I didn’t make it to the Friday panels because of schoolwork, but I was able to catch the talks on Saturday (November 20). The first panel was called “The Theoretical and Analytical Challenges of Identity Politics,” with speakers Monique Deveaux, Cécile Laborde, and Beverley Baines; the second panel was entitled “’Managing’ Religious and Ethnocultural Diversity: Looking Beyond Existing Models,” and included Sirma Bilge, Sedef Arat-Koç, and François Rocher. Because many of the topics overlapped, I’ll look at the main themes that arose, rather than at each speech individually.
One issue that came up on the first panel was the difference between formal equality (everyone being treated in exactly the same way) and substantive equality (a more equity-focused concept, in which it is recognized that identical treatment doesn’t necessarily have egalitarian results.) The argument here is that, while Bill 94 claims to treat everyone equally by requiring all people to show their faces, the result will have disproportionately negative effects on women for whom showing their faces in certain situations is just not an option; Bill 94, in other words, represents formal equality but will result in substantive inequality.
Deveaux and Baines both referred to an article that Baines wrote about Bill 94 (available here), where she discusses the possibilities for constitutional challenges if Bill 94 passes (which everyone seems to expect will happen), and argues that while there’s an obvious way to challenge the bill based on issues of religious freedom, it may also be possible to challenge it based on principles of sexual equality, since the Canadian Supreme Court has a history of prioritizing substantive equality over formal equality. At the same time, Baines cautioned that the Supreme Court has a much less impressive history of being able to consider intersecting forms of oppression, and that it’s hard to say where a challenge to the bill would go.
Another major theme throughout the day was the issue of cultural racism: racism that is articulated not on specifically race-based lines, but that instead uses ideas about culture to position certain groups as civilized, modern, equal, and liberated, and others as barbaric, stuck in the past, and inherently oppressive. Arat-Koç spoke about how this “culturalism” distorts identities on both sides; the West is assumed to have rights, equality, and so on, and the “other” is assumed to be inherently without these.
Deveaux talked about how cultural racism misses considering some of the existing inequalities that racialized groups may face; using examples of the high unemployment rates despite high levels of education among North African immigrants in Quebec, she argued that a focus on issues such as the niqab overlooks some of the much more important problems that the community is facing (and ones that may not have anything to do with internal cultural issues.)
One of the most interesting discussions of cultural racism was in Bilge’s talk, where she looked at the ways that women’s rights and gay rights have come to be seen as “core markers of civilization,” and the Western world comes to portray itself as feminist, gay-friendly, and sexually liberated, vilifying other groups as sexist, homophobic, and repressed. In this context, the language of human rights creates the racialization and exclusion of groups considered inherently oppressive (never mind, of course, that sexism and homophobia are alive and well within mainstream Western cultures). Bilge referenced Joan Scott’s concept of “sexularism,” a discourse that assumes that secularism will necessarily bring gender equality.
Much of Bilge’s focus was on some of the press coverage and letters to the editor that arose with relation to Quebec’s “Reasonable Accommodation” debates in 2008 (a series of public consultations about cultural and religious “accommodations” in Quebec). References to Quebec’s past feminist struggles (assuming that Quebec has arrived at a level of gender equality that immigrants and/or people who practice certain religions have not) and to Quebec’s own history of religious oppression from the Catholic church portray Quebec’s “sexual modernity” as fragile and threatened by the presence of immigrants. Another reason for denying accommodation that Bilge referred to was through references to Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, appealing to a solidarity with “our sons and daughters” who are seen to be saving Muslim women overseas, and whom we would apparently be betraying by allowing certain expressions of Islam here in Quebec.
Bilge concluded by looking at how much of the debate, even when claiming sexual freedom, still objectifies women; several of the quotes that she cited referred to “our” women as free and “their women” as oppressed (or, worse, as beautiful women hidden from “our” eyes), which still positions men as the subjects and doesn’t really do much for women’s equality.
The conference was, overall, incredibly interesting, and obviously timely. Bill 94 is currently being debated in Quebec’s parliament and is likely to pass, despite the awesome work being done by some of the folks organizing against it. But this isn’t only about one (possible) law in one Canadian province; the discourses of cultural racism and of “sexularism” that the speakers referred to are being reflected in conversations in the media and in political spheres in many countries right now, and the ideas raised here are relevant beyond the very localized context in which they were expressed.