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Quebec’s niqab ban calls on us to find our inner ally

Ottawa Citizen by Amira Elghawaby 19 October 2017

Remember Alain Charette?

He’s the OC Transpo bus driver who stood up to a bully who was harassing a young university student wearing a niqab on an Ottawa bus last year. He became a local hero of sorts after the young woman posted a thank you on a local community website. “It’s fairly simple,” he wrote on his Facebook page in response. “Bigotry hurt everyone by lowering the humanity level of society. Sitting idle is not an option.

“You are either part of the problem or on the side of the solution.”

His attitude is exactly what Quebecers and Canadians need now to stare down a much more significant bully: the Quebec government.

“You pay the fare to get a ride,” Charette said in one of the many interviews he gave following news of his alliance with the woman. “Why should you feel threatened or harassed or have to justify your way of dressing? That has nothing to do with the ride. That’s it.”

He’s right, that should be it. But Charette’s not a politician and that means he’s not out to gain votes off the backs of vulnerable minorities.

By passing Bill 62 this week, the Quebec Liberals have not only legitimized the violation of human rights of the tiny minority of Muslim women who cover their faces, but they have also potentially put our faith communities in harm’s way.

We experienced this disturbing phenomenon during the last federal election during which hate crimes and incidents against visibly Muslim women rose in tandem with Stephen Harper’s unrelenting fixation on the niqab being worn during citizenship oath ceremonies. Indeed, hate crimes reported that year rose 60 per cent over the previous year, according to Statistics Canada.

With the memory of the tragic killing of six Quebec Muslim men still very much part of the backdrop for Muslim communities, it is unfathomable that Quebec’s government would continue to display such cold insensitivity. Surely, there are much more pressing matters than to police the clothing choice of women – who will show their identities for security and identification purposes, contrary to the government’s assertion that this is what it’s all about. Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneault-Jobin rightly mused that the legislation is a “solution to a problem that doesn’t exist except in principle.”

This move is doubly hurtful because there was a moment of soul-searching among Quebec’s political and intellectual classes following the mosque murders that had many of the province’s Muslims believing that maybe the unrelenting anti-Muslim narratives and disproportionate focus would finally stop. An election on the horizon has stamped out all hopes of empathy.

There is truth in the assertion that some women are forced to veil and that is plain wrong. But that’s hardly justification for the state to force those who willingly wear it to have to choose between their beliefs and access to public services. As the Indian author Arundhati Roy lucidly pointed out, “Coercing a woman out of a burka is as bad as coercing her into one. It’s not about the burka. It’s about the coercion.”

Religious freedom was at the heart of a landmark case at the Supreme Court of Canada, R. vs. N.S., which centred on whether or not a woman could testify wearing a face veil. A key principle that emerged was that Canadians should not have to park their religious beliefs at the courtroom door. This easily extends to all other doors in our society – on our buses, in our hospitals, at our libraries and in our local community centres.

The Parti Québécois was soundly defeated in the last provincial election, in part due to its divisive Charter of Values, which also aimed to curb religious freedoms in the name of so-called state neutrality. It seems Quebec voters will once again have to decide if they will support those who bully others and risk the democratic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone.

Or if, like Charette, they’ll stand up for each other.

Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa human rights advocate and journalist. She is the former director of communications at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.