Reasonable Accommodation Hearings: On the creation of a Muslim boogeywoman

On September 28 Christine Pelchat of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women proposed that the provincial government forbid public employees from wearing religious clothing – not only the Muslim headscarf but also the Jewish kippa, though, surprise surprise, crucifixes on necklaces would be ok because they’re not immediately visible!

The Council, for those of you from elsewhere, is not a feminist group: it is a government body. Pelchat is a seasoned politician, having served as a Liberal MP in the eighties and early nineties. More recently she was head of staff for the Minister of Public Security at the time that Mohamed Anas Bennis was murdered by Montreal police and then head of staff for the Minister of the Family and the Elderly prior to her current stint at the Quebec Status of Women.

The proposal came a few days after Lise Bourgault’s call to ban all religious clothing in any public place at all. Bourgault is a former Conservative Federal MP, currently mayor of the small town of Brownsburg-Chatham about an hour’s drive northwest of Montreal. Her statement was full of the geographic anxieties of those outside out of the dynamic metropolitan centers, as she complained of going to the (Greek) Adonis market in Laval and seeing women in veils walking behind their husbands.

Such recommendations are racist, but to just say so is not enough. It’s important to take a look at why they are racist. Not least because this racism is framed in anti-sexist terms.

Pelchat for instance preceded her recommendation with the bland proposition that gender equality trumps freedom of religion, which is uncontroversial and correct but seems to have put some people off their guard as to what came next. (How else to explain the fact that Pelchat’s words won accolades from NEFAC Quebec City at the same time as they were embraced by provincial premier Jean Charest?)

Pelchat’s proposition is racist because she has claimed the right to decide for women of other cultures how to define their own oppression and their own liberation.

In the proper context there is nothing racist with one person telling another their opinion, that they think this or that in their culture is problematic. We all come from fucked up cultures, and most of our cultures are getting more fucked up with every passing year.

But Pelchat is calling upon the State – a State controlled by white men in the service of capitalism – to suppress and repress those immigrant women who disagree with her.

What i find odious is not that she has said gender equality should take precedence over people’s religions. It is rather the implication that in order for it to do so her (whitened and enlightened) freedom of conscience should take precedence over that of immigrant women. She’ll be the big sister making the call for the wayward little girls who don’t know any better.

There’s a few aspects of all this i’ve been mulling over, so after a couple of weeks let’s see if i can get them down…

1. Le QuĂ©bec aux QuĂ©becois! (note the masculine…)

This hullabaloo about headscarves is largely a pissing contest to remind folks about who is in charge in Quebec. The headscarf has become a symbol, not of women’s status, but of one’s relationship to the State and to the “mainstream”.

The point is to establish that Quebec has a culture, and that this culture has roots in the Roman Catholic French Canadian experience. Thus churches and crosses are part of “our” heritage. Lipstick and halter tops are part of where “we” are at now. Parts of “our” identity.

Which is why you won’t find people like Pelchat banning sexist songs from school kids’ ipods, or banning cosmetics or skirts or other gendered pieces of clothing from the civil service. Certainly you won’t find the latest sexist production from Hollywood pulled from the province’s theaters.

That’s because this is a false anti-sexism, a pseudo-feminist fig leaf meant to cover up the real source of anxiety.

(In this regard the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement were right on the mark when they noted that “For women who freely choose to wear the Islamic headscarf, it can be difficult to take being told you are oppressed for wearing it from a culture where around 5% of all females spend their teens puking over a toilet bowl so that they can look like Kate Moss.”)

This concern with defining “our” culture is so pressing because the Quebec economy is increasingly dependent on immigrant labour, both within the formal economy but even more so for social reproduction, as people of colour are filling the gaps created by the feminist revolution of the twentieth century. La revanche du berceau is a double edged sword, and it is no longer sufficient or even relevant whether or not the children of white francophone Quebeckers assimilate or not… for Quebec to persist as a cultural-political entity immigrants need to assimilated into the Nation as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

The flipside to the ongoing de-settlerization (or will it be re-settlerization?) of Quebec and Canada is an increased emphasis on identity, on defining who “we” are, and insisting that others integrate into “us”.

That this is felt most strongly by those within the white nations who have reaped the least benefits from imperialism is one of the cruel ironies of capitalism. Of course people living far away from the centers of power feel the most vulnerable. Of course they worry the most about being supplanted by this new proletariat. Of course they holler the loudest.

It is in this context that to not wear hijab – a decision a majority of Muslim women continue to make – is being transformed into a pledge of allegiance. A visible sign that a woman is “ok,” is “one of us,” or at least is willing to head in our direction. She won’t raise her children to challenge “us” for “our” State, “our” economy, “our” cultural hegemony.

& wearing one, in turn, is being transformed into a statement of defiance.

(That this debate centers on women is only logical – it is immigrant women who will play a key role in determining the identity of immigrant children, the proletariat of tomorrow.)

2. Reasonable Accommodation Hearings: Wind in Racist Sails

The reasonable accommodation hearings provide the context behind this crap, and the are a brilliant set-up if i ever saw one.

