Quebec “Charter of Values”, Islamophobia and Feminism

by | October 8, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Image from press packet showing articles of clothing not allowed to be worn under proposed Charter of Values

Items that public sector employees will not be allowed to wear under the proposed “Charter of Values”

by Arwen McKechnie

I am a long time reader of the Toronto Star, and like many progressive Canadians, I see it as the only major paper that consistently reflects at least some of my views and politics. Admittedly, I don’t agree with every piece or editorial, but with few exceptions, I can usually respect the conclusions that are drawn and I admire the Star’s stated goal of working to advance the cause of social justice and their commitment to ethical reporting and coverage.

I have always particularly enjoyed Haroon Siddiqui’s column, and the elegant way in which he punctures the seemingly well-intentioned rhetoric used to promote anti-Muslim bigotry. But reading his column of September 29th, I noted with considerable dismay that he had fallen into the same trap he accuses “feminists” of: painting an entire group with the same brush. Those who identify as feminist are no more a monolithic bloc than adherents of Islam.

As the #solidarityforwhitewomen hashtag and better authors than me have amply covered, white feminism frequently has a problem with race. White feminists too often use their relative privilege to make blanket statements about “all women”, assuming that their experience is the universal one, and erasing others from the conversation. Siddiqui’s article plays into that narrative fairly seamlessly.

Quite evidently some people are raising the banner of feminism to support their prejudice against the hijab and niqab and, by extension, Islam. But those people do not speak for all of us.

There are many feminist individuals and groups that absolutely support a woman’s right to determine how she should practice her faith, and which cultural markers to choose to adopt. I am one of them. I believe absolutely in a woman’s right to choose, and that choice extends from if and when to have children to whether or not to wear a niqab. Otherwise we fall into a paternalistic trap of assuming “we” know best. But that kind of assumption is not limited exclusively to white feminists, nor to non-Muslim feminists of colour and there are people within both groups who are more self-aware than Mr. Siddiqui seems willing to credit.

If the article had been situated within the context of the history of paternalist feminism in Quebec, the article would have offered greater insight into a very specific context. For instance, in Quebec women are prohibited from taking their spouse’s name when they marry, presumably for their own good, so as to discourage the admittedly patriarchal tradition of assuming another man’s name. The issue with this is that it’s not optional, and forcing someone to keep their own name if they don’t want to is just as paternalistic as requiring someone to take their spouse’s name. Not just women but all people, regardless of their gender or the gender of the person they’re marrying, should be able to decide for themselves if they want to keep or change their name.

So I personally have a problem with the way feminism looks at the state level in Quebec, and I think it’s the same problem demonstrated here. But the broader context was not mentioned in this article. It seems to me that legitimate indignation at the xenophobia currently on display in the PQ Charter has clouded the argument about why this is an abuse of feminism and a slight to the agency of Muslim women, and reduced the discussion to simplistic rhetoric.

I actually wrote Mr. Siddiqui about my concerns, and he promptly responded (which was a pretty big thrill for me, nerd that I am), but felt that his initial identification of “Marois and her feminist hawks” was sufficient to give context. I respectfully disagree: since the policy in question is decidedly unfeminist, in my opinion, and at the very least hotly contested within feminist circles, I think that using the term uncritically gives a misleading impression to readers of what feminism is really about; or at least, what Mr. Siddiqui think it’s about. Feminism is about equality – not forced equality, but the real kind, that involves respecting the choices and decision making powers of both women and men. The PQ Charter has nothing to do with that: it’s about legislating xenophobia and prejudice against minorities and cloaking it in the language of feminism so that people can pretend that the Charter is really about promoting rights. It’s not.

In my eyes, it’s much the same as the way that the Prime Minister talks about Islamicism and Islamicists – though he means something very specific when using those terms, they nonetheless implicate all Muslims. Oversimplified statements about political movements and marginalized groups are confusing at best and outright dangerous in the worst cases.

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  • Bram Kivenko

    This is an open letter to Mr. Siddiqui, cc: Ms. McKechnie.

    First off, the term is “exorcised” not exercised. The literary deficit at The Star is likely the cause for no one catching that detail.

    Secondly, it is important to put the issue of self-obscuring in proper context. The vast majority of women who self-obscure suffer from one of the following life challenges: (a) they have never had the opportunity not to self-obscure in public; (b) they cannot freely express their opinions in public or even privately; (c) they worry about stigmatizing others who self-obscure.

    Self-obscuring is not just a religious issue, it is inescapably juxtaposed with being a gender issue as well. As such, only women can truly appreciate what the ritual of self-obscuring is about. As most women who self-obscure live in areas where there exists significant and violent oppression against women who might not self-obscure, their opinion or lack thereof must be discounted. As well, since this is a equally a gender issue, men’s opinions on the matter must be discounted.

    In fact, it would appear that the only people on the planet who are truly capable of having an informed opinion of the matter are women who can speak freely about self-obscuring, who are free from cultural coercion to self-obscure, who have experienced both sides of this lifestyle choice, and who are well informed about how both men and society together oppress and brainwash women to conform to the will of men and male authority.

    I see nothing in your article that offers any insight regarding any of this. I am concerned that this might be a pattern in your writing that I cannot detect due to my ill informed nature of other topics which you focus on.

  • I’m from Québec, and like a lot of feminists here, I think the «charter of values» deny women’s right to choose for themselves. I think it’s important that women can work.

    Your text made me think about a thing I take for granted. The interdiction to take the spouse’s name come from 1981, so my parents, married in 1983, are the first generation that lived this. And frankly, I don’t understand why a person would want to change their name after a marriage. I really don’t want to be judgemental here, I really want to understand the reasons why. I thought maybe you can help me to understand.


    • Arwen McKechnie

      Hi Catherine,

      Sorry for the belated response! Personally, I have no interest in changing my name, ever. I can understand why someone would want to change their name after marriage though, particularly if they were planning to have children with their partner – it makes things much easier, practically speaking, if everyone has the same last name. However, I see no reason why it should have to be the female partner. Doesn’t it make more sense for a man to change his last name, since any children will automatically take their mother’s name? My objection to the Quebec law is entirely about the fact that it restricts people’s choices for their own good. It seems patronizing to me, and like women are being talked down to, even while they’re ostensibly having their rights promoted.

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