Wednesday, January 2, 2008

March in solidarity with the veil, a Quebec Muslim feminist urges

The statement below was published in the Montréal French-language daily Le Devoir on December 31. This simple but powerful appeal by a Muslim feminist should resonate not only with feminists but with all who think of themselves as progressively minded.

The author, Roksana Bahramitash, Roksana_Bahramitash refers in particular to the demand by a government-appointed organization, the Quebec council on the status of women (CSF), that all public sector employees be banned from wearing any “ostentatious religious symbols” in the workplace. The council was clearly referring not to crucifixes but to such things as the Moslem headscarf or hijab. The CSF call for a ban was the primary recommendation in its brief to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on religious accommodation.

The CSF also asked that the government insert a provision in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms giving “equality between women and men” priority over freedom of religion. The Charest government was quick to comply, in a bill adopted with little debate by the National Assembly. This interpretative clause, you can be sure, will do nothing to overcome the substantive inequality of women in jobs, income, housing, education or health care.

Muslim feminist Sheema Khan was speaking for many of her faith when she wrote, in The Globe & Mail, that the CSF, in its call to ban the hijab, is “essentially telling Muslim women: ‘We know what is best for you; you can’t possibly wear that thing out of free will, and if you do, you are too oppressed to know any better.’ Call it feminism on testosterone. Imagine telling that to Monia Mazigh — who fearlessly challenged three national governments and their security agencies. Yet, if the council has its way, Ms. Mazigh can never run for public office in her hijab, nor teach at a public university.” (Monia Mazigh, the wife of “war on terror” victim Mahir Arar, is a former NDP candidate and university professor.)

The Bouchard-Tremblay commission, in its public hearings across Quebec this fall, heard many such calls for repression of Muslims and other minorities, and they were given wide media coverage. Sadly lacking were strong expressions of solidarity with the victims of these attacks. Most disquieting was the number of ostensible feminists and others in the left and progressive milieus who kept silent or even joined in the heterophobic chorus.

Widely publicized, for example, was the brief of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), Quebec’s second largest trade union federation. It supported a ban on the hijab in schools and other public institutions and called for a “Charte de la laïcité”, or charter of secularism, “to avoid the anarchy” that the union alleged would result from processing reasonable accommodation cases one by one. A union coalition, the Intersyndicale des femmes, claiming to represent 160,000 women, mostly public service employees, likewise called for a “policy of secularism” and suggested it would not be averse to a ban on the wearing of “religious signs or symbols” by government personnel in contact with the public.

Responding to these appeals, Samaa Elibyari of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women reminded the commission that Muslim women routinely face discrimination in the workplace. They don’t need unions on their back, too, she said.

There were some other dissenting voices. Quebec’s major feminist organization, the federation of women (FFQ), did not call for a ban on the hijab or other symbols of religious belief. FFQ president Michèle Asselin told the commission that “there are many faces to feminism” and that the Federation’s membership included even some Catholic nuns. One of the leaders of the World March of Women in 2005, she noted, was a veiled Muslim.

The new left party, Québec solidaire, expressed its opposition to any legislative ban on the wearing of religious symbols by students or public employees, but urged that the latter not allow their “personal, religious or political beliefs” to interfere with their public duties.

Missing from these and virtually all of the briefs and testimony from organizations of a liberal and progressive bent, however, was any recognition that religious belief is essentially a private matter and, for many oppressed minorities, an integral part of their culture and identity, both collective and individual. Some, like Québec solidaire, objected to the Islamophobia behind the calls to ban the veil, and called for concrete measures to help recent immigrants obtain jobs and learn French. But the overriding theme of most of those appearing before the Bouchard-Taylor commission was the need to define or reassert “Quebec values” and ensure that immigrants and minorities adhere to them. The unions and the left joined in the chorus of voices defending the “rights” of the majority, as if they were under attack.

