News and Interviews

"Listening to the Voices of These Women Might Shift Discussions" Natasha Bakht Tackles the Canadian Niqab Controversy in Her New Book

University of Ottawa law professor Natasha Bakht, who holds the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession, has spent years advocating for both women's rights and religious freedom. 

Her new book, In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada (Irwin Law), delves into a consistently contentious issue in Canada (and, most famously, in Quebec in particular): a woman's right to wear a full-face veil.

The niqab, a veil which covers the face and leaves the eyes uncovered, is an integral part of some Muslim women's cultural and religious expression. Even in Canada's multicultural environment, the niqab has been a consistent point of controversy, especially in official settings, including public-facing government employment. Bakht's book examines the legislative and cultural clashes around the issue of face coverings, but also, essentially, speaks directly with numerous niqab-wearers about their identities and their connection to their veil. 

We're pleased to welcome Natasha to Open Book today as part of our True Story nonfiction interview series to discuss In Your Face. She tells us why it was essential to centre the voices of niqab-wearing women in the book, how dancing features as part of her writing process, and the shocking case that first inspired her to begin writing In Your Face. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?

Natasha Bakht:

My book is about the rights of Muslim women who wear the niqab or full-face veil in Canada. My interest in writing about niqab-wearing women arises out of what I have perceived over the last decade to be a flagrant disregard for their basic dignity and human rights. In Canada for example, politicians have denounced the niqab for a variety of reasons, calling on Muslim women to simply take it off. Where such declarations have failed, legislative attempts have been made, some successfully, to prohibit women from covering their faces in certain contexts, including courtrooms, citizenship ceremonies, while voting, while working in the public service and when receiving certain government services.

My primary preoccupation with the book is to unpack the reasons given by the majority to constrain the actions of a small minority. I have found that objections to the niqab are rarely rational and are often fuelled by the majority’s discomfort, fear, or unquestioned certitude that their values are superior.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?

NB:

I began the book by thinking abstractly about the impact of niqab bans on women. Since so many of the objections to the niqab seemed based in misconceptions that are contradictory and inflammatory, I thought it would be useful to speak directly with niqab-wearing women. I hoped that listening to the voices of these women might shift discussions about the niqab to the perspectives of the wearer. It might also provide useful insights that counter misinformation disseminated during heated and acrimonious debates.

Most people in Canada have never met or had a conversation with a niqab-wearing woman. I thought that my interview-based research could contextualize these women’s complex identities and multiple motivations for dressing in this way. I also hoped that an account that refocuses understandings of the niqab from the perspective of the wearer would help to change the types of conversations that we have in this country about bans as solutions to any number of “problems”.

I found these women to be incredibly resili­ent and optimistic in their conviction to live the good life, despite the many unfortunate obstacles put in their way. Their perspectives and stories resist reductive cul­tural constructions and dominant depictions of their lives and motivations. I am so grateful to the women I interviewed for this project. They were kind, patient, and generous with me and I learned so much from them. I hope you will too.

OB:

What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

NB:

I like to have long periods of time in my day to write. I tend not to be able to write in short bursts. Ideally, I will get up early after a good night of sleep, write for several hours, then eat and exercise (I’m a dancer and love to combine working in the studio with writing) and then write again. The writing work in the latter half of my day is when I might research or edit what I have written. I love a quiet space to work—that is luxurious! But I live with an active (and at times loud) 11-year-old, so I have also learned to work with auditory distractions.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

NB:

I try to tell myself that feeling discouraged is a normal part of the writing process. I will typically just live with that feeling of discomfort and it will often pass. Taking a power nap helps. I can head for a nap with something on my mind and when I wake up, my brain will have figured out a way to address the issue. I read somewhere that napping can assist with lateral thinking and I have found that to be true! I have also called on friends and colleagues to simply read my work and give me feedback. It is such a valuable exercise to see how others perceive your writing.

OB:

Do you remember the first moment you began to consider writing this book? Was there an inciting incident that kicked off the process for you? 

NB:

I read a newspaper clipping about a lawyer named Shabnam Mughal who was representing a client at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal in England. Ms. Mughal is a Muslim who wore a full-face veil in public places. During her sub­missions, she was told by Judge Glossop to remove her niqab because he could not hear her. Because Ms. Mughal refused to remove her face veil, the case was adjourned, and she was replaced by a male lawyer from her firm. I found this incident, in particular the judge’s response to Ms. Mughal, to be appalling. A more appropriate response to the legitimate concern of not being able to hear an advocate might have been, “please speak up”. Instead, this otherwise competent lawyer (whose client was not concerned about her dress) was being pushed out of her area of employment. This struck me as unfair and steeped in bias. It is also contrary to multiple proactive measures to ensure the judicial system is more inclusive of minority communities.

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Natasha Bakht is a full professor of law at the University of Ottawa and the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession. She has taught courses in family law; criminal law; children and the law; the law and policy of multiculturalism; and women, religion, and law. She was called to the bar of Ontario in 2003 and served as a law clerk to Justice Louise Arbour at the Supreme Court of Canada. Her legal scholarship explores the intersection between religious freedom and women’s equality. She served as the English language editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law from 2014 to 2020. Natasha’s legal activism includes involvement with the National Association of Women and the Law and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). She was named one of the top fifty people in city by Ottawa Life Magazine (2009), received a Femmy Award by International Women’s Day Ottawa for being a thought leader in the National Capital Region (2017), and received the South Asian Bar Association’s Legal Excellence Award (2019).  

Her research on the niqab analyzes the unwarranted popular panic concerning Muslim women who cover their faces and explores systemic barriers to inclusion perpetuated by Canada’s legal and political system. She has been cited by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of R v NS, 2012 SCC 72, which involved a niqab-wearing sexual assault complainant. Together with her friend and colleague Lynda Collins, she stretched the legal boundaries of family by becoming legal co-mothers of their son, Elaan, though they are not in a conjugal relationship. She is also an award-winning dancer and choreographer. 

Buy the Book

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

Featured on The Hill Times’ 100 Best Books in 2020 list

This book explores the experiences of a group of women in Canada who are small in numbers yet have garnered much legal, political, and social attention in recent years. Muslim women who cover their faces with a veil arouse visceral reactions in people who, despite exposure to diverse ways of living through multicultural urban environments, seem to have fixed notions of how women ought to live the good life. Politicians have denounced the niqab for a variety of reasons, calling on Muslim women to simply take it off. Where such persuasion has failed, legislative attempts have been made, some successfully, to prohibit women from covering their faces in certain contexts, including courtrooms, citizenship ceremonies, public spaces, and while working in the public service. This book analyzes niqab bans in Canada while also drawing on interviews with niqab-wearing women to reveal their complex identities and multiple motivations for dressing in this way.