By Maria Margarita Caicedo
The Quebec Charter of Values, renamed the Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests, is a controversial bill proposed by the governing Parti Quebecois. The proposed Charter would ban public employees from wearing any religious symbols in the name of keeping the Quebec government secular.
However, in doing this, there is a violation of the freedom of religion and expression. It creates a tension where public sector workers (such as judges, police officers, daycare workers, and professors) must choose between their religion and their jobs. Furthermore, women are particularly affected by the bill despite its claim to promote gender equality.
To better understand the implications the Charter has on religion and women’s rights, I interviewed Concordia University’s Dr. Lucian Turcescu. He is a theology professor who has for many years studied religion and the role it plays in politics.
For Dr. Turcescu, the Charter is not a justified measure. True, it does have well-meaning intentions to promote secularism and gender equality, but it does so from a regressive point-of-view. The Silent Revolution of Quebec in the 60s separated the Catholic church from the government, and this value is one greatly protected. But Quebec must update this norm to adjust to the changing world.
Increasingly, there has been a move towards less secularism and more integration of religion into the public realm. Whether it be due to disillusionment since modern secularism has began globalizing or because people wish to revive a lost culture muddled by Communism, wars, and dictatorships, there is definite desire to acknowledge religion as part of the lives of citizens. Banning religious symbols is not a reasonable accommodation to the increasing importance of religion in people’s lives. “It is misunderstanding of religion. It assumes that a woman wearing a hijab in a daycare is out there to proselytize,” says Dr. Turcescu, “and that’s the wrong assumption.”
And it is not as if there is much need to drastically update religious accommodation. There are few human rights complaints specific to religious accommodation, and most workplaces already try to adjust to the religious needs of their workers.
The Charter’s also infringes on women’s rights as well. The theory behind the Charter is that women are historically oppressed by religions, and wearing religious symbols is a tool for oppression. There is some validity in this claim: some women do not wish to follow the religious traditions of their family yet are forced to by the patriarchal system handed down from generation to generation. There is feminist support for the Charter for its attempt at gender equality and ending religious oppression, most notably the Janettes who protested in Montreal on October 26.
Dr. Turcescu does value the Charter’s attempt at gender equality, saying, “The attempt to promote equality between men and women is to be welcomed, definitely. But the way it does this is problematic.” Yet, religious groups in Quebec have already begun to rethink the role of women; the Charter is a superfluous measure. In fact, the Charter can be argued to exacerbate gender inequality.
The ban of religious symbols seems to specifically target Muslim women who want to wear headscarves. The Charter is taking away those women’s right to religious expression along with promoting discrimination against them. Additionally, these women will be unjustly shut out from jobs because of their religious practices. It is not just their right to religion and fair judgment for jobs that is being attacked but also their safety. The Charter has caused deep polarization on the issue, escalating to verbal and physical attacks against Muslim women.
The implications of the Charter Dr. Turcescu brings to light are grim and worrisome. The Charter is undemocratic and suppresses the voice of minorities, and causes more human rights abuse than it corrects.
As the bill stands, though, there seems to be little hope that it will be implemented. For one, the PQ must gain the support of the rest of the opposition to fathom passing the bill and it seems there is little chance of that happening. Also, the Charter violates many human rights doctrines, from the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (which is the foundation for Quebec’s quasi-constitution) to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the violations have been outlined in the recently-printed document by the Quebec Human Rights Commission opposing the bill.
The amount of hurdles and criticisms facing the Charter makes it nearly impossible to pass. And it is not just governmental bodies that oppose the bill but also non-governmental. Presently at Concordia, there has been a call by students and faculty for the university to officially oppose the Charter. Faculty member and theology professor, Paul Allen, has even sent a petition with the signatures of 150 Concordia faculty members opposing the Charter to the Quebec government.
The heavy opposition the Charter faces shows that there must be great revisions made to the bill, and there needs to be a careful re-evaluation of secularism if it means sacrificing human rights and women’s liberties.