We must force you to be free!

By Megan McArdle

Scott Lemieux is blogging about Quebec's refusal to let Muslim women vote with their face covered:

  • I don't believe that, at least on their face, Quebec's actions should be held to violate the guarantee of religious freedom in Section 2 a) of the Charter. Over the years I've become more convinced that Scalia's broadly criticized opinion in Oregon v. Smith was correct; unless a regulation is just a pretext for religious discrimination, fairly applied general regulations representing a legitimate state interest can burden the exercise of religion.


  • Even if the Quebec government can do it, however, we need to ask whether it should. Absent a showing that facial covered was being used to a significant extent to commit voter fraud, I cannot agree that this regulation is remotely justifiable. The state should accommodate minority religions absent a good reason to do so.


  • Although I certainly agree that "multiculturalism and tolerance should not serve as a pretext for denying gender equality," to think that this prohibition on ornamental choices advances gender equality in any significant way is silly. I certainly agree that "multiculturalism" cannot justify domestic violence, coerced genital mutilation, denying emergency contraception (although, oddly, that last form of multicultural exemption seems to get brought up a lot less when conservatives gin up these largely phony dilemmas), etc. But people are fooling themselves if they think that forcing Muslim women to vote with their faces uncovered does anything for gender equality. In cases where Muslim women in relatively egalitarian relationships with men are forced not to be covered, the regulation represents a diminution of women's freedom. In cases where women are coerced in some way to wear facial covering to symbolize their subordinate status, the gain to women's freedom of compelling them to remove their facial covering every few years to vote are trivial.



I don't even understand why this is a debate. A few years ago, when that woman in Florida wanted to take her driver's license photo with her face covered, I sided against her; the state has a compelling interest in knowing that the person who took out the license is the one driving the car, and if you can't uncover your face to take a picture, then I'm sorry, you can't drive a car.

(Question: my impression is that places like Saudi Arabia require women to have papers on them at all times to prove that they're not, say, in a car alone with a strange man. How do they handle this? Otherwise, why not just swap passports with your boyfriend's sister?)

But my understanding is that the prohibition is on having your face seen by men, not by having your face seen at all; and that the problem with the driver's license picture is that you don't know whether a male or female cop will pull you over. It seems very easy to deal with the practical side of this: provide a female and a private place to check the ids of those with religious objections.

Some of the energy behind this seems to have been from feminists who hoped to use this to deligitimize veiling. This strikes me as very, very strange. Disenfranchising women has not exactly proven a surefire way of liberating them in the past. The ability to cast one of several million votes seems unlikely to be a sufficiently powerful lure for either women or their husbands to relinquish the veil.

Nor do I think it's legitimate for the state to withhold rights in an effort to change behavior unrelated to the excercise of the right in question. The state can't refuse the right to vote to the unmarried, even if marriage is excellent for me and society, because the state doesn't have the power to tell me to get married.

Update Yes, obviously, that was a typo. It's now fixed.

Update II No, I didn't make another error about the topic of the article. The full text reads:

The Quebec government requires everyone to vote with their faces uncovered, even if they have religious reasons for not doing so. Elections Canada has issued a ruling permitting women to vote with their faces covered in federal byelections in Quebec, although the rule will still apply in provincial elections.



i.e. the government of Quebec is refusing to let women vote in provincial elections with their faces covered, whatever their reasons for doing so.

Thanks to everyone who made my Sunday evening so entertaining!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/we-must-force-you-to-be-free/1896/