Montreal

Pamphlets inform Muslim women of their rights in wake of Quebec's secularism law

An advocacy group is launching a campaign to inform Muslim women of their rights as it tries to deal with increasing reports of harassment and discrimination since Quebec's secularism law was introduced.

Documents include information on how to face and report harassment and how to deal with discrimination

Hanadi Saad runs Justice Femme, an organization which helps Muslim women fight harassment and discrimination. She helped create a pamphlet to inform women of their rights. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

An advocacy group is launching a campaign to inform Muslim women of their rights as it tries to deal with increasing reports of harassment and discrimination since Quebec's secularism law was introduced.

Justice Femme, the group behind the campaign, will begin distributing a pamphlet this week called "Tools for fighting Islamophobia."

William Korbatly, a lawyer who has been helping Justice Femme hold workshops for Muslim women about the secularism law, helped create the document. Amnesty International and the Federation des femmes du Quebec are also partners. 

Korbatly and Justice Femme founder Hanadi Saad say they want to empower women to denounce acts of discrimination that may be caused by misinterpretations of the law, also known as Bill 21, or disguised as applications of it.

They also want to encourage women to report harassment. Saad said she's received hundreds of calls about harassment in public since the law was first tabled in March.

"These women are anxious. They feel isolated from society. They feel humiliated … and some of them are thinking seriously about leaving Quebec," Saad said.

"One of the reasons for the pamphlet is to say to the people who are in the country: 'We have a charter, we have rights.'"

The pamphlet encourages women who are victims of Islamophobic harassment to report them to police. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

The secularism law bans some civil servants in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols at work.

Several court challenges have been filed against the law, claiming it is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Two civil liberties groups appeared before the Quebec Court of Appeal earlier this week, attempting to get parts of the law suspended.

They argued that women, particularly female teachers, are disproportionately affected by the law.

Gather evidence of harassment

Saad's organization provides support to women who have been targets of harassment. She said the cases have included women being yelled at to take off their hijab as well as women being spat on.

In one case, a man tried to remove a woman's niqab

Saad said women often don't report the incidents because they fear not being taken seriously. Others have been brushed off by police for lack of evidence.

William Korbatly, left, has collaborated with Saad, right, on information sessions for Muslim women about Bill 21.

"This is why we tell them, 'Look, if you can film the event, go ahead. If there are witnesses, talk to them,'" Korbatly said, naming some of the tips included in the pamphlet.

"Gather as much information as you can so you can prove your case."

The document also calls on bystanders to take action if they witness Islamophobic harassment. Saad said she will be touring universities and mosques to hand out the pamphlets.

Women being asked if they will comply with the law

Beyond the instances of street harassment, Saad said many education students have reached out to Justice Femme.

The students, she said, are reporting that school boards are preemptively asking Muslim women whether, if hired, they will comply with the law.

This could exclude people from a job based solely on the possibility they might not comply with a law, which is illegal, Korbatly said.

"Bill 21 talks about when you are on the job, and not before getting the job," he said.

The pamphlet encourages women who are asked if they will remove their head covering while on the job to report it to Justice Femme or consider making a complaint with Quebec's Human Rights Commission.

Korbatly compared the situation with being asked if you intend to comply with the Highway Safety Code when receiving your driver's license. 

He said school boards weren't given proper guidelines by the government on how to apply the law. "There is no direction at all."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and reporting by Sarah Leavitt

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