November 24, 2014

Commentary | January 27, 2014
Not just a change of clothes
Challenging Bill 60 requires more nuanced protest
Written by | Visual by Tanbin Rafee and Alice Shen

On January 13, the eve of Quebec City’s hearings on the proposed Charter of Values (Bill 60), a number of McGill professors and staff donned ‘ostentatious‘ religious symbols as part of a day of action called Support Another. Three Muslim women started the province-wide campaign from Montreal when one of them, Sama Al-Obaidy, was physically attacked in the metro for wearing a hijab. According to the Support Another website, the organizers called for allies to “walk a day in the shoes of a visible minority” in order to “combat exclusion.” Although numbers are unavailable, the action seems to have been popular, with news reports full of enthusiastic first-time hijab or kippa-wearers.

As could be expected, the Bill 60 hearings rapidly disintegrated into a spectacle of unexamined privilege that is as grim as it is farcical. See, for example, Minister Bernard Drainville’s claim that accusations of racism do not belong in the hearing room, when the primary opposition to the bill lies specifically in disproportionate targeting of communities of colour. With little opportunity for meaningful debate and education within the official process, it is obvious that other actions are needed. But is wearing another religion’s headgear the best form for resistance to take?

For both the bill and the protest, religious clothing is treated as a removable symbol, rather than elements of cultural practice and identity which a person cannot simply cease to be between nine and five.

Professor Catherine Lu, one of the McGill professors who participated in Support Another this month, had proposed a similar action in September of last year, prompting a response in The Daily denouncing the potential for cultural appropriation (“Take it off,” Commentary, September 18). Indeed, treating religious items as costumes divorced from cultural meaning supports the logic underlying Bill 60. For both the bill and the protest, religious clothing is treated as a removable symbol, rather than elements of cultural practice and identity which a person cannot simply cease to be between nine and five.

The framing of this issue as one of free expression erases the fact that Bill 60 is a concrete manifestation of a particular sense of entitlement. Namely, it further institutionalizes the belief that white, Christian (whether culturally or practicing) people are full citizens entitled to, for example, a state made to fit them and in their image. The corollary is that Others are equal only to the extent that they adjust to fit in. When people who enjoy that full citizenship dress up in the clothing of those excluded, it does little to challenge the paradigm.

Unlike appropriating a hijab or turban, this action made visible the way in which some symbols are prosecuted while others are not.

Ironically, since it is not the hijab itself that will be banned, but rather objects which “overtly indicate a religious affiliation,” a Christian woman’s headscarf could be protected political speech while any head covering worn by a Muslim co-worker could be considered a sign of religiosity. In other words: is it not problematic that the most popular form of protest against Bill 60 by definition cannot be practiced by those directly affected?

Professor Arash Abizadeh presented a different take on the notion of donning a religious symbol on January 13. According to a Global TV report, Abizadeh spent the day walking around with a giant picture of the Mount Royal cross hung around his neck. Unlike appropriating a hijab or turban, this action made visible the way in which some symbols are prosecuted while others are not. Indeed, the text of Bill 60 repeatedly insists on exceptions for the preservation of Quebec’s presumably-Christian “cultural heritage,” erasing the longstanding presence of non-Christian communities in this province, including most notably the area’s Indigenous population. Still, even Abizadeh’s gesture is a purely symbolic step against a very real threat.

Although McGill’s administration has spoken out against the bill so far, their approach if it passes remains to be seen.

Assuming the bill is passed, it will be up to public institutions to develop policies for its implementation. Although McGill’s administration has spoken out against the bill so far, their approach if it passes remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that we’ll see the across-the-board crackdown that these protests are designed to make impossible to implement. More probably, regulations on wearing religious symbols will be deployed on an individual basis, a threat to keep troublemakers in line.

Ultimately, the University’s interests are not that different from those of the government. Both McGill and the Government of Quebec are colonial institutions invested in the preservation and perpetuation of a mindset that places the knowledge and values produced by white, Christian-European culture and people above all else. Dismantling the racist and variously oppressive structures that govern our University – from hiring practices to curriculum design to investment priorities and now, potentially, to employee dress codes – is an urgent and deeply important project. But it will take more than a few borrowed headscarves to do it.


Mona Luxion is a PhD student in the School of Urban Planning. They can be reached at m.luxion@gmail.com.

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