Two weeks ago, Quebec Premier François Legault said he doesn’t believe Islamophobia exists in Quebec. His comment to reporters came less than 48 hours after he addressed hundreds of people commemorating the deadly 2017 shooting at Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre.
The negative reaction was swift. Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the Islamic Cultural Centre, wrote a letter saying he felt betrayed by Legault. He expressed worry that the premier’s comments signaled that the governing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) would continue its work to ban religious symbols in positions of authority, a policy that will particularly target Muslim women.
Benabdallah’s worry is warranted. This week, the CAQ made banning public sector workers who wear religious symbols a priority in their legislative agenda, despite widespread concern that their plan ranges from Islamophobic and xenophobic to unworkable and unfair. In addition to Muslim women, it would also target people who wear turbans or men who wear a kippa.
"The obsession with the hijab is rooted in #Islamophobia, but also misogyny." writes @NoLore #Quebec
The CAQ is often accused of promoting “catholaïcité,” secularism that’s rooted in Catholic traditions. The CAQ has refused to remove the crucifix posted in the National Assembly. They aren’t ordering that crucifixes hung in hospitals or carved into public school façades across the province be taken down. They support public funding for private religious schools. Their selective approach to state-enforced secularism has led many to cry hypocrisy.
The obsession with the hijab is rooted in Islamophobia, but also misogyny. On Tuesday, when Isabelle Charest made her first public statement as newly-appointed MNA for the status of women, she told reporters that a hijab, “…symbolizes a form of oppression toward women, the fact they have to cover themselves up. It is not in my values and I think women should be free to wear what they want.” The irony that women should be free to wear what they want but are also oppressed if they choose to wear a hijab, was clearly lost on her. Charest appeared to be wearing makeup, another one of those “oppression is in the eye of the beholder” things that women do.
Such rhetoric is not new for the CAQ
Charest is also the junior minister of education, and it’s the education system where the CAQ’s religious symbols will have widespread impact on women, including Muslim women. Sixty-four per cent of Quebec primary and secondary school teachers are women.
It’s a policy that will have a disproportionate impact on women outside of education too. A headscarf or wrap can be religious or not religious, but are worn solely by women. The male equivalent in some religions is a beard and yet the CAQ is not planning to ban beards from judges or police officers.
This rhetoric is nothing new for the CAQ which famously tried to score some political points with a plan to ban modest swimwear, including the so-called burkini. The announcement was widely seen as trying to boost their popularity in the polls. A few months later, the CAQ tweeted a photoshopped image of a woman wearing a chador, a full-length black robe, with the message “Couillard and Lisée are in favour of teachers wearing the chador in our schools … Only the CAQ will defend our values.” The photo, titled “Desperate Syrian woman in destroyed city,” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was taken from a stockphoto bank, and coloured to make her look like she was wearing all black.
While the rhetoric isn’t new, the CAQ is government now. What they promise to do should concern all Quebecers who cherish free expression.
It’s important to see the CAQ’s rhetoric as both Islamophobic and misogynist because far too often, attacks on Muslim women appear under the guise of women’s liberation. But liberation is directly in conflict with closing sectors of the economy to women because they wear a headscarf. We either live in a society that places and promotes people in their workplaces as determined by law, contractual obligation, professional associations and practice, or we don’t, and the state decides that some people’s values are more important than others’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other issue that dominated debate at the National Assembly this week is what is considered appropriate dress for the National Assembly, triggered by Catherine Dorion, a young and newly-elected deputy, who wore a T-shirt and Doc Martens to a debate.
The obsession with what women wear is always rooted in controlling women. Whether it’s under the guise of decorum, professionalism, secularism or uniformity, it has the same impact. The fact that the woman responsible for the status of women has no problem announcing what is and isn’t oppressive, despite what Muslim women say, is proof that this government will struggle equally with women’s rights as with religious minority rights.
And both will have to be resisted.