Quebec premier François Legault now “strongly recommends” that Montrealers wear a mask out in public, and he underlined the message by himself wearing a medical mask when he announced it. I knew it wouldn’t be long before he became the butt of ridicule that ironically linked his mask to Quebec’s infamous Bill 21, which precludes the wearing of the niqab—amongst other religion-related paraphernalia—by government employees in many capacities, notably teaching in public schools.
Veteran cartoonist Terry Mosher used the occasion for a trenchant jibe at Legault:
Mosher, it should be noted is no fan of Islamic face cover. In 2010, he stirred up controversy with a cartoon that portrayed the niqab as prison bars.
But cartoonists lampoon what they perceive of as political hypocrisy wherever they find it. And like many people (several of whom made sure to tell me personally, as they vigorously disagree with my approval of Bill 21) find poetic justice in face cover now being worn, and imposed on others, by the very politician who proscribed it for some just months ago. They seem to believe that the present obligation to wear a mask in public constitutes, ipso facto, an airtight argument against the obligation to remove face cover necessitated by Bill 21.
It isn’t a good argument at all.
Nobody is happy about wearing medical masks in public. We are wearing them to guard against infecting others, and to protect ourselves from infection by a highly contagious virus for which there is at present no vaccine and no cure. When it is safe to do so, we will remove them. The message we are sending when we wear them is one of civic responsibility. We all understand that these are exceptional times.
Bill 21 bans the wearing of all aggressive religious symbols. The niqab happens to be the most aggressive of all. Mosher’s 2010 depiction of the niqab as a prison was only controversial because some Muslims were offended by it, and multiculturalists were offended on their behalf, not because it was inaccurate.
I know from experience now just how accurate Mosher’s image was. I do feel imprisoned by my medical mask. It’s a punishment not to breathe fresh air freely even in cold weather. I dread wearing it in a heat wave. Indeed, I think we all have a better understanding now of why the niqab makes so many people psychologically uncomfortable, especially other women. This is not a custom any woman would have devised for herself.
It is foolish to conflate medical masks, which have a purely utilitarian purpose, with Bill 21. When a surgeon is performing surgery, he wears a medical mask to protect himself and his patient from infection. But when he leaves the OR, and goes into the waiting room to inform the family that everything went well (or badly, if necessary), what is the first thing he does? He removes his mask. He knows very well that the mask is an obstacle to effective human communication. Likewise, a surgeon would never wear a mask when teaching his students.
I quite understand why many people detest Bill 21. They truly believe that freedom of religion means the right to display religious or cultural accessories in the workplace, even when those accessories broadcast values that directly conflict with Canadian principles of gender equality. It’s a philosophical perspective I happen to disagree with, but I see where they are coming from. One can debate whether it is legitimate in a democracy or not for the state to override religious expression in imposing a uniform, secular standard of self-presentation in the workplace for government employees in positions of authority.
But apples are not oranges, and there cannot be any proper debate with someone who claims they are the same.
Because face cover is not a unitary phenomenon. The “why” of it is more important than the “what” of it. A mask worn at a Hallowe’en party Oct 31 is not the same as a mask worn walking into a bank on Nov 1. A mask worn by a man on the ski slopes in frigid weather is not the same as a mask worn by a man standing outside the door of a ladies’ washroom. And a mask worn by a social-distancing woman in a grocery store during a pandemic is not the same as a mask worn by a woman for the purpose of cultural distancing: day in, day out, in extreme cold, in extreme heat, on Hallowe’en and on every other day of the year, in sickness and in health, whether she wants to or not.
Mosher’s cartoon, alas, seems to imply there is no difference between the misogynistic prison of the niqab, which he well understood ten years ago, and the gender-neutral protection of the medical mask today. It doesn’t happen often, but he missed the mark this time.