This article was first published in Socialist Voice, April 11, 2010
by Richard Fidler
With its Bill 94, introduced last month 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.