Unmasking Bill 21: Discrimination Behind the Veil of Secularism, by Ihsane Sarif

Unmasking Bill 21: Discrimination Behind the Veil of Secularism, by Ihsane Sarif

I remember in high school, when someone said something racist or slightly offensive towards a person of a different race, color, or religion, everyone would just laugh it off, saying it was a joke. And I was that
person too. As an Arab, I once got the, oh, so funny ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a bombing reference. Yes, I was shaken, and yes, I felt offended, but either way, I didn’t say anything and laughed like everyone else did.
Why? Because unless you have enough confidence at the age of fourteen to speak up against the majority, wanting to be accepted will make you follow the group. This is even more prominent in Quebec, where it seems like racism is to be swept under the carpet, and therefore people are not
pushed to be aware of the impact of what they say. So many laws are passed to protect French and the culture, but what happens when these laws seem to oppress already oppressed communities? When Bill 21, also referred to as “the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State” was passed in 2019, it was a shock for the religious population and was criticized for targeting racial and religious minorities. What was supposed to be a law about the secularism of the state became a racial issue. What follows is an in-depth analysis of the bill, discussing the extent to which it violates citizens’ rights in the name of secularism, how this particularly impacts Muslim women in Quebec society, and what might be its real goal.

Secularism is a longstanding issue, and it comes from such a long fight that it is still vivid in the hearts of Quebec citizens. Since the Quiet  Revolution from 1960 to 1970, the province has been fighting for its
liberation from the clutches of the Catholic Church’s control. By widening the separation between the state and the Church and dismantling the influence of religion in institutions, Quebec became a secular and non-confessional province1 (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2020). Since then, the fight for its laicity has never stopped, even in present times. In 2019, when Bill 21 was introduced, the idea presented by the government was that “if you’re in a position of authority, we decided in Quebec that you cannot wear a religious sign.” This is to allow the secularity of the state, as stated by Prime Minister Francois Legault (Le Devoir 2023). This may seem like a legitimate reason. The state should stay neutral in its social
and political spheres in order for it to be fair and not favor any religious groups in the democracy or use religion as a political tool. On top of that, secularism is also important as it promotes freedom and social equality; in a neutral state, everyone is treated equally regardless of their religion. The problem arises when Bill 21 seems to be everything but respecting these fundamental principles of secularism (Wikipedia 2023).

Indeed, Bill 21, by definition, is a law that prohibits public sector employees in positions of authority, such as judges, police officers, and teachers, from wearing religious symbols while on duty (National
Assembly of Québec 2019). Upon initial observation, we can already see an issue with that. This bill is clearly discriminatory against a group of people as they are forbidden from following certain career paths if they choose to stick with their religious convictions by wearing religious symbols. This puts these religious groups in a position where they have to choose between their religion and their career, which completely goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This law states that everyone has “the right to entertain such religious beliefs […][and] the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal” (Government of Canada 2022). Actually, Bill 21 trespasses
this right completely, as it pressures the individual to remove any religious symbol when pursuing their career, no matter how offensive towards one’s identity this might be. Furthermore, religious minorities
have shown that since Bill 21, these groups have received and felt even more discriminated against in their everyday lives.

In the interview “Loi 21: Que vont faire les futures enseignantes voilées? – Sans Filtre” conducted by the channel URBANIA, three Muslim Quebecois women discuss how people who already felt hatred and discrimination against hijabis now feel more justified in those feelings after the bill. One of the women says (translated from French), “[Discrimination] wasn’t well seen before, but now the government itself is doing it” (URBANIA 2019). This first insight leads us to observe how Muslim women are significantly more targeted by the bill.

In 2021, Muslims made up approximately 5% of the population of Quebec (Wikipedia 2023). Despite its seemingly modest figure, it ranks as the third most practiced religion in the province, trailing only
Catholicism and Protestantism—both Christian branches that have witnessed a decline in followers since the government’s suppression of the Catholic Church. A study conducted in 2022 by Miriam Taylor, a
psychotherapist and supervisor, on a group of 632 Muslims, 165 Jews, and 56 Sikhs, which was then weighted to better represent the population of Quebec, shows that the effects of Bill 21 are most acutely felt by Muslim women. This survey showed that “78 percent of the Muslim women said their feeling of being accepted as full-fledged members of Quebec society had worsened over the last three years.” (CBC News, 2022). One of the causes is the visibility of Muslim women who wear headwear such as hijabs, headscarves, or burqas, and therefore they are likely to feel more targeted by a law that has religious symbols as its basis. Some women cited comments such as “dirty immigrant” or “these Muslim women with rags on their heads, if they are not able to integrate, let them return to their country.” It is clear that this law has made hijabis feel disregarded and divided from the rest of the population, as if they were seen as a completely different group. In the face of so much hatred, it is hard to say that Bill 21 does not promote discrimination towards marginalized religious groups.

