This week, Quebec’s education minister Jean-François Roberge has sparked criticism with a social media post in which he poses next to human rights activist Malala Yousafzai in France. Although seemingly an innocent photo with an inspirational Nobel Peace Prize winner, the irony of the shot amidst Quebec’s recent Bill 21, which bans religious symbols, has instigated public backlash.
Bill 21 is Quebec’s latest secularism reform and prohibits civil servants in authority roles, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols at places of work. While the religious symbols prohibition is reported to have support from the majority of Quebecers, there has also been a series of protests in Montreal and resistance from various schools. In response to being asked how he would respond if Yousafzai chose to teach in Quebec, Roberge stated; “I would certainly tell her that it would be an immense honour and that in Quebec, as in France and in other open and tolerant countries, teachers cannot wear religious symbols in the exercise of their functions”.
Bill 21 mirrors the increasing restrictions France has applied to face coverings over the past decade. France has been embroiled in ‘hijab controversy’ since 1989, when 3 Muslim school girls were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves in a class in Paris. The concept of ‘laïcité’, or secularism, in French schools and society has continued to spike on-going debate surrounding the hijab within the country and its Francophone allies. After 15 years of disagreement, the French parliament passed a 2004 law banning women from attending class with the religious head covering. In 2010, the restriction was heightened, and the ‘Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space’ banned the full-face covering along with masks, helmets, and balaclavas from being worn anywhere in public.
Although these restrictions are founded on the basis of security risks and social hindrance within a society that relies on the identification and facial expression, there remains legitimate concerns for the maintenance of freedom of expression and religion as rates of immigration across Europe and Canada continue to rise. Concerns that the restrictions are based on skewed understandings of Islam and would encroach on individual freedoms were confirmed by the 2016 ‘anti-burkini decrees’. The regulations which prevented Muslim women from covering their bodies were instated with the view, expressed by then Prime Minister Manuel Valls, that the burkini was a “provocation” and an “archaic vision”. However, after intense public resistance, and photos of a Muslim woman in Nice being forced to remove clothing to comply with the ban by armed French Police, the restrictions were lifted and labeled a “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms” by the French State Council.
The key issue is not a denial of legitimate security concerns but rather the application of ‘laïcité’ to enforce assimilation to French social norms. It is inarguable that although the French and Quebec government’s restrictions apply to all face coverings, they specifically and disproportionately impact on Muslim women. With prominent Francophone individuals such as Roberge posing with and praising Yousafzai, blanket claims that the hijab and similar coverings are forms of patriarchal suppression not only deny a form of religious expression but also neglect Muslim women’s agency to choose for themselves.
It is clear, as it was speculated, that the French attitude towards the hijab as a tool of oppression is permeating the political discourse of other nations across the world. Although secularism is a foundational principle for political systems of equality, there is a danger in applying ‘laïcité’ as grounds to illegalize the Muslim identity. For what Roberge discusses as ‘open and tolerant’ societies, the application of secularism need not restrict the avenues for expression, but rather seek to reduce grounds for stigma and social isolation.