Hijab No Threat to Quebec, Report Says

John Kenney, Canwest News Service, May 20, 2008

The Muslim head scarf is no real threat to Quebec values and most women in the province wear it by choice, not out of coercion, concludes a commission on the integration of immigrants after a year of study costing $5-million.

In the final draft of their report—which was submitted to the provincial government yesterday and is expected to be made public at a news conference on Thursday—scholars Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor say Quebec society will have a lot to lose if it restricts the wearing of the Muslim head scarf strictly to the home and outdoors.

Saying the province’s 130,000 Muslims, especially Arab Muslim immigrants, are “along with blacks, the group that is the most touched by different forms of discrimination” in Quebec, Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Taylor plead for an end to bickering over the hijab.

“Let’s finish with the head scarf, which has caused so much distress in the last few years,” the commission’s chairmen say in their report, parts of which The Gazette obtained last week.

“In light of a great number of unequivocal testimonies, we can take it for granted—believe us—that the young girls or women who wear it give it various meanings and are motivated in contrasting ways, some of which, it’s true, don’t jibe with the dominant values of our society.”

In a footnote, the professors explain some of those different meanings: “Sometimes it signifies submission and oppression, pure and simple, sometimes prudishness, respectability and modesty, and sometimes a way of affirming one’s identity or autonomy or even feminism.

“But by trying to combat these situations, isn’t there a risk that we’ll harm other citizens who made a perfectly clear choice? How is it possible to disentangle the two? And in the end, what happens to the freedom of each and every one to display her deeply held convictions, as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others and don’t lead to anybody being put out?”

Devout Muslim women—a small minority of Quebec Muslims overall—suffer intimidation and discrimination in the Quebec job market for wearing the hijab “because employers fear getting demands for accommodations,” the commissioners say, recounting testimony from several Muslims in public hearings last fall.

They cite the case of a young hijab-wearing woman studying to be a pharmacist who “saw her job applications rejected by 50 pharmacies before she was finally able to land a job with an Arab pharmacist.”

The commissioners also write that the hijab is a lightning rod for a wide range of opponents in Quebec, all of whom see it in a negative light.

“Diverse voices are raised to denounce the Muslim head scarf: those of radical feminism, those of republican egalitarianism and—we heard various ways of it being expressed—also those of intolerance.”

That condemnation should not happen, they say.

“The freedom to manifest one’s religion or one’s conviction is recognized by all the great international legal conventions and by the Quebec charter [of human rights and freedoms],” they say in a footnote.

In another footnote, Messrs. Bouchard and Taylor talk of some Quebecers’ “often irrational” opposition to the hijab, which they see as a denial of a woman’s femininity, a symbol of her submission to men and to God, or simply a restrictive piece of clothing better left in a drawer.

They quote from a brief submitted to them in November by a woman during their 17-city tour of the province: “In 2007, in Quebec, when a Muslim women wears the veil, I tremble,” the woman wrote.

The hijab should be greeted in day-to-day life as a possibility to connect with someone with a different way of life, according to Messrs. Bouchard and Taylor.

They also say it’s wrong to think that all veiled Muslim women are somehow under a man’s thumb. “There’s a strong feminist current among Muslim women. It follows an original path and is a model that differs from Quebec feminism. It goes along with the wearing of the head scarf.”

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