Book Review: In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada. By Natasha Bakht. Toronto: Irwin Law, 2020. xiii, 251 p. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index. ISBN 978-1-55221-549-4 (softcover) $34.95. ISBN 978-1-55221-550-0 (e-book) $34.95. 

Reviewed by Sonia Smith
Liaison Librarian
Nahum Gelber Law Library, McGill University
In CLLR 46:3

In this highly readable book, author Natasha Bakht, professor of law and the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa, provides an insider’s view of women that wear the niqab or face covering.

The niqab, a veil that covers the face and leaves the eyes uncovered, is an integral part of some Muslim women’s cultural and religious expression. As many people in Canada have likely never met or talked with a niqab-wearing woman, this book opens the door to understanding the niqab from the perspective of the wearer. For this book, Bakht interviewed nine niqab-wearing women in Ontario and Quebec who worked in various fields, were university students, or were stay-at-home mothers. Each of them decided to wear the niqab to bring value to their lives and beliefs.

While focusing mainly on Canada, the author also refers to other countries where niqab-wearing women’s choices have been debated. Bakht uses media interviews, debates, newspaper articles, blogs, academic articles, case law, legislation, and secondary sources from several jurisdictions to supplement the voices of the women interviewed. The author compares her observations with the research on veil-wearers from the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France, and England.

One motivation of the author for writing this book lies in her perception of the disregard for the basic dignity and human rights of niqab-wearing women over the last decade. As a legal scholar, Bakht is interested in uncovering and remedying existing inequalities and preventing their reoccurrence. In this book, Bakht’s primary objective is to analyze the reasons offered by the majority to restrict the individual choice of a small minority, and this is accompanied by the hope that a commitment to respect and understanding would lead to a more conducive interaction between people.

In a similar book entitled Women in Niqab Speak: A Study of the Niqab in Canada (Gananoque, ON: Canadian Council of Muslim Women, 2013), Linda Clarke reports on the findings of an empirical study involving surveys, focus groups, and in-depth individual interviews. This study involved eighty-one women living in different parts of Canada who wore the niqab. The study did not focus on the religious or theological basis of the practice itself, but the lived experiences of the women and the diverse narratives they shared. Clarke’s conclusion was similar to Bakht’s, in that although women did not feel the niqab was an absolute requirement by Islam, they wore the face covering as a way to express their personal relationship to God.

Since Clarke’s book, several changes have taken place in Canada. Certain politicians have denounced the niqab for a variety of reasons, calling on Muslim women to remove it. Legislative attempts have been made, some successfully, to prohibit women from covering their faces in certain environments and contexts, including courtrooms, citizenship ceremonies, while voting, while working in the public service, and when receiving certain government services. In June 2019, Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State (SQ 2019, c 12) was passed by Quebec’s national assembly to ban teachers, police officers, and other public employees from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions.

Bakht critically examines the arguments presented by different governments and societies for opposing the wearing of the niqab. These arguments include the idea of the niqab as a symbol of non-integration, a sign of women’s oppression, an affront to secularism, an engagement in radical and extremist behaviour, a security concern, frightening or impolite, an affront to national values, a perceived problem of identification, and a cultural symbol rather than a personal religious choice.

The author also addresses the impact of the niqab in the courtroom. Niqab-wearing women have been in courts as advocates, plaintiffs, witnesses, observers, and accused. The author suggests that courts must adapt their customs and practices to be more inclusive of the needs of Muslim women who cover their faces so that they too have access to legal institutions, so that their basic rights are addressed, and so that they can also participate and engage with judicial processes.

Bakht posits that niqab bans have had the effect of legitimizing discriminatory beliefs and conduct. While this book focuses primarily on the Canadian context, the author offers a global survey of legal proscriptions of Muslim women’s face veils, as well as the harmful political, social, and economic consequences of these exclusionary laws on niqab-wearing women.

In the book’s final chapter, Bakht examines the voices and perspectives of niqab-wearing women regarding their own views and includes a short discussion on images of veiled women in arts and popular culture. Abundant bibliographic notes and an index are included in the book as finding and further research tools.

As of this time, the book’s topic holds its present relevance given that the Quebec Superior Court has largely upheld the controversial Quebec law barring civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work. This book comes highly recommended for law libraries with collections covering the subjects of civil liberties and human rights.


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