Religious symbols ban pits Quebec feminists against each other

On the final day of legislative hearings into a bill that will dictate who can wear religious symbols in Quebec, a young black woman wearing a hijab had a blunt message for the provincial government.

“I have the intention of breaking this glass ceiling you are in the process of creating and which will narrow my options and stigmatize me,” said Idil Issa.

“If it takes me five, 10, 15 or 20 years, I will break this glass ceiling, and any other glass ceiling that will prevent me from reaching my potential.”

Issa testified at the National Assembly Thursday, alongside Gabrielle Bouchard, the president of a prominent Quebec women’s rights organization, the Fédération des femmes du Québec.

Together they argued the proposed legislation — which will bar some civil servants, including public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work — violates basic feminist principles.

“This bill is fundamentally sexist,” Bouchard said in her opening remarks. She said Muslim women will feel its effects most deeply.

“For us, the principle of ‘our bodies, our choices’ is a fundamental to keep in mind. This bill is a direct attack on women’s choice and on our bodies.”

Gabrielle Bouchard, president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, said the bill ‘is fundamentally sexist.’ (Credit: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Their joint presentation to lawmakers wrapped two weeks of hearings into Bill 21. Earlier in the proceedings, several women testified in support of the legislation, invoking similar feminist principles.

Indeed, the hearings have done much to highlight differences among Quebec feminists — not just over what the bill means for women’s rights, but what it means to be a feminist in the first place.

2nd wave feminism vs. intersectionality

For some feminists, Bill 21 represents a continuation of the battle for gender equality that marked the political struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

It was only in 1964 that Quebec passed a law giving married women the same legal rights as their husbands. 

“Not [much] more than 50 years ago, women weren’t recognized as individuals in law. And full equality still hasn’t been achieved,” said Christiane Pelchat, the former head of a women’s rights advisory body, the Conseil du statut de la femme.

When accommodations are granted to religious minorities, Pelchat said in testimony last week, it usually comes at the expense of gender equality. She believes the bill will ensure gender rights don’t take a back seat to religious freedom.

Other feminists, though, consider the bill in line with the current retrenchment of women’s rights in many conservative regimes around the world.

Bouchard, for instance, compared Bill 21 with Alabama’s decision earlier this week to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

Retired senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, left, and Julie Latour appeared before a legislative committee examining Bill 21 Thursday, representing a group of lawyers for secularism and religious neutrality. Hervieux-Payette’s testimony attracted criticism when she said the hijab paved the way for genital mutilation. (Cathy Senay/CBC)

The differences align with universalist and relativist approaches to feminism, said Julie Latour, who testified in support of the bill for a group of lawyers who want to see secularism enshrined in law.

Latour places herself in the first camp.

“A women’s fundamental right to equality is a universal aspiration,” she said in a recent interview.

But she believes that project has been derailed somewhat by the rise of intersectional approaches to feminism:

“To me, that is not feminism.”

The intersectional approach holds that race, sexuality, gender identity and socioeconomic background, among other factors, need to be considered in order to account for why women may experience oppression differently.

It is at the core the position taken by the Fédération des femmes du Québec, which maintains the effects of the secularism law won’t be felt evenly.

“This bill particularly targets Muslim women,” said Bouchard. “They live the consequences of this conversation.”

Issa provided her own definition of intersectional feminism when she opened her remarks by declaring: “I am a woman; I am black, and I am a Muslim. Because of who I am, I am subject to many barriers.” 

Who’s the real feminist?

The hostility between the two camps became evident during the hearings. The universalists had a difficult time believing a woman would voluntarily wear a religious symbol, such as a hijab.

“To put ‘hijab’ and ‘feminist’ in the same sentence is paradoxical,” said Leila Bensalem, a high school teacher who testified on behalf of a pro-Bill 21 group called Pour les droits des femmes (For the rights of women).

“It’s as if the [Quebec Women’s Federation] is fighting for oppression in the name of freedom.”

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette refused a request, made by the opposition, to study whether the law he’s proposing will have a different impact on women compared to men. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

At another point in the hearings, Liberal MNA Paule Robitaille confronted an ardent feminist supporter of the bill.

“There are lots of young women and older women who wear the hijab by choice,” Robitaille said. “Isn’t it a little doctrinaire, even reactionary, to tell women how to dress? Isn’t it a little anti-feminist, because it marginalizes them?”

The Coalition Avenir Québec government, for its part, has said repeatedly the bill won’t affect one minority or gender more than another.

But on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette refused a request made by the Liberals, Québec Solidaire and the City of Montreal to study whether the law he’s proposing will have a differential impact on women.

The government is intent on passing the bill into law by mid-June.

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