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Uzma Shakir's blog

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Uzma Shakir is a community-based researcher, advocate, activist. She is the past Executive Director of Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). She has worked as a teacher, journalist and researcher.

George Orwell is alive: Niqabs banned in Quebec

| March 29, 2010

In the worst form of Orwellian logic, Jean Charest's government in Quebec has tabled a bill in parliament banning any form of facial covering when dealing with the Quebec government, whether in the form of employment or access to services. This has been done in the name of "...respecting the principles of equality of men and women, and religious neutrality of the state." Aimed specifically at Muslim women who don the "niqab," this legislation is defended as applying to "everyone" and meant to "stress the values that unite us..."

Three things come to mind:

One is scale. According to the Muslim Council of Montreal, there are presumed to be about 25 women in all of Quebec who actually wear the "niqab." Out of approx. 118,000 people who accessed Montreal's health board services in 2008 to 2009, only 10 asked for accommodation and out of approx. 28,000 who accessed City services not one asked for special treatment. Hence, the Quebec parliament's response is disproportionate overkill to say the least.

Second, it is ironic and disingenuous to use secularism as a reason for this action. Secularism is a state philosophy that says that everyone is free to pursue their religious belief because the state is "neutral" unlike a theocracy where the state religion is the dominant religion and trumps others' right to their faith. A) Quebec culture and identity is firmly grounded in Catholicism -- including the huge crucifix donning the parliament building -- so citing "our values" as neutral is highly dubious if not outright false. B) Secularism in Quebec has become the new dogma and a religious orthodoxy in its own right and is now being used to deny religious minorities their rights. Furthermore, state bureaucracy will now police who gets access to jobs and services in the government. Ironically, I have lived in a monarchical state based on theocratic principles (Saudi Arabia) and believe me this is no different from religious police there constantly telling women what to wear and how to behave. They just don't care to rationalize it and insult our intelligence in the process.

Three, as a woman, a Canadian and a feminist I am insulted and offended. This is the most medieval form of paternalistic infantilizing of women -- telling them what is good for them and what is not and if they do not listen, chastise them and penalize them. Well there goes our long history of feminism, Charter of Rights and Freedom and our famed multiculturalism. For Quebec feminists to support this in the name of women's rights is an insult to women across Canada and the globe and just shows how compromised a strain of Western feminism has become to the new imperial project which is based firmly in aggressively subjugating, invading and waging war against those deemed inferior to our "cultural values." What is it that Bush said: "they hate us for our freedom"? No -- you are quite capable of becoming hateful all by yourself and as for freedom -- it is after all merely a word -- as is amply exemplified in the double talk of neo-liberal gobbledegook parading as Western Liberalism.

Gone are the days when Quebec was cited as the beacon of progressive thought and action in Canada. The torch has gone off long time ago! I think it is Ontario that can now take up that challenge. We have a critical mass of diversity of people, cultures, ideas and political ideologies -- however, we have to make sure that the right wing ideological shift that is increasingly being led by the federal government in Canada does not infest our provincial politics and that we remain vigilant about our right to be "different"!

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