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By Michael Keegan
Bill 94, the Quebec government’s attempt to clarify the terms for providing reasonable accommodation in its dealings with the public, creates more problems than it solves, says the Chair of Concordia’s Department of Religion.
The Charest administration’s proposed legislation would prevent individuals from receiving government services and prevent government employees from providing such services if their faces are covered, in cases where “reasons of security, communication or identification warrant it.”
Lynda Clarke, assistant professor in Iranian Studies and chair of the Department of Religion, says that although the legislation affects only a handful of Quebec women who wear the niqab (veil) or burqa (full-body covering), the effect on them is quite negative.
“By pointing out this rare occurrence, it raises emotions and directs them toward a very tiny group,” says Clarke. “It’s unproductive. It’s productive only of conflict, and it’s a false conflict.”
She believes there may be as few as one or two dozen women wearing such dress on the island of Montreal.
In Clarke’s opinion, by targeting the practices of a minute group of Muslims, the legislation reinforces an anti-Muslim prejudice that affects the entire community.
“Two of my graduate students who wear the hijab (headscarf) have been approached by complete strangers on at least three separate occasions to say to them that they approve of the bill,” she says. A colleague who is vehemently against the practice of face covering opposes the bill “because it is hostile to her community,” says Clarke. “It makes things worse.”
Clarke believes the proper approach to accommodation requests is to deal with people as individuals.
“One mediates between individuals. And if no mediation is possible, then perhaps one would have to do something, but then one hasn’t excluded a whole class,” she explains, questioning the point of such a law. “I think the intent is to send a message to a whole group. I think this society - Quebec society - is a better society than that. I see tolerance and courtesy everywhere. This gives an image to the contrary.”
Clarke is part of the core faculty of the Iranian Studies program within the Religion department. She says the interdisciplinary program draws international attention to a group of people working within the university in the field of Iranian culture, and attracts more applicants than it can handle.
Clarke has also just completed — with support from the Ontario Law Society, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and legal advisors — the creation of a Muslim Marriage Contract Kit. Clarke describes it as a liberal and progressive project, put together exclusively by women, and drawing on Islamic tradition. As in other faiths, marriage within Islamic tradition is framed as a contract. The kit is a tool for interested couples to discuss and implement clauses that expand the basic marriage contract and which, in Muslim tradition, often specify benefits for women. Clarke gives as a typical example an agreement on furthering the education of both spouses, higher learning being very important within Islam.
Simone de Beauvoir Institute responds to Bill 94
Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute has issued a public response to Bill 94.
In its statement, the institute said that “while we agree that the government should be doing more to ensure gender equality, we argue that this is not achieved by creating a false opposition between secular values and religion, but rather by attending to gender-based violence, poverty, women’s health, and women’s access to education and work.” It added that “regulating women’s public religious expression and denying them access to government services and public life is not a step in the direction of gender equality.”
Spokesperson Gada Mahrouse explained by email that in 2007 the institute issued “a critical feminist response” to the Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles and the Conseil du statut de la femme du Québec’s subsequent intervention, fearing they would lead to legislation limiting rather than improving women’s rights. “With Bill 94,” she said, “that legislation has now been tabled,” and the institute decided it was “once again important to offer a feminist response.”
Mahrouse, Trish Salah, Rachel Berger, Candis Steenbergen, and Debbie Lunny drafted the statement with feedback from other members of the Institute, and the School of Community and Public Affairs has added its support and signature. A bilingual version has been posted on the institute’s website and is being distributed to various media outlets.