By Barâa Arar

Watching election night news coverage as a marginalized person is a truly visceral experience. New governments generate new concerns about employment, healthcare, and education for everyone. But for many underrepresented communities, a new government means a direct threat to their identities and safety.

October 1st CAQ, Coalition Avenir Québec, led by Francois Legault, won a majority government with 74 of the 125 seats. In doing so, CAQ unseated the Liberal party and Legault replaced Philippe Couillard as premier of Québec.

In Legault’s first news conference as premier-elect, one of his primary concerns seemed to be the religious symbols worn by some civil servants.

Identity politics mixed with populism produces legislation that disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized.

Legault argued that the “vast majority of Quebecers” agree that public servants should be banned from wearing visible religious attire. He also said that he is prepared to employ the notwithstanding clause to make it a reality.

It is inflammatory and dangerous to frame a religious symbols ban as a pressing and widely shared concern, but it is not a new political tactic. With every Québec election, there seems to be a renewed policy promise, from various parties, to ban or restrict ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols, the most obvious of which are hijabs, niqabs, kippas, and turbans.

Thousands marched through the streets of Montreal on Oct. 7 to contest CAQ’s xenophobia, with Muslim women on the frontlines. Credit- Mario Jean, MADOC

Even in between general elections, there was a resurgence of such sentiment. In November 2017, Québec Liberals passed Bill 62, in an attempt to appease some right-wing voters after the Parti Québecois’ failed 2013 Québec Charter of Values.

Although Bill 62 did not come with an explicit call to ban hijabs or turbans, but a more general ban on “face coverings,” the implicit message was clear enough. Many people rightly understood this piece of legislation as a thinly-veiled attack on Muslim-presenting women.

Protests erupted the following day across Québec, with bus drivers, public servants, and concerned citizens covering their faces with scarves and balaclavas.

Less than a month after Bill 62 passed, a provincial judge suspended its implementation until legislators clearly outline how it can be reconciled with constitutionally protected religious accommodations. The law is facing a constitutional challenge from Marie-Michelle Lacoste, a Québecer who wears niqab. She is fighting alongside two interveners: the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Such legal challenges are often the response to these discriminatory policies. As a matter of fact, shortly after Legault’s announcement, three justices in Québec’s highest court found that a judge erred in banning Rania El-Alloul from wearing her hijab in court three years ago.

El-Alloul started this legal challenge when a Québec judge, Justice Eliana Marengo, told her she could not testify in a hijab since it broke courtroom decorum.

When asked by The Globe and Mail why she challenged the system, El-Alloul said “I did it because I felt it was my duty and my right.” In its judgement, the Québec court agreed that El-Alloul’s case was a clear example of denying a citizen’s rights because of their religious beliefs.

Identity politics mixed with populism produces legislation that disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized. We see this with Doug Ford cutting welfare and education programs in Ontario, and now with Legault in Québec.

What message do these sorts of policies send young women in Québec?

I think the subtext is clear: the state is forcing a certain segment of the population to choose between an expression of their faith and a career in the public service. It is saying to young people: if you want to become a judge or a teacher – lose the turban. Lose the hijab.

The seemingly relentless efforts to marginalize religious minorities only hurts  already vulnerable citizens.

As a woman who wears hijab, I see first-hand how such top-down rhetoric and restrictions translate into stifling the aspirations of young women in my community. These proposals to “protect secularism” push minorities to socio-economic peripheries and as such work to segregate communities.

Early Saturday morning, as I write this, thousands of people marched through downtown Montreal, chanting “everyone dislikes racists” in opposition to CAQ’s propositions.

Muslim women, in various expressions of their faith, were at the frontline. These women are systematically marginalized – the direct victims of these policies. Their Muslim identities are directly threatened with the election of CAQ. Yet, these women continue to participate unapologetically in the democratic process.

These women’s increased socio-political engagement is proof of their secularism – their religious identities do not hinder their civil service and public presence. If CAQ believes in secularism as a societal tool of equality, they should align themselves with these women, not silence them.

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