quebecois phenomenon. According to some Muslim women in Quebec, bills 21 and 62—as well as rules like those at Amigo Karting—are a reflection of a fundamental misunderstanding of what hijab and niqab are.
COVID-19 and the niqab ban
“I call it the curse of the niqabis,” says Shaheen Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). Ashraf wears hijab and lives in Montreal.
A niqabi is a woman who wears a niqab, a term commonly used by members of Muslim diaspora communities similar to the term hijabi, or a woman who wears a hijab.
The CCMW advocates for the equality and empowerment of Canadian Muslim women nationally, running initiatives such as the Muslim Women’s Family Law and Legal Rights Project, providing comprehensive resources to individuals.
“[Women who wear niqab] were so hurt by this Quebec government, the way they were trying to put a ban on them,” Ashraf said. “Now, the whole world is wearing niqab.”
In July, as COVID-19 rates increased in the province, Quebec began to mandate the wearing of masks or face coverings while on public transit and in public places to reduce the virus’ spread. As a page on the government’s website puts it, doing so is necessary “in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This legislation change is frustrating to women in the province who wear face coverings, after multiple provincial bills limited their abilities to wear niqab or hijab in public.
Bill 21, passed soon after Bill 62 by the province’s current ruling party, the Coalition Avenir Québec in June 2019, bans people working in public service from wearing religious symbols, including crosses, the Jewish kippah, hijabs, niqabs, and turbans.
Both Bill 21 Bill 62 had an immediate effect on the lives of hijabis and niqabis in Quebec. Attacks on women wearing niqabs on the metro and women being denied bus service were reported. The New York Times reported on a Sikh teacher, an Orthodox Jewish teacher, and a Muslim lawyer who all had their career plans affected by the legislation.
Although Ashraf says she has never been singled out or targeted for her religious beliefs or appearance, she’s heard the stories of many others who have.
“Women have been harassed. Their hijabs have been pulled. They have been pushed down the escalators in the metro. [These are] real atrocities,” she said.
After the bill passed in 2017, the CBC reported that former Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard said, “We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”
Ashraf says she wonders about the sudden change in the provincial government’s attitude towards face coverings after the pandemic led many municipal and provincial governments to mandate the wearing of masks indoors.
“They were saying, ‘Oh, [niqabs are] a security risk.’ Now, everyone has a niqab. You can’t recognize anyone when you’re walking down the street. So, what happened?” Ashraf said.
Maria Iqbal, a Canadian journalist who wears a niqab, wrote an article for Chatelaine in September titled, “4 Tips On Wearing A COVID-19 Mask, From A Niqabi.” Ashraf cites this article as an example of the response she likes to see from Muslim women to the shift in rhetoric the Quebec government has made towards face coverings during the pandemic.
That said, not everyone in Quebec readily accepted the province’s mask mandate; an anti-mask protest in Montreal led to an arrest on Sept. 30. Some attendees carried American, Quebecois, and pro-Trump flags.
“If I was a mean person, I would say, ‘Serves them jolly well right,’” Ashraf said. “I’m going to take the high road and I’m going to say, ‘I’m sorry you have to [mandate face coverings], but next time, please be careful how you judge other people.’”
Ashraf is 73 years old and has worn hijab while living in Quebec since her trip to Saudi Arabia for hajj—a pilgrimage made by many Muslims to the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia—in 1997.
For Ashraf, living in Quebec while wearing a hijab isn’t difficult because she doesn’t worry about how people perceive her. However, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt the pressure of the stereotypes and Islamophobia.
“When 9/11 happened, I was working on the seventh floor of (my) building,” she said. “When I went into the elevator, people were very tense. What I used to do was just say, ‘Oh my God, that’s a nice handbag. Where did you get that?’”
“I could literally feel the fear melt away. Like, ‘Phew, she’s normal.”
Ashraf said safety policies that single out religious groups are a problem because they can make people feel they aren’t welcome.
“Many ethnicities come over here [and] many beliefs make Quebec their home. They need to make us feel included.”
