HIJAB IN SCHOOL
A CASE THAT ILLUSTRATES THE NEED FOR BILL 21
The author addresses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh
By Daniel Baril, President of Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) *
La Presse+ , December 16th, 2021
The reassignment of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab to non-teaching duties in a Western Quebec school board has created a collective psychodrama, particularly in English Canada.
In response to this case, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, declared that the consequences of the Secularism Act are no longer “a theoretical issue“. Justin Trudeau needs to be told that the issues surrounding the Secularism Act have never been academic. This was demonstrated by the testimony of seven parents who, along with the Mouvement laïque québécois, appeared before the Quebec Superior Court to defend Bill 21.
Each in their own way, these parents argued that the religious neutrality of the teaching staff was a guarantee of respect for their children’s freedom of conscience and their own freedom of religion. As the school is at the service of the pupils and not the teachers, secularism gives precedence to the pupils’ freedom of conscience over the illegitimate desire of some teachers to display their religious beliefs ostentatiously and permanently in the classroom.
In particular, Muslim parents have argued that wearing the hijab in the classroom is an incitement for them and their children to a fundamentalist religious practice that they disapprove of in Islam. That, Mr Trudeau, is the real infringement of freedom of conscience and religion.
Whatever Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Ray, may say, no interpretation of the right to freedom of religion, no international declaration on the subject, leads to giving a believer the right to practise his or her religion at work.
For it is religious practice that is at issue, not just dress. In her testimony before the Superior Court, Ichrak Nourel Hak, the main plaintiff against Bill 21, repeatedly stated that removing her hijab to teach was a denial of “practising one’s religion“.
Ms Hak also stated that she wore it as a personal choice. She therefore chooses to wear her veil rather than teach. Law 21 respects this choice.
CONVEYING A MESSAGE THROUGH THE SIGN
Chelsea teacher Fatemeh Anvari’s statements are also very revealing about the impact her hijab can have. She said that wearing her veil was a sign of ideological and religious struggle: “For me, [the hijab] carries meanings,” she said. “It’s important for me to continue to wear it, because I know that some ideologies don’t want me to wear it. It’s my resistance,” she said.
So it’s not a harmless piece of cloth as we are led to believe. It is a very meaningful garment with a clear message, and Ms Anvari wears it with the intention of conveying that message.
It is precisely this kind of militant proselytising that the Loi sur laïcité seeks to prevent in schools. If the hijab carries meanings, these meanings conflict with the duty of religious and ideological reserve that a teacher must adopt towards her students.
Justin Trudeau also stated that his government would not intervene in court in order to avoid any perception of “federal interference” in Quebec laws. We all understood that he was waiting to do so until after the Quebec election in October.
His statement is misleading since the federal government is already actively involved in the legal challenge to Bill 21, if only through the Canadian Human Rights Commission, whose complaint against Bill 21 is 100% funded by federal tax dollars.
JAGMEET SINGH’S BAD FAITH
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh asked “how can we explain to our children that in a Muslim family, the brother could teach [but not the sister] because of the clothes she wears?” This question shows boundless naivety and even blatant bad faith.
The answer is quite simple, Mr Singh. The reason a Muslim man can teach and his hijab-wearing sister cannot is that their religion, not secularism, imposes different social norms on men and women.
A democratic state has no business condoning such sexist and discriminatory norms against women. The equality of citizens is one of the raisons d’être of the Loi sur laïcité de l’État (Bill 21), which applies to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.
Finally, some argued that the work reassignment of Fatemeh Anvari led to the erasure of diversity. Diversity would therefore be a matter of dress. A school with Muslim staff who do not wear religious symbols would therefore be less diverse than the same school with the same staff displaying their beliefs.
If this was the conclusion reached by the Court of Appeal in its review of the Blanchard decision on Bill 21, then all teachers should be required to ostensibly display their beliefs or atheism through permanent distinctive dress, such as wearing a T-shirt proclaiming that “God does not exist“. Perhaps the Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh of this world would then understand the benefits of secularism.
* Daniel Baril is also a Director of the Quebec Humanist Association.