Reasonable accomodation debate reopens

Muslim community at centre of contentions over cultural diversity

Bill 16, which has already passed one vote in the Quebec National Assembly, has recently sparked a resurgent debate over reasonable accommodation. The bill is the legislative manifestation of the Bouchard-Taylor commission of 2007, which called on the government to encourage cultural diversity in the province.

Christiane Pelchat, chairperson of the provincial government’s advisory council on the status of women, reopened the debate when she said that in the pursuit of cultural diversity, the new legislation would strengthen religious freedoms but compromise the rights of women.

Pelchat was critical of the pending legislation for ignoring secular values. She suggested that Bill 16 be amended to give equality between men and women precedence over freedom of religion. She charged that Bill 16 would be “creating a hierarchy of rights [where] freedom of religion has priority over all other rights.”

The Parti Québécois, l’Action democratique du Québec (ADQ), and members of the Liberal party, such as provincial Immigration Minister Yolande James, voiced similar concerns.

Gada Mahrouse, of the Simone-de-Bouvoir Institute at Concordia University, is an expert on the topic of reasonable accommodation, and responded to Pelchet’s decision to reopen debate.

“It is obvious that the concern in Quebec is not with all religious practices, but very particularly Muslim practices. What Pelchat and the Conseil have been preoccupied with from the start is the veiled Muslim woman. Yet, if you were to ask women in Quebec who are practicing Muslims about what concerns them most, they would reply things like employment, poverty, violence…and racism that members of their community face.”

It is a “great example of feminism missing the mark…. It is an instance where feminism is inadvertently mobilized in ways that perpetuate racism.”

The French-language media has been vocal in questioning the actions of the Charest government. Moderate voices included Michel David from Le Devoir, who said that the absence of defined “secular values” in Bill 16 enabled the courts to shape the nature of reasonable accommodation.

Richard Martineau from Le Journal de Montréal offered a far more controversial opinion, stating that religious symbols have no place in public space. He even asked Quebeckers to take matters into their own hands by refusing to be served by public employees wearing a hijab or burqa.

The president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, Salam Elmenyawi, spoke directly to the Journal columnist, saying that “Muslims in Quebec get abused by people like Martineau.”

“We have a serious problem in Quebec. How can you go ahead and vote for something like [Bill 16] when day in and day out people are exposed to anti-Muslim sentiments?” Elmenyawi said.

Elmenyawi said that since 2001, the Muslim community has been faced with “all kinds of problems,” which he thinks were at least partially resolved in the Bouchard-Taylor report.

“Bouchard-Taylor was reasonable for all parties involved, and I thought that was fair, and with all that debate, and now we are back where we started.”

The oft-cited Bouchard-Taylor report (produced by former McGill professor Charles Taylor) was commissioned by the provincial government in February 2007 to understand previous instances of insensitivity towards ethnic minorities, especially against the Islamic populations of Quebec.

In contrast to Elmenyawi’s views was a demand by the Liberal Canadian Muslim Congress, who recently asked the federal government to ban the burqa in Canada. They argue that the Koran does not require women to wear a burqa, and it is a disingenuous evocation of religious freedom.

Mahrouse also responded to Martineau’s column.

“Reports such as these succeed at perpetuating a moral panic about the loss of [Quebec] identity. It is important to bear in mind that the question of secularism that has become such a preoccupation in Quebec is part of a much larger phenomenon in the West since 9/11.”

McGill professor of Christian thought Douglas Farrow was questioned after his lecture at the Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series entitled “Ethics and Religious Cultures: Why the Fuss?”

When asked whether or not Pelchat’s concerns were justified, Darrow responded that “Yes I do actually. Rights for human beings that are specific have to be rooted in some sense of what is human dignity, justice; the common good…. A certain belief will support a different conception of rights.”

Addressing Islam, Darrow said that “this particular religious view has particular implications for how you treat certain people, including women.”

Mahrouse described the complex nature of the debate, where progressive initiatives are not always what they seem.

“In many ways this debate is reminiscent of old-fashioned patriarchal citizenship projects that were overtly gendered and racialized, yet it is one that is paradoxically supported by feminist calls of equality and progress,” she said.