A reader writes:
I live in Québec. Considering how few women actually wear the niqab here, this bill might be seen as an overreaction. However, it is much more a reaction to a growing feeling of unease in the Québec population with questions of national identity. We feel a strong need to define and assert who we are as a nation and a culture in order to stave off assimilation. To understand the Québécois, one must be aware that the Quiet Revolution - the period of unprecedented social development where we threw off the shackles of religious oppression - made us probably the most ardently secular state in North America. It happened just over 40 years ago. Before that, the Québecois were firmly under the heel of the Catholic Church.
Protection of the French language, secularity of the society and the primacy of the equality between men and women are three subjects of great importance to most Québécois. Unfortunately, the debate around these subjects most often centers around immigrants, especially those whose religion dictates some forms of expression which go against the principles of secularity and equality between men and women.
I can empathize with Thea Lim's views. However she is wrong about the motivations behind the bill.
The number one intent of this bill, as cynical as it may sound, is to show that the Government is doing something about the situation. The number two reason is setting boundaries about what is and isn't acceptable in Québec society. Being served by a government employee whose face you can't see - unacceptable. Asking that male students sit facing the walls so they won't see your face during an oral presentation - unacceptable.
The protection of Muslim women comes dead last, and is more a byproduct of the bill's true intentions, no matter what anyone might say. This is not out of any lack of concern about the fate and place of Muslim women in Québec society, I am sure, but rather because the question of allowing or banning the wearing of the niqab or the hijab is a very complex one with no easy answers. Even those directly concerned with this question - Muslim women associations and feminist groups - don't agree about what should be done.
You "see absolutely no reason for this assault on religious freedom and a woman's choice"? You realize this is Quebec right? This is the province where Herouxville, pop. 1235, passed a motion in the town council banning stoning, burning women alive, and genital mutilation. (The delegation of women from the Canadian Islamic Congress that went to speak to the town council may have been the first Muslims in Herouville.) This is the province where an 11-year old girl was prevented from playing in a soccer tournament because she wore a hijab. This is the province where, after losing a referendum on whether or not to separate from Canada, the Parti Quebecois Premier blamed "money and the ethnic vote" - at a big public rally! A province that blocked passover matza from entering the province (on the eve of Passover) because there was no French writing on the packaging (or maybe because the French wasn't big enough, I can't remember).
I'd suggest reading Mordechai Richler's "Oh Canada, Oh Quebec!", about the history of rampant xenophobia and anti-semitism in Quebec. After reading that, it seems quite obvious that Muslims would most likely be equally unliked in Quebec. I seem to remember a poll a few years back where something like 45% of Canadians nationally admitted to being racist and something like 60% of Quebecers admitted it. The percentage of francophone Quebecers was considerably higher.
Yet at the same time Quebec is strangely progressive in many ways, and lots of fun to visit and live in (at least in Montreal; I'm sure the towns are great to visit, but not so much if you don't speak French). It's a complicated place.
(Photo by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)