What the Québec Debate on the Hijab Conceals
By Benoit Renaud, a member of the International Socialism collective in Québec solidaire replies to articles in journals such as L’aut’journal, published by “left” Parti Québécois supporters, which has been campaigning against the hijab.
This article is part of LeftViews, which is Socialist Voice’s forum for articles related to rebuilding the left in Canada and around the world, reflecting a wide variety of socialist opinion.
The debate on accommodation, religious symbols and secularism has been recurring periodically since the period of collective psychodrama in 2007 that led to the election of 41 ADQ members to the National Assembly and the appointment of the Bouchard-Tremblay Commission. This debate is a challenge for the left, given the complexity of the issues it raises.
For example, we are presented with a choice worthy of a Solomon: to discriminate against the members of minority communities or endorse patriarchal customs. In effect, to decide between sexism and racism. The only way to avoid falling into both these traps is to grasp the overall dynamics of oppression in all its forms, in the context of globalized capitalism and therefore imperialism. The debate must be situated in its context if we are to understand clearly the real meaning of the proposals being advanced for action.
First, it is necessary to correct a common – yet evident – error in vocabulary. In French, clothing that covers the hair and/or the neck is called a foulard (headscarf). A voile (veil) is clothing that conceals the face. There is a qualitative difference. Some writers, insistently confusing these quite different accessories, display a lack of rigour, to say the least. In what follows, I will refer to the Islamic headscarf or hijab. Genuine veils are a quite different question, since they impede communication and actually “hide” the women who wear them.
Imperialism: the number one danger
It is no accident that this debate arose in Quebec during the 22nd Regiment’s initial six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. The countries of the West have been immersed in a wave of Islamophobia since the Muslim Middle East became the principal target of the imperialist and neocolonial offensives, and especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Western governments justify such politics as the boycott of the Palestinian government in Gaza duly elected in 2006, the occupation that is dragging on in Iraq, the military escalation and endemic corruption in Afghanistan, and the constant threats against Iran, by fueling the ideology of Orientalism, which presents the peoples of this region of the world as barbarians, backward, allergic to democracy or modernity.
However, it was the previous interventions by imperialism, in alliance with the local reactionary forces, that crushed the left and paved the way for ultra-conservatism with a religious overlay. Without British support, there would have been no Saudi monarchy; without U.S. interference, no dictatorship of the Shah; without Russian-U.S. rivalry in Central Asia, no civil war in Afghanistan and no Taliban, etc. So it is imperialism itself that is the main danger to the security of the world’s peoples, and not some supposed grand fundamentalist conspiracy.
The sexism of others…
One is surprised to see some right-wing and centre-right politicians discover their affinities with feminism – provided it is to fight the sexism of “the others,” those foreigners who despise “their women.” The wearing of headscarves is portrayed as a threat to the fundamental values of the “nation.” But nothing is done to fight the hyper-sexualization of teen-agers, sexist advertising, cuts in the budgets of groups assisting women victims of violence, etc. In Quebec, over the last 20 years, some 500 women and children have been killed by a husband or former spouse or a violent father. Is Christianity held responsible? Do we prohibit every sexist thing in the culture of the majority?
We must be clear. This right-thinking discourse aimed at the sexism of others is in perfect harmony with the most common anti-feminist idea: that the liberation of women, here in the West, is a fait accompli. The Quebec Federation of Women (FFQ), the coalition of virtually all women’s groups and all tendencies within feminism, incurred the wrath of all the right-thinking people when it dared to say no both to the obligation to wear the Islamic hijab and to its prohibition. For the FFQ, the issue was one of respecting the women who wear the scarf and accompanying them in their efforts at integration and emancipation, instead of excluding them and stigmatizing them. No one denies that Islam is a sexist and patriarchal religion. But it is not by stigmatizing and marginalizing Muslim women who wear the hijab that we are going to help them achieve their liberation.
Islamophobia, a form of “acceptable” xenophobia
The other contextual element that eludes most of the thinking on the matter is that of immigration in a period of crisis of the neoliberal economy. In Europe, the far-right parties have draped their anti-immigrant discourse in an especially virulent version of Islamophobia. The National Front in France need no longer campaign against “the Arabs”, it can attack the Muslims, with the moral cover of the traditional parties, under the umbrella of secularism and the values of the Republic.
Closer to home, the Parti indépendantiste has found a way to affirm, in the very same section of its program, its support for secularism and for the preservation of our Christian heritage! The caricature of peoples originally from Africa or Asia, sometimes encouraged by intellectuals who have emigrated from these continents and are now crusading against fundamentalists, creates a climate that is used to justify all the petty discriminations in hiring, access to housing, etc. If the government sets the example by prohibiting the wearing of the hijab among the half a million employees in the public and parapublic sectors, how, with any credibility, can it conduct an effort directed against the ordinary racism that victimizes the members of these communities?
Women who wear the Islamic hijab should have the same right to work as anyone else. As a member of a trade union in the Quebec public sector and a co-worker of an immigrant woman who wears a hijab, I expect my union to defend her right to work and to dress as she wishes. The state should not decide the dress code for 450,000 workers based on ideological and arbitrary criteria. If we accept the prohibition of the hijab, out of concern for secularism, what other restrictions are we going to face later on? Prohibition of Che Guevara t-shirts? Prohibit a teacher from running as a candidate in elections?
To give in to the fear campaign against Muslims by prohibiting the wearing of any religious insignia in the public sector would undermine our efforts to mobilize against the war and imperialism, against xenophobia and discrimination against immigrants of various origins, and our ability to recognize the very real sexism that still exists in “our own” society, as well as our fight for the unity of the labour movement in opposition to an employer who is preparing to make us pay the cost of the crisis.
 (Translator’s note) Popular support for a small right-wing party, the Action Démocratique du Québec, suddenly ballooned when it campaigned against attempts to accommodate the religious beliefs of members of religious minorities. Although it elected 41 members in the 2007 general election, the ADQ vote dropped precipitously in the 2008 election; it now has only four MLAs. In the interim, a government-appointed commission headed by academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor held extensive hearings throughout Quebec and issued a report supporting “reasonable” accommodation in the interests of “interculturalism” with a view to integrating immigrant and other minorities into Quebec society.