Non-Issue or New Islamist Threat? Headscarves and the FFQ

The Fédération des femmes du Québec (Federation of Quebec Women; abbreviated as FFQ) recently had a special assembly in order to clarify its position on whether headscarves should be permitted for people working in the public service.  (The question of “reasonable accommodation” for minority groups has been the subject of intense debate in Quebec for the past few years; see here for one overview of a major report that was produced on the subject.)

This assembly was held after the organization expressed last fall that the debate about headscarves was a challenging one for the FFQ, with its commitments to both integration and secularism.  That statement can be found in the appendix of this document (in PDF, and in French), which articulates the reflections and proposals of the FFQ’s board of directors regarding the issue.

In brief, the FFQ’s board considered the issue from three angles: secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and a feminist analysis.  From the secularism point of view, they argued that a ban on wearing visible religious symbols is not a neutral ban, since not all religions involve symbols that religious practitioners view as obligatory, while many Muslim women wear it for precisely that reason.  While they firmly support the idea of the state itself being religiously neutral (although a place where all are free to practice their own religions), they also argued that the neutrality of the State is not guaranteed simply because religious symbols may be absent.

On the topic of discrimination against immigrant women, they talk about the high level of unemployment among immigrant women (especially, for example, among women of North Africa), about the importance of the State as a major employer, and about fears of a headscarf ban causing further alienation and unemployment for immigrant women.  (I do wish they had talked about Muslim women who aren’t immigrants…)

Last, they acknowledge feminist principles as ones that*

are based, among other things, on the necessity of respecting the rhythm, the choices, the values and the needs of the women involved while avoiding applying principles rigidly, through our own frame of reference and our own desire for autonomy and change.

The list of reflections ends with an affirmation that the organization is categorically opposed to any imposition of religious practice, including the imposition of the headscarf.

The special assembly on the issue, held May 9, supported the recommended position, and issued a press release affirming that the headscarf should neither be imposed by the religious community, nor denied by the state.  For those who speak French, FFQ’s Michèle Asselin sums up the decision nicely in this video:


So, to recap, the organization’s board of directors publishes recommendations based on series of reflections that they have had, taking into consideration issues of secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and feminist frameworks.  At a general assembly, members of the FFQ vote to endorse the perspective taken by the board of directors, again based on those three bases of analysis.  Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Ha.  Not a chance.  Molehill, meet Kilimanjaro.

The mountain, in this case, is based in the claims being made throughout the media that the FFQ has been infiltrated by Islamists (yes, that is the actual kind of language being used.)  These claims come out of a message that Samira Laouni (a community activist and former NDP candidate whom I’ve discussed before) posted on a Muslim discussion board, related to the upcoming FFQ meeting (quoted from this article):

Hello to everyone,

I send you this information that, in my opinion, is of crucial importance.

It appears that the Federation of Quebec Women will hold, on May 9, an extraordinary assembly on the wearing of the veil in the public service.  If we are not well enough represented, it is possible that the opinion of the FFQ will join that of the Council of the Status of Women (which has said it is AGAINST the wearing of the veil in the public service), and we will see ourselves obliged to take off our scarves before entering the doors of public buildings.

What we should do?  Simply, first, become member of the FFQ (cost: five dollars, you can do it at the organisation’s headquarters.)  Second, attend this assembly to make our votes count.

Dear friends, our mobilization for this cause is very urgent and important.  If you have other questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

The ethics of joining an organization in order to influence its decisions are a different discussion, although this is not exactly the first time that such a move has been proposed–the idea of joining an organization that is about to make a decision that could potentially affect your access to jobs and services might be just a bit more understandable. Moreover, if the FFQ’s policies did allow someone to join and then be able to vote right away, the move is entirely legal.  According to this article, however, the FFQ requires someone to be a member for at least 45 days before they are able to vote, and they have only received seven new memberships in the past six weeks: hardly enough for an infiltration.  Laouni’s message was apparently posted March 18, 51 days before the meeting, so anyone who didn’t move on it within the first six days would have been ineligible to vote anyway.

