religious freedom

A Brief History of Religious Veiling
With current efforts to ban religious veiling in public, it is important to understand the history of this practice.

With current efforts to ban religious veiling in public, it is important to understand the history of this practice.

With several Western nations experiencing increases in Muslim immigration, one major issue rising to the surface is religious veiling. Depending on the type of Islam they practice and the countries from which they originate, Muslim women might opt for simple headscarves, veiling that obscures their heads and shoulders, or complete body coverings. Current public discourse has sometimes resulted in legislation to ban religious veiling in public. Against the backdrop of such fevered discussions, it’s important to understand Islam is not the only faith in which people wear veils. In fact, the origins of religious veiling can prove to be rather surprising.

Religious Veiling in the Ancient Middle East 

Racked contributor Liana Aghajanian revealed in a December 2016 piece that women all over the world have been wearing some form of head covering for more than 3,000 years. For instance, the practice was common throughout the ancient Levant region as well as Greece, Rome and regions located in modern-day Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Rather than signifying any devotion to religious piety, they originally denoted that the women who wore them belonged to these societies’ upper classes. Aghajanian discloses the discovery of a 13th-century Assyrian text forbidding anyone other than aristocrats from donning veils. Working class women, slaves and other lower-class individuals faced legally prescribed punishments if they were caught wearing them.

Head Covering and Religion in the Modern Era

It isn’t immediately clear how head coverings became associated with religious modesty, but they were eventually adopted by women of all socioeconomic classes throughout the Middle East. Traditions from the three major Abrahamic faiths soon dictated that veils should be worn. The University of North Carolina’s Center for European Studies explains that some Jewish people interpret their faith’s “tzniuth,” or laws on modesty, to mean that women’s hair should be covered. While the Bible’s New Testament records no commandments issued by Jesus Christ concerning the issue, Saint Paul upheld the practice in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

Meanwhile, various sects of Islam actually disagree over religious veiling. CNN writer Abed Awad disclosed in a June 2015 write-up that the Quran never explicitly mentions the word “veil.” Additionally, there are two general schools of thought on the matter resulting from different interpretations of customs said to be handed from Aisha, one of Muhammed’s wives:

Veil everything except for the hands, feet and face upon reaching puberty.

It’s a good idea to wear veils, but they are not obligatory.

Bill 62: The Latest in Veil Legislation

Recent Canadian news includes reports about Quebec’s Bill 62, which initially required the province’s residents to show their faces to provide or receive any sort of public services. The Globe and Mail clarified in December 2017 that this law, which would have impacted aspects of daily life such as riding public transit and visiting libraries, was temporarily put on hold by the province’s Superior Court. The Quebec law is certainly not the first of its kind. The Guardian revealed in March 2017 that Europe has an almost decade-long history full of repeated attempts to regulate the practice of religious veiling, and debates over the issue rage on south of our border. While advocates of these regulations cite public security worries, pushback ensues based on concerns about religious discrimination as well as the safety of women who opt to cover their heads. Muslims also hold views on both sides of the issue, with some opining that such bans are fueled by Islamophobia while others support measures to outlaw face covering.

Several factors prove that the issue of religious veiling in public isn’t as cut and dry as one might be tempted to believe. Religion, personal freedom, public safety and concerns about racial and religious discrimination all play into the larger discussion. Since Statistics Canada predicts that the number of Muslims will significantly increase by the year 2036, public debate may continue for some years to come.

Canada’s Preeminence in Religious Freedom

Canada's Religious FreedomThe historic embrace of religious freedom is important to reflect upon at a time of increasing global religious persecution. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in a 2010 study that 75-percent of the human family lived in countries that either 1) had high government religious restrictions, or 2) experienced high social hostility toward religion. This figure was up from 70-percent just three years earlier.

Early Roman Catholic Rights

A seminal event in the propagation of Canada’s religious tolerance occurred when the right of the citizens of Quebec to practice their Roman Catholic faith was affirmed in the Treaty of Paris. The treaty, which marked the end of the Seven Years War between France and Britain, asserted in paragraph IV that,

“His Britannick Majesty, on his side, agrees to grant the liberty of the Catholick religion to the inhabitants of Canada: he will, in consequence, give the most precise and most effectual orders, that his new Roman Catholic subjects may profess the worship of their religion according to the rites of the Romish church, as far as the laws of Great Britain permit.”

In the late 1700s, it received an influx of religious groups from a perhaps unexpected place — the American Colonies to the south. Ironically, although many came to the New World to escape religious persecution, many religious groups had Loyalist leanings as America’s Revolutionary War commenced. Many of these groups then migrated to north.

Religion really took hold as the Enlightenment unfolded into the early 19th Century. As the country’s populace expanded and diversified, its tolerance of diverse religious viewpoints typically expanded as well.

Lords Day Act

However, there was rigorous debate regarding religious viewpoints that revolved around the Lord’s Day Act of 1906. The Act prohibited certain business activities on Sundays. This drew opposition from religious groups that did not accord the same religious significance to Sundays as Christians did.

In 1961, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Lords Day Act. However, in 1985, The Supreme Court, in a landmark case involving a drug store in Calgary (R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd), declared the law unconstitutional.

A Precipitating Event

There are assertions that some of the impetus for the creation of Canada’s new Office For Religious Freedom stemmed from the death of Shahbazz Bhatti in March of 2011. Bhatti, a Catholic, served as Pakistan’s minister of minorities. In that capacity, he visited Canada and met with Prime Minister Harper. Just three weeks later, he was killed by Islamic extremists.

In remembering Bhatti, Harper recalled that “he and I discussed the threats faced by religious minorities and the need for our country to do more.” The prime minster also stated that Bhatti was both a humble and an honorable man that had worked without ceasing to defend the most vulnerable, whether they were Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, or members of other religious minorities.

A New Office

In February of 2013, the country established its new office within the nation’s Department of Foreign Affairs. In so doing, it became only the second nation worldwide to establish such an office. The United States established a similar agency in the late 1990s.

This new Office has already taken an important step by establishing the “Religious Freedom Fund.” Interestingly, this fund, within certain parameters, will actually finance projects outside of its borders. It will seek to fund projects around the world that will help religious communities facing religious intolerance and/or persecution.

The establishment of such a fund may be seen as both a continuation of country’s proud heritage of religious tolerance, and a more proactive effort to assail intolerance even beyond its borders.