Quebec’s Bill 94, which would deny access to public services to women who wear niqab, is back in parliamentary hearings and, by all accounts, likely to pass. This past weekend, an international conference entitled “Revealing Democracy: Bill 94 and the challenges of religious pluralism and ethnocultural diversity in Quebec” was held at Concordia University in Montreal. Its focus was on looking critically at the social and political contexts in which the bill has come to be. Among other topics, presenters talked about secularism, racism, sexism, multiculturalism, and Islamophobia.
This discussion will be longer and more academic than some other MMW posts, but I thought it was worth sharing, because there were many issues raised that reflect a lot of the conversations that we often have on this blog. I’ll talk about the keynote speech for now, and will get to some of the panels in part two.
Wendy Brown, a professor from the University of California – Berkeley, was the keynote speaker. She began her speech with reference to this “astonishing historical moment in which women’s clothes are subject to legislation in a 21st-century liberal democracy,” a moment where, in order to remain in the public sphere, women are being asked to take off their clothes. Brown followed this by acknowledging several elements of the context around Bill 94 that she would not be discussing in her speech: that the West is in the midst of a “giant Islamophobic seizure”; that the proposed Bill 94 here as well as the burqa bans across Europe represent an aggression towards Islam that exceeds any other form of institutionalized racism in recent decades; that the vast “range of reasons given for these bans cancels out their credibility”; that women are finding themselves as “battlegrounds for masculine norms of female sexual comportment,” and that dress is being attacked under the pretext of saving women, while other forms of violence against women are continuing rampantly and largely unaddressed.
Setting all of this aside, Brown moved to the main part of her talk, which was to look at the assumptions that make this kind of legislation possible, with a particular focus on understandings of secularism and tolerance. She raised five major assumptions:
1. “Secularism produces a religiously neutral state and public sphere”
Here, Brown argued that Western secularism, as we know it, is a “distinctly Christian project,” founded on Protestant principles of “propositional belief, individualized faith, and private worship,” and therefore “institutionalizes a particular model of religion as secularism.” Brown pointed out that the ideas about religious authority, and about what is public and private, found in this notion of secularism are specific to the history of European Christianity, and do not reflect the way that most religions or places work.
2. “Regardless of its Christian structure, Western secularism is equally available to all religions”
In this context, it is assumed that “religions can all be private and interiorized,” and that public expressions of religion are not only therefore violations of secularism, but also “signs of zealotry.” Brown gave the example of a woman who follows all of the laws of the country where she lives but wears hijab and is therefore visibly religious; she comes to be seen as non-secular even if her level of piety may be no different from that of a Christian in her community.3. “Western secularism inherently generates tolerance” and this tolerance is neutral
Brown argued that tolerance “has always been an instrument of government and governmentality,” and that objects are “tolerated as undesirable others.” She spoke about tolerance as a way of producing and regulating identity and difference, designating some groups as the tolerating, others as the tolerated, and still others as intolerable (this last group being thus designated as “violent, uncivilized, and beyond the pale.”) Tolerance, Brown argued, is not the same as equality; it is, instead, an alternative to it, and a form of power that “presents itself as benign and power-free.”
4. “Secularism is not only religiously but culturally neutral”
Here, laws and states are seen as above culture, and Western individuals are seen to have an “optional relationship with culture because they are individuals.” Non-Westerners, on the other hand, are seen as governed by culture, often specifically because they are not seen as secular. This creates a climate in which non-Westerners are seen as threatening, and the West is justified in needing to defend itself against invasion.
5. “Western secularism emancipates and enfranchises women as equals”
Brown looked at several elements of this assumption:
- Although secularism is often assumed to be gender-equal in its origin, Joan Scott has argued that the original act of separating church and state constructed women as sexualized and without capacity to reason; in other words, secularism does not necessarily mean gender equality.
- Liberal legalism “fails to dislodge the sacralized family and gendered division of labor,” meaning that even laws that don’t obviously discriminate can still allow for the maintenance of oppressive structures.
- The idea of “choice” is problematic (I’ve discussed this before); Brown gave examples of high heels and plastic surgery as potentially harmful “choices” that some secular Western women make without being seen as oppressed by these choices in the same ways that women who wear hijab or niqab are. Brown argued that “choice is an impoverished notion of political freedom,” and that the concept doesn’t account for the range of choices that women might make.
- Segregation within Muslim communities is often portrayed as subordination; however, Brown raised the issue that women’s organizations and women’s caucuses are often seen as “valuable feminist projects,” and that seeing segregation as oppression masks the range of possibilities that segregated spaces can have. She also problematized the idea that baring skin is a sign of freedom and equality, arguing that both this and veiling can be seen as ways of “negotiating masculine power.”
When asked in the Q & A period whether she advocates simply getting rid of secularism because of the problems that she described, Brown argued that throwing the term out isn’t the point; rather, we need to “interrupt the notion that it’s neutral.” She also repeatedly emphasized the need for self-reflexivity and humility as guiding principles when navigating relationships among people whose values, cultures and desires may differ from each other.
Overall, Brown’s talk was fantastic, and set the stage for many other interesting reflections raised throughout the conference. Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll talk a bit about two of the conference panels.