By Barâa Arar
It was 5:05 AM at the Doha International Airport in Qatar. I had just finished my early morning prayers, when I noticed two women in front of me removing their prayer clothes to reveal airline uniforms. The women wore name tags around their necks and identical polyester uniforms – from hijab to toe.
Seemingly not Qatari, they were most likely economic migrants who arrived during the country’s economic boom in the last decade. The image struck me: underneath their colourful prayer clothes were uniforms that marked and bound them as workers to the company.
Like many other Muslim women around the world, these women followed opportunities to find work and contribute to society, all while adhering to tenants of their faith.
Hijab is not oppressing women – lack of economic opportunity is.
My realization came only days after newly appointed Québec Minister of Status of Women Isabelle Charest proclaimed that hijab is a symbol of oppression. She insisted, while speaking to the press after her appointment Feb. 6, that the head scarf “is not something that women should be wearing.”
Her pronouncement comes at a turbulent time for the province, as the governing party and its leader François Legault are deciding whether to pass a religious symbols ban on public servants with positions of authority. Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) ran on a promise to pass such legislation. But since their election in October 2018, there has been some hesitation and back-tracking.
If CAQ follows through with this legislation, it will be their take on Québec’s ongoing obsession with ‘reasonable accommodations’ for religious minorities.
In 2013, the then-governing Parti Québecois (PQ), tried to legislate against visible religious symbols. Although the scope of their proposed policy included all religious symbols, public discourse often focussed on Muslim women who wore hijab and niqab.
Even the graphics that were circulated to demonstrate what would and would not be allowed under these proposed rules reflected that focus on Muslim women. Overt and conspicuous symbols like turbans, large crosses, and kippahs were clearly banned, but two of out the five symbols represented were ones worn by Muslim women.
Meanwhile, the PQ (and later the Liberals and CAQ) refused to remove the prominent crucifix that hangs over the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, something recommended by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences.
The PQ lost the 2014 election to the Liberals, who in 2017 passed Bill 62 into law. Bill 62 denies access to public services to those who have their faces covered. The government claimed the law does not target niqab-wearing women, but we all knew it was not meant for skiers in balaclavas.
In the following days, protestors covered their faces with winter scarves while riding public transportation to show the ridiculous premise of the new law. Since Bill 62 was passed two years ago, provincial courts have ordered the government to provide further clarifications and to implement mechanisms for appeals to accommodate religious freedoms.
Like I and many other advocates have written in the past, policies like these disproportionately affect Muslim women who wear hijab and niqab. If CAQ follows in the footsteps of these earlier policies, their actions will also, I believe, fail to hold any legal credibility. The Liberal legislation currently faces a charter challenge.
However, even if the CAQ’s proposed policy fails in the long-term, in the meantime it will successfully stigmatize visibly-Muslim women, hindering their access to economic opportunity and stability, just like previous policies.
If CAQ proceeds with their legislation, they will contribute to the oppression of Muslim women by severing their civil and economic participation. It will push them out of the public sphere.
CAQ’s law will create concrete ceilings for Muslim women who are trying to further their careers, receive an education, and contribute to society – all things that minorities are often accused of not trying to do.
When I met with a group of Muslim women in Québec working to fight these actions, they told me that from their observations, these policies threaten the jobs of daycare providers, teachers, nurses, and personal care workers.
The Québec minister is wrong about more than one thing. Hijab is not oppressing women in this context – lack of economic opportunity is.
Generally speaking, women’s access to stable work is already threatened by inadequate social supports, such as a lack of affordable childcare, accessible transportation, and generous maternity leave. A law such as the one being proposed by CAQ adds another immobilizing barrier to job-seekers, especially those who are racialized, religious minorities, and immigrants. By not allowing individuals to wear their chosen religious symbols in public roles, the CAQ government will threaten to the lifelines of these working-class women.
Charest’s follow up comments further cements the stigmatization of visibly-Muslim women. She said that when women “are dictated by a religion on what they have to wear, for me it’s a lack of liberty, and it doesn’t meet my values.” With this statement, she strips agency from those who publicly practice their faith and positions them as anti-freedom.
A common criticism of my argument is that there are institutions and states that weaponize hijab and niqab against women. This is of course true and frequently acknowledged by advocates who share my view. In scenarios when women are coerced into religious practice, access to robust social services, civil society, and economic stability will support and empower them.
Just like the pair I noticed in Qatar, Muslim women are searching for economic opportunities everywhere to better their lives and support their families. In that way they are no different than most people. The difference is that along the way, many Muslim women face a mixture of top-down sexism, racism, and classism that impedes their aspirations to contribute to their communities.