Fatimah Jackson-Best outlines why people of all faiths should be concerned about Quebec’s controversial move to ban the wearing of religious symbols in certain public spaces.
Quebec is possibly best known as a scenic French-speaking province in Canada, but in a few short weeks it could be recognised for much more controversial reasons. The province’s premier, Pauline Marois, has recently proposed a ‘values charter’[i] that could impact not just Muslims, but also people of other faiths in Quebec in very serious ways.
The proposed charter would ban government workers from wearing ‘overt and conspicuous’ religiously related symbols.[ii] This includes hijabs and niqabs for Muslim women, turbans for Sikhs, yarmulkes for Jews, and large crosses for Christians. It would also prohibit people from receiving or providing government services with their face covered. Everything from healthcare to high schools would be impacted under the charter. The ‘values charter’ will be included in a bill that will go to the National Assembly for consideration this fall.
Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab seem to be targeted as they are explicitly deemed to be ‘ostentatious’, according to the guidelines recently released by the Quebec government. Unfortunately, targeting Muslim women’s bodies and clothing is nothing new. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, the burka became a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression as the world became obsessed with liberating these women’s bodies. In France, the country has taken measured steps to ban women from wearing the hijab and niqab in certain spaces. Quebec could be next in line.
But for a Canadian province, this charter is especially disheartening.
Canada often prides itself on being a multicultural nation that welcomes persons of all religions, cultures, and beliefs – attracting immigrants from around the world including my parents and grandparents. However, despite its multicultural discourse, an invisible standard exists. First, second, and even third generation Canadians must aspire to reach it and this charter is a glaring insinuation that if you do not quietly practise your religion, you will lose your rights to access services that you are entitled to as a Canadian. It also puts religious communities on the fringes of Canadian society, depicting them as choosing their faith over their nation.
Quebec is in danger of passing a discriminatory charter that would prevent people of many faiths from expressing their identities and meaningfully participating in social life. What’s more, if it is passed, religious intolerance will be acceptable. The veyr foundation of the ‘values charter’ goes against the province’s Charter of Human Rights which ensures the ‘freedom of religion’.[iii]
While the charter could potentially limit the religious freedoms of many people in Quebec, it could also be an opportunity for everyone affected to unite under a common issue. It isn’t just hijabis or niqabis being targeted but also Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and anyone that believes in the right to religious freedom and identity. This is an opportunity for real interfaith organising to occur; one that would transcend belief or faith-based groups.
As a feminist, I see this as an issue that women’s rights groups in Canada (and around the world) should rally behind as well. A woman’s right to wear a hijab or niqab is just that: her right. No country, government or political party should have the authority to dictate what a woman should or should not wear. For anyone who believes in justice, this is a cause to take up.
Quebec cannot go in the direction of other countries that have infringed on Muslim women’s rights to religious expression. Nor can it interfere in the practice of religion by persons of any faith group. This is a cause for concern for every one of us who believe in equality and freedom.