In an article from CBC, a McGill education student described seeing Bill 21 invoked in the classroom during their studies: “[I] watched students and the teacher ridicule a Muslim girl for wearing a hijab.
The teacher said with Bill 21, you can’t dress like that,” the respondent wrote: “The girl was mortified and silent and just 11 years old.” (CBC News 2022). The impact of such experiences on a young child can be profound, especially when the comments come from a teacher, someone they typically admire. Such an experience has the power to leave a lasting mark on the child’s identity, just like the detrimental effects of any form of intimidation on one’s mental well-being. Furthermore, it can also lead the child to question her own religious beliefs and her place within her community. Growing up, I never really felt comfortable sharing that I was Muslim. I was always afraid of how people would react and the racist attitudes I might encounter. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would have felt as that young girl, grappling with my own identity after hearing such comments. This shows that, even if this bill was only meant to deal with people in positions of authority, it affects the religious community as a whole.

This is not the first time such behaviors have been encountered. With all this increasing discrimination in the province, there’s a huge number of Muslim women, wearing the hijab or not, who are considering leaving the province to pursue their careers. I have even personally talked about this with two of my cousins, who both wear the hijab, and they have shared the same idea with me. For them, staying in a province where they feel like their own beliefs, rights, and convictions are not respected is unthinkable, especially when they are both thinking of pursuing careers in law or medicine. Moving to Ontario was the first thing they thought about when they heard about the implementation of Bill 21. Note that wearing the hijab in Islam, even though it is a requirement, in the end is still a personal choice. However, wearing it or not, there is no wish for any Muslim, teachers, students, or common citizens, to stay in an oppressive system where they are purposefully disregarded by the population. Thus, the preceding evidence clearly indicates that Muslim women have been significantly impacted by the bill, suggesting that it was implemented with minorities like them as the intended target. If such consequences were indeed the intended outcome of the bill, it raises an important question.

If this bill is clearly seen as discriminatory, violates the civil rights of citizens, and goes against the very idea of what secularism truly is, what was its real purpose? Obviously, the government isn’t incompetent
or foolish, so this law had an aim. This other perspective that I want to bring here is that Bill 21 is more of a strategy for the benefit of Quebec’s historical and current social identity than it is about secularism. Indeed, if we go back to the historical context of Quebec with religion, Quebec’s identity hasn’t only been in crisis towards its relationship with religion but also with the language and the long-standing conflict with English speakers. Since 1960-1970, when the French community finally started getting control of their territory, their fight to maintain the presence of their culture has been ongoing. And from that standpoint, just as Bruce Maxwell, an ethicist and professor of education at the UQTR, said, “… any kind of encroachment, including the presence of religious symbols in public institutions, is viewed as a threat to the republic […] secularism is kind of a defensive stance” (Lord 2020). Bill 21 was intended to target
and cast aside religious minorities in the province to eventually decrease their influence and visibility in society. This is only another defensive move to protect French culture and Quebec as an independent province with its own culture and history. By alienating religious communities, just like we did with the Indigenous and immigrant communities, and like we are doing with English speakers, Quebec is trying to keep its French culture intact, free of any other influences, but in a way that discriminates and strips citizens of their rights. This adds to the problem that in a public sphere, where you want as much representation as possible to be able to listen to everyone’s voice and find a common ground of equity, such a bill destroys the very idea of democracy. By having so many minorities, like Muslims, leave the country, we are going to end up with a society that has one dominant culture, to which the whole province will have to respond. Thus, it makes it easier for some to hold onto prejudice, and the province will slowly become an “us” vs “them” population.

In conclusion, Quebec’s Bill 21, which was supposed to promote secularism and the neutrality of the state, has turned into a discriminatory law against religious minorities, particularly Muslim women who
wear religious symbols. This law infringes upon the fundamental rights of individuals and also sends a message to society that it is acceptable to discriminate against individuals based on their religious beliefs. It isn’t wrong for Quebec to want to protect their culture, but in a democracy, denying the voice of others or oppressing them isn’t the right way for our future society. What is the right way? I wouldn’t know, but giving everyone their own voice and basic right, as well as Premier Legault admitting that there is systemic racism in Quebec, would all be a good start.

Works Cited

Warren, Jean-Philippe. “Secularism in Quebec.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/secularism-in-quebec.

Carabin, François. “Le Gazouillis de Legault Viole-t-Il l’esprit de La Loi 21?” Le Devoir, 12 Apr. 2023, www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/788728/le-gazouillis-de-legault-viole-t-il-l-esprit-de-la-loi-21

“Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Mar. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_respecting_the_laicity_of_the_State.

“Bill 21 – Assnat.Qc.Ca.” Bill 21 An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, 2019, www.assnat.qc.ca/Media/Process.aspx?MediaId=ANQ Vigie.Bll.DocumentGenerique_143925en&process=Default

Heritage, Canadian. “Guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Canada.Ca, 13 Dec. 2022, www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/how-rights-protected/guide-canadian-charter-rights-freedoms.html

“Loi 21: Que Vont Faire Les Futures Enseignantes Voilées? – sans Filtre.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Oct. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcojpaZD9mY

“Islam in Canada.” Wikipedia, 14 May 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Canada

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