Another manifestation of Islamophobia in Quebec

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin.

How the construction and timing of Bill 62 is just another election campaign tactic

It’s disheartening that the same society that supports a woman’s choice to wear a short, black dress criminalizes a woman’s right to wear a long, black burka.

Since the National Assembly passed Bill 62 on Oct. 18, people have voiced mixed opinions about the “religious neutrality” law. The bill states that in order to give or receive public services—like public transit, healthcare and educational services—a person must have an uncovered face, according to the Montreal Gazette. While Bill 62 doesn’t explicitly target Muslim women who wear a face veil (the burka or niqab), it seems obvious the bill is geared towards that minority.

The fact that this religious neutrality bill was voted into law beneath a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly is as hypocritical as it gets. If Quebec really wanted religious neutrality, they would get rid of any symbol that directly refers to a religion—not just Islamic symbols like face coverings. Quebec doesn’t seem to know where it stands on religious neutrality, which just stirs up more confusion and controversy.

In Quebec, the exact number of Muslim women who wear a face veil is unknown, but according to the social research forum Environics Institute, three per cent of women in Canada wear the niqab. That number is even less in Quebec—which raises an important question. Why spend so much time and effort creating a law that marginalizes such a small group of women? The answer, I’ve realized, is a sickening election campaign trend in this province.

With less than a year until the provincial elections, this law has taken media outlets by storm and has created a tense, divisive political climate in Quebec. People are once again divided over a debate about Muslim women’s choice to wear what they want. It brings us back to 2013, when Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois attempted to remove all religious symbols under the guise of the Charter of Values.

“This ban shows that the government is trying to steer away attention from real issues,” said Razia Hamidi, the Montreal representative of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “It’s not a priority for Quebecers. We’ve seen polls from the Angus Reid Institute that show that this issue is rated as very low priority. So why does the government continuously bring it up and give it so much attention?” In Hamidi’s opinion, the fact that this debate is happening with an election around the corner isn’t a coincidence and isn’t acceptable. “They can’t go around pushing such legislation whenever they need to get their voting rates up.”

A new Angus Reid Institute poll suggests 70 per cent of Quebec respondents favour the ban, while 23 per cent discourage it and only eight per cent say the niqab should be welcomed, according to the Montreal Gazette. Another poll from the same institute found that one in five Quebecers said Bill 62 would be an important factor when deciding which party to support, according to CBC News.

It seems to me the Liberals are playing a game of identity politics by attempting to appease future voters who dislike the niqab. And in a province where 42 per cent of the population dislike Islam, according to a 2016 Forum Research poll, it is an unfortunately effective tactic.

A conversation with Hafsa Hussain, a Muslim woman from Montreal, furthered my understanding of how strong anti-Muslim sentiments already are in Quebec. “I wear the hijab and abaya (a long loose dress). As it stands, I have received many verbal assaults out in public,” she said.

Hussain said she feels Bill 62 wasn’t intended for security reasons, but was a product of Islamophobia. “There hasn’t been a single case where a person wearing the niqab has posed any kind of threat,” she said. “I don’t see how this is a security issue. Whenever identification is required, women wearing the niqab don’t have any problems with complying and showing their faces. We have so many problems in Quebec to tackle, I find it ridiculous that they spent their time discussing dress codes instead of housing, health and education problems, to name just a few.”

At a press conference on Oct. 24, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée attempted to reassure citizens that they would only be required to uncover their faces for identification purposes and when speaking directly with a public service employee. This would nonetheless prevent veiled women from checking out library books, speaking with hospital staff, picking up their children from daycare or attending classes, according to CBC News.

Educational institutions like Dawson College and Université de Montréal were quick to insist that women who wear face coverings should still be allowed to attend class, according to the Montreal Gazette. Similarly, a McGill spokesperson said the university must accommodate religious differences and “will continue to do so.” Here at Concordia, the history department condemned the bill and the CSU announced its intent to take action against the the legislation. Concordia president Alan Shepard himself said the status quo will remain unchanged on campus.

While it’s refreshing to see people protesting against the bill and speaking up, it’s also important to analyze the construction of Bill 62 and understand where it comes from. The harsh truth is that it is just another manifestation of Islamophobia in Quebec. It targets a small group of women and criminalizes their choice to wear a religious garment.

This bill also emboldens those with Islamophobic biases. Among other remarks, I’ve often heard the question: “If they want to cover their face so badly, why don’t they go back to their country?” The thing is, those countries don’t preach diversity and acceptance—Canada does. Our federal government seems to pride itself on accepting and promoting immigration and multiculturalism. So why shouldn’t women be allowed to freely express their religious beliefs? Legislation like Bill 62 contradicts Canada’s identity as a nation, and therefore should hold no validity.

Truthfully, a lot of people misunderstand Islam and spend more time disliking the faith than learning about it. With a little bit of effort, people could come to understand why Muslim women choose to wear the face veil. Asking their opinions instead of assuming negative stereotypes about them could solve this entire ignorant debate.

Freedom of choice dictates that one should have the right to express their individuality whether it be in the form of a little, black dress or a long, black burka. The government should have no place in telling women what to wear. After all, we live in a free society for all. Don’t we?

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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