This article is part of our series Counter-Counter-Counter-Point. To see how Bill 60 may be positive after all, check out Simren Sandhu’s take on the issue.
The formal public hearings for Bill 60, affectionately entitled the “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests” (say that ten times fast), have recently begun, and have made Quebec a bit of a laughing stock. The Pineault-Caron family, who testified at the hearing, really showed what an effect the charter is having on the citizens of the province. After their trips to Morocco and Turkey, the family came to the conclusion that it “is ‘unthinkable’ to allow people in such ‘disguises’ to roam around in public in Quebec.” Sure, because religious apparel is definitely a disguise.
I think that, in order to prevent the unfortunate souls from the Pineault-Caron family from worrying their little heads over people’s true identity beneath these disguises, the PQ should either go hard, or go home. Why stop at their hand-wavy definition of overt and conspicuous symbols of individuality and freedom? Frankly, it just seems lazy. There’s a whole slew of things they should abolish in their rampage against individual thought. Glasses, for one thing, have to go. If you can’t wear your glasses in your passport photo, you certainly can’t wear them out in public; you might be mistaken for someone else. Look at Clark Kent – talk about confusing! We can’t have any dashing journalists invading the media, only to find out, at the eleventh hour, that they happen to be alien superheroes. Contacts are acceptable, however, provided that they’re not coloured. This makes sense, right? How disconcerting would it be if someone’s eyes changed colour day by day? Hair dye? Nope. Such ludicrous colours as pink and blue are an eyesore to society. You might upset people’s hard and fast notion of what hair looks like. And hats in the winter? Forget it. Head coverings offend the sensibilities of Quebec citizens. You’ll just have to make sure your bus drops you off right in front of your destination because I’ve heard the frostbite here bites (Ha!).
Jokes aside, we need to consider the charter’s implicit accusation that religion breeds gender discrimination. While some religions certainly can (and do) generate sexism, misogyny, and discrimination through the application of gender roles in the household and in the church, to put the onus solely on religion is to fail to take responsibility for the institutionalization of gender roles within the state itself. After all, the primary proponents of sexism, misogyny, and gender discrimination are not religions, but gender roles (I know, I know, I was stunned too). In their haste to demand state secularism, Quebec hasn’t stopped to address the fact that gender is socially constructed. It varies from individual to individual, as does one’s perspective on gender. (Here Mr. Bernard Drainville and the rest of the Parti Quebecois, educate yourselves.)
If you scan the nineteen-page charter (buckle up for a long and incredibly vague ride), you will come across the phrase “equality between women and men” precisely ten times. Not only does this lovely phrase practice the erasure of anyone who identifies as neither man, nor woman (because apparently, you don’t deserve equality if you don’t buy into the concept of a gender binary), but the charter – beyond preaching a bastardized form of secularism that conveniently allows the blatant display of Christianity – doesn’t actually explain how this equality will be achieved. Since the hearings have begun, the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center has claimed that the new bill has already begun to have a negative impact on Holocaust survivors, and Muslim women have reported an increase in insults and physical assaults. Ah, the sweet joy of equality between women and men – oh wait, sorry, that was a clear indication of intolerance breeding more intolerance. My bad. I always get those two confused in the morning.
Moreover, it seems that Quebec hasn’t learned anything at all from its predecessor in pushing secularism, France. In 2011, France passed a ban on religious head coverings with the claim that they were “acting to protect the ‘gender equality’ and ‘dignity’ of women.” Simply by the wording of the law, we can see that this is a spectacular case of the “white man’s burden” directed largely towards women of religions that neither France nor Quebec want to take the time to understand (though they will take the time and money to oppose them). Both France and Quebec assume that, by banning the veil, the hijab, and any other religious head covering, they are liberating women, but they are doing quite the opposite. In effect, they’re exacerbating what they see as a problem in gender equality by subjugating women and effectively placing them under house arrest. In 2011, Muslim groups in France reported an increase in violence, both verbal and physical, against women in veils. So much for protecting the dignity of women.
The issue stems from a hero complex in the government. Religious head coverings are not something the state needs to rescue women from. To claim so is analogous to saying that the state needs to rescue women from the ability to make informed, personal decisions. You’d think that a political party spearheaded by a woman would be aware that, in the year 2014, it’s pretty much a given that women can think for themselves, but I suppose this is still revolutionary news for the people of Quebec. After all, it took them twenty years longer than the rest of Canada to give women the right to vote. Seventy years later, I suppose it’s only fair to give the people a moment to get used to the idea of female autonomy. If you think I’m just making facts up now (women voting?) a woman in France told reporters that she wears the burka and the niqab because of her “religious faith, culture and personal convictions”, and states that she is not pressured by her family to wear them. A woman wears something because she wants to? No way! It’s almost like she can actually think for herself – oh wait, she can.
Now, I don’t know about you, but taking the decision away from a woman to practice her own religion the way she wants to practice it sounds a lot like misogyny and gender discrimination to me. Shockingly enough, allowing a woman to choose what she wants to wear and how to wear it doesn’t sound so misogynistic at all. Does that mean we should (wait for it) allow women the choice of deciding how to practice their own religion? Preposterous. To all those who trusted that the supposed charter of the rights and freedoms of the not-so-individual will eliminate gender discrimination, I’ve got news for you: it won’t. We have evidence from France (you know, those people who colonized this fair province?) that this bill will only breed further gender discrimination. This isn’t to say that the world is hopelessly misogynistic and nothing anyone can do will change it. The government can do something about gender equality. But legally tearing off a woman’s hijab? That isn’t it.