Dr Brenda O’Neill | New Insights into Feminist Perspectives on Banning the Face Veil

Feb 8, 2024 | Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

In recent years, many European countries have introduced bans that limit or prohibit the use of religious face veils, which include the burqa and niqab. Dr Brenda O’Neill worked with colleagues to examine the role of feminist arguments amongst non-Muslim women in Quebec on the acceptability of wearing the niqab in public spaces. This work explored some additional attitudes underpinning these arguments, identifying how these also shape the diverse beliefs of Canadian women.

Debates Following Face Veil Bans

Some Muslim women cover both their head and face with scarves and veils known as burqas and niqabs. This traditional religious custom has generated significant controversy in many countries, with parts of the population perceiving it as a symbol of oppression or mistreatment.

In 2010, France and Belgium became the first of several European countries to officially prohibit the wearing of full-face veils in public. Similar bans were then introduced in Austria, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland. These bans gave rise to several debates among both non-Muslim and Muslim women, with some arguing that women should have a right to choose whether to wear face coverings or not, and others viewing them as a symbol of oppression.

In 2010, after a young woman refused to remove her niqab in a classroom during a French-language assessment, face veil bans became a heated topic of discussion in the Canadian province of Quebec. Following these discussions, the Quebec government introduced a bill (Bill 94) to limit the right of women to wear face veils in a number of specific public places, including childcare centres, public health facilities, and school boards.

Dr Brenda O’Neill (currently at Carleton University and previously at the University of Calgary, where the research was conducted) worked with colleagues to explore the drivers of attitudes of non-Muslim women in Quebec towards the use of niqabs and their ban in specific situations.

Collecting the Views of Non-Muslim Women in Quebec

After the Quebec government limited the use of face veils in public, several local feminist groups expressed opposition. For instance, the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, a unit at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, dedicated to feminist studies, released a statement expressing its opposition to the bill, adding that the Institute supports ‘bodily and personal autonomy for all women’. La Fédération des femmes de Québec and other women’s organisations, meanwhile, fully supported the ban, either because they felt it was a ‘balanced and reasonable’ solution or because they felt it promoted women’s equality.

Dr O’Neill and her colleagues examined these feminist and other arguments for and against the ban amongst non-Muslim women by analysing data collected from the 2010 Quebec Women’s Political Participation Survey, representing the views of 1,201 women in the province.

Participants were asked about their attitudes towards women wearing the niqab across four different contexts – while shopping, working as a pharmacist, teaching in a public school, and voting in Quebec elections. They also provided demographic details and rated the extent to which they considered themselves feminist, Quebec nationalists, religious, and open to immigration – known drivers of various attitudes.

Participants finally rated how much they agreed with four different statements reflecting common but diverse attitudes to the use of face veils in public: that the niqab represents the oppression of women, that women freely choose whether to wear it or not, that they should be able to wear it due to freedom of religion, and that the niqab brings up feelings of discomfort due to a lack of familiarity with the wearer’s religious and cultural background.

The Importance of Background

Dr O’Neill and her colleagues found that, across the four scenarios presented, 35% of respondents accepted the wearing of the face veil while shopping, 12% while working as a pharmacist, 8% while teaching in public school, and only 6% while voting. Overall, almost two-thirds (64%) of the survey respondents felt that wearing niqabs was unacceptable in all of the scenarios presented, while only 3% considered it acceptable in all four scenarios.

Interestingly, the researchers found that while women who took part in the survey had varying beliefs about niqabs, most rejected the idea that freedom of choice and freedom of religion gave women the right to wear them. Instead, most respondents perceived the niqab as a symbol of oppression and noted that they felt uncomfortable seeing another woman wearing one.

This research offers precious insight into the factors that influence how non-Muslim women perceive the traditional practice of wearing niqabs. Not surprisingly, support for freedom of religion generally is strongly associated with support for wearing the niqab, as is a belief that its wearing is a matter of free choice. Alternatively, feeling uncomfortable at the sight of the niqab and, to a lesser extent, seeing it as a symbol of oppression, were both likely to result in opposition to the wearing of the face veil.

Dr O’Neill and her colleagues then looked at the relationship between the respondent’s views and their socio-economic background. They found that younger women and residents of the Island of Montreal appeared to be more open to the use of face veils, presumably having been more exposed to and familiar with the custom compared to older generations of women or those living in less diverse areas. Generally, findings support the view that greater exposure to different ethnic or religious groups can foster greater tolerance and acceptance of highly debated cultural practices, as does education.

In addition, non-Muslim women who wished to reduce immigration were generally opposed to the wearing of the niqab in most public settings. The importance of religion in the respondent’s life played a relatively minor role in shaping opinion on the niqab.

The Relative Role of Feminist Beliefs

Looking at how feminist thinking shaped participants’ views was particularly instructive. Feminist identity itself influences the views of non-Muslim women on the use of face veils in public. In particular, women who identified as strongly feminist were more likely to find niqabs unacceptable, viewing the practice as a symbol of women’s oppression rather than a reflection of women’s agency or a matter of religious freedom.

