Ontario -- 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.
In Europe more and more Muslim women have taken up the veil as a political statement of Islamist triumphalism. Which is why the niqab and burka have been proscribed in France and Belgium as a socially menacing statement that is incompatible with democracy, and in particular with gender equality. Multiculturalists and libertarians denounced the ban, but again it was a democratic Muslim, not a feminist, who came to the rescue of logic and democratic values. Dr Taj Hargey, imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, wrote in England's Daily Mail: "The decision by the French government to outlaw all forms of public face-masking, including the burka and niqab, is welcomed by all thinking Muslims around the world."
N.S. herself had a photo taken for her driver's licence, which shows us that the issue is not one of religion, but of situational convenience. N.S. did not mind her face being uncovered so that she could drive a car. So clearly it is not the religion that is the problem, it is the claimant's unwillingness to face her abusers without the psychological protection of the veil.
If N.S. is permitted to cover her face under the guise of religion, why shouldn't all victims of sexual assault have that privilege under the guise of their freedom to "dress" as they choose? Fear is fear for all women. Why stop at women, though? Why not all fearful witnesses?
Legal minds should not allow multicultural correctness to blind them to potent symbols of inequality. No rhetorical legerdemain in the world can turn the dhimmitude of women represented by that dehumanizing mask into a charming mantilla of sexual modesty.
It's a strange world we live in when feminist legal minds side with gender inequality, and Muslim scholars side with separation of church and state. Would that we had more "thinking" non-Muslims amongst our intellectual class.