Uncover yourself

Can we think about the niqab issue a bit? The answer may be no. We may be either unwilling or unable to make sense of the matter. But as stupidity is undignified let's give it a try.

On Monday a Globe and Mail columnist snootily pronounced Quebec's niqab debate "just more proof, if it were needed, that minority rights should never be left to government". Who does she think should protect them? Corporations? Newts? Space aliens? It is hard to talk sense in such an environment but I am determined to try.

My starting point is that cultural habits matter. I realize this contention is itself controversial. Some people, including me, say culture is a set of working tools.

And when we encounter a widespread habit, we ask what this particular tool is for and how well it works. Others say cultural habits do not matter, that superficial differences in the ways we do things have no more bearing on what we do, who we are or what we're like than the colour we happen to paint our house.

To these people the basic analogy is the belief, popular in my youth, that Eskimos rubbed noses instead of kissing. I do not believe they did any such thing even before they became Inuit (illustrating, incidentally, that multiculturalists do not believe what they say, since their response to a cultural habit of using inappropriate ethnic terms is anything but tolerant).

No doubt many things are superficial. Two men holding hands in Ottawa are likely to be gay whereas in Saudi Arabia they are just good friends. But not all cultural differences are trivial; if two men in Saudi Arabia were thought to be gay they would face lynching or execution.

Given that grisly reality, some multiculturalists give the nihilistic response that while cultures clearly do differ we are in no position to pass judgment on how others conduct their affairs. To which I retort that if you can't see that clitorectomies are horribly wrong you are a dim-witted accessory to evil.

So before we continue, please take a pencil and paper and make a list of all the people who cover their faces in interactions with others.

I get the Ku Klux Klan, holdup men, terrorists and riot instigators. Notice anything about this list? Right. All of them are denying the humanity of those with whom they interact. The purpose of covering the face is not remotely comparable to the purpose of covering the hair. It is to establish a gulf across which normal moral links do not bind us.

It is not immediately obvious to me whether the niqab is designed to deny my humanity, hers or both. But I am equally unwilling to tolerate any of these. And by that I do mean I want it banned.

To begin with, on practical grounds, governments not only can, but must, require people to identify themselves in a wide variety of settings. Even a speeding ticket requires the officer to verify the person behind the wheel is who they claim to be. And to demand the state furnish a female police officer lest a man's gaze should soil a woman is to require my government to sanction an invidious separation between the sexes.

As to non-state interactions, I would normally insist the state has no business regulating dress unless it impairs a legitimate state function, is obscene or is so odd as to be either threatening or dangerously distracting to motorists (the legal offense of "stunting"). But hiding your face, unless you're a mascot or playing some other immediately identifiable role, isn't like wearing a turban or a hijab. It's dehumanizing, on purpose.

If I were free to respond by refusing to sell to, hire, or speak to a person who scorned to let me see their face I might be willing to leave the matter there. But the nanny state has raised the stakes. Under modern law, to shun a person is to invite a human rights complaint, so we either ban the niqab or ban any display of distaste for it. I say ban the niqab.

If that sounds unfair, tell me what the niqab is for. Why would you cover not only a woman's face but even her hands? Is it so other tribes cannot tell if she's young and worth abducting? If so, I tell you bluntly we don't steal women here. Nor do we mutilate their genitals, marry three at once (pending the next zany court ruling), kill them for having boyfriends, wed them before they're adults or make them go around with bags on their heads.

So never mind a haughty "This is my culture" with an unspoken "you dirty kafir" after it. Tell me: Why the niqab? Is it because she will be defiled by my gaze, or because I will?

I warn you in advance I'm not accepting either answer. But I defy you to produce another.

And if you demand that we accommodate behaviour you're not even willing to explain, my answer is No.

In this country we employ reason. And despite what you may sometimes see in newspapers, we would be ashamed not to.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson