Muslim activists continue to push against Quebec secularism law

Last week, Quebec’s Superior Court rejected civil rights advocates’ legal request to temporarily suspend operation of the controversial new ban on religious symbols for state workers. But activists say the fight isn't over.

Quebec’s Bill 21 bans religious garments worn by public employees, including items such as hijabs, niqabs and burqas. Photo by Commons

(RNS) — Quebec’s Superior Court recently rejected civil rights advocates’ legal request to suspend the Canadian province’s controversial new ban on religious symbols for state workers.

But activists in Canada and around the world say the fight is not yet over.

“We will not tolerate politicians interfering in the religious practices of individuals,” said Mussab Ali, a New Jersey-based education policy maker. “We are standing up for all religious communities in our stance against Bill 21. We urge the Quebec government to repeal this bill.”

Passed last month, Bill 21 bans public school teachers, police officers, judges and other public sector employees from donning any religious symbols, in order to protect Quebec’s principle of “laicity,” or the religious neutrality of the state.

RELATED: What is Quebec’s Bill 21 debate about — and will tomorrow’s vote end it?

Civil rights advocates say the law, which would also require citizens receiving public services to uncover their faces for identification or security reasons, will disproportionately impact Muslims who wear the hijab or niqab, Jews who wear the kippah and Sikhs who wear turbans.

Quebec’s education minister recently made headlines after he posed for a picture with Nobel Peace Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai, then later tweeted that the Muslim education advocate would only be welcome to teach in Quebec schools if she removed her hijab.

An international campaign called “Hands Off My Hijab” created after that tweet has collected about 33,000 signatures this month from critics of the bill in the hopes of urging the Superior Court to reject it.

Ali, who helped overturn a local school policy last year that punished some Muslim students for wearing their hijabs, organized the campaign along with Malak Shalabi, a University of Washington law student, and Jülide Saniye, a law graduate in Germany.

Women wearing the Islamic veil niqab sit in the audience seats of the Danish Parliament, at Christiansborg Castle, in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 31. 2018. Denmark joined some other European countries in deciding Thursday to ban garments that cover the face, including Islamic veils such as the niqab or burqa. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

The campaign also focuses on the global nature of bans on religious garb, particularly “the unfortunate growing trend” of bans on the hijab, niqab, burka and burkinis in Europe.

“We want to put social pressure on Canadian lawmakers,” Shalabi said. “But we also want to look at the interconnectedness of this issue. Colonial states are imposing their values on women they say need to be ‘liberated,’ while simultaneously depriving them of the same autonomy and freedom they’re claiming to push out.”

One study of Muslim girls and women before and after France’s 2014 law banning headscarves in public schools found that the gap in secondary school attainment between Muslim and non-Muslim girls more than doubled after the ban. The gaps in employment and labor force participation also widened significantly.

“Muslim women are being deprived of their right to choose,” Shalabi said.

The day after Bill 21 passed, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association challenged its constitutionality, arguing that the law encroaches on federal jurisdiction, is impermissibly vague and excludes citizens from public institutions based on personal characteristics.

The process of hearing that full court challenge could take months.

No date has yet been set for a hearing on the challenge.

The provincial Parliament Building in Quebec City. (via Jeangagnon/Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last week, the Superior Court denied a request for a temporary suspension of certain provisions of the law in the meantime, ruling that the groups had failed to prove that the ban was already causing immediate and irreparable harm to religious minorities like plaintiff Ichrak Nourel Hak.

“This law has stripped me of my dream and sends me a clear message that I am not a valued part of Quebec society,” Hak, who wears the hijab and is studying education at Université de Montréal, said. “All my years of studying, all my efforts to be among the best teachers in Quebec went up in smoke in a snap … this law has just cut off my wings.”

The NCCM and CCLA filed an appeal to that decision on Tuesday, arguing that damage is not “hypothetical” as the judge claimed.

“We promised Quebecers and Canadians that we would stand up for their rights and we intend to do exactly that,” Mustafa Farooq, the NCCM’s executive director, said. “We believe, as we always have, that this piece of legislation has no place being on the books in 2019.”

RELATED: Quebec’s new law banning religious garments in public fails the reality test

Their broader legal challenge still stands. And the Superior Court judge’s ruling noted that there were serious questions of constitutionality surrounding the legislation.

Farooq said the law would “upend people’s lives and livelihoods, pushing many Muslims, Jews and Sikhs to the margins of society,” amounting to “state-sanctioned second class citizenship.”

Other faith-based organizations — including B’nai Brith Canada and the World Sikh Organization, whose Quebec representative, Amrit Kaur, told media she has had to pivot her search for teaching jobs outside the province — also condemned the bill.

“We are already seeing that the passage of this intolerant law is enabling discrimination, even in the private sector,” the World Sikh Organization’s president, Mukhbir Singh, said. “It is unthinkable that in Canada today, people will be subject to ‘inspectors’ who monitor religious garb at the workplace and that a generation of Sikhs, Muslims and Jews will be excluded from working as teachers, police officers or government lawyers.”

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