On April 20th it was proclaimed by a court in the Canadian province of Quebec that the legislation known as Bill 21 violates certain sections of Canada’s constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More specifically, the bill particularly targets Islam and Muslim women, as it prohibits public sector workers from wearing hijab, yarmulkes and more religious symbols. The legislation affects people working as teachers, police officers, government lawyers, and other positions that require authority, which has led to women protesting and challenging the discriminatory bill. The Superior Court’s resolution could be appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal, and eventually be sent to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Since the bill was passed in June 2019, it has been widely criticized globally for infringing on religious freedoms and civil rights. A national advocacy organization called the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) has condemned and challenged the legislation, arguing that it is severely flawed and violates constitutional rights. Khalid Elgazzar, vice chair of the board of directors at the organization, stated that there are “fundamental problems” with the law, and added that “Bill 21 causes serious harm. As we examine our options, we will not stop until all Quebecers are treated fairly.” Furthermore, an additional group engaged in the case named the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is reviewing the legislation and working on their next move. Equality Program Director, Noa Mendelsohn, said “we had hoped today to see Bill 21 struck down in its entirety, and with that, lay to rest this gross rights violation that has been ongoing for almost two years.”
The fundamental issue with the legislation is that it contradicts the values of the Canadian education system and what is taught in school, such as freedom of religion, as well as respect for a variety of cultures and backgrounds. According to Al Jazeera, a lawyer for the EMSB named Giuseppe Ortona, stated on twitter that “This legislation runs contrary to what we teach and to the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms within English-language schools.”
Moreover, the law specifically affects Muslim women, that are already significantly marginalized in the Western society. The bill that bans people from wearing religious symbols at work disallows these women to express their faith, and functions as a form of systemic oppression. It teaches a dangerous message in society, as it feeds into anti-Muslim attitudes and Islamophobia. Furthermore, Muslim women in Quebec have announced an increase in harassment and violence, linked to the passage of, and heated conversation around the legislation.
The reason for the implementation of Bill 21 is related to the increasing secularism in the country. Canada has for a long period of time pushed to establish and secure a separation between the state and church, with the intention of emphasizing a variety of beliefs, by making it impossible for one to rule. However, a legislation prohibiting Muslims from expressing their religion does the opposite, and marginalizes the Muslim community. Nonetheless, public sector workers wearing certain items of clothing to work does not affect their ability to teach diversity and religious freedom.
In order to establish justice on this issue, Bill 21 must be abolished. The legislation goes against Canada’s constitution, and impedes on religious as well as constitutional freedoms and rights. The Bill contributes to the growing Islamophobia in the West, which creates more division in society as well as exclusion. Lawmakers must be held accountable for the discriminatory action, and a future based on freedom of religion and expression ought to be encouraged. Muslim women and girls deserve the equal right to convey their faith, just like any other member of any religion.
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