Hijab a symbol of empowerment, not oppression, plaintiffs argue at trial of Quebec secularism law

·4 min read
Hijab a symbol of empowerment, not oppression, plaintiffs argue at trial of Quebec secularism law
Hijab a symbol of empowerment, not oppression, plaintiffs argue at trial of Quebec secularism law

Plaintiffs challenging Quebec's ban on religious symbols sought to dismantle, on Tuesday, one of the main arguments made by supporters of the law — that the hijab is a symbol of female oppression and undermines gender equality.

The Laicity Act, which was passed last year amid widespread controversy, bars public teachers, and some other civil servants, from wearing religious symbols at work.

Civil rights groups and educational organizations are jointly arguing before Quebec Superior Court that the law singles out Muslim women in particular, and is unconstitutional.

Bouchera Chelbi, an elementary school teacher in Montreal who wears the hijab and is one of the plaintiffs in the case, testified Tuesday that her headscarf doesn't foist a particular worldview on her students.

Holding out the example of women who wear high heels, Chelbi asked: "Are they imposing high heels on me?"

Chelbi also told the court that she recently taught her students to stop using gendered insults. She said her female students readily embraced the lesson: "Did my headscarf prevent that?"

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

But supporters of the law, commonly referred to as Bill 21, believe religious symbols like the hijab convey messages to impressionable young students that run counter to widely shared values in the province.

"For us, the hijab is a sexist symbol. Men don't wear it. Only women do," said Michèle Sirois, head of Pour les Droits des femmes du Québec, a pro-Bill 21 women's advocacy group that has intervenor status in the case.

Guillaume Rousseau, a lawyer who represents another pro-Bill 21 group that has intervenor status, said banning religious symbols at school helps make them safe spaces for girls trying to escape family pressure to don religious symbols.

"Obviously, a young girl forced to wear a religious symbol would be less likely to confide in a teacher who wears a religious symbol," Rousseau told reporters.

Hijab worn by choice, expert says

Those claims came under scrutiny during testimony Tuesday by sociologist Paul Eid, an expert in racial and religious discrimination in Quebec.

In a 100-page report submitted to the court, Eid noted that all Quebec and Canadian studies show a majority of Muslim women say they choose, and are not forced, to wear the hijab.

"The vast majority of veiled women, in Quebec and Canada, firmly believe in the equality of the sexes and are conscious of reconciling their hijab with their feminist values," Eid wrote.

WATCH | Muslim rights group calls Bill 21 'shameful'

In his testimony on Tuesday, he said there was a large gap between how Muslim women see the hijab and popular stereotypes that reduce it to a symbol of oppression.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also used Eid's testimony to establish the broader social inequalities faced by Muslims in Quebec.

"They are among the most marginalized groups in Quebec and Canada, particularly Muslim women," Eid said, pointing to unemployment rates that are twice as high as the national average.

He said that while public opinion studies show Quebecers are suspicious of religion in general, they also harbour a particular "hostility" for Islam.

During cross-examination, a lawyer for the Quebec government, Éric Cantin, asked if the word "hostility" was really an accurate way of describing the attitude of Quebecers.

"Frankly, it's a term that corresponds well to the findings," Eid said.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Looking for ways around the notwithstanding clause

At this stage of the case, it is not clear yet what role the evidence presented Tuesday will play in the overall argument being made by the plaintiffs that Bill 21 is unconstitutional.

Several plaintiffs maintain it violates Section 28 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a relatively unused provision that guarantees gender equality.

The plaintiffs will also try to argue that even though Bill 21 doesn't single out a particular religion, it generates indirect effects that are discriminatory. They claim that violates the unwritten principles of Canada's constitution.

These are among a long line of novel arguments the plaintiffs are using in their effort to get the law struck down. The more familiar route of claiming the law violates religious freedom has been cut off because the law invokes the notwithstanding clause.

Premier François Legault has defended his use of the clause by saying it ensures the Quebec legislature — and not the courts — will have the final say on what role religion should have in the public sphere.

The trial resumes on Wednesday morning, when an American expert in education and inequality, Thomas Dee, is expected to testify.