MONTREAL – A proposal to ban many public employees from wearing religious clothing is provoking a heated debate in Quebec, Canada, where people struggle to practice their religion freely – or that they are free of it.
The measure, introduced at the end of last month, would prohibit officials, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, lawyers and others interacting with the public from wearing symbols of religion while working.
It would apply to Sikh turbans, Christian jewelery and Jewish jarmulkes, but the focus of the controversy was on hijabs worn by many Muslim women in Quebec.
"The proposed legislation will hit Muslims harder than other groups, as they are the fastest growing religious group," said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Muslims account for about 3% of Quebec's 8.3 million inhabitants.
Thousands of demonstrators recently participated in a demonstration in Montreal to protest the measure. Some signs saying, "Nobody tells women what to wear" and "It's what's in my head and not on my head."
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who comes from Montreal, has spoken badly about Bill 21: "It is unthinkable for me to legitimize discrimination in a free society because of their religion," he said.
Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even secular groups across the province denounced the measure, as did school boards, political parties and some local leaders.
On Friday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Montreal, although personally opposed to the bill, would not object if it were passed.
Next week, city councils will vote on a bipartisan statement arguing that Quebec is already secular and requires no additional legislation.
Earlier this month, Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault told reporters that the bill would strengthen gender equality in the province. The new measure would also help him to keep a campaign promise.
"I think at this time in Quebec in 2019, there are people in an authority position, including teachers (should not wear religious symbols), I think that's reasonable, that's fair," he said. "We have to think about what's best for our children."
The story behind the move is rooted in Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, a movement that has freed the province of the political and cultural dominance of the Catholic Church. However, critics also say that it is motivated by the recent growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
The debate also contrasts two notions of secularism: a stricter European interpretation and a North American version embracing the idea of religious freedom.
Quebec is torn because it has a long history and language with France – which, along with Denmark, Belgium and Austria banned facials – but is also heavily influenced by North American culture, said Bertrand Lavoie, researcher at the University of Sherbrooke of 2018 has published a book on the relationship between Islam, religious freedom and public institutions in Quebec.
"What is unique about Quebec is that these two concepts of secularism are emerging in public, among politicians, scientists, lawyers and even judges," Lavoie told the Associated Press.
Many who support Bill 21 say that even when women wear the hijab, the garment is rooted in the idea of women's inferiority. A ban, they say, would help to promote gender equality.
"The hijab is a symbol of oppression, it is an invention of the Islamists to control women," said Ameni Ben Ammar, an accountant from Montreal, who emigrated from Tunisia in 2013, a predominantly Muslim country.
"They convinced women that they would protect them from sexual assault, which is an insult to men and women," she said, pointing to the resurgence of hijab in the 1970s.
The debate involved issues of gender, race and religion, with Muslim women trapped in the crosshairs, said Saaz Taher, PhD student at the University of Montreal, who studies ethnicity and citizenship.
"Racial women's bodies are always a topic of public discourse." We feel [authorized] to decide how women can best be free and emancipated, "said Taher, who emphasized that Muslim women are allowed to wear the hijab at their leisure.
Lavoie said that the mood against minorities in the province has grown since 2001, when a Sikh boy brought a kirpan – a ceremonial dagger – to school. The incident sparked a debate over how far the province should go to adapt to the religion.
In 2007, a provincial commission investigated the matter, suggesting that only persons exercising coercive power, such as judges, police officers and prison guards, should refrain from wearing religious symbols.
Bill 21 is Quebec's fourth legal attempt since 2011 to regulate the wearing of religious symbols for people who work in public. For the first time, he calls for a constitutional clause allowing local governments to override some constitutional rights.
Lavoie said it is a clear sign that the supporters know that the measure is discriminatory.
"The perception of the public is that there is a problem [with Islam]and if there is a problem, we need to fix it, "Lavoie said.
The province was stunned in 2017 when an armed man opened the fire in a mosque in Quebec City, killing six people and wounding 19. Racist groups still seem to be growing.
"I've never seen it like this," said Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Montreal Council of Muslims, who immigrated to Quebec from Egypt in 1972 and believes Bill 21 has an anti-Muslim sentiment.
"This hate was made, and it was not by chance that hatred came," he said.