Canada should consider burka ban as consistent with a free society

Farzana Hassan [Member, Muslim Canadian Congress]: "The French parliament is currently debating the legality of a proposed ban on the burka, the full veil worn by some conservative Muslim women. In a statement endorsing the recommendations of the parliament, President Sarkozy mentioned equality and liberty as the reasons for the proposed legislation. Not surprisingly, this controversial move has sparked an array of opinions, both supporting and opposing the proposed ban, which will be confined for now to public buildings. Liberals argue such a ban constitutes an infringement on individual rights and religious freedoms guaranteed in the French constitution. Others maintain such a ban would help Muslim women facing coercion in the matter.


The move has ignited similar debates in the United States and Canada with the secular Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) calling for a burka ban in Canada. In a letter to the Canadian government, the MCC cited concerns over the security of the public, the safety of burka-clad women as well as the resultant marginalization of these women.

As expected, the MCC has met with opposition from both Islamist groups as well as liberals who espouse an uncompromising multiculturalism. They argue that a burka ban would restrict the choices of women who wear the niqab or burka. But in their defense of the rights of these women, they often ignore the lack of choice for women who choose not to wear the niqab and are forced into adopting the cumbersome garb.

Legislation protecting their rights is not only desirable but essential. The influence of Wahabism grows stronger by the day. Proliferation of the burka is likely to have societal implications. A society allowing the marginalization of a sizable number of individuals stands at risk of being perceived as a dysfunctional society. The biggest challenge is that the burka adherents are inherently evangelical and their ultimate goal is to spread this practice among all Muslims by scaring them with theology. That is why this matter must be nipped at the bud.

The burka has already proliferated in Britain, where the government is reluctant to pass legislation against it for this reason. It is leery of passing legislation that is likely to affect a significant number of individuals. A similar scenario must be avoided in Canada and the United States, where the observance of the burka as yet, remains on the periphery.

Additionally, the argument promoting individual choice and freedom must be assessed within the context of the common good. Pluralism is hardly to be understood as an absolute. Restricting certain individual rights to advance the common good is by no means outside the realm of democracy and pluralism, and must function as a safeguard against the oppression of traditionally marginalized groups. It necessitates legislation against the burka, which is not only a tool of oppression but has now become a security threat in the current politically turbulent climate.

The same safeguards against the possible abuse of multiculturalism are stated in Article 9, section 2 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Legislation against the burka, therefore, does not pose a conflict with this human rights document. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is also clear on the matter as follows:
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
The above provision must serve as a basis for establishing the constitutionality of a burka ban in Canada. Choices made by women at the behest of radical theologies cannot be embraced if they are contrary to tenets of freedom that are enshrined in our society."

 

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