This is an English translation of an article which appeared in La Presse on 15th November 2022 under the title Que défendent au juste les opposants à la loi 21 ?.
Nadia El-Mabrouk, President of Rassemblement pour la laïcité (Alliance for Secularism)
Yasmine Mohammed, President of Free Hearts Free Minds
The return of the debates on Bill 21 to Quebec Court of Appeal brings to the forefront the poverty of arguments advanced by the law’s critics, as well as the gap between their discourse and the reality of religious fundamentalism and its impact on the rights of women and children. At a time when Iranian women and men are fighting for freedom and confronting the theocratic regime of the Mullahs, some of those arguments are appalling.
In order to challenge section 8 of the law requiring deputies to perform their duties with their faces uncovered, in other words, to defend the wearing of the niqab (full face veil) in the Quebec National Assembly, Olga Redko, lawyer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, argued on Thursday that “religion is an integral part of identity” and that a person cannot be asked to remove part of his or her identity.
How can one make such an argument while defending religious freedom? If religion is an identity, then it is no longer a freedom. Moreover, this vision of religion directly contradicts Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the freedom to change one’s religion or belief precisely in the name of freedom of conscience, thought and religion.
This argument is all the more astonishing when it concerns the niqab. How can one be so blind as to conceive of this prison for women as an identity and not see that it is the emblem of the most misogynistic Islamic regimes on the planet? To draw a parallel between the veil and the identity of Muslim women is to play into the hands of Islamists, who are only too eager to propagate this idea in the population.
A duty of protection
To consider religious symbols as part of one’s identity is religious fundamentalism. According to the lawyer for Coalition Inclusion Québec, “the only purpose of Bill 21 is to take away the rights of certain groups.” No, this law gives everyone the right to secular public services. The requirement that teachers be neutral in appearance is intended to provide students with a learning environment free of religious fundamentalism, so that they can exercise their freedom of thought. This is especially important for young people who are subject to religious pressures outside of school.
Before worrying about the right of teachers to wear religious symbols, could we put the interests of the children first?
Yasmine (co-author of this text) recounts, in her book Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, her tragic childhood in an Islamic family in British Columbia. Among other misfortunes, Yasmine was enrolled in an illegal Muslim school, forced to wear the veil at an early age, and then the niqab. She was beaten from the age of 6 for difficulties in memorizing koranic verses, or on other occasions for questions of honour. But the most incomprehensible is the failure of provincial institutions to listen to her concerns and protect her. Having filed a complaint against her parents for abuse, a judge sent her back to her family after having ruled that the use of violence was normal in the Muslim culture!
What culture do we really want to value?
When Perri Ravon, lawyer for the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and Julius Grey, representing the Quebec Community Groups Networks, say that secularism is contrary to “minority culture,” what culture are we talking about? What about the culture of the thousands of Iranian women who march bareheaded in the streets of Tehran or Montreal, risking their lives, to denounce the imposition of Islamic laws?
The EMSB’s lawyer explains in her plea that the English school boards have experienced Bill 21 as an affront to their identity and values. Is this a case of promoting the culture of the EMSB? By presenting it as “the culture of the minority,” does the English Montreal School Board consider that there is only one culture and it must be theirs?
Confusing “minority culture” with religious fundamentalism is an affront to citizens from elsewhere who only want to enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else, as well as secular public services for their children.
Before concocting legal arguments contrary to common sense in order to defend the wearing of religious symbols by representatives of the State, it would be more judicious to think about the protection of children, of all religious backgrounds, who are vulnerable to being confined in a restrictive identity due to the absence of secular guidelines.