N.S. vs. Her Majesty the Queen a Lecture by Natasha Bakht

March 31, 11. University of Alberta.

On March 31, Dr. Natasha Bakht from Ottawa University came to the University of Alberta to discuss how niqab is playing out in Canadian courts. With Quebec already banning niqab in public places, niqabis and a number of Muslims are still waiting to know how the case of N.S. vs.  Her Majesty the Queen will progress.

N.S. is the first case of a niqabi in a Canadian court room. Her circumstances are particularly troubling because N.S. was taking her uncle and coursing to court for historical sexual assault when her case became directly affected by her niqab. 

N.S., who initially appealed to her religious freedom to comply with what, in her opinion, is an Islamic dress, was required by the Crown to testify without niqab. The niqab case is now in the Supreme Court of Canada and it has remained there since then. By March 17, 2011, the Court had granted leave.

While there are a number of reasons often quoted to disregard the use of niqab, in this case, the Court felt that a fair trial would be impossible if N.S.’s demeanour could not be identified and assessed. Nonetheless, Dr. Bakht argues that research shows that no court can really determine with someone is lying. Thus, demeanour evidence is weak. 

In addition, we must question how demeanour evidence helps a case like a sexual assault event. How are women suppose to behave to be credible witnesses? Are we asking for an ideal of femininity in court rooms when asking for demeanour evidence?

The first judge had to decide whether N.S. religious beliefs where strong enough (whatever that means) to allow her to wear her niqab in court. However, he found that since N.S. owned a driver’s licence where she is not wearing niqab and she would have had to show it to a male offices if requested to do so, her religious beliefs were not sincere.

The issue on whether Muslim women can testify in court rooms wearing niqab is now a matter pertaining the Supreme Court of Canada. However, specifically in sexual assault cases Muslim women might be less likely to report them due to the process that follows. This will help perpetrators prevent Muslim women from reporting sexual assault.

While it is incredibly unfortunate how a sexual assault case has been suspended to discuss a woman’s right to wear a garment, this is only another case of profiling and a nationalist approach to diversity and difference. In here, it is clear, that Western values are being privileged, despite claims to multiculturalism, religious freedom, liberalism, etc.

In her lecture Dr. Bakht provided the most common assumptions (and misconceptions) in regard to niqab and showed the wide misunderstanding surrounding the women that wear it. She argued that niqabi women should be accommodated in court rooms on a case to case basis according to their needs, like other people would be accommodated depending on their particular circumstances.

Yet, Dr. Bakht identified that niqab takes life of its own when it comes to public discussions:

1- Niqab as a symbol of non-integration. Niqabis are often perceived as a stranger-stranger, as someone who does not belong to the West and who fails to comply with behavioral rules. Their choice to veil is a sign of their unwillingness to ‘blend in’ and assimilate to the Western ways.

2- Niqab as an affront to secularism. Niqab is often identified with ‘radical’ Islam and is often said to threat the secular state.

3- The intimidating and proselytizing niqab. Niqab makes people uncomfortable for its ‘religious’ connotations. Intimidation and proselytism are not features of a particular garment. They are qualities of people who may or not wear it or who may or may not be related to Islam. 

4- Niqab as a safety and security concern. Niqab is often said to ‘hide’ a woman who could possibly be a man or an extremist ready to blow something up. It is often said that a face provides safety and security. Yet, not every individual with a ‘face’ guarantees safety, and not every person who conceals his/her face is considered to be dangerous.

5- The impolite niqab. Some say that wearing niqab is impolite and therefore  should be banned. Nonetheless, this requires deeming someone’s opinion as more valuable than others.

6- Uncommunicative niqab. Niqab is perceived as a self-inflicted disability. It is considered to take humanity away from the women who wear it. Since these are attributes of the garment niqabis are often excluded from power, opportunities and wealth. However, niqabi women communicate. They are out in the public sphere working, studying and living life like everybody else.

7- Niqab as an identification problem. Series of laws, including Bill C-6 (visual identification of voters, have been used to target niqabis. 

8- The intolerant niqab. Niqab is said to be incompatible with the ‘tolerant,’ ‘secular’ West. Niqab becomes a symbol that cannot be tolerated and is closely related to Islam. Muslims are seen as the oppressors because they go against the values of Canadian society, which includes gender equality. Nevertheless, who are the ones that need to tolerate and the ones that are said to be tolerated? Who chooses who is who?

9- The niqab as women’s oppressor. Niqab is often conceived to be a man’s requirement for a Muslim woman. Niqabis are seen as women with no agency. Yet, we must ask, would we be discussing niqab if all niqabi women were really oppressed and out of the public sphere? Niqab does not mean oppression and showing one’s face is not synonym of freedom. 

10- Niqab as a cultural symbol and not a religious requirement. There is little acknowledgement of the fact that Islam is a diverse religion with thousands of opinions around. However, Muslims also tend to reduce differences, to deny diversity and to present Islam as homogeneous. Yet, neither the West not specific Muslim circles have the final say when it comes to the interpretations of faith.

 Dr. Bakht concluded that the process was badly handled and that even the Supreme Court acknowledged that N.S. should not have been required to take her niqab off. For Dr. Bakht, allowing niqabi women to access the court system will encourage them to bring cases, like this, forward. 

Nonetheless, this may be a reality for the rest of Canada…. but niqabis are still without option when it comes to Quebec.