It was left to the minorities to point out that “Quebec values” are not only the secular feminist, egalitarian, etc. values revered by liberals and progressives, but they also comprise, in day to day practice, the values of a white, misogynist, unequal and racist culture that shamelessly discriminates against all those who don’t conform to the officially propagated image of “modernist” Western — read, imperialist — culture. It is not Muslims and other minorities who need to be educated about “Quebec values” (they are constantly reminded of those!) but the majority who need to be educated about the oppressive nature of their own society’s treatment of its minorities.

In a powerful brief to the commission, Présence Musulmane Montréal denounced “the intellectual arrogance of a certain ethnocentric republican feminism that infantilizes and subjugates Muslim women and interprets for them the meaning they give to their clothing, their relationship to their body and their relationship to their spirituality.”

In the following article Roksana Bahramitash proposes a modest action that could help to refocus public attention on some of the key sources behind today’s Islamophobia, such as Canada’s war in Afghanistan. My translation.

A march of solidarity for the wearing of the veil

by Roksana Bahramitash

Research director at the Canada Research Chair in Islam, Pluralism and Globalization of the University of Montréal

At an informal dinner preceding a congress organized by some feminist faculty members at Wilfrid Laurier University, the participants unanimously expressed their frustration at the present obsession over the wearing of the Islamic veil and the growing Islamophobia.

We decided, as a proposed protest, to consider the possibility of organizing a day of solidarity for the wearing of the Islamic veil on International Women’s Day in 2008. For me, a Muslim woman in Quebec, this proposal is of particular significance. However, such an initiative is not a new idea.

Similar protests occurred before the war in Afghanistan broke out, and there was a march of solidarity for wearing the veil in opposition to the “war on terrorism”. Of immense concern to me, however, in view of the debates that have developed during the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, is the position taken by the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF).

The CSF wants State agents to be prohibited from wearing “religious symbols” in public institutions. This approach to defending women’s rights is based on the theory that the Muslim women of Quebec are obliged to wear the veil, an absolutely false idea refuted by my own research among Muslim women in Montréal. It implies that Muslim women have neither the capacity nor the skill to decide by and for themselves what they want, and that they need some Quebec women to defend their own rights.

The CSF’s approach can be construed as an attempt by some Quebec women to impose a trusteeship over Muslim women, the latter being unable to defend their own rights or make correct decisions. How ironic! Are we now in the same situation as those feminists who once fought against decisions concerning women being made by men?

The CSF’s recommendations to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, and the debate over reasonable accommodation, are a source of consternation, and even anger among Muslim women in Quebec. I have spent some time observing closely the reactions of veiled Muslim women to the Commission’s discussions and the recommendations of the CSF.

Anti-Muslim feeling

My own research among Muslim women shows that there has been a noticeable increase in anti-Muslim sentiment within the Montréal community since the beginning of the public hearings initiated by the Commission and the resulting media coverage. In a focus group formed to discuss the day-to-day issues facing Muslim women, one of the participants said: “I do not feel safe using public transit at night.” She is a Muslim, Black and veiled, and this has become a problem for her when she leaves her office.

Some other members of the group stated that they were encountering a hardening of attitudes among Quebec women and among the employers who have to process job applications by Muslim women.

Although Muslim women are among those with the highest level of education in Canada and Quebec, they have one of the lowest levels of employment. There is a noticeable increase in verbal and physical assault against Muslim women. The CSF’s efforts would have been more useful to Muslim women if it had looked into the issues of racism and sought some solutions to the extremely high unemployment suffered by Muslim women. It would be in the interest of Quebec society to progress beyond some issues that arouse only social tensions and to concentrate on such important issues as poverty and unemployment among minority women.

The origins of the feminist movement in North America go back to the big demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Conseil du statut de la femme has decided not to mobilize against the growing militarization resulting from the Canadian presence in Afghanistan. It has chosen instead to bolster the efforts of those who are arousing Islamophobic sentiments in Quebec. Its efforts to prevent women from exercising their freedom of choice in relation to their clothing prompts us to engage in a march of solidarity on the theme of wearing the veil on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2008.

Roksana Bahramitash is the author of Liberation from Liberalization: Gender and Globalization in South East Asia. Liberation from Liberalization

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