Furthermore, the ultimate decision to oppose the prohibition of headscarves had already been recommended by the FFQ’s board of directors.  Even if the “Islamists” had attempted some kind of takeover, the opposition to a headscarf ban was already planned, and the ultimate decision appears to have little to do with any “Islamist” influence.  In fact, had the “Islamists” actually infiltrated the FFQ, it is unlikely that the final statement would have included such an emphatic commitment to the organization’s strong stance in favor of secularism and against religious fundamentalism.  In other words, I just really cannot understand how or why this ever became an issue.

But there are some good mountain-builders out there.  Djemila Benhabib, who seems like a Québécoise version of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describes the FFQ decision as a result of being “strongly supported by representatives of the Canadian Islamic Congress and Muslim Presence.”  She further condemns the FFQ for “sacrificing millions of women who are fighting for their lives” for the sake of “a handful of Islamist militants.”  Her (melodramatic) statements have been quoted in many of the other articles about this issue, prompting the the FFQ to issue a response, in which they clarify that they have no connections with either of the organizations that she mentioned, and continue to stand firmly against fundamentalism and extremism.  (Just for the record, Quebec doesn’t even HAVE millions of Muslim women, let alone millions who are supposedly “fighting for their lives” against the imposition of the headscarf. *rolling eyes*)

Another article portrays one Muslim woman’s hesitation to join the FFQ (based on her unwillingness to be endorsing some of the other FFQ’s positions, as well as a feeling that a group of new Muslim members might stick out) as an example of her wanting to be more discreet in her takeover attempts, rather than a legitimate counterargument to the strategy suggested by Laouni.  The author also takes some of the most inflammatory comments posted by other Muslims on the same site as a way of indicating how scary and intolerant Muslims can be (although I would argue that any site with discussion groups on any topic runs a high risk of being taken over by people with the most offensive and extreme viewpoints, and non-Muslims sure have their share of these too.  See the comment section of any newspaper site for examples.)

Even the articles that seem more sympathetic to the FFQ’s decision are often problematic.  One journalist writes that “I would say that the Federation of Quebec Women is right, even though I don’t ignore that it was infiltrated by several Islamist apostles.”  She goes on to say that

I don’t like the veil either.  I also understand the emotions of the Muslim women who have fought against radical Islam in their own countries and who feel betrayed by the principle of tolerance.

This focus on the veil as oppressive and necessarily a sign of “radical Islam” – as something that women should be fighting against – is a common theme in many of the articles.  Whether or not they agree with the FFQ decision, most of the journalists seem to at least agree on hating headscarves.  In fact, even the FFQ decision said little about the potential that the headscarf could be a positive thing, and their repeated emphasis on rejecting the imposition of religious clothing suggested that, although they weren’t going to come out and say it directly, they remained uneasy with the idea that someone could choose to wear hijab for her own reasons.

While it seems to give a nod to other reasons for wearing hijab, and while it supports the FFQ decision, this article (in English) finishes by emphasizing the stereotype of the oppressed women who are forced to wear the scarf:

Some Muslim women say they choose to wear the hijab. During its hearings, the Bouchard-Taylor commission heard from at least one who did, and who described herself as a feminist.

Prohibiting religious symbols in the workplace would force such women to choose between giving up their religious freedom and giving up their jobs.

And what of those who, as Benhabib says, are forced to wear the hijab by their fathers or somebody else? A ban on religious symbols in the workplace might force them to give up jobs in which they come into regular contact with other Quebec women with different, “liberated” values.

How would isolating these oppressed women help them?

There’s a whole lot more out there on this issue, but you get the picture.  Women in hijab are oppressed, and any attempts to argue otherwise are a result of infiltration by Islamist forces.


*All documents and news articles quoted in this article were originally written in French.  All quotes are my own translations.

