Barbara Kay: The social right to see each other’s faces


National Post - Tuesday October 13th, 2015

Alex Urosevic for National Post
Zunera Ishaq, the Toronto woman at the centre of Canada's niqab debate, photographed at a Law Firm in downtown Toronto, October 8, 2015

My 10-year old granddaughter is an empathic child, easily distressed by tales of human or animal suffering. Yet in her chosen Hallowe’en costume she will appear to be carrying her head and a “blood”-stained plastic meat cleaver after having been decapitated.

I don’t see her as a future recruit to ISIL, though. One needn’t be a psychiatrist to understand that Hallowe’en acts as a healthy safety valve in managing childish fears. But even a 10-year old understands that while anti-social costumes are received with good cheer on Oct. 31, they would be inappropriate at other times.

You can see where I’m headed here. To the vexation of most Canadian pundits, self-masking as a cultural norm bloomed into a hot-button issue in this election campaign. The debate continues to rage.

I’m an old hand in this battle. As I have taken a hard-line stance in support of banning face cover in the public sector for years, I have read and heard and amassed in my inbox every imaginable strenuously argued rebuttal to my position. Hallowe’en’s approach seems the right time to dismiss them once and for all as the red herrings they are.

What I find to be the common denominator amongst the pro-niqab crowd is confusion around the social significance of masking.

My malcomprehending opponents divide into two distinct categories. The first understands the niqab narrowly, as a religiously obligated appurtenance not essentially different from the wimple, kippah, hijab, sheitel (a wig worn by ultra-Orthodox women) and the turban. These critics (including the normally savvy pundit Evan Solomon in Maclean’s, I was chagrined to see) argue along the slippery-slope worry lines of: “niqab today, sheitel tomorrow.”

To those slippery-slope email correspondents I respond (but in more restrained language), “What part of [profanity] FACE COVER do you not understand?” Face cover is neither the equivalent of, or on a downward slope from the hijab, kippah or wimple; it is a new, unique, and aggressive form of social disappearance.

In any case the alleged slippery slope has been tested. In her proposed Charter of Values, former PQ leader Pauline Marois encouraged intolerance for all religious accessories in the public sector. She and her Charter were handily rebuffed. Yet opposition to the niqab alone remained firm, and is now passing into Quebec law.

In the second category are those who triumphantly adduce other forms of face cover as though they were analogous to niqabs. What about Hallowe’en? Ski masks? Surgical masks? Full-head motorcycle helmets? Hockey goalies? We don’t ban them! Ergo …

Hallowe’en, as I have implied, is performance theatre, when personal disappearance is permitted via a social contract between those who conceal their identity and those who consent to be “scared” by it. The same goes for horror films, costume balls and the like. These are controlled environments in which players and audience tacitly agree to permit faux-menace for entertainment’s sake; the collective complicity precludes anxiety and adds a fillip of pleasure to the exercise.

When the surgeon enters the recovery room to speak to the patient, he removes his mask. When the motorcycle rider parks, he removes his helmet

The others: These are masks worn transiently for protective purposes everyone understands as legitimate — from cold and infection, against wind and flying objects — in, again, a controlled, limited environment. When the skier leaves the hill and enters the lodge, he removes his mask. When the surgeon enters the recovery room to speak to the patient, he removes his mask. When the motorcycle rider parks, he removes his helmet. When the hockey game ends, the goalie flips up his mask.

In fact, these false analogies are not only unpersuasive, they are actually petards to hoist their champions. In every case, the mask-wearer is scrupulously careful to ensure that his mask is removed the moment that it is no longer practically necessary, because he is well aware he then no longer meets the criteria for respectful self-presentation to his fellow citizens.

My opponents (outside of Quebec) balk when I describe the obligation of my teacher or postmistress or nurse to show her face as my “social right.” They contend there is no such thing. But the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agrees with me. In 2014 the ECHR, considering a challenge to France’s 2010 ban by a niqb’d woman, ruled that the secular ideal of “vivre ensemble” (living together) trumps a woman’s right to “disappear,” endorsing both France’s and Belgium’s niqab bans, as well as France’s off-road ban on full-face bike helmets (demonstrating it really is about face cover, not about Muslim women). Quebec has sensibly followed the “vivre ensemble” rubric in its public-sector ban on the niqab.

Enjoy Hallowe’en — and then put the masks away, or wear them exclusively in your private life. Enshrining in law the social right to see each other as a norm is not intolerance. It is protection of the principle of social reciprocity on which a healthy culture depends.

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