The Canadian province of Quebec has passed a sweeping ban on face coverings – barring public workers from wearing the niqab or burqa and obliging citizens to unveil when riding public transit or receiving government services – ushering in a law believed to be the first of its kind in North America, the Guardian reported.
The legislation was adopted on Wednesday, capping off two years of work by the province’s Liberal government to address the issue of state neutrality, the report said.
The resulting law has been condemned by critics who say it deliberately targets Muslim women and will fuel the province’s simmering debate on identity, religion and tolerance, the report added.
Philippe Couillard, the premier of Quebec, was defensive as he addressed the new law. “We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face,” he told reporters. “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.”
The law was originally meant to ban face coverings for those offering or receiving services from government departments and provincially funded institutions, such as universities, the report added.
In August, the legislation was extended to apply to municipalities, school boards, public health services and transit authorities, raising the possibility that women wearing a niqab or burqa in Quebec would not be able to take the metro or ride the city bus. “As long as the service is being rendered, the face should be uncovered,” Stéphanie Vallée, Quebec’s justice minister, was quoted by the report as saying.
The legislation stipulates that exemptions can be made for those who provide spiritual care or religious instruction, as well as those who are forced to cover their faces due to working conditions or occupational hazards, the report added.
Amid widespread confusion as to how the new law would be applied and who it would affect, Vallée said the province would now work with municipalities, schools and public daycares to establish clear guidelines.
The Liberal government has long argued that the legislation – which does not specifically mention the niqab or burqa – addresses public safety, noting that it would also apply to masked protesters.
“We are not legislating on clothing,” Vallée said last year. “Public services have to be offered and received with the face uncovered for security, identification and communication purposes.”
Others – citing a 2016 survey that suggested that just 3% of Muslim women in Canada wear the niqab – have accused the provincial government of targeting Muslim women in order to curry votes in the run-up to next year’s provincial election.
“It seems like a made-up solution to an invented problem,” said Ihsaan Gardee of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “We don’t have a big issue right now with hordes of Muslim women in niqab trying to work in the public service or accessing public services with difficulty.”