When conservative Islamic women vote today in Quebec's tightly contested elections, they'll enter the voting booth minus their niqabs or not at all. Niqabs are the most restrictive Islamic head coverings, revealing only a woman's eyes to the outside world.
The decision on niqabs, which make voter identification well-nigh impossible, is the latest culture clash on the already-turbulent Quebec front. Quebec is the Canadian province most famous for its French-vs.-English debate. The decision to prevent niqab-clad Muslim women from voting comes after "Chief Electoral Officer Marcel Blanchet invoked emergency powers to change his mind on one of the controversial minority-rights issues that have roiled the campaign and led to death threats, public outrage, and repeated criticism by Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair."
At first, Blanchet wanted to permit Islamic women to enter voting booths wearing traditional scarves that just about completely covered their heads. But the decision riled assimilationist factions in this French-speaking Canadian province that has been "enmeshed for months in acrimonious talks over accommodating religious minorities."
We can all agree tolerance in general and religious tolerance in particular mark the preferred path. But the Quebec example is the latest in a series of events around the world that raise the question: Shouldn't tolerance be bilateral? Few American women would wear shorts or short skirts (thus exposing prohibitive amounts of female flesh in a culture that finds such dress offensive) in extremely conservative Islamic states. I know of World Bank and International Monetary Fund female lawyers and economists who are barred from attending all-male meetings in Islamic countries. Why don't Islamic immigrants extend Canadians the same courtesy and when in Rome (or Quebec City), do as the natives do?
Quebec has yet to resolve the ideological clash between its French-speaking majority and English-speaking minority. Sprinkle in division over post-9/11 security concerns (head coverings make in-person identification difficult if not impossible) and religious acrimony, and you have the makings of a combustible mélange of international proportions.