Of the women who identified as feminists, approximately half disagreed with the idea that wearing the niqab should be a protected right, representing freedom of choice and religion. As such, non-Muslim women who identify as feminists in the province are highly divided on this issue; feminist beliefs play a key role in how non-Muslim women approach the topic but not in a single direction.

This work helps pave the way for further studies investigating the role of feminist attitudes in supporting face veils. Importantly, it highlights how divided attitudes on the issue of veiling are, even among women who agree on their identification as feminists.






Dr Brenda O’Neill
Dean of the Faculty of Public Affairs
Carleton University
Ottawa, ON

Dr Brenda O’Neill is the Dean of the Faculty of Public Affairs and a Professor of Political Science at Carleton University. She holds a BA in Economics and Politics from Brock University, an MA in Economics and another MA in Public Policy and Administration from McMaster University, and a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. Before she started working at Carleton, Dr O’Neill held several academic leadership positions. Most recently, she was the Head of the Political Science department at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on a broad range of topics related to politics, gender, and the feminist movement, predominantly in Canada. Her work appears in a number of academic journals, including Party Politics, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Political Studies, International Political Science Review, and Canadian Journal of Political Science. Dr O’Neill has received several honours and awards, including the Jill Vickers Paper Prize by the Canadian Political Science Association and the University of Manitoba Merit Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, Teaching and Service.


Dr Elisabeth Gidengil, Hiram Mills Professor Emerita, Department of Political Science, McGill University, Quebec, Canada

Dr Catherine Côté, Professeure Agrégée, École de politique appliquée, Université de Sherbrooke Québec, Canada

Dr Lisa Young, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada


E: brenda.oneill@carleton.ca

W: https://carleton.ca/fpa/profile/brenda-oneill/


B O’Neill, E Gidengil, C Côté, L Young, Freedom of religion, women’s agency and banning the face veil: the role of feminist beliefs in shaping women’s opinionEthnic and Racial Studies, 2015, 38(11), 1886–1901. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2014.887744


We encourage all formats of sharing and republishing of our articles. Whether you want to host on your website, publication or blog, we welcome this. Find out more

Creative Commons Licence (CC BY 4.0)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

What does this mean?

Share: You can copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

Adapt: You can change, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.

Credit: You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.




Professor John Freebairn | Living in Disaster-Prone Areas: The Need for Informed Decision-Making

Professor John Freebairn | Living in Disaster-Prone Areas: The Need for Informed Decision-Making

Exploring the complexities of residing in disaster-prone areas is challenging for individuals, businesses, and governments. Professor John Freebairn of the University of Melbourne is shedding light on this process, and notes that the benefits of living in disaster-prone areas often outweigh the potential risks. As governments intervene with financial incentives, infrastructure development, and regulatory measures, finding an appropriate balance between short-term relief and long-term resilience is crucial. Professor Freebairn considers the roles of government, information, insurance strategies, and subsidy consequences.

Dr Amílcar Antonio Barreto | Examining the Symbolic Use of Two Flags by Christian Nationalists

Dr Amílcar Antonio Barreto | Examining the Symbolic Use of Two Flags by Christian Nationalists

While individual national identities are typically conveyed using a single flag, some nationalists choose to express their identity with two flags. For instance, Christian nationalists in the USA and South Korea have started flying the Israeli flag beside their country’s national flag at right-wing Christian rallies or outside their homes. Dr Amílcar Antonio Barreto and HyungJin Kim, two researchers at Northeastern University, have recently carried out a study exploring the symbolic meaning of this double flag use among Christian nationalists.

Professor Richard Collins – Dr Jintai Li | Project Super Soaker: Investigating High-altitude Polar Ice Clouds with Rockets

Professor Richard Collins – Dr Jintai Li | Project Super Soaker: Investigating High-altitude Polar Ice Clouds with Rockets

Phenomena in the upper atmosphere are difficult to study for several reasons – some rarely form, others are difficult to see, and all are incredibly high up. Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs) are no exception, forming at around 80 kilometres up into the sky, only under specific atmospheric conditions, and only visible to the naked eye during twilight. PMCs are also called noctilucent or ‘night-shining’ clouds, as they appear to glow in the summer nighttime sky. Professor Richard Collins from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is using rockets to seed these clouds, allowing better investigations of both PMCs and the effects of space traffic on our upper atmosphere.

Dr Marcus Noack and Dr Mark Risser | Advancing Gaussian Processes: The Noack-Risser Method

Dr Marcus Noack and Dr Mark Risser | Advancing Gaussian Processes: The Noack-Risser Method

Dr Marcus Noack and Dr Mark Risser, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have recently proposed a significant advancement in the area of machine learning and data science that promises significant computational improvements: the enhancement of exact Gaussian Processes for large datasets, significantly improving data analysis capabilities for samples even beyond 5 million data points.