Tuesday October 17, 2017

There's nothing neutral about Quebec's religious neutrality bill, Muslim advocate says

Shaheen Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women in Montreal, says Bill 62 clearly targets Muslim women and will lead to their further marginalization in Quebec society.

Shaheen Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women in Montreal, says Bill 62 clearly targets Muslim women and will lead to their further marginalization in Quebec society. (CBC)

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Shaheen Ashraf says Quebec's new "religious neutrality" bill is just another example of the government targeting Muslims to get votes. 

Bill 62 would force people to uncover their faces while providing or receiving public services in the province. 

That means it would effectively ban public workers — including doctors, nurses, teachers and daycare workers — from wearing the niqab, burka or any other face covering.

It would also apply to people receiving a service from the government, which means Muslim women could be forced to remove their face coverings while riding a city bus or seeking medical care.

While critics call the bill discriminatory, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée insists it's not about religion.

"This is a bill about le vivre ensemble [living together in harmony], it's a bill about guidelines and clearly establishes neutrality of the state,"she said Monday in an interview with Daybreak host Mike Finnerty.

Ashraf isn't buying it. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women board member spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the controversial legislation. Here is part of their conversation.

Why do you think they're passing this law?

I would put it to diversion tactics. You know, there are so many other issues facing Quebecers here, starting with the breakdown of roads.

Probably their popularity is going down and they just want some more votes.

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Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée says Bill 62 is about living together in harmony. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Does this, in Quebec, get you votes by going after [these] women and saying they have to uncover their faces or else?

Anything to go after Muslims. Whoever goes after Muslims will be popular in Quebec.

That's a strong statement, a very broad statement. Can you back that up?

Well, look at the Charter of Values. Which sector of the community was that targeting?

But the Parti Quebecois, didn't they lose?

They lost because the majority of Quebecers are not like that — but a big portion are.

I think it's basically fear-mongering and pandering to these fearful people, you know? I mean, there are some Quebecers who have never met another Muslim, you know? Because once you meet the person you know that they are just normal human beings like yourself.

Feminists we've spoken with about this issue believe that they're helping Muslim women. They actually belive that it's good for them to get out from under what they believe is an oppressive system and to free them. There are many women who believe that. Have you encountered them?

I have encountered that, yes. But what I want you to know is that I wear the scarf, but I am a feminist at heart. And feminism is not defined by your dress. Feminism is the way you think.

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A woman wearing a niqab protests against Bill 94, an earlier version of Bill 62 that never became law, in front of Montreal City Hall. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

You wear a hijab?

Yeah.

Just your head covered, but you don't wear a burka or anything?

No.

Why have you taken this on? Why have you become the champion of these women?

I'm a champion for women — doesn't matter their religion, their colour, their creed, whatever.

I'm a champion for women's rights. I feel strongly I am a feminist. But I also feel that your dress does not define your thoughts. Really a woman wearing a niqab wears a niqab because she firmly believes that her religion requires that of her.

There is a very very small section who would be coerced into doing that. Otherwise, all the other women they do it out of their own free well.

The women that you spoke to in this Niqab Women Speak [survey] did they feel coerced?

Not at all. None one of them did. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our coversation with Shaheen Ashraf: