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Quebec’s Bill 62: Muslim women’s bodies as the battleground for populist politics

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Barâa Arar argues that the new law in the Canadian state which denies access to public services to those wearing face coverings targets women who wear niqab

Last Wednesday, the Quebec legislature passed Bill 62 into law, meaning that individuals in the Canadian state will be denied access to public services if their faces are covered. Champions of the law say it promotes religious neutrality in public spaces and institutions and decry concerns that this legislation targets those who wear the niqab.

This simply isn’t the case. Bill 62 disproportionately and purposefully targets women who wear niqab in Quebec—all 90 of them.

Quebec National Assembly

Under the noble purpose of liberal equality, Quebec’s aspirations for secularism are seemingly endless – but let’s not mistake that they do in fact harbour anti-minority sentiments. Bill 62 comes as a compromise from the current government after Quebec’s 2014 Charter of Values lost and divided the province during election season. The 2014 bill proposed a more radical ban on religious symbols such as hijabs and kippahs with public discourse overwhelmingly focused on the attire of Muslim women. Although there is no real threat to public secularism from religious zealots, Quebec’s politicians continuously push such proposals to pander to voters.

This legislation and other bills like it are proposed or passed under the pretence of national security and personal identification. Yet, in its essence, the new Quebec law is antithetical to pillars of our liberal democracy and legitimizes public criticism of women’s bodies for political ends. The new legislation clearly limits civil liberties in important ways and legitimizes anti-Muslim rhetoric and behaviour. Bill 62, the first of its kind in North America, is a prime example of populist politics.

I do not wear niqab, nor do I wear mini-skirts, nor does it matter whether I agree with those who chose to do so. In the context of a liberal democracy, personal choices are not a matter of public agreement or societal uniformity. I don’t impose on other women to wear hijab; I shouldn’t be asked to remove mine. I think the moment a small group of people dictate a certain way to be free, we move into dangerous territory.

Speaking in terms of Canadian national identity, and in response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s famous statement, diversity is not only our strength – it is the very fuel of our democracy.

The aim of our laws is not to create identical citizens; their aim is to protect us from arbitrary abuses of power. Therefore, in the context of a liberal democracy, we protect everyone’s freedoms – of choice, religion, and expression – because we acknowledge the diversity of our citizenry and its importance to our democracy.  For instance, we do not legislate against certain hockey team’s jerseys (one can argue the threat sports allegiance poses to public safety…) because we would deem that beyond the jurisdiction of the state.

However, Bill 62, is not born from these values of inclusion and protections of personal choice, but instead out of a political discourse hijacked and monopolized by politicians appealing to right-wing voters and out of touch with the lives of Muslim women. A piece of legislation that stifles expression threatens the diversity that is key to making our democracy inclusive.

Quebec’s legislation is not unique in its content or force. In 2016, the French Riviera banned burkinis – modest swimwear worn by some Muslim women – on account of safety and overt religious demarcation. Within days, a photo emerged of a woman at the beach being forced to take off her burkini by two officials. The image is chilling; the moment captured reveals direct state interference with personal choice. The very freedom the municipality claimed to value was being forcibly revoked from their citizen. The focus on women’s bodies and choices stretches beyond the question of religious or cultural dress. Earlier this month, Donald Trump issued a ruling that limits access to contraception in the US — a move projected to affect 55 million Americans and a direct attack on women’s right to exercise agency over their bodies.

Illustration of now failed Charter of Values (via coco-net.org)

Much like France, Quebec’s collective consciousness is coloured by the abuses of the Catholic Church and the mythicized ‘Quiet Revolution’, which aimed to secularize Quebec’s society. Grievances against religion, actual or imagined, are attached to Quebec’s self-understanding; symbols such as the niqab irritate that sense of identity and security.  After the defunct Charter of Values, the Liberal government in Quebec proposed Bill 62 aimed to appease right-wing voters who would have otherwise chosen conservative options last election.

Bill 62, now enacted law, and other policies like it, masquerade as promotions of religious neutrality and public safety when in fact they concern a marginal portion of the population, repress women’s liberties, and are not proven to increase public safety in any way. As a matter of fact, there are no records of women who wear niqab refusing to comply in matters of personal identification. These proofs in themselves reveal the law’s uselessness and frankly, irrelevance.

The new Quebec law is born out the context of rising right-wing populism, and will only breed more antagonism towards Muslims—especially those who wear hijab or niqab. Proponents see it as a victory for secularization and women’s emancipation, in fact, many of those who voted against the Bill did not think it was extensive enough. Conversely, politicians, thinkers, and advocates across Canada denounced the unconstitutional essence of the law, acknowledging it will further ostracize an already marginalized community.  Prime Minister Trudeau has urged a “robust discussion” on Bill 62 – but I think we can do better. I think we have a duty to think critically and read into the agendas of politicians. The liberties of our fellow citizens are, quite simply, our own liberties. We need to show our governments that interference in personal liberties is unacceptable and inevitably a slippery slope away from the rule of law.

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Barâa Arar studies Humanities at Carleton University in Canada. She co- hosts The Watering Hole Podcast where she tells many of her tales. You can find more of her work on her website livewellspoken.comor on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @livewellspoken.


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