Wednesday 22 May 2019

Behind the Quebec Hijab Debate

Behind the Quebec Hijab Debate

Note: I published this blog as an op-ed piece in The Hamilton Spectator, May 22, 2019, p. A10. For my earlier blogs on Quebec, providing some historical background, see (A New Quebec Value: Discrimination against Religious Minorities) and (Back to Normal in Quebec?)

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government has introduced Bill 21, a law that would supposedly entrench religious neutrality in Quebec. It would do so by prohibiting providers of government services such as judges, police and teachers from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs (headscarves for female Muslims), turbans (for male Sikhs), and kippas (skullcaps for male Jews).

Quebec Muslim women demonstrating against Bill 21 
Bill 21 also prohibits providing or seeking a government service with one’s face covered. This principle is relatively uncontroversial in Quebec, though some worry that it might discriminate against the very few Muslim women who cover their faces.

The principle behind Bill 21 is laicity, or secularism. Quebeckers are currently debating the human rights implications of Bill 21, just as they debated earlier versions proposed by the Parti Quebecois government in 2013 and the Liberal government in 2015.

Three types of rights clashes are involved.

The first debate is about whether public servants, while at work, should be permitted to exhibit their religious beliefs through their dress.

The CAQ considered wearing religious dress to be a violation of state religious neutrality. It is a form of passive or silent proselytism, trying to convert others to your own religion. Prohibition of government servants’ wearing of religious symbols is necessary to preserve the secular character of Quebec society. The prohibition is a relatively minor violation of freedom of religion, if indeed it is a violation at all.

Yet the 1975 Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms includes the right to openly profess religious beliefs without fear of reprisal. International law protects this right too, as does a 1985 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. From this point of view, while the state has to demonstrate its religious neutrality, its individual employees do not have the same obligation.

The second debate is about women’s rights. Bill 21 states that the Québec nation, “attaches importance to the equality of women and men.” This equality takes precedence over religious customs that imply discrimination against women.

Some Quebec feminists, including some of Muslim background, maintain that men have always used religion to oppress women. Even if Muslim women wear the hijab voluntarily, they have been taught since birth to believe that the genders are unequal.

Some of the older women who support Bill 21 remember when the Catholic Church dominated Quebec. During the 1960s Quiet Revolution, Quebeckers freed themselves from the Church’s control over marriage, divorce, contraception and abortion. For these older women, Bill 21 will similarly help Muslim women free themselves from religious control.

Those who oppose Bill 21 argue that it is discriminatory to refuse the opportunity of state employment to women who chose to wear religious symbols. The ban on religious garb will undermine some minority women’s right to employment, as in the case of Muslim women teachers.

Opponents also maintain that women who enjoy equality should be permitted to make independent individual decisions about whether to wear the hijab. If women are being forced into wearing religious garb, then the people forcing them should be punished, not the women themselves.

The third debate is about collective versus individual rights. Bill 21 states that “laicity should balance between the collective rights of the Québec nation and human rights and freedoms.” According to Bill 21, these include the collective right to maintain Québec’s religious cultural heritage, even if the state is formally secular. Thus for example, religious place names can still exist.

 People favouring the new law believe in the right of the community to a certain level of social integration or cohesion. It is important for all to live together in harmony, emphasizing sameness rather than difference. People who speak French at home are more likely to believe this than people who speak other languages.

Many critics of this view assume that anyone who defends it is afraid of residents of Quebec not descended from the original French Catholic settlers. The law appears to be directed primarily against Montreal and Quebec City and to reflect a fear of strangers in Quebec’s more homogeneous regions. Critics argue that it is not necessary for recent immigrant groups—or for long-standing Quebeckers like Jews—to remove their religious symbols in order to be part of Quebec society.

If Bill 21 is passed, it’s likely that many Quebec Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs will migrate to other parts of Canada so that they can freely manifest their religions at work. The rest of Canada will gain from this migration, and Quebec will lose.