By Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D., Carleton University
Since it was first announced in May of 2013, the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, or Bill 60, has launched a flurry of commentary, with some prominent public figures lauding it as a much needed step in addressing reasonable accommodation in the province, and others, such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission, denouncing it as an affront to civil liberties. If you are a CBC radio junky such as myself, you have probably already heard many of these debates, such as this one, or, more recently, this.
For anyone unfamiliar with the bill and what it proposes, it is intended as a means of promoting secularism in Quebec’s public sector. Its most controversial tenets include enforcing the “religious neutrality” of state-funded educators and health care workers, banning the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by public servants (including the hijab, niq?b, or burqa, the kippah, turbans, as well as larger crosses and religious pendants) and disallowing the covering of one’s face when providing or receiving a state service. (If you’re really keen, take a look at the Charter yourself here.)
Many feminists have spoken against the charter, arguing that it is an attack against Muslim women in particular. Just a few days ago, the Quebec Women’s Federation held a brunch to offer women a space in which to voice their concerns over the charter and what it will mean. As president of the Federation, Alexa Conradi, has insisted, women of all backgrounds need to hold firm together to ensure that women’s rights are not infringed upon. And she has a right to be concerned. If this bill is passed, many women of faith will be forced to make a decision—either relinquish their ability to adhere to their religious beliefs or lose their job.
It is truly ironic that Bill 60, proposed as an amendment to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will undoubtedly marginalize those it is endeavouring to ‘free’. Yet it is noteworthy, that this approach to regulating spiritual women is nothing new. It is, in fact, an affirmation of historical ideas about women and religion and their alleged inability to make reasonable, informed decisions on their own behalf. As a plethora of religious historians have pointed out, women of faith and rational decision making have long been perceived as two opposite ends of the spectrum. Women from the nineteenth to the twentieth century in particular have been consistently viewed as passive, intuitive and illogical (in contrast to men) and thus more able to give themselves over completely to a divine power. The converse is also true. As my own work on interwar psychical research has explored, when women are viewed as too willful, their legitimacy as spiritual mediators immediately becomes suspect. As a result, religious women have had to be extra creative in asserting their own desires and acting on their own accord — or to use academic fancy-speak: exercising “agency.”
Admittedly, the actions and beliefs of some religious women have confounded scholars who largely define agency as a form of overt or subtle resistance. This becomes especially the case when women of faith do not prescribe to certain identifiable values that Western feminism largely upholds. Scholar Saba Mahmood has particularly critiqued and complicated the idea of agency when examining Muslim Egyptian women who eagerly adhere to what is often viewed by those in the Western world as sexist practices meant to affirm gender inequality, including the wearing of garments like the hijab. A common response is simply to dismiss these allegedly ‘backward’ women, especially if they are not white or if they come from somewhere outside the Western world. The Quebec Charter of Values goes one step farther by arguing that these women should be forced to abide by a suspiciously Christianized version of secularism. Behind all of this is the historically entrenched assumption that if religious women can’t make reasonable decisions on their own behalf, women who are marked as somehow beyond or outside Western liberal values especially cannot, and thus need to be liberated by the benevolent state.
Undoubtedly women in various parts of the world are forced to adhere to so-called ‘traditional’ Islamic principles, but many, in Quebec and elsewhere, actually choose to wear the hijab as an expression of their beliefs, culture and religious commitments. This does not mean they have internalized sexist ideologies to such a degree that they cannot conceive of living any other way (unless coerced by government sanctions, as those behind the Quebec Charter of Values seem to think). Contrary to historically constructed ideas about women of faith and their innate passivity and irrationality, these women are making informed and thoughtful decisions about what they believe and how they will represent themselves. As such, their ability to make decisions without fear of oppression need not only be respected, but protected.
Beth A. Robertson is a Ph.D. graduate in history from Carleton University whose work focuses on gender, spirituality and the body. Her SSHRC funded dissertation examined interwar psychical research in Canada and the U.S. Presently, she is beginning a new project on the intersection of gender, race and spirituality in constructions of alternative forms of healing in the twentieth century.