Ethics and cultural differences: accommodation has its limits

March 17, 2010

By Janet Keeping

Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership

Janet Keeping
Janet Keeping

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 17, 2010/ – Once again the face coverings worn by some Muslim women (the niqab and burka) are back in the news.

The current issue concerns a woman in Montreal who insisted on wearing a niqab to French language class. Forced from class, the woman claims the province of Quebec has discriminated against her. Instructors say her refusal to uncover her face hindered learning; her pronunciation could not be corrected because they could not see her mouth.

Reports also suggest she refused to deal with male students and instructors. The issue has prompted the province to announce that it is “preparing new rules on religious displays for those seeking to use public services.” 

However the specific case unfolds, the example provides an opportunity to reconsider an immensely important question – how far, ethically, do institutions have to go before they can justifiably say “enough is enough”?

Same is not necessarily equal

Let’s start with the obvious: there must be a point beyond which accommodation demanded by individuals would do more harm than good. The problem is determining when that limit has been reached and defending it with sound reasons. 

Many people are impatient with anyone, but especially immigrants, seeking any relaxation of rules or other special treatment. But most people recognize that equality is not achieved by treating everyone alike. For example, stairs serve the able-bodied well, but people confined to wheelchairs need elevators. Canada is a better, fairer country for its willingness to accommodate those with obvious special needs, such as the disabled. But logic and past experience prove that we cannot stop there. We must extend the same consideration to others who, legitimately request special treatment.

Finding limits of accommodation

The thorny question remains: how far is too far? First, we know we have reached the limit when any further accommodation would put unreasonable strain on the organization involved. Human rights law requires employers and providers of public services to accommodate, but only up to the point of “undue hardship,” and on the face of it, this makes good sense. However, that raises the question of what constitutes “undue hardship.”

The present case gives us some idea of how to draw the line. Apparently, the niqab-wearing woman in Montreal insisted on having a female instructor in her French course. But administratively such a guarantee would be difficult, if not impossible – sometimes the available teachers are female, sometimes male. Hence devoting scarce resources to satisfying her demand could jeopardize other programs and activities. 

Second, common sense tells us that the accommodation limit has been reached when to go further would undermine the very activity in question. The language-school’s position is that the student’s face-covering made the learning of French difficult, perhaps impossible. It’s plausible that baring the face is necessary for correction of pronunciation and, if so, then wearing a niqab renders participation in a conversation class futile.

An overarching issue

But this “functional” approach to accommodation of difference, some might say, ignores the obvious, overarching issue: In a modern liberal democracy such as Canada, where women are involved in every aspect of society, is it fundamentally unreasonable to demand that face-covering be accommodated?

I have sympathy with the view that it is preposterous to expect accommodation of face-covering in Canada.  Like many others, I also view the niqab and burka (but not the hijab which covers only the hair) as “ambulatory prisons” – embodiments of women’s oppression. 

Nevertheless, we have to be very careful about the attitude and tone which we bring to these discussions. We must be respectful of those with ideas very different from our own. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, but we cannot assume that every woman who wears this kind of garb is coerced into doing so.

And because Canadians correctly put great importance on freedom of conscience – the right to live our lives according to the principles we consider most important – we cannot blithely conclude that such dress should be banned from public institutions as a general rule. 

It is perfectly justifiable to maintain that women (and men) taking publicly-supported language courses should bare their faces, because seeing the mouth is necessary to correcting pronunciation. But even if correct, such a conclusion does not justify a general ban on burkas or niqabs in connection with access to public services, for example, a library.

Why not?  Because even if the uncovered face is necessary for language learning, it is not for using public libraries, unless they are offering language classes, in which case the same considerations apply.

And if we proceed, confident that we are right in imposing those limits, we will minimize the frustration with, and resulting nastiness around, requests for special treatment.

Janet Keeping is a lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.

The Foundation will host a discussion of “Religion and the Public Square” on March 23 in Calgary.

Channels: The Winnipeg Free Press, the Calgary Beacon, March 19, the Edmonton Journal, the Red Deer Advocate, March 20, the Cape Breton Post, the Trail Daily Times, March 22, the Vancouver Sun, March 31, the Regina Leader Post, April 1, 2010

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