Hijab and Quebec’s Charter of Secularism

MMW is excited to welcome wood turtle as our newest contributor! You may know her already from previous guest posts or from her personal blog, and we look forward to having her as a regular part of the MMW team.

Earlier this month, the Canadian province of Quebec elected its first female Premier. Headed by Pauline Marois, the Parti Québécois won a minority government after almost 10 years of Liberal rule. This election was also marked by accusations of xenophobia and racism, and ended dramatically with arson and a fatal shooting during Marois’ victory celebration speech.

And unsurprisingly, there was a hijab controversy to top it all off.

Based on the intricacies of identity politics, and aiming to safeguard Québécois culture and the French language in Quebec, the Parti Québécois (PQ) platform included stricter language laws and a new Charter of Secularism banning religious symbols for public servants. Naturally, what better symbols of religion are there than the kippah or the turban? Certainly not the giant cross that hangs in the legislature, Christmas trees or discreetly worn crucifix necklaces — because under the charter of secularism, these symbols would get to stay.

A common thread during this election was defining the new secularism charter with the ultimate religious symbol: the hijab. At least, that’s how religious or cultural clothing is postured when Muslims are used as a political tool. Even though there were other important issues such as the tumultuous student strike and tuition increases, the controversial Law 78 that limited fundamental civil liberties, and decreased access to social services with higher daycare fees, it wasn’t long before English-based coverage of the election focused on the immense “hijab backlash,” screaming that under a PQ government the “crucifix stays, but hijabs go.”

PQ leader Pauline Marois speaks to women in hijab while campaigning in early September. Photo via Reuters.

At the moment, the secularism charter is a vague outline. Nothing has been drafted into legislation and PQ officials have been unclear as to what would be banned outright. At first it was all religious symbols (except those which are a part of Quebec’s culture and heritage, namely, Roman Catholic). Then the Montreal Gazette published suggestions that “pretty scarves women sometimes wear” would be acceptable along with kippahs, since they’re not that “ostentatious” — but officials quickly back-pedaled on the Jewish skullcap, adding it and turbans to the banned list.

Despite this, some of the English media I’ve come across styled the issue only as an outright ban against hijab. One article refers to the secularism debate as a “hijab controversy,” but doesn’t actually refer to hijab or Muslim women in the article itself, but instead talks about the cross that hangs in the legislature for the entire piece. Another goes to great lengths just to find one hijabi who voted PQ despite the threat to her religious rights. While not every news source focused on the charter of secularism in terms of a hijab ban, it is problematic to frame the charter of secularism only as a Muslim problem. The charter is discriminatory, goes against the tenants of multiculturalism, and is based on an agenda of forced assimilation on all religious minorities. You can’t possibly sum that up by turning hijab into a controversial symbol and throwing it into a headline.

As far as the media coverage of the secularism charter goes, things could have been worse. Recently in Ontario’s tabloid press, a male news anchor dressed up in niqaab to mock the new Egyptian women television network and a columnist published his outrage that a woman in niqab was the public “face” for a government institution. While not as overt, the hijab election coverage deliberately embroiled Muslim women in the nationalist debate — if not in substance and reality (yet), then in crappy headlines alone. Though, this too is part a broader issue within Quebec society, where some fear that “Quebec values” are being eroded by religious minorities and proof that once again, culture wars are being fought on the bodies of women.

There was no mistake in the PQ choosing Djemila Benhabib, to be one of their “star candidates” as one news source calls her, although Benhabib ultimately lost in her riding. Of Algerian origin, Benhabib has been a staunch opponent of the hijab, referring to it as a “shroud of death” and warning against confusing “religious accommodations” with support for “Islamist ideals” on her website. During the campaign, she touted the party line that the secularism charter will safeguard Quebec values and is needed to affirm equality between the sexes. But as it’s been argued elsewhere on MMW, “secularism does not necessarily mean gender equality.”

Now, there is no doubt in my mind that the PQ’s version of secularism is a threat to minority rights and echoes the anti-Muslim rhetoric sweeping Europe. Just a few years ago, the Liberal government in Quebec proposed Bill 94, which would ban the niqab for women delivering and receiving public services — and now it just might be everyone without a “pretty scarf.”

So as a civil servant who wears hijab, I have to ask, if I lived in Quebec, would I be able to wear my leopard print scarf to work or not?

