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Hearings into Quebec's secularism bill veered off track Thursday when a former senator drew a connection between the Muslim head scarf, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette quickly denounced the comments by Celine Hervieux-Payette. "Arguments must be presented in a manner that is respectful and moderate," he said.

Hervieux-Payette, who served 21 years as a Liberal senator before retiring in 2016, appeared before the legislature committee studying Bill 21 on behalf of a group of pro-secularism lawyers. She invoked Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom she said believes that the hijab hides "circumcision and forced marriage at ages 14 or 15."

The former senator was called to order by committee chairman Andre Bachand as she told Liberal MP Helene David that families in Quebec send their children to other countries to be mutilated. "Here it's illegal, doctors do not have the right to do it, but it's also done by neighbours," she said.

After the hearing, Hervieux-Payette seemed undaunted by Bachand's appeal for caution. "When a wife is no longer needed, she is put in the fire and it's over," she told reporters. "I'm just saying that religions do not always have just a good side, and in this case, when one has a symbol and wants to keep it, it's because there is something else behind it, and I would like us to talk about it."

The controversial bill would prohibit public servants in positions of authority, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols. Critics have said it would have a disproportionate impact on Muslim women who wear the hijab.

Earlier this week, another supporter of the bill, Djemila Benhabib, told the hearings that any woman who refuses to take off her hijab to work in the public service is a "fundamentalist." That prompted Premier Francois Legault to appeal for people to be "careful with labels."

Amid the divisive debate, Quebec solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Masse delivered a plea for respect of minority rights. She drew a parallel between homophobia and prejudices against teachers who wear religious symbols.

Masse said that when she worked at a summer camp in the 1980s, she was forbidden from talking about her sexual orientation for fear parents would remove their children from the camp.

"At the time, a large part of the population was convinced that we, gays and lesbians, could not teach or care for children, because we would contaminate them with our differences," she said during question period Thursday in the national assembly.

Similarly today, she said, people's perceptions are fuelling the drive to prohibit teachers from wearing religious symbols. She said there is no evidence that teachers are proselytizing in schools.

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