Imagine that I am a teacher who has decided to teach my students about cultures other than their own. I want those students to understand that wearing a kirpan, a turban, a kipa, a hijab, or a niqab does not make a person less Canadian, less deserving of respect, or “abnormal.” So, I decide I will wear items belonging to my own cultural practices as a demonstration of how easily we can all interact with the diverse community around us. I choose, as a Muslim woman, to cover my hair with a hijab and cover my lower face with a niqab. I want my class to understand how my head and facial coverings make no difference to who I am. They can easily and readily have a conversation and interact with me, just as they have always done.
But, I am not permitted to board the bus to work, to take out books from the local public library, or even to enter my school unless I remove my face-covering. What does this teach my students? I am afraid that it demonstrates the very opposite of the inclusion, acceptance and understanding that I am trying to create in my students. They can only learn that SOME people are not acceptable, are to be viewed with suspicion, and are not “normal” in their community. Why would a government lend support and credence to a measure that can only encourage bullying, prejudice and discrimination?
Here is why:
Bill 62 AN ACT TO FOSTER ADHERENCE TO STATE RELIGIOUS NEUTRALITY AND, IN PARTICULAR, TO PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK FOR RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS IN CERTAIN BODIES
The purpose of this bill is to establish measures to foster adherence to State religious neutrality. For that purpose, it provides, in particular, that personnel members of public bodies must demonstrate religious neutrality in the exercise of their functions, being careful to neither favour nor hinder a person because of the person’s religious affiliation or non-affiliation. …Under the bill, personnel members of public bodies and of certain other bodies must exercise their functions with their face uncovered... In addition, persons receiving services from such personnel members must have their face uncovered. An accommodation is possible but must be refused if the refusal is warranted in the context for security or identification reasons or because of the level of communication required. The bill establishes the conditions under which accommodations on religious grounds may be granted as well as the specific elements that must be considered when dealing with certain accommodation requests. It specifies that the measures it introduces must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history…
You see, on its face, Bill 62 is about government religious neutrality and secularity. My understanding of neutrality is that governments should not make decisions that target or privilege one group while ignoring or excluding others. I think of secularity as a principle which states that governments do not make decisions that are based on the values, beliefs, or principles of any particular faith.
So, what’s with the regulation of what people may or may not wear? To create the regulation that requires all people to have uncovered faces when they are providing or receiving government services within a bill with the stated purpose of “fostering …religious neutrality” means that the bill is specifically targeting religious face coverings. Sure, no one is permitted to cover their faces while teaching, studying, going to a library or riding a public conveyance, but since this bill is directed at religious neutrality, we are talking about religious face coverings. If there were a bill that forbids everyone from wearing large crucifixes, one might say that everyone is being treated neutrally. Except of course, the only people likely to wear this sort of adornment are Christian. They would be clearly targeted by such a bill. We have a name for this kind of “universal” regulation: It is systemic discrimination. Everyone is equally affected – only they aren’t.
Decades ago, I was in a hospital waiting for an X-ray. There was a sign stating that “pregnant persons” had to inform the technician of their condition. Really? Was this so that no one could accuse the hospital of discrimination? “Persons” is a neutral word. However, you would have to be a fool not to know that the sign was aimed at women. The language was just silly. Quebec’s Bill 62 is aimed solely at Muslim women, and no one who has read it can be in any doubt.
If I am among the few Muslim women in Quebec who chooses to wear niqab or burqa, this bill is aimed directly at me. My Christian, atheist, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist friends can go about their day unhindered. They may briefly have to pull their scarves, hockey masks, or balaclavas off their faces on a cold February day, but this will not contravene their freedom of expression, nor their religious or equality rights. It is only the few Muslim women for whom this bill is a restriction of their human and constitutional rights.
Don’t comfort yourself with the fact that people can request religious accommodation. Because they won’t get this accommodation if it is determined that measures to accommodate affect Quebec’s religious cultural heritage – which is Christian. This very confusing section of the bill seems to indicate that Quebec’s Christian heritage “that testifies to its history” is to be privileged above minority religions. Note the crucifix that hangs above the Quebec National Assembly. It is not going anywhere anytime soon. There have been Muslims in Quebec for many, many decades, but I guess this law permanently excludes them from being a part of Quebec’s heritage. If this is what neutrality looks like, imagine what this province’s religious bias will do.