A Potential Burqa Ban at the Federal Level in Switzerland
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Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
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  • Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    If an organisation is calling itself the Federation of Quebec Women, surely any women in or from Quebec is entitled to join it, as per its purported representative mandate? The complaint about infiltration of an organisation of women … by women … sounds a bit hollow, doesn’t it?

    Also, the use of the word “symbol” in relation to any Islamic topic is generally a tell-tale sign that the person using it doesn’t know what they are talking about. While I am sure some Muslims (including hijabis) do imagine it to be a symbol, no scholar worth his salt would say that the obligation of hijab had anything to do with this or with some sort of identity-declaring function; it has to do with the woman’s hair being private (awrah), nothing more or less than that.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Yusuf: I don’t want to derail the conversation, but I wouldn’t agree that hijab has nothing to do with identity or identity declaration.

    Krista, this is a great post. Thanks for wading through all of this Islamophobia for us! ;)

  • Fatima

    Where are the Muslim women in this FFQ? Are their opinion’s not sought?

  • susan

    To say hijab has NOTHING to do with identity seems to negate verse 33:59 which specifically gives “be[ing] known” as one of the two reasons for wearing it

    Also, Krista, this was a sensational piece. Well-researched and well written. Ultimately depressing discussion (will we EVER get out of the second wave?) but fantastically deconstructed by you. I heart this blog!

  • Krista

    I agree with Fatemeh that the hijab does have significant value as a symbol (from a strictly Islamic perspective, people even point to the ayah about dressing in certain ways “so that you may be seen/recognised” or something like that.) Theology aside (since the lived reality of women who actually wear hijab is pretty important too), I know a lot of women for whom their decision to wear hijab had a whole lot to do with a declaration of identity. That’s enough for that discussion though.

    That said, I think Yusuf is pointing to an important issue in the debate, which is that the discussion of “religious symbols” plays out in vastly different ways for different religions, especially when the visible religious signs are matters of religious *practice* and not *only* symbols. Discussions on “visible religious symbols” often talk about people wearing, for example, hijab, turbans, or necklaces with big crosses on them, as if the three are equivalent. Of course, there’s a huge difference, in that the first two are generally worn out of a sense of religious obligation (whether or not there is an identity/symbolic element to that), and the third is entirely symbolic… Telling someone to remove the cross that they wear around their neck is not the same as telling someone else to remove their headscarf (instead, it would be more like telling someone to remove their “Allah” necklace, which, although annoying, is not asking them to violate their religious beliefs.) And that’s a big element in these discussions that a lot of the journalists and politicians have serious trouble getting their head around!

    Anyway, you all know this already, I just wanted to expand on that, since the way that “symbols” are understood is a pretty big part of the discussion.

    @ Fatima: That’s a great question. From what I read, it didn’t seem like the FFQ had involved Muslim women (or hijab-wearing women in particular) very directly in their discussions. Muslim women were talked about primarily as immigrants who face marginalisation… which was a little frustrating. (I was thinking about this later, and if I hadn’t been so busy rolling my eyes at the reactions to the decision, I think I might have spent more time looking more closely and more critically at the FFQ’s statements. There were certainly issues in some of the things that they said, even if I agree with most of the main outcomes.) From the sounds of it, it doesn’t seem like they have many (any?) women in hijab as members – the tone of their statements seems to indicate that they are taking this position because they are a feminist organisation and need to be engaged in issues that affect women, but much less so because of any personal investment for them or their members. I’ll admit to not combing through every one of their statements in detail, but that was my impression.

  • Krista

    Thanks so much, Susan!

    Also, thanks for pointing out that specific verse (I couldn’t remember which one it was) – I wrote my message below before I saw your comment, but apparently we were thinking along the same lines!

  • susan

    As Krista said in her comment, above, “Muslim women were talked about”. And THAT is the problem in all of these discussions as I see it.

    We are nearly always talked ABOUT, AROUND, OVER and sometimes TO. We are very rarely talked WITH.

