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Quebec Charter and Feminism, Only One or the Other

I take issue with several recent Globe and Mail articles (Sept. 20 and Oct. 2, 2013) calling out a “deep split within feminist ranks” over the proposed Charter of Values in Quebec. In one article the only reference to the split is that “[one member] did concede she had a “very difficult” conversation with Ms. Miville-Dechêne on whether a hijab ban is good for women.” I am all for people having difficult discussions, especially about such important issues as freedom of religion and equal opportunity. However, that does not mean that there is a hidden rift between feminists.

Despite the inflammatory remarks in the comment sections of the articles, I don’t believe that those who support the charter are evil, but they are not feminists either. The Parti Quebecois claims that “imposed secularism, including a ban on highly visible religious symbols, is a way to ensure equality for Quebeckers in the workplace and while obtaining government services.” Quite the opposite, the charter has nothing to do with guarantying equality, unless by equality they mean mandatory homogenization. Rather, it is a governmental control mechanism and power play on multiple levels.

My purpose here is to point out the obvious, that the charter does not promote women’s rights, nor does it reveal a division among feminists. The charter is based upon uninformed and prejudicial understanding of religious articles of faith and rationalizes this as sufficient cause to denigrate and impose ‘protection’ on religious minorities. The charter and many of its vocal supporters are telling women (especially Muslim women) that their very religion is offensive and that their choices around expressing that religion is a form of participating in their own oppression. This kind of posturing is a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance, not feminism. Taking away a woman’s choice is simply patriarchal. Also, we must not automatically deduce that the oppression of women in the Middle East is a valid reason to censure a woman’s choice in Quebec. Nor can we conflate the historical abuses and inequalities of the Catholic church in Quebec with Sikhism, which is founded upon and has greatly demonstrated ideals of equality. To anyone who believes that it is feminist to assume that Quebec women have not made their own choice, I urge you to consider that the assumption is as oppressive and belittling as the removal of choice.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has stated that “a daycare educator wearing a hijab, … “gives a connotation of a gap with respect to the equality of men and women, a kind of submission.” Furthering this notion one commenter on the Globe article made statements that face coverings by definition are demeaning to women and only instituted to control women, and another wrote that head coverings denote slavery and human chattel. Some Globe commenters write that religious clothing is meant to intimidate and flaunt superiority, while many write words like Premier Marois, that the same clothes enforce women’s inferiority, subjugation and submission. Which is it? Instead of supporting women, the current debate about the charter is giving rise to intolerance and xenophobia. Recently numerous Mulsim women across Quebec who wore hijab have been spat upon and verbally and physically attacked.

How does insulting women who wear head coverings promote feminism or secularism?

Once more, the assumptions about face covering and the connection to an appearance of submissiveness and a less secure environment are over stated. When wearing a turban or a hijab most of the face is actually more visible because hair styles such as bangs, feathering etc do not obscure the face. The charter and much of its support reveals an imperialist and xenophobic attitude that western styles of clothing are best and anyone who does not comply with it is abusing the system with requests for “accommodation”.

Even a quick study of the Muslim and Sikh faiths would reveal the sacredness of the turban and other head coverings. The wearing of these articles is part of daily religious practices. When wrapping a turban, prayers are often recited, religious history is remembered and honored, and fundamental sacraments are upheld. They are not removable as a hat or able to be tucked in like a necklace. These articles of faith are a part of the faithful, a defining characteristic of their public and private life. To remove a turban is not like asking someone to change their clothes or hairstyle. Over years or perhaps a lifetime of choosing to wear articles of faith, each time it is a conscious choice and becomes part of one’s identity.

I have chosen Sikhism, not by birth, but as an adult. I have chosen to wear a turban. I feel more equal to a man and more confident wearing a turban than I had ever felt in my life before wearing a turban. I cannot speak for women in the Middle East. Choices and repression, laws and obligations are different in every country. I do know that every woman I know and have ever met that wears a turban has chosen that turban out of love, devotion and many times as a statement of grace and fundamental freedom and privilege to choose how she practices religion. There is not one iota of submission to a man or any council of men or The Man.There is not one ounce of obligation or subjugation or intimidation; it is a statement of personal accountability to our faith and our practice.

In stark contrast, there are layers upon layers of contradictions in the charter’s proposal regarding head coverings. Many Sikh women wear a chuni, a Sikh scarf often worn on the head and also/or over the shoulders, but this is not banned under the proposed charter. Some women wear a chuni for religious reasons, some for cultural reasons.

The charter makes no distinction, but seems to not need to ‘protect’ women from the cultural practice. According to the charter, is a woman who wears a chuni less oppressed?

How would the law determine the difference? I prefer to wear a turban as part of my Sikh religious practice, but Sikh woman who chose to wear a chuni who have more work opportunities available to them because the chuni is not banned under the charter. That’s not equal.  There is no proposed ban on Islamic head coverings for men, so a Muslim man would have more opportunities than most Muslim women. That’s not equal. Politicians would be exempt from the ban. So, the politician could wear any religious article, but the employees in their office could not. That’s not equality, that’s hierarchy. I would like to emphasize to Premier Marois that the only submission or control enforced upon me based on my religion would be the control of the state and the submission to its laws under the proposed charter.

Surely, living in Quebec is a choice, a choice made by many citizen and permanent resident immigrants and many people of faith including those born in Quebec and in other parts of Canada. Many have come to live here specifically for relief from religious and political discrimination in other parts of the world where the government was forcing people towards or away from certain religious practices including the wearing of head scarves, burkas, etc.  In its efforts towards social cohesion, the charter would enforce the same kind of control in Quebec.

Whether a government defines what a person must wear or what a person must not wear, the action is the same; it is the removal of choice.

Further, it implies that some people’s choices are correct, while others are wrong.

Through the charter, the attempt to legislate secularism through restrictions on religious minorities actually risks creating inequalities and repression. In Quebec far more women are wearing head coverings than men. Ask a woman who wears a religious head covering of any kind if she will feel more or less equal to a man when he has to make no sacrifice or compromise to comply with the law but she is asked to choose her religion or her job. Ask anyone who wears obvious religious clothing if they feel safer or more equal if no one in the health center, school, or public services wears any religious clothing? The charter states that religious clothing would also have to be removed to receive public services.

Since it is naïve to suggest that a person could remove and replace their religious clothing anytime they walk through certain buildings, the charter would compel a disappearance of religious minorities from public spaces.

This kind of forced homogenization in the government funded spheres which make up so much of Quebec public life makes me feel less safe, more outcast in all public places, and certainly is an infringement on religious freedom even for those not working in public spheres. Furthermore, the charter will require that the Quebec government change its constitution regarding religious freedom. Isn’t that detrimental to all Quebeckers?

I could go on about the hypocrisy of exceptions for nearly all things Christian, but it is poignant to note that head coverings are no longer a large part of most Christian sects, so the removal of choices and the imposition of ‘protectionism’ and the inequality will predominantly fall upon Sikhs and Muslims and more upon women than men. If the current rhetoric continues it is unlikely that the ban will stop at clothing and necklaces, rather the “otherness” will more likely deepen and the divisions, real divisions between people of faith and the charter supporters will grow. We know this because articles like those in the Globe and Mail are already driving us there, the spitting has already begun and France is also leading the way. The charter of values would do more to guarantee inequality, unequal opportunity and spur on discrimination and hate crime than any imagined benefit of secularism in the public sphere. I do not think any feminist can support those kinds of values.

Links:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/in-quebec-a-feminist-rift-over-secularism/article14639735/

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Charter+Quebec+Values+Women+coalition+calls+calm+respect/8987628/story.html

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