Commentary | Take it off

The appropriative nature of ‘adopting’ religious symbols as protest

The Parti Québécois (PQ) government’s proposal of a Charter of Values that prohibits public sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols has justifiably drawn a lot of criticism. It’s great that many within Quebec – religious or not – are making it clear that the PQ’s vision of the province isn’t one most Quebeckers agree with. Nonetheless, the way some people have critiqued the PQ’s proposed charter is problematic. A prime example is the call to action made by McGill professor Catherine Lu, and Université de Montréal professor Marie-Joëlle Zahar.

Lu and Zahar sent a mass email to their colleagues on September 10, outlining their grievances with the proposed charter and then calling for professors throughout Quebec to protest it. The form of protest they recommend in their email is for professors to “adopt and wear visible religious symbols of their choosing in classes and lectures” during a “Week of Action, starting on Thursday, September 12.”

This call to action is problematic for numerous reasons. Primarily, it does little to encourage the National Assembly to reject the proposed charter. The action would be more meaningful if the charter had already passed, as it would force the PQ to decide if they would be willing to lose a great number of public sector employees in order to enforce their charter. Still, this hinges on the possibility that the charter would apply to universities; at this point, whether this would be the case is unknown, as universities will be able to opt-out of implementing the proposed Charter.

Of course it is likely that Lu and Zahar do not intend their call to action to be anything more than an act of solidarity. Yet their call to action is flawed even – and perhaps especially – as an act of solidarity, as it veers into being culturally appropriative.

Under Lu and Zahar’s call to action, a professor choosing to wear a hijab – one of the symbols included in the PQ’s proposed ban – for a lecture can take it off when the lecture ends. When the ‘Week of Action’ finishes, the professor can go back to their ordinary life without a hijab. Yet for those who would actually be affected by the PQ’s proposed charter, the hijab is ordinary life. As such, the latter would be faced with serious consequences the professors appropriating the hijab wouldn’t: either to quit their job, or to give up a piece of their identity and lived experience.

Furthermore, Lu and Zahar unintentionally mirror the PQ’s discourse on religious symbols. The PQ charter wouldn’t ban religious symbols entirely; it would only do so for public sector employees on the job. This implies the PQ believes these religious symbols can be worn and discarded at will. Professors who wouldn’t normally wear religious symbols doing so sends across the same message by treating the religious symbols as costume parts that can be taken off when the ‘Week of Action’ is over. Most who wear the religious symbols in question don’t treat those items like casual clothes that can be switched around in day-to-day use, as Lu and Zahar are doing.

If the charter were to pass, it would be of most concern to those who wear the symbols for religious or cultural reasons, not those doing so in protest of the charter, or for any potential casual purposes. When Lu and Zahar claim that “even an atheist who may want to wear a religious symbol for non-religious but perhaps aesthetic reasons, would be prohibited from doing so,” it only makes their call to action more open to concerns of cultural appropriation.

Lu and Zahar’s grievances with the proposed charter used to justify their call to action are also troubling. Throughout their email to professors, they attack the proposed ban by highlighting the troubles it could bring to the economy and integration, among other more legitimate reasons. They claim that “the Charter will only deprive the public sector of much-needed qualified workers,” who they claim have a “desire to contribute to the common good of society.” They also state that the charter would “make integration of new immigrants harder,” which is important for them since they claim to “agree with the PQ government that integration is the desired goal for new immigrants to Quebec.”

Both of these reasons for opposing the Charter (economic and integration) shouldn’t matter. Citizens should be permitted to wear a religious symbol – regardless of its impact on the economy – because it is an essential form of expression. As for the goal of integration, of course many Quebeckers who wear a religious symbol appreciate Quebec and want to contribute to Quebec society. But those who don’t particularly care for Quebec, and are working solely to make money, still deserve the right to wear those symbols in the workplace. Coupling the permissibility of a basic freedom with economic or societal requirements is very troubling, and it is wrong of Lu and Zahar to have done so.

Professors – and other Quebeckers who may take up Lu and Zahar’s call to action – should continue to protest the proposed charter, but not by culturally appropriating the symbols they want to defend.


Davide Mastracci is a U3 History & Political Science student and a Daily Copy Editor. He can be reached at davide.mastracci@mail.mcgill.ca.


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