Ottawa law prof wins award for book on niqab-wearing women in Canada

Ontario historical group gives award to Natasha Bakht for her first book

Ottawa law prof wins award for book on niqab-wearing women in Canada
Natasha Bakht is a Full Professor in the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law’s Common Law Section.

In October the Ontario Historical Society awarded its Huguenot Society of Canada Award to University of Ottawa law professor Natasha Bakht for her book In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-wearing Women in Canada.  

The OHS Huguenot Society of Canada Award honours the best book—or substantial article—published in Ontario within the last three years that has brought public awareness to the principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought.

It is the first published book by Bakht, whose research interests are largely in the area of law, culture and minority rights, and specifically in the intersecting area of religious freedom and women’s equality. 

“In Your Face is a thoughtful, well-researched study of the lives and experiences of Muslim women in Canada who cover their faces with a veil,” the Ontario Historical Society said in its announcement.

“Though small in numbers, they have in recent years faced much legal, political, and social attention.”

Bakht notes in particular the significance of Bill 21 in Quebec, which prevents public servants – including judges, police officers and schoolteachers -- from wearing religious symbols such as a headscarf, kippah or turban at work. In April the Quebec Superior Court upheld most of the ban.

“It's undoubtedly going to get to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Bakht tells Canadian Lawyer from her Ottawa home. “There is consensus that the law is discriminatory; there's no doubt about it. But Quebec has invoked section 33, the notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Courts must consider whether “to allow this discriminatory behaviour to continue, because the government has opted out of human rights protections,” she says.

“I think it's the main issue for religious women in Quebec, but it's going to have implications for the rest of the country. Are we really a democratic society that is going to allow the government of the day to opt out of our most crucial freedoms?”

Bakht has written extensively in the area of religious arbitration, and her research on the niqab analyzes the disapprobation directed against Muslim women who cover their faces and explores systemic barriers to inclusion perpetuated by Canada’s legal and political system. (A niqab is a veil that covers the face below the eyes, worn by some Muslim women in public.)

In In Your Face, Bakht wanted to dispel stereotypes of Muslim women who cover their faces and to explore the judicial system that can discriminate against them – for example, when judges or adjudicators ask women to remove their niqabs in court.

Bakht says she became interested in Muslim women who cover their faces nearly a decade ago while conducting judicial education for judges on demeanour evidence -- how a person appears or acts after or during an event, or in a courtroom -- and the unreliability of such evidence, including in ascertaining whether witnesses are telling the truth. She recalls reading of a niqab-wearing lawyer acting for a client at an immigration tribunal hearing in the UK, who was asked by the adjudicator to remove her veil because he was having trouble hearing her, rather than simply asking her to speak up or use a microphone.

“That got me thinking of niqab-wearing women as a religious minority,” she says, and “as a legal scholar, I was interested in trying to unpack the inequalities these women were facing.”

Her interviews with niqab-wearing women in Ontario and Quebec confirmed what six other researchers in liberal democracies had found, she says: that women were not forced into wearing face veils by husbands, fathers or other family members. Rather, most said they wanted to live a faith-based life, and chose to adopt the niqab sometimes above the concerns raised by family members.

Bakht was impressed by the women’s “deep convictions, that you're going to wear this item of clothing that's going to make you look so different, and subject you to so much racism, and so much negativity and violence on the street, and so much misunderstanding -- but you do it anyway.”

The book also examines the popular arguments for why women should not wear the niqab in public places, including courtrooms, and examines the legislative bans (e.g., Quebec’s Bill 21) of the niqab in public spaces and other public contexts.

Bakht’s own background informed her subject selection. She grew up in Toronto, the daughter of Indian immigrants, but of a mixed religious and cultural background: her father was from a Muslim family and Urdu-speaking, while her mother was Hindu and Bengali-speaking. That type of mixed marriage was still unusual when her parents married, and they chose to wed in the United Kingdom rather than India, where they feared their marriage wouldn’t be well-received, Bakht says.

Her parents did a great job, she says, in showing that it’s important to have respect for people, and that “differences are part of life. But it’s how you navigate that” and have respectful conversations that matter. Her parents didn’t use words like “tolerance,” which Bakht calls “a bit of a low bar; we want to be respectful [and] try to get to know other people.”

Her parents also instilled in her the importance of having “a well-balanced, well-rounded life,” and encouraged her artistic interests as well as academic ones. Bakht pursued dance, which she has continued into adulthood: Bharata Natyam, a south Indian classical dance technique, as well as Indian contemporary dance, and she is currently artist-in-residence at the Ottawa Dance Directive.

At the University of Toronto, Women’s Studies was a big influence on her life, she says, and helped her develop critical skills. Following her B.A., she went on to earn an M.A. in Political Studies at Queen’s University, an LL.B. at the University of Ottawa, and an LL.M. at New York University School of Law.

Today, she is concerned that government action such as Quebec’s religious symbols ban “does spread,” and her book details niqab bans throughout the world. “It's almost like it's a political swine flu that has been picked up by country after country after country: Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Canada.” The danger of this “populist sentiment, in the form of anti-Muslim racism,” she says, “is that if you allow a government to rely on section 33 [the notwithstanding clause of the Charter], there’s a worry it will be more frequently used and … against vulnerable minorities.”

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