A dilly of a pickle

Here’s an interesting ethical debate, for those of you who swing that way:

Ontario’s highest court is considering the thorny issue of whether a sexual assault complainant should remove her niqab to face her alleged attackers in court. The issue has drawn attention from several groups, that are not only split on whether or not a woman should be able to wear a veil in the witness box, but also on the fundamental questions the issue evokes.

Imagine you’re a woman (which will be much easier for my female readers… hello ladies) who has been beaten and sexually assaulted by her family. Imagine your family, and you, are devout Muslims, which means that you must cover your face when you leave the house. Imagine that in order to get the abuse to stop, or to see justice done, you must remove the veil in court to testify. Are you less likely to be willing to testify if it means violating your religious beliefs? What if it’s not just your beliefs, but those of your husband and children, who will be scandalized (and might leave you) if you show your face in public.

Now imagine you’re a lawyer (which will be much easier for my law-school readers… hello lawyers) who has been tasked with representing this woman. Imagine your esteemed colleague, the defense lawyer, is saying that the case should be thrown out on the grounds that cross-examination of your client is impossible, since she is covering her face. Imagine that the abusive rapists will be allowed to walk free on a technicality because your client is bowing to sexist superstition about immodesty based on an interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that even many practitioners of her own faith disagree with. Do you tell her that her claim is meaningless, and that her courage in filing the suit in the first place was a waste of time because of her closely-held beliefs?

This isn’t an abstract thought experiment, this is actually happening. Once again, the laws of the land are having to tiptoe around religious rules. The blame doesn’t lie with this woman, she’s just trying to live her life. The fault lies within a system that allows the systematic subjugation of all women to be seen as a virtuous act. For once, I don’t have a clear-cut answer of what the court should do. On the one hand, testifying would have deleterious effects on the plaintiff and possibly cause her to lose her family and social life; it would most certainly deter other abused women from coming forward after they see that the consequence of speaking up is social isolation (and possibly more abuse). On the other hand however, allowing her to wear the veil not only violates the right of the accused to confront their accuser face-to-face, but implicitly assents to the practice of veiling women.

I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say on the topic. My opinion as it stands now is that it is better to err on the side of the abused and make concessions for them, while at the same time affirming that we do not condone the practice of the veil, but that may change as I have more time to mull it over.