This fall the Quebec provincial government passed Bill 62, also known as the “religious neutrality law.” While it refers to "neutrality," the law is anything but, specifically requiring that Muslim women who wear the Burqa or the Niqab uncover their faces when accessing public services or working in public services "when it's required for communication, identification or security reasons".
The vagueness of what this means has led to many awkward press conferences with Quebec’s Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, who has had to clarify the minute details of implementing this self-contradictory law. One of the press conferences established that Muslim women wearing the face coverings can and cannot do the following things, according to CBC news. They explain, “You can walk into a public library, but you can't take out a book. You can sit in a hospital waiting room, but you can't interact with staff. You can drop off your children at public daycare, but you can't pick them up.” This exposes the paradoxes of a law that is supposed to be about religious neutrality, but is clearly about raising fear and suspicions of Muslim women and their “hidden” identities. What about someone wearing a big scarf that covers their face due to Quebec’s cold winters? Or someone who wears sunglasses and a hat which covers most of their face due to Quebec’s warm summers? These are also apparently banned by the strangely named, “religious neutrality law.”
The problems with the law are numerous. First, it requires public servants, such as librarians and bus drivers to act as police and enforce the law. Second, it is not about religious neutrality, as it specifically targets religious “face coverings” which is solely about Muslim women and their unjustified ‘security’ concerns. Third, it is a renewed attempt to attack and isolate Muslim women based solely on their appearance and dress, which has been proposed several times in Quebec under different names. Fourth, these laws have not stood the test of time because they are considered an infringement on human rights and religious freedoms in accordance with Canada’s Charter of Rights & Freedoms.
Many have also commented that while people in Canada love to justifiably condemn and ridicule President Trump and the American government, our American neighbours have not yet passed any laws so directly attacking Muslim women (at least those already living in the United Sates). In fact this is the first law attacking Muslim women and “face coverings” in North America. How is it possible that Bill 62 passed in Quebec with so few protests outside of la Belle Province?
At the same time, Muslim women are standing up for themselves. Recently a few women who wear the niqab were supported by some civil society groups in Quebec, and filed a constitutional challenge against Bill 62. On December 1, 2017 a Quebec Superior Court Judge temporarily suspended the law. His ruling found that Bill 62 needs to be clearer and that the government must create specific guidelines on the implementation of the law.
Strangely, the main factor it seems he considered is that Bill 62 Chapter 3 Division 3 allows for "Accommodations on Religious Grounds" meaning people will be able to apply to be exempt from the face-covering law. However, there is no avenue at this time to apply for this accommodation, so the law is suspended until the process is established. Of course, this is not a full victory for the Muslim women who took the government to court, as the law was not scrapped completely, however this short term gain opens space and momentum for them to continue to campaign against this unjust law.
TVA news stirs Islamophobia with lies
In mid-December the depths of this harmful campaign against Muslim women and the Muslim community was further highlighted when TVA news falsely reported that a Mosque in the Montreal region had sent a letter to a construction company asking, "for women to be removed from a construction site near their place of worship". According to CTV news, "TVA stood by its story about the banning of women for several days, even saying that this clause was written in the contract." However, the letter and contract clause were complete fabrications. In fact, Mosque officials released a video showing they had denied the claims to the journalist prior to TVA publishing the story, and had demanded written proof from the journalist of her claims, which she did not produce. However, despite the Mosque’s denial and TVA having no physical proof of a letter and/or contract, TVA went ahead and published the story.
A week or so later and TVA had to send two retractions and promise an internal investigation into what happened. Everything published so far seems to point to the fact that this mainstream news organization knowingly published false news to stoke Islamophobic flames. At the same time, the damage has already been done, even with the retractions, protestors showed up to protest the mosque on Friday December 15, believing that the TVA retractions were the 'fake news'.
These attacks on Muslim women and the Muslim community should be condemned by people across Canada. Muslim women are not a danger to the people of Quebec or the rest of Canada, but islamophobia is. In 2015, police across Canada reported 159 hate crimes targeting Muslims, representing a 253% increase from 2012, when 45 incidents were reported. Unsurprisingly, most of the victims to these crimes were Muslim women. Bill 62 targets and marginalizes Muslim women, and will keep them from accessing much needed public services – including public transportation, schools, and hospitals. This is a cruel attack on their rights and it also stokes the flames of Islamophobia, attempting to divide people and intensify intolerance.
January 20, 2018 Women Around the World Unite for Our Rights!
Whether it is Muslim women, Indigenous women, trans women, or women struggling against sexual harassment within the #MeToo movement, women in Canada, and our allies, have a lot to do to push back against patriarchy and demand our rights.
January 20, 2018 will mark one year since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It has also been called as a day of protest, for women around the world to take to the streets and demand our rights be respected. According to the Women’s March international website, “On January 21, 2017, people of all backgrounds--women and men and gender nonconforming people, young and old, of diverse faiths, differently abled, immigrants and indigenous--came together, 5 million strong, on all seven continents of the world.” They continue, “We were answering a call to show up and be counted as those who believe in a world that is equitable, tolerant, just and safe for all, one in which the human rights and dignity of each person is protected, and our planet is safe from destruction.” Now women, and their allies, are being called to the streets again.
While the demands of the “Women’s March” movement are mostly social democratic, vague, and loose, rather than radical, specific, and consistent, it is an important movement for educating and radicalising women to stand up and fight back. Here in Canada, hopefully January 20, 2018 will be marked not just by anti-Trump protests, but by a movement that will also look inward at the ongoing challenges facing women in Canada, including Quebec’s Bill 62.
Divide and Conquer? Unite and Win!
Of course, capitalism relies on keeping us divided. Many reading this might wondering if Bill 62 is indeed a feminist issue. They might ask: Aren’t the Burqa and Niqab symbols of women’s oppression? Why would women’s rights activists stand up in favor of Muslim women who wear these face coverings? While there are Muslim women in the world who are forced to wear face coverings against their will, many Muslim women choose these forms of dress due to their religious beliefs and interpretation of Islam. As someone who believes in women’s equality, who am I to say what other women should or should not wear? Clothing choices are loaded with cultural values. Are short shorts and bikinis more feminist than a Niqab? For some yes, for others no. We must also ask these questions in the context of Bill 62 which limit the jobs Muslim women who wear the Niqab or Burqa will be able to apply for, and their ability to leave home independently to use public services. How does Bill 62 make these women safer? How does it help them participate as active members of their communities?
Bill 62 is all about building fear and division between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Humiliation and criminalization based on how someone is dresses will only lead to marginalization and further oppression, which should be intolerable to all who consider themselves in favor of women’s rights. As people who believe in women’s equality, we must fight for their right to access all public services and defend their right to wear whatever they choose.
The capitalist system relies on dividing and conquering to rule. That is why sexism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and so many other forms of division and oppression are consistently used to convince working and oppressed people that they have more in common with the wealthy ruling class, than with each other. It is because of this that there will be no true liberation for women until capitalism is abolished. Evelyn Reed, writer and revolutionary, explained our struggle very well in 1970, when she wrote, “even though the full goal of women’s liberation cannot be achieved short of the socialist revolution, this does not mean that the struggle to secure reforms must be postponed until then. It is imperative for Marxist women to fight shoulder to shoulder with all our embattled sisters in organized actions for specific objectives from now on.” This includes fighting for the rights of Muslim women. This is why we as people and we as women, stand beside Muslim women and their allies to condemn Bill 62, and why we will take to the streets with women around the world on January 20, 2018 to continue pushing for our rights, and to continue the struggle towards our true emancipation.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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