Just prior to this spring’s provincial elections the right-wing ADQ (Quebec Democratic Action) and media outlets decided to play the culture card, fomenting a debate about “reasonable accommodation.” The term was stripped of its actual legal meaning, and became shorthand for “immigrant culture” and the perceived erosion of the traditional ethnic pecking order.

There were shock-horror stories about Jews enforcing kosher rules at a Montreal hospital, and forcing a gym to install tinted windows. Others about Muslims getting men banned from birthing classes for pregnant women, or insisting on the gender of driving instructors.

In each case the details proved less scandalous that the demagogues presented them, and in many cases in fact these were reasonable measures taken to accommodate people. Nevertheless, the question had become a political hot potato, and before you could say “kulturkampf” girls were getting banned from sports events for wearing hijab and white folks were up in arms about the few dozen women in Quebec who wear niqab being allowed to vote.

The ruling Liberal party was in a quandry. On the one hand, the Liberals cannot win an election without support from the Quebecois majority, on the other hand the Liberals are the party which maintains absolute hegemony within Quebec’s minority communities, and which has the job of integrating these communities within the federalist camp.

The solution was typical: set up a roaming commission headed by two fancy intellectuals to deal with the issue.

Clearly, the Liberals hoped that in so doing the would defuse the ADQ’s new hobby horse. Yet from an anti-racist perspective this ploy is bound to fail, in fact it is bound to make things worst.

Let’s be clear: when this is all over commissioners Taylor and Bouchard are going to come up with some mildly inoffensive nostrums about tolerance, a “Quebec model” of integration, and the need for greater understanding so that we can all get along. It is conceivable that they wrote – or were given – their final recommendations before the traveling circus even began. The commission is intended to give everyone the appearance of consultation, but really there is not much that is open to debate.

The reason this will make things worst is two-fold.

By setting up a commission on this question the very debate on “reasonable accommodation” is legitimized. As one intervention after another has made clear, everyone knows that this debate is really about the status of immigrants in tomorrow’s Quebec. As such, the commission is just a soap-box for xenophobia, making it seem like the position of racists and that of immigrants are somehow equally valid.

Furthermore, the commission will not defuse anything. Once “the people” have had their say and “the eggheads” ignore them, or only pay them lip service, the stage will be set for a new round of demagogy. As long as they remain in opposition the ADQ and Pauline Marois’ new “PQ identitaire” will be able to position themselves as the only authentic voices of the people. More worrisome though, this combination of racism and feeling of being ignored by those in power will prepare the ground for the seeds of fascism, of a new round of far right mobilization and organization.

For the moment this may not be such a bad thing so far as the Liberals are concerned. While they are on the defensive, they are still ahead in comparison with the PQ, which was decimated by the rise of the ADQ in the last elections. Now, with PQ leader Pauline Marois’ turn towards a nationalism based on “identity”, the PQ and ADQ might potentially be played off against each other in subsequent elections – or so the Liberals must be hoping.

Immigrants, people of colour and other “foreigners” will be the only ones with anything to lose.

Or at least that is what i see down the road.

3. Freedom of Religion is a Red Herring

The ADQ, the Liberals and the racist media have all been very careful to frame this debate in terms of “gender equality vs. freedom of religion.”

Take a moment to think of why.

Freedom of religion is a strawman. It’s something progressive people are used to “supporting” without really thinking about it, the way reformists support all kinds of bourgeois “freedoms”, and so it’s a bicycle we can be tricked into riding without noticing that both tires are flat.

To be clear: freedom of conscience is an important thing to struggle for. The ability to think things out for yourself and to act on these thoughts is a prerequisite for political action, for radical theory, for revolution and liberation.

Similarly, opposition to racism is vital. Capitalism requires the constant incorporation of subject peoples, of communities which are marked out for proletarianization by way of their putative “racial” identity. And other communities which are slated for privilege on condition that they play the role of overseer. That today we are told it is a matter of culture, and a hundred years ago we were told it was a matter of biology, indicates a change in scientific discourse, not in political facts. Opposing this racism is an essential component of opposing capitalism and all forms of oppression.

But problems arise when these two important values are shoehorned into the concept of “freedom of religion.”

Religions are codified collections of rules and beliefs, bearing all the marks of their contradictory histories and struggles, both internal and external. Freedom of religion can be included within freedom of conscience, but on its own it negates it. The former privileges certain beliefs over others, whereas the latter implies that the freedom to believe in god must go hand in hand with the freedom of apostasy and the freedom of blasphemy.

Based on such a narrow freedom, no mobilization against the racist “reasonable accommodation” debate will succeed. Rather, the oppressed will be pitted against each other, or pushed into schizophrenic positions of favouring one aspect of their identity over others (feminist or believer? queer or Muslim? atheist or immigrant?)

The effect of such a false dichotomy will not be to actually support the rights of women, but rather to inhibit people from uncovering the actual relationship between patriarchy, racism and capitalism.

As radicals we have to look at every mobilization as a stepping stone to the next. Until eventually we get to fight for something worth keeping. If today’s struggles prepare us for tomorrow’s, what kind of preparation is a defense of religious orthodoxy going to prepare us for? Solidarity with whom, and under what conditions?


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