Just about every anglophone pundit in Canada thinks Quebec’s Bill 21, which proscribes religious symbolism in many civil-service jobs, notably in public school teaching, is a terrible, anti-immigrant, even racist law that goes against everything Canada allegedly stands for. I am one of the few who has argued that a commitment not only to secularism, but the appearance of secularism when representing the state, as an expression of the common social vision, is justifiable and even worthy of praise.
Nobody has ever pretended that any woman wearing a cross around her neck or any man wearing a kippah was the impetus for this bill. Everyone understands that it is the hijab that is the irritant. And many hijab-wearing Muslim women happen to gravitate toward teaching as a profession. One of my arguments in support of the bill was that the hijab was more than “just” a head covering.
Unlike the cross or the kippah, the hijab is highly politicized and often associated with coercion in the wearing of it and punishment for the refusal to wear it in Islamic countries. In Iran, for example, it is considered a symbol of Islamic triumphalism, and some brave women who publicly reject it have suffered grave retribution for their dissent.
It is easy for non-Muslim Canadians, for whom the hijab is an entirely neutral accessory, to wax on about freedom of religion and a woman’s choose. But for Muslim women who want nothing to do with the hijab, it can be quite triggering to see it on teachers of their children.
Le Devoir has just reported on allegations of hijab-wearing teachers proselytizing children in classrooms. The allegations arose in the context of a permitted intervention by the group Pour le Droit des Femmes du Québec (PDF Quebec – For the Rights of Women of Quebec) during the judicial hearings over Bill 21.
PDF Quebec presented the case of Ines Hadj Kacem and of Ferroudja Si Hadj Mohand, two Muslim immigrants who wish to raise their daughters in an environment of complete gender equality. They allege that two Montreal public schools have failed them in this respect.
“I left Tunisia so that my daughter could grow up in a milieu that is respectful of her choices and decisions,” Hadj Kacem declared in a sworn statement. She said that her daughter was enrolled in the daycare in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve public school.
The girl had been submitted to pressure from veiled teachers to thank Allah at the end of meals and told not to eat the school food because it wasn’t halal or might contain pork. She was told to behave like a “good Muslim,” alleges her mother. Mme. Kacem said she finally withdrew her daughter from the daycare after having complained about this several times to the school authorities without redress.
In her sworn statement, Mme. Kacem also said, “I have the strong impression that wearing a religious symbol by people in a position of authority influences the behaviours of my daughter and makes her question her own choices and those of her mother.”
She added that her daughter is also made uncomfortable by other children in her unit because she does not wear a cover. All that, Mme. Kacem says, “demonstrates prejudice against what we came to find in Quebec, namely equality between women and men.”
The other witness, Mme. Mohand, recounted that a hijab-wearing teacher was said to have intervened when a nine-year-old friend of her daughter’s removed her hijab in the courtyard of the Montreal North school they both attended. The teacher allegedly said that once a girl begins wearing the hijab, it must not be removed. Then, turning to Mme. Mohand’s daughter, she asked her when she was going to start wearing it. The girl said she felt “embarrassed” and obliged to answer “maybe in high school.”
Mme. Mohand stated that she had had a long conversation with her daughter, explaining she had no obligation to lie concerning her belief in order to please a teacher. The lawyer for PDF Quebec, Christianne Pelchat, former president of the Council for the Status of Women, told Le Devoir that these two witnesses are very important: “It demonstrates that the proscription of religious symbols amongst certain state employees is completely legitimate and takes into account the right of women to equality, with respect to their religious freedom and the right not to be the object of proselytism.”
To those who say that Bill 21 will prevent religious Muslim women from entering the teaching profession, it is better that religiously orthodox Muslim women like the teachers in these cases seek employment in the private teaching sector, where their views are welcome. This is preferable to subjecting Muslim girls who prefer not to wear the hijab to the kind of treatment outlined above.
Freedom of religious expression via religious symbolism should never trump the freedom not to wear religious symbols. The scenarios here would never have happened in the cases of a cross-wearing or kippah-wearing teacher. The hijab does at times represent a qualitative and consequential departure from the customary norms of Canadian society. We should all grasp the nettle of this reality, as Quebec already has, and admit that Bill 21 is a law worth our respect. Indeed, it is worthy of emulation by other provinces.