A few weeks ago, I spoke as part of a panel at the University of Ottawa about the Quebec Charter of Secularism, speaking both as Editor-in-Chief of Muslimah Media Watch and as a founding member of the Collective of Muslim Feminists of Quebec. This is an edited version of my talk, updated to reflect shifts in the political context in the time since it was first presented (notably the announcement last week that Quebec will be holding provincial elections on April 7). Many thanks to the Muslim Law Students Association at the University of Ottawa for inviting me to speak.
I want to begin by acknowledging the Algonquin nation on whose territory we find ourselves today. I mean this not as a token acknowledgement but as a point that has fundamental relevance to the topic of this panel: specifically, that the regulation of bodies and religious practices is not a new phenomenon on this land, but instead has played an integral role in the colonial history of this country. So although we currently find ourselves in a moment of a specific crisis in a specific part of Canada, this is a moment that should be understood with reference to a longer history of colonisation and racism that has affected indigenous communities, as well as other racialised ethnic and religious minority communities, for hundreds of years.
Before I continue, I also want to talk about the challenges of discussing this topic outside of Quebec. On this issue and others, media in the rest of Canada have a tendency to frame it as yet another example of Quebec being weird and unreasonable, probably because of those sovereigntists. This is profoundly unhelpful. For those of us working inside Quebec, who are trying to engage in serious internal conversations about Quebec’s identity, the dismissal of the importance of these questions from those outside Quebec who claim to support us is often harmful and counterproductive. There is also a suggestion in some of the reactions that racism is unique to Quebec, letting other parts of Canada off the hook from having to examine their own uncomfortable systems and institutions that oppress and marginalise certain groups. In other words: yes, there are many unique things about Quebec, and this uniqueness needs to be taken seriously if we want to get anywhere in these discussions. At the same time, any attention to the particular example of Quebec should not become a distraction from other systemic forms of racism and discrimination that exist in other parts of Canada.
Let’s move on to talk about the Charter. One of the questions often posed with relation to this topic is how likely the Charter is to pass, and what the next steps are if it does. Although the specific proposed law that would bring about the Quebec Charter of Secularism is technically off the table at the moment now that elections have been called, it is clear that the Charter will be a major issue both during the elections themselves and in whatever follows, especially if the Parti Québécois, the party that proposed the bill as a minority government, ends up with a majority. Since it was first proposed, and long before the elections were actually called, the Charter has been widely seen as a strategy for the PQ to drum up support for the party; it is truly frightening to consider what that says about the kind of voter base that the PQ is trying to attract. It is hard to know at this point what will happen with regards to the Charter in terms of its potential to become law, and even if it were to pass in the National Assembly, there would be a number of court challenges brought to it. We can hope that it would not get very far.
However, as I hope to demonstrate within this talk, I think we are at a point where the question of whether the Charter passes or not is actually somewhat secondary. I do not want to suggest that the question of whether Bill 60 passes or not is irrelevant; were the bill to become law, as small as that possibility may be, its impact for many Quebecers who wear so-called religious symbols and work in the public service would be huge. However, in many other ways, the Charter’s damage has already been done, and this is what I want to focus on here, with a particular emphasis on the impact of the bill on Muslim women, an impact that began even before the charter was formally announced, and that has intensified in disturbing ways over the past few months. [Read more...]