A couple of years ago I attended a lecture delivered by Dr. Natasha Bakht at the University of Alberta, who had come to advocate for women’s right to religious accommodation in the courtroom, a subject which proved to be quite divisive. I wrote a post about it on my personal blog, as I personally felt that her views on the issue were refreshing after all the anti-niqab brouhaha that was around back then.
Dr. Bakht’s speech focused on the now famous N.S. vs. the Queen case that took place in Ontario, Canada. The case, which brought a number of questions to Canadian court rooms, went from a sexual abuse issue to a discussion on the legality and appropriateness of the niqab in the court room, shifting from sexual assault charges in 2007 to a matter of N.S.’s niqab’s legality, and taking a few years to be addressed. Earlier this year the provincial judge reviewing the case (after the Supreme Court sent it back to the provincial level) concluded that N.S., a victim of sexual abuse, would have to remove her niqab to testify in court.
Earlier this year, after the judge’s decision in N.S.’s case was publicized, guest contributor Maria Salman wrote an excellent piece outlining the difficulties in dealing with religion, race and the niqab in the Canadian legal system. Yet, the niqab discussion has not left the courtrooms, which continues to trouble me.
This week The Guardian reported that a Muslim woman wearing a niqab was allowed to make a plea in a London court given that a female officer confirmed her identity. Whether or not she will be allowed to wear it during the full trial is still a question. The woman, who has been accused of witness intimidation, was initially refused the right to make a plea wearing niqab and later on was told that she may have to remove it once the trial begins in November. According to the Express, the judge “sparked fury” by letting the woman appear in court with a niqab, and one only has to read the comments in the above sources to realize that people continue to express anti-Muslim sentiments or ambivalent opinions towards the niqab.
While in the Canadian case the Supreme Court decided that cases involving niqabi women should be addressed on a case-to-case basis, I speculate that the British case could potentially represent a precedent for future dealings with women who wear niqab in the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries (although I don’t want to have too many expectations).