Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Hibagh Ahmed
This opinion piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.
I was eight years old when I came running down the stairs and announced to my parents, “I want to start wearing a hijab.” I did not realize that those few words could change how the world saw me.
I followed through with my decision and began to wear my hijab regularly in September 2008. I remember it like it was yesterday, walking into my third-grade classroom with a bright pink hijab (my favourite colour at the time) and showing it off to all of my friends. I’ll be honest, I have never personally been attacked for wearing my hijab, but over the course of the last twelve years, there have been some pretty odd questions asked, from whether I wear it in my sleep to if I even have hair. But I don’t blame people; instead, I use it as a chance to educate them. We live in a world today that would rather tear me down and belittle me than expect that I would take the time to educate those around me.
It was 2015 when Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister of Canada, stated that women who choose to cover up and follow the teaching of their religion are ‘barbaric,’ leading to his introduction of a baseless and illegal ban on the Muslim face veil, or niqab, at Canadian citizenship ceremonies (1). I was fifteen at the time of these remarks and they left a sour taste in my mouth. How can we, as Canadians who so loudly proclaim our love for diversity and inclusivity, lack tolerance for those who choose to exercise their fundamental freedom of religion?
The climate in Canada did not get any better. Less than a year after Harper’s remarks, the Quebec Mosque shooting occurred in Sainte-Foy, Quebec City. I was heading to sleep when the news broke, feeling shocked and confused. Members of my family had safely returned from the local mosque earlier that evening, but there were six other families who did not get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. It was hard to comprehend how a man could walk into a sacred space and shed blood, simply because he did not like the worshippers’ faith.
Quebec has always been a centre of struggle for many Canadians religious minorities. Their obsession with secularism can be linked to the Quiet Revolution, a focal period in Quebec history known for bringing major reforms that changed the fabric of its socio-political landscape. In the early 1960s, the government began to carry out public roles traditionally held by the Church, including education and healthcare services (2). As Quebec sought to build a national identity for itself through the public sector, religious minorities were vilified.
In October of 2017, the government of Quebec introduced Bill 62, an “Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.” This bill would ban Muslim women from wearing a niqab in public spaces (3). They would no longer be able to use public transportation, enter schools, or receive medical attention. It is worth noting that despite all of its current arguments against face covering, Quebec has now made it mandatory for those riding public transportation, attending schools, and visiting healthcare centers to cover their face for safety. Yet, when we Muslim women chose to cover ourselves up, we were attacked and forced to remove our religious attire. If you ask me, that sounds a little hypocritical. In 2018, the Quebec Superior Court put a hold on the Bill until the government could provide guidelines on how the law would be enforced. It is heartbreaking to see that even our courts are not defending our right to wear a niqab.
This ultimately led to the Quebec Provincial Government introducing Bill 21 in 2018, an “Act respecting the laicity of the State.” This legislation called to ban public workers from wearing religious garments, specifically turbans, hijabs, kippah, and crucifixes (4). People across Canada were outraged by the introduction of this bill. Leaders in Quebec recognized this and invoked the notwithstanding clause, making it harder for Canadians to challenge this bill which blatantly violates section one of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
To this day, I find it difficult to understand why the Quebec Government found it necessary to revoke their citizens’ rights to wear religious symbols. A crucifix that hung above the Speaker’s chair in the legislature even led some to question the true motivations for the province’s bill. When asked about the crucifix, Legault asserted that it would not be removed since it is an “important part of Quebec’s heritage (5).” This disregards the fact that religious symbols can be an important part of religious minorities’ heritage too, a heritage that Canada has always promised to protect with its multiculturalism policy. The crucifix was eventually removed, but not without reluctance. However, religious minorities are not just reluctant about giving up their rights. Many have openly continued to wear religious symbols, refusing to have their identities stripped to please a government that does not identify with them.
Today’s debate over religious symbols is greater than just Quebec and Bill 21. All around the world, my hijab is under attack. In places such as Belgium, women who wear it are not allowed to attend post-secondary institutions, France has made it illegal for women to wear a niqab with a fine that is higher than that of not wearing a mask in public areas. Even in Denmark, I would not be allowed to walk into a courtroom unless I removed my hijab (6). It is crazy to think that each of these countries, including Canada, are signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of which states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (7).” But I guess we can just pick and choose what rights we want to defend.
Wearing religious symbols does not impair one's ability to perform their job, but instead empowers them. With the acceptance of legislations such as Bill 21, young girls like me will not have the opportunity to walk into their principal's office and see a woman who looks just like them leading. Little boys will not be able to walk into public spaces and see everyday professionals wearing their turbans or kippah. It is unacceptable that Canadians are being stripped of their rights because their elected officials deem them a threat. Today, a variety of religious organizations have brought Bill 21 to the Quebec Superior Court, asking that our rights be respected. There is no justification for forcing Canadians to choose between the job they love or God. This is not a choice people should have to make in a democracy like Canada.
Salama, Mohammad. “It Is the Niqab Again: Stephen Harper and the Barbarism of Politics.” ARCADE. Accessed November 7, 2020. https://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/it-niqab-again-stephen-harper-and-barbarism-politics.
Pigeon, Mathieu. “Education in Québec, before and after the Parent Reform | Thematic Tours | Musée McCord Museum.” Education in Quebec, before and after Parent reform. Accessed November 15, 2019. http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&elementid=107__true&tableid=11&tablename=theme&contentlong.
“Bill 62, An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality and, in Particular, to Provide a Framework for Requests for Accommodations on Religious Grounds in Certain Bodies (Modified Title) - National Assembly of Québec.” Accessed November 7, 2020. http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/travaux-parlementaires/projets-loi/projet-loi-62-41-1.html?appelant=MC.
“Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State - National Assembly of Québec.” Accessed November 7, 2020. http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/travaux-parlementaires/projets-loi/projet-loi-21-42-1.html?appelant=MC.
Laframboise, Kalina. “Crucifix Removed from National Assembly’s Blue Room after Years of Debate - Montreal | Globalnews.Ca.” Accessed November 7, 2020. https://globalnews.ca/news/5475505/quebec-national-assembly-crucifix-removed-july-2019/.
“The Islamic Veil across Europe - BBC News.” Accessed November 7, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” October 6, 2015. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.
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