Toula Drimonis: There is nothing equal about Bill 21's effects for women

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, one hopes that a more inclusive version of feminism emerges — one that includes all women, their realities and their choices.

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Last week, the Quebec Court of Appeal delivered its decision on the constitutionality of Bill 21, the CAQ government’s state secularism law, confirming that the notwithstanding clause essentially shields it from any challenges over violations of fundamental rights.

François Legault hailed it as a “victory for the Quebec nation.” Perhaps it slipped the premier’s mind that those directly affected by Bill 21, those fighting it in court, the Montreal city council that unanimously adopted a resolution against it in 2019 and all the others who oppose it are also part of Quebec.

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By sheer coincidence, I happened to be reading Monia Mazigh’s book Gendered Islamophobia: My Journey With a Scar(f) the week the ruling was announced.

The contrast was striking between the rejoicing at the court ruling and Mazigh sombrely recounting how she left her home country of Tunisia (ironically, to escape limitations on her identity, religious freedom and career options, only to unexpectedly face them in Quebec).

In her book, she describes what it was like as a trilingual, highly educated Muslim woman moving to a province that would become immersed in public debates over religious symbols, and being repeatedly perceived as a docile, subjugated “victim.” Mazigh writes about accepting media invitations to explain her choice to wear the hijab, only to quickly realize most weren’t really interested in what she had to say, “because they believed they already knew everything about me.” Instead, she says, the “good Muslim” who didn’t wear a hijab was treated as “the brave freedom fighter.”

“I realized that for most people I existed only through media exposures, usually controversial and negative, or through their own prejudices,” she writes. “A popular journalist in Quebec once told me, before even debating with me, ‘It doesn’t matter how many PhDs you hold (I hold two), with your hijab you remain for me an oppressed woman!’”

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Bill 21 supporters may believe the law symbolically stands up to theocracies elsewhere, which, completely unbothered, continue to violently force women to wear the hijab. But the reality here is women who freely choose to wear it have been needlessly marginalized and prevented from career opportunities, even forced to leave the province or change professions altogether. In both instances, women are told what to do with their own bodies amid imposed demands to conform to certain codified appearances.

The PQ’s Charter of Values aimed to take it even further. Thousands of women — nurses, daycare workers, teachers — could have lost their jobs, their financial autonomy, their hard-earned careers in the name of … gender equality. How Gloria Steinem of us!

Because of Quebec’s complicated relationship with religion, and because women’s rights in the province have historically often been intertwined with women’s liberation from the Catholic Church (a point Mazigh also makes), many Quebecers perceive someone’s personal decision to visibly practise their faith as an absence of free will and a gateway to religious fundamentalism.

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Quebec Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard ruled in 2021 that Bill 21 had “cruel … serious and negative” consequences for those who wear religious symbols. A subsequent survey showed the law made women in religious minorities feel less safe and less welcome, and groups told the Court of Appeal that it affected Muslim women the most. Yet its supporters continue to insist the legislation applies to all Quebecers equally and routinely cite gender equality as justification for its existence.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, one hopes that a more inclusive and intersectional version of feminism emerges — one that includes all women, their perspectives, their realities and their choices.

For all of Bill 21 supporters’ claims that the deeply divisive law promotes equality, we’ve seen no concrete gains to women’s lives. The real consequence of state-sanctioned discrimination has been Quebec women forced to make a choice that in a truly free and equal society they would have never had to make in the first place.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake.

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