Quebec: Secularism and Islamophobia: Part I

Quebec: How secularism stokes Islamophobia: Part I
3 min read
09 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The Superior Court of Quebec confirmed the section of the secularist law that limits the wearing of religious signs by civil servants. It has been heavily criticised, writes Adèle Surprenant.
A Muslim woman holds a Canadian flag during the multicultural Canada Day celebration in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on 1 July, 2019. [Getty]

After several weeks of hearings, Judge Marc-André Blanchard handed down a decision in favour of maintaining the law on "secularism," Law 21. But from now on, English-speaking school commissioners and the MPs of the Quebec National Assembly are exempted from the ban against wearing religious signs. The ban is aimed at teachers, police officers, judges, and prosecutors, among others.

It is only a partial victory says Nour Farhat, the attorney representing a group of women teachers opposed to Law 21: "We are very disappointed with respect to the court's judgement [in preserving the law]," she states, "but nonetheless we are very happy about the contents [of the court battle]." Judge Blanchard recognised the discriminatory nature of Law 21, especially with regard to women wearing the hijab or other types of headscarf.

"Even though the judgement recognised the law's discriminatory nature and the fact that it is contrary to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizen, it could not be invalidated"

Indeed, the judgement's Paragraph 67 states, in black and white, that "the evidence shows that this policy of exclusion, since it must be defined as such, results in disproportionate consequences for Muslim women." Yet even though the judgement recognised the law's discriminatory nature and the fact that it is contrary to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizen, it could not be invalidated. 

"The judge's hands were tied," Counsellor Farhat explains, since Law 21 was passed by lawmakers thanks to a notwithstanding clause which makes it possible to disregard certain articles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That very same day, the Quebec government, presided over by the conservative François Legault, announced that it would appeal the court's judgement.

A case of media harassment

Those who have lost their jobs on account of Law 21's ban on conspicuous religious signs are by majority Muslim women; according to counsellor Farhat. "The law as such is meant to apply to everyone equally." But in effect and in fact, a woman wearing a cross can hide it under her jumper while a woman wearing a headscarf has no way of concealing it "which explains this alarming observation."

At a protest organised outside the offices of the Quebec Prime Minister just a few hours after the judgement was made public, a woman named Khadija told me she believed that the provisions of Law 21 infringe upon the rights and freedoms of every Quebec citizen.

"I do not believe it is fair to say that the law only concerns Muslim women," the co-president of the McGill Muslim Law Students' Association maintained, as she pointed out that, in the absence of any hard statistics, such an assertion has little value. This law student, who wears the hijab herself, does nevertheless admit that the law "has fuelled Islamophobic rhetoric which is certainly present in Quebec."

A billboard in Quebec reading "To each his own religion," shows the face of a young woman on November 27, 2013. [Getty]
A billboard in Quebec reading "To each his own religion," shows the face of a young woman on November 27, 2013. [Getty]

The Muslim population of the province was estimated to be 300,000 out of eight million in 2020. Before it was passed, the polls showed that a majority of public opinion favoured the law on secularism. According to counsellor Farhat, there was a campaign of media harassment aimed specifically at Muslim women. "There was very little talk of men who wear a turban or a yarmulke," she told Orient XXI, and went on to add, "for a decade or two now there is no longer any embarrassment or inhibition about bad-mouthing Muslims in public."

This is Part I. Read Part II here.

Adèle Surprenant is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, who is interested in workers' rights and women in North Africa and the Middle East.

This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.