Nadia Naqvi, a high school teacher in Quebec, recounted a similar experience to The Pigeon. During the period of public debate over Bill 60, introducing a Quebec Charter of Values, which failed to pass under former Premier Pauline Marois in March 2014, Naqvi said she felt scrutinized in public.
The Charter was the Parti Quebecois’ initial attempt to limit public servants from wearing overt religious symbols and to make uncovering one’s face mandatory when receiving a public service.
To combat stereotypes about Muslim women who wear hijab, Naqvi said she often feels she needs to prove she’s friendly by smiling.
“I said to [my friend], ‘I’m kind of scared of going to Walmart,’” Naqvi said. “She said, ‘Why don’t you try just smiling?’”
“I [walked] around with this dumb half smile on my face […] people respond to that.”
Naqvi says she feels people who don’t know her will often apply common perceptions of Muslim women to her.
“The stereotype is not different anywhere in the world. They think I’m [an] oppressed, illiterate, uneducated woman that doesn’t make her own choices.”
Ashraf, though, has an accepting attitude towards it.
“Let them assume. It doesn’t bother me.”
Hijab, go-karting and safety
Naqvi works as an advisor for the National Council of Canadian Muslims and is the founder of the Muslim Teachers Council of Quebec. She has worked as a high school teacher in the province since 2007.
She’s been on medical leave for two years, since before Bill 21 passed into effect. Since Bill 21 had a grandfather clause, Naqvi can continue working as a teacher while wearing hijab.
A grandfather clause means the legislation will only apply to future cases. In the case of Bill 21, it meant hijab-wearing public servants working before the bill’s passage wouldn’t have to leave their jobs or remove their hijabs.
Naqvi says the rules some go-karting businesses in Quebec have against hijabs remind her of Bill 21.
“[The go-karting rules are] very Bill 21-esque,” she said. “We’re not dumb. If I’m going to go-karting and I have a hijab that has a few pieces, I would tuck it in.”
Ashraf says it’s important for her to be free to wear hijab because it symbolizes showing respect to God.
“If covering of hair was not necessary, then why do we cover our head when we are standing in prayer?” she said. “Covering of the hair is a mark of respect.”
Ashraf said the go-karting establishment could ask hijabis to tuck their hijabs in to secure them, instead of asking them to take them off and replace them with something else.
Manal, who preferred to be identified only by her first name, is a Muslim woman who wears hijab and lives in Ottawa, Ont. She says she went to Amigo Karting in September while wearing a turban-style hijab.
She said she had gone go-karting before at Karters’ Korner in Stittsville, Ont. and didn’t encounter similar rules. Karters’ Korner, once a popular go-karting destination for people in Ottawa, recently announced its permanent closure.
The fabric in a turban-style hijab is wrapped around the wearer’s head and normally doesn’t have loose pieces, but can come unraveled if not wrapped tightly.
Manal said staff at Amigo Karting were polite but told her she couldn’t wear the turban. She said they gave her a balaclava to wear instead.
Although this was the first time she had encountered rules against hijabs while go-karting, Manal didn’t feel this was discriminatory.
“Honestly, if I’m being unbiased, [Amigo Karting] was very nice about it,” Manal said. “I’ve had other encounters with people who aren’t so open about hijab in Quebec. It wasn’t one of those [situations].”
However, in a province where boarding a public bus while wearing a face covering is prohibited by the government, women who wear a hijab or niqab worry “safety” regulations might become more common in private businesses.
A lack of exposure
Ashraf says in all her years of living in Quebec, she hasn’t been exposed to the sort of harassment, prejudice, and anti-Muslim sentiment that she has heard through the stories of other hijabis at the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.
Ashraf feels that the problem comes down to a lack of familiarity with people who practice other faiths, she says.
“[There is] not only enough education, but not enough exposure […] to different cultures, to different nationalities, to different ways people look.”
Ashraf says when people aren’t familiar with others, they are more likely to fear or target them.
Both Naqvi and Ashraf agreed Muslim women should be brave enough to speak for themselves when they feel wronged, and that reaching out to form connections help break down barriers of misunderstanding.
“I’ve got kids and I want them to understand [they] deserve to live here. It is [their] right, [they] were born here,” Naqvi said.