    And this is why I believe blogs such as these are so utterly critical; not only do Muslim women of various approaches, persuasion and (gasp!) styles of dressing get to talk for themselves, they also get the point out there of just how often we are ignored, even when we, our lives, our experiences and our opinions, are the actual issue at hand.

  • laila

    WOW…some may find it a bit salty for their taste but woman’s experiences are valuable and worthwhile… worth its salt. It’s important to validate the experiences of minorities by including them, because when you exclude their experiences you are sending a powerful message that you’re undervaluing them. Thank you Krista for recognizing “the lived reality of women who actually wear hijab is pretty important too”. Sometimes those who do not experience this reality may have a different relationship with it and therefore construct a different meaning of it. But it is important not to disregard woman’s experiences of it, and be inclusive and rather than exclusive.

    I think it would be great to join, to share my different experiences so that we may learn from one and another, to connect and affirm our sense of self.

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  • Jamil Brownson

    as a north american muslim scholar (male), i firmly criticize the misleading rhetoric from most muslim organizations and even female activists regarding the hijab as required by Islam. First, this is neither historically nor geographically factual, as any longitudinal survey of various cultures in which Islam has been prominent would demonstrate. Second, over the past half century, ultra-conservative elements within petrodollar states have co-opted muslim discourse financially supporting political islam and islamist movements , and bribed their way to supremacy within muslim organizations and public culture. Third, many women whose own local muslim cultures have centuries-old ‘folk’ costumes that identify them as ‘ethnic’ and muslim, have adopted costumes of the Arabian peninsula (black) to symbolize both adherence to conservative muslim values and to affiliate with the higher social status of women from the petrodollar gulf states. Lastly, this phenomena represents a world-wide reaction to the confusion caused by globalization and post-modern crises such as ecological and economic implosion that threaten human existence as much as war and disease. Militant Hindu, and other Indian sects, as well as a renewed ultra-conservative control over the roman catholic hierarchy closer to protestant fundamentalism, bring reactionary forces in all religions into power of public imaginations mesmerized by fear mongering media. The struggle in Quebec parallels similar ones in Turkey and France, but in general the wealthy, non-Muslim Euro-American world is besieged by immigration opportunism, and covert and overt opposition to adaptation of indigenous cultures norms inherent to the countries in which they settle. As the overwhelming majority of Muslim women have been acculturated and socialized within patriarchal male cultures, and have neither the individual freedom nor social power to resist of make objective independent choices, the stereotypical “hijab” currently under scrutiny has no place in the secular public sphere, and should be relegated to the same status as correlated Mediterranean Catholic and Slavic traditions of head scarves. It is impossible to assess all the pressures on any single female muslim to wear some symbolic covering and to prove whether such adherence is fully and consciously made or under what duress it is made. Therefore, much serious discussion needs to take place within a context of psychological and social scientific inquiry well-informed by ethno-cultural history, for in the final analysis all religious belief and practices are grounded in local cultures and social practices.

  • Krista

    @ Jamil:
    Although I appreciate your comment, I want to emphasise that this is *not* a religious blog, and therefore not the place for discussions on whether or not hijab is required. There are a lot of different opinions on hijab, and it does a serious disservice to the many women who wear it out of a sense of religious obligation to just dismiss this as an uninformed and restricted imposition. The assumption that hijab is inherently oppressive also ignores the many reasons that women may wear it, and the positive role it plays in a lot of women’s lives. Whether or not you personally think it is compulsory should not allow you to make assumptions about the lives of all of the women who wear it.

    Yes, there might be women who are forced to wear it, or who don’t realise that their “choice” is framed by patriarchal social constraints, but the idea of “choice” ever being completely free of any social context is a bit of a myth. There are a lot of non-Muslim women who wear clothing that could also be talked about as oppressive (should we ban uncomfortable high heels too?) Our choices are always constrained. The idea that “the overwhelming majority of Muslim women [...] have neither the individual freedom nor social power to resist of make objective independent choices” is, frankly, offensive. It suggests that Muslim women are not capable of making their own decisions or finding their own meaning in their actions.

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