File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS People gesture during a demonstration in Montreal in opposition to the Quebec government’s newly tabled Bill 21

Secularism bill a ‘sexist’ attack on women’s bodies: Quebec federation of women

MONTREAL — Quebec’s secularism bill is a frontal attack on women’s rights and primarily targets Muslims, the head of a major feminist organization said Thursday during the final day of legislative hearings into the proposed law.

The legislation would put barriers in front of Muslim women by denying them the right to hold certain jobs if they wear a hijab, Gabrielle Bouchard of Federation des femmes du Quebec told the committee studying the bill.

“It’s a bill that is fundamentally sexist,” Bouchard said. “It is sexist because the fundamental point of feminism is ‘my body, my choice.’ And this bill is a direct attack on women’s choice and their bodies.”

Quebec’s Bill 21 would prohibit public servants in positions of authority — including primary and secondary school teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols on the job.

In response to Bouchard’s testimony, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the bill doesn’t target one particular religious group but “puts all religions on an equal plane.”

Following Thursday’s hearings, the bill will be debated in the legislature and then head back to the committee for study. Jolin-Barrette has said he wanted the proposed law passed before the legislature’s mid-June summer break.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has the votes to make that happen.

Bill 21 invokes a clause in the Constitution that blocks citizens’ ability to challenge the legislation in court. Jolin-Barrette said the government needed to include the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to ensure the will of the Quebecois majority was respected.

Bouchard admitted her federation once supported legislation prohibiting public sector workers such as police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols at work. But she says the feminist federation changed its position after recognizing the harm such a law would do to Muslim women.

“We’ve seen Muslim women face the backlash of this conversation over secularism for the last 10 years,” she said. Every time a government tries to introduce legislation, she said, “Muslim women have to live with the consequences.”

The Federation des femmes du Quebec reflects the progressive strain of feminism in the province and stands in direct contrast to another women’s group that appeared in front of the committee last week.

The feminist group Pour les droits des femmes du Quebec told the committee the legislation should go further and apply to daycare workers.

Following Bouchard’s testimony, Taran Singh, with a coalition of citizens who mobilized against Bill 21, told the committee the legislation would likely inspire the private sector to discriminate against religious people.

If a private company decided to fire an employee who wore a religious symbol, the government would have little moral authority to do anything about it, he said. ”How can you prevent discrimination in private companies?” Singh asked. “What moral authority would you have?”

Earlier on Thursday, Montreal archbishop Christian Lepine issued a statement stating the government’s bill violates individual freedoms.

“How can one not see that the prohibition against wearing religious symbols is both an obstacle to upholding freedom of conscience and religion, as well as an attack on human dignity,” Lepine said.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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