This post was written by guest contributor Maria Salman.
In 1992, a young woman gathers the courage to pen a deeply personal journal entry for a teacher. She finally breaks the silence over an earth-shattering secret that she is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse committed against her by two male family members. Fast forward ten years, the police lays charges, and the trial begins, but when the young woman is called upon to testify, she is startled to find an unexpected barrier before her quest for justice – her niqab. In order for her to successfully take the stand, she is told that she must remove her niqab so it will not interfere with the accused’s right to a fair trial. She vehemently refuses. By doing so, the young woman, identified as N.S., unleashes a chain of events that leads to the highest court in Canada grappling with this unprecedented question: How should the state respond to a witness whose sincerely held religious belief requires her to wear a niqab that covers her face, except her eyes, while testifying in a criminal proceeding?
After taking an uncharacteristically long time, the seven judges in the Supreme of Court of Canada released their decision last December. MMW has followed N.S.’ journey through the courts (here, here and here) but what we haven’t analyzed is the final Supreme Court decision and the surrounding media coverage.
So let’s take a look at it.
First, the decision: In a rare split judgement with three different perspectives, the majority of the judges outlined a framework that allows judges to determine whether a witness should wear the niqab on a case-by-case basis. If the fair trial rights of the accused are seriously harmed, the niqab will not be allowed. There were not one but two different dissents, both in direct opposition to each other. One dissent, supported by two male judges, found that the niqab should not be allowed in the courtroom at all. The other dissent, written by a lone female judge, argued that the niqab should be allowed in all circumstances in a courtroom. [Read more...]