In March, 2010, Quebec’s Minister of Justice introduced in the National Assembly bill 94, An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions. It states “that the practice whereby a personnel member of the Administration or an institution and a person to whom services are being provided by the Administration or the institution show their face during the delivery of services is a general practice, and that if an accommodation involves an adaptation of that practice and reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it, the accommodation must be denied.”
Although the proposed legislation does not explicitly target Muslim women, it is clear, should it become a law, that those who, among them, wear a face or full body veil (niqab, burqa) in public on account of their religious beliefs will not be able to work for the Quebec state and state agencies or have access to key state services (hospitals, schools, universities, day care centers). Quebec is not alone treading this legislative path: in April 2010, the Belgian parliament approved a draft legislation banning the burqa in public spaces and sending to jail repeat offenders; the French government has recently brought forth a similar legislation and Spain is considering it.
To some, such legislative measures are unnecessary and represent a violation of the basic freedom of religious expression guaranteed constitutionally in most liberal democratic societies. To others, who believe the niqab and the burqa symbolize the oppression of women, they are, on the contrary, essential both to protect women’s right to equality and create a strong and secular democratic shield against Muslim religious fundamentalism. Interestingly, opponents and supporters claim their respective position rests on a deep concern for human rights and democratic advancement.
In Quebec, the debates between the two camps carry on in a way the emotionally charged reasonable accommodation controversy that mobilized public opinion in 2007 and 2008. Current discussions over the issue rarely transcend the ideological and political frameworks with which each side assesses whether the Islamic veil is an acceptable manifestation of religious identity and normative difference. As a result, the analysis of the question is wanting and our understanding of it limited. Why, for example, do liberal democratic societies like Quebec, which have made embracing ethnocultural diversity and religious pluralism a defining feature of their public culture for several decades, now seem to retreat from such a stance? Is banning the Islamic veil an exceptional measure and a reasonable, self-preserving, liberal-democratic limitation on the freedom of expression or the mark of a deep-seated change in attitude on the part of the mainstream, hegemonic culture toward minority ethnocultural identities and normative sets? Or is it, more simply, a knee-jerk, anti-Muslim reaction driven by the general current international context of politico-ideological opposition between East and West? Such questions are hardly ever raised, if at all, to shed light on the Islamic veil issue. Yet, they are important. They take us well beyond the veil and force us to address the dynamics of power and the social relations that underscore the state’s approach to ethnocultural diversity and normative otherness in the public space. Indeed, they compel us to take a hard, non complacent look at the limitations of liberal democratic citizenship.
This conference is part of the activities of UQAM’s Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur la diversité au Québec (CRIDAQ) of which Concordia is a member and partner. It will take the ongoing debates around bill 94, reasonable accommodation and laïcité as a point of departure to explore these questions further with a view to inform the public debate in a dispassionate fashion and reflect on the nature of citizenship.
Dr. Wendy Brown, UC Berkeley
Alexa Conradi, Fédération des femmes du Québec
Gada Mahrouse, Concordia University
Louise Langevin, Université Laval
Corinne Torrekens, Université libre de Bruxelles
Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, Université de Paris-nord (13)
Homa Hoodfar , Concordia University
Monique Deveaux, Guelph University
Cecile Laborde, University College London
Himani Bannerji, York University
Sirma Bilge, Université de Montréal
Sedef Arat-Koc, Ryerson University
François Rocher, University of Ottawa