In the near future it will be interesting to see how much effort Marois and her party will put into wording the official secularism charter without coming across as xenophobic, without infringing on people’s fundamental rights, without placing the burden of religion on Muslim women, and without alienating francophone Muslims who are quite happy identifying as Québécois.

In her victory speech, Marois referred to being the first woman premier of Quebec, “I say to all women tonight I will try to honour us all.” But upholding the ideals of the secular state also means upholding the rights of every individual. So as this story continues to unfold, it will be interesting to see if Marois will indeed honour ALL women.

  • Mary

    Hello, I live in Quebec.

    You must be informed of a very important thing: English media always demonizes Quebec, because Quebec, with its 80% of Francophones, is a minority in Canada. So, be careful with what they say in English Canadian news sites. French-Quebeckers are a *minority*.

    Also, Quebec’s provincial legislation is not based on Common Law, like the rest of Canada. It is based on the Civil Code, which is, in and of itself, a *secular* set of laws. We are the only ones in North America that have a truly secular legislation. So, it might be that some finer points of secularism escape you.

    Also, and interestingly, when the Civil Code was implemented in the 1970′s (google Quiet Revolution in Quebec for details), a Charter of Human Rights was included – the same that is used on the international level – one that is secular. In that, Quebec was ahead of Canada, who introduced its own Charter of Human Rights in 1982, one which is not secular.

    A secular state is not anti-religious, it is simply that all governing entities must be religiously neutral, so all citizens of all religious paths feel welcome and secure they’ll be treated without discrimination. It also means that one cannot ask for special treatment based on religion – like this young Muslim man who refused to take his driver’s licence test with a woman instructor because they cannot obey an *inferior* woman (happened), or Sikh RCMP’s who replace the uniform’s hat with a turban (happened), or other such things.

    And while the crucifix in parliament would stay, if Marois has her way, it would be banned everywhere else. It’s been banned in schools for years already. Many don’t agree with her position on this and would like to see that particular cross go as well.

    Christmas trees are not Christian, I’ll have you know. Their origins are totally pagan. Do some research. Nativity scenes are not allowed and have been banned for years – that’s the Christian part, removed. So decorated trees are OK – even some Muslims in Quebec will have them. (And will exchange gifts and such.)

    Finally – do you understand the concept of a minority government in a British-type of parliament? Because that’s what Marois has… Do you understand how little power she has?

    Finally, I fail to see why secularism does not equal gender equality – Quebec is a champion in gender equality, topped only by Sweden and Norway. Facts. We do, however, like to preserve our culture, as it is, after all, *our* culture. Quebec survived being controlled by the church, where women were treated like reproducing cattle and priests tithed their parishioners to death. My grandparents’ generation, as a whole, decided to stop that nonsense and abuse at some point. Quebeckers still believe in this today. Do you mind? We like to choose *our* values, thank you.

    And yes, niqabs must be removed for receiving public services. It’s part of our laws and culture – show your face. When it’s minus 30 degrees Celsius outside and we wear a scarf on our face to protect it, when we get inside a public building we are required to remove it and show our face – that *our* ways. Muslim women who wear niqabs – which are not mandated by the Q’ran, apparently – must comply with the same rules. It is too much asking?

    And finally, to answer your question – you would be allowed to wear your hijab, right now. But you see, here is the difficult point in the issue: if the hijab is not a religious symbol and thus not covered by a not-yet-in-existence charter of secularism, then you cannot say you’re wearing it for religious reasons. The minute you wear it for religious reasons – then yes, it becomes an ostentacious (maybe – although not as much as niqab and burka) religious sign and would be required to remove it.

  • http://livefromthepinkwars.wordpress.com el

    Mary, I am Quebecoise, and live in Quebec, too. And I’m here to tell you that *our* culture, *our* ways, and *our* values are not static. They evolve, as we evolve. So if there are Niqabi and Hijabi Quebecoise in our midst, that’s part of our culture now, too. Just like the turbans and the kippas. Get used to it.

    Woodturtle, great analysis, and I’m super-excited to see you here. I’m especially stoked to see your critical look at English media coverage of this issue during the election. I would be curious to see what the spectrum of French coverage was like in comparison (I have to admit I didn’t follow this particular issue as closely).