Sunday, March 28, 2010

Quebec government bows to witch-hunt against immigrants and cultural minorities

With its Bill 94, introduced last week in the Quebec National Assembly, the Liberal government has joined the crusade against Muslims and other minorities. The bill would deny government-funded health care, education and child care services to all whose clothing prevents disclosure of their face, and would bar them from government and public-service employment.

The bill patently targets a tiny number of Muslim women who wear niqabs (which limit facial visibility to their eyes) or burqas (which totally conceal the face). However, as an initial limitation on universality of public services and equal job opportunities, the government’s action has encouraged the loud voices calling for a ban on the hijab or scarf worn by thousands of Muslim women, as well as further dress code restrictions that would affect the rights of other religious and cultural minorities to jobs and services.

The bill is already being termed the “Naïma law” in reference to a Muslim immigrant of Egyptian origin, Naïma Amed, who was recently expelled by the government from French-language classes she was taking in order to practice her profession as a pharmacist. Amed, who wears a niqab, was told repeatedly and insistently to remove it — although she had lowered her veil many times, to be photographed for her student identification card and then on numerous occasions in class at the request of the teacher and despite the presence of the male students. Expelled from one language school, she was studying at another when the immigration ministry found out and interrupted her during an exam to expel her.

The case was widely publicized — and very inaccurately reported — in the Quebec Francophone media. Although Muslim organizations report that at most a couple dozen women among the 200,000 Muslims in Quebec wear the niqab or burqa — the human rights commission recently reported that out of 146,000 people served in provincial health insurance board offices in 2008-09, 10 were veiled — Naïma Amed’s ordeal fueled the growing debate in Quebec over “reasonable accommodation” of minority cultural practices. A Manifesto for a Pluralist Quebec, advocating an “open secularism” that respects freedom of conscience in a context of state neutrality, was countered recently by a Declaration of Intellectuals for Secularism calling for a ban on all personal displays of “religious signs” such as the Muslim hijab in public institutions. The self-proclaimed “intellectuals” who signed it include prominent nationalist politicians, academics and trade unionists.

Bill 94 is draconian in its provisions. Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson asks whether it could be “invoked to refuse emergency medical treatment in a non-life-threatening situation to an injured woman wearing a niqab? Or to bar a girl from publicly-funded schools if she starts to wear the face veil when she reaches puberty, as some Muslim women do?” That, he says, is “what Premier Jean Charest and his justice minister, Kathleen Weil, have implied is the intent of the bill.”

Macpherson notes that the bill

“would establish a ‘general practice’ that during ‘the delivery of services’ by a public employee to an individual, both would have to ‘show their face.’ This practice would apply even when it is not necessary for security reasons or identification purposes. So a niqabi, as women wearing Muslim face veils are called, who requests an income-tax form at a government service counter could be turned away. And the bill provides no specific exceptions for emergencies.”

The bill says an “adaptation” of the practice could be made if “dictated by the right to equality” under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. But, as Macpherson notes,

“The Quebec Charter recognizes a right to assistance only for someone ‘whose life is in peril.’ And Bill 94 would take precedence over every law and regulation other than the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights. But, as its title says, the bill would establish only ‘guidelines.’ It would be up to each department, body, or institution to ensure compliance. So the bill could be interpreted differently from one school board to another. The court system could be clogged with challenges.”

The Official Opposition in the National Assembly, the Parti Québécois, has denounced Charest’s bill and calls for a blanket ban on public employment or delivery of publicly-funded services to anyone wearing a symbol of his or her religious belief. This would conceivably cover not only hijabs, niqabs and burqas but Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippahs and Sikh kirpans.

In fact, the kirpan — a ceremonial dagger worn concealed in the clothing of a Sikh male — was the symbol at issue in a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada judgment that was widely attacked by hard-line secularists in Quebec. When Gurbaj Singh Multani was pulled out of a French-language school because he was wearing a kirpan, he had to enrol in an English private school. When the court upheld his right to wear the kirpan, he greeted its ruling as a sign that young Sikhs could now attend French school and become integrated into Quebec society — a right the school’s decision had denied him. The parallels with Naïma Amed’s case are striking.

(Incidentally, Bill 94’s legislative sponsor, Attorney General Kathleen Weil, forged her legal career as counsel for Alliance Quebec, a federally-funded Anglophone lobby group that fought tooth and nail against Quebec’s popular Charter of the French Language, a.k.a. “Bill 101”.)

