By Aeman Ansari
Neon coloured hair and multiple piercings get a mere side glance because they are seen as emblems of individual dispositions and methods of expression. The world marvels at the free and democratic society that is Canada. We commend the fathers of confederation and the power within the seams of the Charter. The reality is far from the idealist society immigrants hope to encounter. Parti Québécois’s Charter of Values, a bill that proposes to ban the wearing of religious symbols in the public sector and assumes that adhering to a certain faith or having a certain appearance clouds the judgement of these workers. It is a sequel to a similar proposition in bill 64 that called for the banning of the Niqab. The central motive of this legislation, which has recently been debated at parliamentary hearings, is not establishing a unified Quebec identity or liberating Muslim women; it is identifying them, and similar minorities as “the Other”. This bill will deny these women, as well as groups like Jewish and Sikh men, the right to be layered, complex individuals that are Canadians, Quebecers and a host of other things.
The charter establishes secularism as a core principle and is popular among francophone voters, particularly those outside of Montreal and Quebec City. It has caused a rise in popularity for the PQ and has also lead to increases in cases of violence against Muslim women. Regardless of if the charter is passed, it has already done an irreparable amount of damage by legitimizing suspicion of these individuals and giving people the liberty to say ignorant, harmful things that fuel attacks. Krista Riley, a member of Collective Feminist Musulmane, a group that was created to challenge this bill, believes it is an embodiment of the biases against religious minorities, specifically Muslims, and an insult to people’s intelligence. A PHD student at Concordia University, Riley says, “This is an attempt to redefine what it means to share values of Quebec in a narrow sense that excludes a category of people who don’t count because they are too different. There is a clear framing of “us” that doesn’t include hijab wearing Muslim women.” The Collective sent out a statement denouncing the charter that was published in a daily Montreal newspaper soon after it was proposed entitled “Not in Our Name”.
The bill promotes discrimination towards minorities and creates hurdles in the lives of women who wish to be independent, work and live “normal” lives. The government is making these women choose between their religious freedoms, right to express themselves, and their ability to work in public service, an area that immigrants are frequently drawn to. Instead of creating a more livable community, they are isolating the individuals who are practising rights and freedoms that are constitutionally granted to them. The bill appears to be responding to recent immigration trends that indicate significant amounts of North African Francophones, mainly Muslims, coming into Quebec. For Riley, the discussions happening in the parliamentary commission are not an honest attempt to engage in real dialogue. “It lets them make a show, without actually listening to concerned citizens,” she says. Out all of the women she knows that are fearful of their security and losing their jobs only one has left Quebec. This is a sign that contrary to the government’s belief, Muslim women are capable of standing their ground and raising their voices.
In a country based on Christian fundamentals, where a cross hangs in the national assembly, crafting bills based on a desire to be a secular nation is an illusion. 28-year-old Fathima Cader, an Articling Student and member of the Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law, first heard about the bill last fall and wasn’t surprised. “This plays on existing xenophobic views and is an easy way to gather support for elections,” she says. Instead of dwelling on the frightening effects it has had on the lives of these women, like the cases of hijabs being pulled off and insults being thrown at women on public transit, Cader hopes people will focus on the instances of solidarity happening between religious minorities. She says, “its important to highlight these moments of coming together and looking at the struggles of other similar communities otherwise it’s all just too depressing. We should tie this to broader issues of marginalized groups in Canada.”
The Quebec government takes the liberation of Muslim women into their own hands and beckons the question, how can you liberate someone else by controlling the fundamental act of how they dress? The fact of the matter is that the ban has little to do with the women and what is right for them. It has more to do with the control the Quebec government has over the lives of its citizens and particularly its Muslim citizens. Dania Suleman, a lawyer and Master’s student, who has spent most of her life in Quebec thinks it’s bizarre that the state is trying to define what a religious meaning of a garment is. “This bill effects women who have not yet been physically or verbally targeted and impacts they way they relate to the city,” she says. In a city where the Muslim population has a massive unemployment rate, denying minorities, who may or may not be forced to wear the hijab is counterproductive. At the heart of this debate is the obvious, but easily overlooked point that emancipating a person does not mean forcing them to inherit your beliefs; it is allowing them to practice the rights and freedoms they are entitled to.
As a bill that is supported by the Supreme Court, it should at least give the impression of being fair and balanced. Amna Qureshi, a recent law school graduate, wrote an open letter regarding this bill to retired Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé earlier this year in the Toronto Star. She says it does not pass the test of having a demonstrably justifiable reason to infringe on the freedom of religion, “there is no evidence that allowing people to wear religious symbols in public leads to them being bias and that removing these symbols would make the bias disappear. The words in the bill are problematic. Calling the hijab or niqab a symbol politicizes it.” The primary victims of this bill are Muslim women, as individuals forced to choose between their occupation and sincerely held beliefs.
Compelling women to remove parts of their clothing before they work is an unwarranted burden and pushes marginalized groups out of work. This ban not only infringes on the rights and freedoms of the Muslim women who choose to cover their heads, it also reflects the stereotypical assumptions that are made about Muslim women and Islam. Qureshi and her colleagues advocate for continued discussion on this topic and encourage Muslim women, and others affected by this bill to keep the dialogue going as a way to share fears and a sign of protest.
Documents such as the Quebec Charter of Values reprimand the very foundation of our multiculturalism. The Parti Quebecois is using the values charter as a way to maintain focus and garner support in the days before the election. A diplomatic act towards a seemingly progressive society, it is rooted in an obscure concept of justice. Le Devoir published a statement written by and on behalf of Muslim women in Quebec and other parts of Canada, that said everything, “We, women and feminists, believe in secularism within our establishments and institutions without compromising the freedom of conscience and religion of the employees of the State;We, women and feminists, who have struggled for years for women’s access to employment, denounce any measures that will exacerbate women’s exclusion and lead to further economic and social marginalization.”