In this essay, Leila Bdeir examines the current debate over the minority Parti Quebecois’ proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols by employees of the public sector, drawing out the division within feminism. While some view the banning of the hijab as a means to promote greater equality of the sexes, what is striking in this debate is that the voices of certain women have been largely silenced.
The Charter of Values proposed by the PQ government in the fall has generated much discussion about what it means to hold “authentic Quebec” values, especially as they pertain to the question of gender equality. With this article, I would like to offer a feminist critique of the current debate and the terms under which it is being conducted. It is important to note also that, while the focus of this article is on Muslim women, the so-called charter of values takes aim at several other religious minorities and this should in no way be minimized.
From a charter for secularism to a charter of values
We do not have an English word which adequately translates laïcité in all the socio-political and historical dimensions it has acquired in French; therefore I will use the French word, laïcité. It is important to begin by reminding ourselves that much of the current debate on the state of laïcité in Quebec society has in fact emerged from the numerous discussions around the Islamic headscarf and its increased visibility in Quebec today. While initially the question of laïcité was a tool used to argue in favour of banning the headscarf in certain environments, such as at school and among public sector employees, it has now taken on an enlarged meaning: alarm has been expressed that the secular nature of Quebec is in danger, a narrative that dominates public debate. Furthermore, Muslim women and their religiously motivated attire are now seen as the principal threat to laïcité and Quebec identity. No longer are Muslim women only perceived as dangers to themselves, but they are now perceived to pose a threat to the Nation as well. Why otherwise would la charte de la laïcité become known as la charte des valeurs québécoises?
The use of women’s bodies to symbolize nationhood is certainly not new. However, it is notable that this tactic mirrors one of the preferred tactics of the religious and political patriarchal forces which hold so much power in many Muslim women’s countries of origin and which are so vigourously denounced by some Western feminists.
Furthermore, there have been over the past few years an increasing number of immigrants to Quebec. This reality has lent certain debates, such as the one surrounding laicité, a particular tone as the dominant group defines and redefines what constitutes a real “Quebecker,” and what cultural norms and memories must predominate. While originally there was a strong governmental focus on preserving the French language, over time it has become increasingly apparent that immigrant groups also bring their own treasured cultures and values which they want to maintain, even if they are also francophones.
The hijab and Muslim women in Quebec
According to some estimates, a few hundred Muslim women were already living in Quebec in 1961. In the 1991 census, 44 930 Muslims were accounted for, 18 020 of whom were women. In 2001, the Muslim population rose to 108 620, of which 48 835, or 45%, were women. Between 2007 and 2011, the Muslim population of Quebec grew to 221,040 Muslims, including 114,615 Muslim women.However, despite this increasing population, there was very little discussion of Muslims in general or Muslim women in particular until late into the 1990s.
Eventually, the increased and the sometimes conspicuous presence of Muslim women forced Quebec feminists to take notice of them. Unfortunately, much of this attention has been negative. In fact, while the public discourse regarding Muslim women in general and the hijab in particular, focuses on “the issue of equality between the sexes,” it does not take into account the question of equality among women. The letter written and signed by Janette Bertrand and 20 other women, as well as the subsequent sorties of some of these signatories demonstrate this point very well. Muslim women have been described among other things as “crazy, self-alienated, imperiled and duplicitous”. It is surprising and dispiriting for Muslim women and feminists such as myself to realize that, in the name of the rights which it claims to be defending, a significant part of what is being presented as the Quebec feminist establishment actively reproduces paternalistic and oppressive practices.
Quebec feminists, seeing the need to include and represent all women in Quebec, have come face to face with profound differences among women. In fact the Quebec feminist movement and progressive Western forces in general have become increasingly confronted with an important philosophical dilemma. If they believe that the right to self-determination constitutes an essential principle for women’s equality, does this right also apply to women whose act of self-definition leads to choices outside the Western secular norm? In other words, are Quebec feminists willing to live with a certain number of realities with which they are uncomfortable in order to respect the right to self-definition of all women? Is it possible to transcend the limits of Quebec nationalism which has been historically tied to the francophone women’s movement, to include the practices of different cultures?
In whose name do we speak?
The last point I want to briefly tackle is the way in which the voice of Muslim women has been systematically appropriated in the context of this debate. Increasingly, Muslim women from all walks of life have come out in favour or against this charter. They are often pitted against one another in a kind of exotic and increasingly distasteful “laïcité reality show”. However, never are Arab and Muslim women who come out in favour of the charter accused of not thinking for themselves. On the contrary, theirs are taken to be the voices of reason in support of this charter. When they describe their suffering at the hands of brutal foreign regimes, nobody questions the legitimacy of their claims. I am not suggesting that we begin to do this. However, I cannot help but notice that women, especially women who wear the hijab and who have come out against the charter, are not afforded the same kind of recognition. Their experiences, when they do not reflect back the official story of suffering and misery at the hands of the terrible men in their families, are dismissed as anecdotal at best and as deliberately misleading and calculating in most cases.
The public conversation around whose voice is most legitimate has gone quite far indeed. In some cases, Muslim women who wear the hijab are openly made fun of for their appearances. If they are rather austere looking, they confirm our bias about their miserable lives; if they look good and speak well, they are Barbie dolls and we cannot decide whether we hate them or desire them. Either way, they just can’t win.
Ultimately, there are probably as many reasons for wearing the hijab as there are women who wear it. Some do it for cultural and familial reasons because the other women in their families do it and they want to belong to the group. Some wear it because they feel religiously compelled to do so. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that the religious motivation, or the belief that the hijab is a religious prescription for women within Islam, is at the heart of most people’s decision to adopt such a dress on some level or another. But it is equally important to know that this is not an opinion shared by all Muslim women, or even all religious scholars, although most religious scholars do agree that the hijab is at the very least a strong recommendation for Muslim women. There are in fact a number of Muslim women scholars, some who adopt the feminist label and some who do not, who have been working for over 20 years now in an attempt to favour a more egalitarian reading of the religious scriptures and to overturn the patriarchal interpretations of a faith they believe to be one of justice and equality.
Finally, as a Muslim woman and feminist myself, it is my strongest wish that we begin to change the terms of this debate. At the very least, Muslim women, including those who wear hijab, need to be recognized and respected as the authorities on their own lives.
Humanities, Vanier College
 Frédéric Castel, 2010, « La dynamique de l’équation ethnoreligieuse dans l’évolution récente du paysage religieux québécois. Les cas du façonnement des communautés bouddhistes et musulmanes (de 1941 à aujourd’hui) », thèse de doctorat, Département en sciences des religions, p. 175.
 Statistique Canada, Recensement de 1981, no 92-912 au catalogue, tableau 1 ; Recensement de 2001, no 97F0022XCB2001001 au catalogue.
 Statistics Canada 2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada Catalogue no.99-010-X2011032. Date Modified 2013-05-01.
Part of this article was taken from a paper co-written with Greta Hofmann Nemiroff entitled Muslim Women and the Quebec Women’s Movement and which was presented by Asmaa Ibnouzahir at a conference for the Critical Muslim Studies: Decolonial Struggles, Theology of Liberation and Islamic Revival Summer School, in Granada, Spain, in the Spring of 2013.
Leila Bdeir is also a founding member of the Collective des féministes musulmanes du Québec.