It was precisely the need to find ways to accommodate minority religious and cultural practices as a means of integrating them into Quebec society, in which French is the common language of public discourse, that has fostered the concept of “open secularism”. The concept was embraced by the government-appointed Bouchard-Taylor commission on accommodation practices, which recommended in its 2008 report that there be no such ban on the display of religious signs other than for “state agents in a position of authority” such as judges and police officers. A commission official, Pierre Bosset, recently told the newspaper Le Devoir that their recommendation had been directly inspired by a brief to the commission from the Bloc Québécois, the pro-sovereignty party in the federal Parliament. The Bloc’s parliamentary leader, Pierre Paquette, has told Le Devoir that its position remains the same; it is the PQ, which took a similar stance with the B-T commission, that has now changed its position. The PQ claims to advocate “la laïcité tout court” (plain secularism), although it recently voted with the other parties to retain the giant crucifix hanging in the legislature. None of the major parties opposes property and other tax breaks for the churches, including the Catholic church that bars women from the priesthood.

The federal leaders of the Conservatives and Liberals support Bill 94. A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it “makes sense”. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff says it is a “good Canadian balance”.

What about Québec solidaire, Quebec’s new left-wing party? At its convention last November, QS delegates voted by a substantial majority for a resolution favouring a “model of secularism” that combined neutrality of public institutions with individual freedom to express or display one’s own convictions. And they opposed dress codes that would restrict access to public services or employment, subject to exceptions for religious signs “used as instruments of proselytism”, interfering with a “duty of discretion” or violating safety or job performance standards.

How, then, is one to explain the qualified support for Bill 94 expressed by Amir Khadir, Québec solidaire’s lone MNA? In a statement posted on the party’s web site, Khadir says the government “has taken a step toward establishing guidelines on accommodation, which comes down to explicitly interpreting the notion of accommodation.” He says “it is reasonable, for example, to prohibit those holding positions of authority, such as police officers, judges or other peace officers, from wearing religious signs”. And he calls on the government to be “more active in ensuring equality of men and women when that equality is threatened by religious fundamentalisms.”

Religious “fundamentalists” are what the government claims it is attacking, when in reality it is the right of minorities to dress according to their religious beliefs. Niqabs and burqas are not in themselves evidence of fundamentalism. True, for many of us, they are symbols of patriarchy and women’s oppression. But for some Muslim women they are simply an integral expression of their private religious belief. In fact, the government’s bill does not “interpret the notion of accommodation”; it recognizes no right to accommodation. Instead, it limits the rights of some Québécois to jobs and services. It does not even mention religion — no doubt in an attempt to immunize it legally and constitutionally as a violation of religious freedom. Any why not allow cops and judges to wear insignia of their religious beliefs; wouldn’t that be more transparent than fostering the illusion that they are neutral in such matters?

Let us hope that the members of Québec solidaire will challenge and correct Khadir’s initial reaction to the bill, which now goes to public debate as it wends it way through the legislative process.

Let me conclude with some quotations from a hard-hitting comment by Sheetal Pathak in the McGill Daily. Her article bears careful reading:

“Why do we want to ban the niqab? It is at least partly because many consider it a symbol of patriarchy. Apparently we think we live in a post-feminist utopia where only the niqab and practices of “other” cultures are symbols of patriarchy. Marriage is a symbol of patriarchy. You know the part where the father gives away the bride, because she used to belong to her father, but now she belongs to the groom? It’s a symbol of an ancient and current practice of what Gayle Rubin called the traffic in women. So, let’s ban marriage! Any takers? No? Hmm.

“Furthermore, feminism and women’s liberation is about choice. Empowerment is about choice. Let’s say it again, folks, CHOICE. It is her body, and her choice how to dress it. In no way is it legitimate for anyone to question her decisions. She should not have to explain her reasons."

Referring to Naïma Amed’s frustrated efforts to learn French, Pathak notes: “After being expelled from CEGEP St. Laurent, she did not give up; she found herself another French class in which to enrol. Subsequently, when denied again, she filed a human rights complaint against the province. These are not the actions of someone who is isolated or unwilling to integrate in Quebec society.” Yet “Quebec officials and politicians, the people who speak for us, refused to allow her to participate in Quebec society — all because of an over-politicized piece of cloth. All in all, wearing a niqab seems to be a tough gig....”

Tough gig, indeed. And Bill 94 will make it that much tougher, as well as fueling the mounting crusade against immigrants and minorities.

-- Richard Fidler


  1. Turkey does not allow Hijab or Nikab in schools and is a country whose population is muslim. Is it the end of the world? Are they not muslim enough for you? Is it a Witch hunt? Do you think anyone will take the "witch hunt" Quebec-bashing comment seriously?

