By Barbara Kay,
Source / Courtesy: The National Post
The Supreme Court must decide whether women may keep their faces covered in court. Or rather whether Muslim women can, but other women can’t.
A young Muslim woman in her thirties, known as N.S., claims that the psychological distress of testifying with her face uncovered against two male defendants, relatives she has accused of sexually assaulting her as a child, trumps the long-honoured right of the defendants’ lawyers to see her expression under cross-examination.
The case went to the Ontario Court of Appeal in June of 2010. There, irony was heaped on irony in the presentations of two intervening groups whose perspectives sum up the conflict – the ideology of multiculturalism versus the sacred tenets of democracy – that sits at the heart of this case.
The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) – a bastion of feminist activists – argued that the alleged victim should be allowed to wear the veil if her religion demands it, stating that forcing a Muslim woman to uncover her face while testifying “could very well be seen and experienced as an act of racial, religious and gendered domination.”
Opposing LEAF’s viewpoint was the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC). MCC spokesman Tarek Fatah maintained that religious freedoms are not absolute. They must be balanced against the right of a criminal defendant and his advocate to look his accuser in the face and assess her expression: “[Muslim women] should be treated like any other woman and receive the same protections.” Fatah also objected to the Charter being a vehicle for gender inequality: “The covered female face is a reminder to the wearer that she is not free and to the observer, that she is a possession.”
LEAF got it wrong and the MCC got it right.
The “religious” argument does not hold. Islam does not “demand” face coverage, even if some Muslims do. Over the years we have heard from hundreds of imams and scholars on this subject. In 2009 Sheikh Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi, the grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious learning, scolded a Cairo high school girl for wearing a face-veil: “The niqab is a tradition,” he said. “It has no connection to religion.”
But even if Islam did demand it – in which case women in Islamic countries like Pakistan would be covered, but aren’t – that is still no reason to offer N.S. special treatment. When a religious tradition or rite conflicts with our democratic values, democratic values must hold sway, as we just saw in the polygamy decision, another so-called religious demand.