Keep calm and love your hijab

Quebec's minority separatist government is dividing the province with its proposal to regulate religious symbols worn by public servants - a so-called Charter of Quebec Values. Like almost everything it has done in one year in office, this too is a shambles.  

When a government goes all out to fix something that is not broken, it is a sure bet the ‘solution‘ is to mask a real problem.

In Canada - specifically Quebec - the issue the minority separatist Parti Quebecois has rolled out to deflect attention from its appalling first year at the helm is what it so misleadingly refers to as a Charter of Quebec Values.

Sounds innocuous enough, but it is not and so the escalating controversy is performing exactly as Premier Pauline Marois had hoped - hogging the limelight from the province’s  economic mess, crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption, business and investment flight - amongst other real issues.

Quebec values, Marois has determined, will be saved via a crack down on any government employee wearing overt and conspicuous religious symbols.


“Over my dead body” screamed the leader of the opposition Quebec Liberals, on the basis that by pretending to defend what is specific about Quebec, Marois is trampling on the rights of others - often, but not exclusively, immigrants. 

Conspicuous or overt religious symbols include headscarves or face veils worn by Muslim women, yarmulkes worn by Jewish men, turbans and kirpans worn by Sikh men, large crucifixes worn by Christians. No mention about how long beards worn by Muslim men would be policed, or, come to think of it, Tichel and Sheitel (scarves and wigs) worn by married Hasidic women or Shtremel of Payot (large fur hats and hair curls) which adorn Hasidic men should any of the above want to work as police officers, prosecutors, teachers, doctors, in preschool or daycare centres or any other role paid for by the provincial government.

The claim is the Charter will establish the neutrality of the state which just so happens to be run from a legislature proudly displaying a very large crucifix, funds public Christmas tree displays and maintains an enormous cross atop Mount Royal in Montreal.

Conveniently, Marois dismisses such points as mistaking religion with culture. 

Even more convenient is that the new dress rules will not apply to elected politicians who are paid handsomely by none other than, ta dah, the state.

This will lead of course to a situation where, for argument’s sake, a hijab wearing candidate who is elected to office will then be expected to make sure any Muslim constituent who also wears a hijab and insists on continuing to do so, will not be allowed to take a government job.

A recruitment poster by an Ontario hospital hunting for Quebec doctors says it all in its proclamation that “We don’t care what’s on you head. We care what’s in it”.

Short and simple.

It does not confuse religious beliefs with ability to do the job. After all don’t those beliefs exist whether a public servant is in particular garb or not? 

Is a government dictate about what can and can’t be worn - within publicly accepted bounds of decency - not itself a form of oppression which Madame Marois has singled out the hijab as representing?

It is a scarf not unlike the traditional dress of Catholic nuns. Marois, presiding over a post-Catholic society, is silent on nuns. The hijab is not a burqa or Niqab with veiled eyeholes or full face covering. No one in Quebec is arguing dress that prevents eye contact or facial identity would be suitable within the public service.   

Whether the hijab is worn willingly or not is an argument which must not be confined to it alone.

Surely state neutrality lies in the policies of the state, not the make up of its workers for if the latter were the case neutrality would dictate no one with religious beliefs would be permitted to join the public service. No doubt some will favour that, but in reality it is a ridiculous concept. 

The PQ’s proposed charter is doing a fine job of dividing Quebecers, and hijab-wearing women - an increasingly common sight in Quebec - are already paying a price.

Incidents of verbal abuse, threats, and most recently a woman’s son being spat at when he went to defend her have begun to surface.

Comments on media feedback sites include everything from proposals to call the charter what it is “racist and fascist”.  Some advise those who don’t like it to go back to where they came from. Others argue you can’t expect someone to drop their “freedom of religion” at the door of their house before going to work to ensure the freedoms and rights of others.

Advice to readers to refrain from eating their shorts over this issue is wise, insofar as Marois heads a minority government and the three other parties in the legislature oppose her charter in its current form.

Mayors in the cities that make up the greater Montreal have already come up with concepts for bypassing it, constitutional lawyers are ready to go in to bat for those it targets, and the Liberals say they will pay the court costs.

The federal government has rubbished it.

So, it is unlikely to pass, but as a political tactic to obsfucate the nasty economic truth, it is worth exposing.

That most erudite of scribes, Conrad Black, labels it insane and nothing like the French legislation which requires people to be reasonably facially identifiable.

Instead Black says Marois proposes to “determine what level of religious symbolic identification is acceptable for citizens to display; and to empower petty officials to harass, prosecute, and dismiss from their lawful gainful employment, people who wear a crucifix, Star of David, islamic Crescent, or the insignia of other religions where the insignia are larger than such pettifogging officials may from time to time determine. And they propose to entrench this wild exercise in state self-aggrandizement in what is pompously declared to be a Charter of Values”.

For Quebec it is to be hoped the oxygen the proposed charter has been given will also smother it.