    There are many people that immigrate and integrate our society without any problems whatsoever, the witch hunt you refer to (the usual Quebec-bashing we've grown used to) are laws that set guidelines of what is accepted and not, it is long over due and should include more on the secular nature of society, we dont want to fight for women's rights and seperation of church and state all over again, its done we want to move on, If the Rest of Canada wants to welcome the most extreme of islamists, Klu Klux Klan members, or whatever, wants to tolerate segragation of women based on religion or culture, or excision, because thats the way it is in country X and should accomodate anything regardless of what has happened since Gallileo and the Renaissance in Europe or social changes in he past decades here, well, suit yourself, you may find that the individuals you embrace are not as tolenrant of our values themselves as you may think, when schools start to have segregation policies and homophobic incidents to an extent that does not currently exist you may find that you opened a can of worms, and it will be much harder to deal with because you will have set no guidelines or rather have set the guideline that whatever goes in any region of the world goes in canada(ROC), and people will see this as a right, if thats the type of society you want its none of my business.


  2. "Naïma Amed"
    Wanted male students to turn around and not look at her while she spoke. That is utterly unacceptable in our society, as would be a seperation with a barrier in Buses beween women and men, or having seperate elevators in buildings for women and seperate elevators for men, if thats the way it is in another country fine, but thats not the way it is here in Quebec. There was no need to state that there's no way elevators are going to be segregated, because it was "a given" for everyone, an "unwritten rule" due to common culture, now people that come from other culture do no know the "unwritten rules" which forces us to put them on paper and make laws that would otherwise not be required.

    Asking students to turn away bcause of their gender, is a show stopper, here its the same thing as if a student immigrating from a KKK village wanted to wear a white hood in class and did not want 'black' students to look at him while he speaks. Its utterly unacceptable and even if somehow black students in the class "didnt mind" turning away and it "hurts no one" its still unacceptable because it goes against our values we do not accept this type of segregation. Maybe there are so-called left leaning individuals that think we would "tolerate" the white hood because thats the way it is in village X, no thanks, if a student wants to wear a KKK white hood he can do so in the village he's from or in the Rest of Canada where anything goes, just not here, thanks.

  3. March 5, 2010
    Woman shocked by portrayal as hard-line Islamist
    From Friday's Globe and Mail
    Niqab-wearing immigrant who launched human-rights complaint denies accusations she refused to work with men
    When Naima Ahmed went to college in Egypt to study pharmacy, she took courses alongside men and women. When she dispensed medication, she dealt with men and women.

    So it came as a shock to the 29-year-old immigrant to find herself portrayed this week as a hard-line Islamist who forces men to look away when she gives presentations.

    "I'm just like any other person," Ms. Ahmed said in an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, speaking in her native Arabic tongue. "The only difference is that I wear a veil over my face. It doesn't mean I'm wearing a veil over my mind."

    Ms. Ahmed, a mother of three, ignited another round of debate over the controversial issue of accommodation in Quebec after she lodged a human-rights complaint against the province stemming from her experiences at CEGEP de Saint-Laurent, the school where she was learning French.

    The incident began when school officials demanded Ms. Ahmed remove her niqab - the full veil some Muslim women wear. According to school officials, it's impossible to critique French pronunciation correctly without viewing a person's mouth.

    But what Ms. Ahmed initially thought would be a confidential human-rights complaint quickly became the subject of a media firestorm that gave voice to accusations she refused to work with men and gave presentations with her back to the rest of the classroom.

    Ms. Ahmed said that is simply not true.

    "This is the first time I felt racism [in Canada]," she said of her experience at the CEGEP, adding that she believes school officials were out to remove her from the beginning. "I went to many places previously where there were no issues - when I went for my driving test nobody told me you can't drive with a niqab."

    She added that in her part-time French course prior to the CEGEP class - and in a subsequent class elsewhere - she encountered no issues.

    Ms. Ahmed said the incident in which she is alleged to have turned her back on the men in the class was not prompted by her. She said a teacher asked her to give a presentation in front of the class - which contained only a couple of male students, of Bulgarian and Iranian origin - with her niqab removed, which she refused to do.

    "[The teacher] said either you take off the niqab, or I'll make the two men face the wall," Ms. Ahmed said.

    As a compromise, she raised her niqab but turned away from the edge of the U-shaped classroom seating arrangement, where the two men sat.

    Ms. Ahmed said she had no issue taking off her veil when being photographed for her school ID by a female staff member, nor did she have any problem working in groups with the men or participating in other class projects.

    "As long as I had the niqab on it made no difference to me," she said.

    "If I didn't want to interact, I would have stayed at home."