The Hijab and Soccer: Women, Immigrants, and the Fear of the Female Proletariat

As predicted, racist anxieties in Quebec about Muslims and immigrants are proving fair game as Jean Charest and Mario Dumont have tried to score cheap electoral points, each of them hoping it will win them white votes in the upcoming provincial election here…

The latest chapter in this growing novella opened last Sunday, as a young woman with a visiting soccer team from Ottawa was told that she could not take the field without removing her hijab.

From what we have been told, the referee who made the call, himself a Muslim, was enforcing a rule as it has been spelled out in a recent memo from the Quebec Soccer Federation, which had clarified that the hijab was not to be tolerated. This memo, we are told, was issued as recently as January, i.e. right in the midst of the previous chapter of the racist “reasonable accommodation debate“. (N.B. i have not been able to find any mention of this memo online, and am wondering whether or not this is a rumour or a fact. Anyone from the Quebec Soccer Federation able to shed some light on this?)

Within hours of the media breaking this latest “soccer hijab” story, premier Charest (Liberal Party) has weighed in, lauding the referee’s call, obviously trying to cut the grass from under the feet of the more right-wing Dumont (ADQ), who has tried to claim the racist anti-immigrant vote all to himself. This has allowed the PQ’s André Boisclair to stake out his own “least racist” position that the soccer player should have been allowed to play with her headscarf, as she is not a public servant like a teacher – in which case we are left to assume that he would favour a ban…

i know that some comrades are wary of intervening to support women’s right to wear the hijab. They note – correctly – that for many women around the world, the hijab is imposed, not chosen, and that as such it becomes an intrinsically oppressive symbol. They point out that women have had acid thrown in their faces, and have been killed, all for their refusal to wear hijab. Not surprising, for instance, that in the 1990s in France, when there were a series of schoolchildren sent home from class for refusing to remove the Islamic headscarf, the left was divided over who to support – one famous anarchist newspaper going so far as to publish a headline “Ni Voile Ni Maître”!

But while for many women around the world the hijab is undeniably a symbol of oppression, i think it is important to contextualize bans on the hijab in a country like Canada, and a nation like Quebec. Women who wear the hijab here do so for a variety of reasons, and this choice becomes as likely to be about self-affirmation as anything else.

There is an increasingly important Arab and Muslim proletariat in Quebec, concentrated in the city of Montreal and its suburbs. Arabs and Muslims are one of the most exploited sections of the working class here, despite the fact that they tend to be better educated and more highly skilled than “native born” Québecois.

Studies have pointed to a disproportionate exclusion from unionized and government jobs as key factors in this heightened level of exploitation, which is viewed as something of a mixed blessing by the political establishment. On the one hand, getting workers with more skills for less money serves the short-term interests of those capitalists who employ them; on the other hand more than one observer has noted the dangers of “creating ghettos”, the result of imposing a specific proletarian class reality onto a section of the population which is already culturally and religiously distinct from both the ruling class and the “mainstream”. Not to mention the concern that in a globally competitive economy there is a dangerous kind of waste in having highly skilled workers officially placed in lower skilled positions.

These two sides of what this immigrant proletariat represents – both greater profits, and the risk of new self-aware hostile proletarian communities – finds its reflection in the rhetoric surrounding the most important section of this “new” community – women. It is Muslim women who are being targeted by anti-hijab concerns, as their access to both employment and social activities is being directly tied to their willingness to publicly conform to the cultural diktats of the dominant society (in private, as we all know, capitalism doesn’t really give a fuck).

So it is not without relevance that one of the increasingly important demands of “reasonable accommodation” demagogues in Quebec has been that there be various employment restrictions on women who insist on wearing the headscarf. Under the guise of “promoting secularism” and even “promoting women’s rights” some commentators have insisted that Muslim women be barred from certain jobs unless they agree to remove the hijab.

The effect of such a ban, and the green light it would give to employers in other sectors, would be to further constrict Muslim women to the least attractive jobs in the most highly exploited sections of the formal economy – or else exclude them from the job market altogether. (i should also point out regarding Boisclair’s boogey-woman of the “teacher in a hijab” that teaching jobs are one of the most important unionized sectors in which immigrant women have been able to find work…)

This is a microcosm of what is happening on a world-scale, as Muslim women are in a critical position, being both the terrain and the prize over which both patriarchal Islam and patriarchal imperialism are fighting. Women, treated like objects without opinions of their own (kinda like a natural resource, shall we say oil?), are claimed by both sides. While women may represent the emergent revolutionary subject, at this point they remain atomized and disorganized – and yet as this reality fades, their movement and their choices will have the power to fuel the economy of the future, or else upset the whole apple cart… which is why even trivial matters like how they dress take on such symbolic importance.

And all of this, tying back to soccer…

Beyond scoping out what this means and where it is leading, as revolutionaries without a revolution i think our position in this case is fairly easy to see. Some kid wants to play soccer in a headscarf, she should be allowed to play soccer in a headscarf. If she wants to wear lipstick and eyeliner, she should be allowed to do that too. And obviously, if she wants to wear a “Fuck Patriarchy” or Bikini Kill t-shirt, well then that’ll make us more than happy…

We oppose people in authority telling other people what clothes they can wear. Some bonehead puts on a swastika we break their legs, but some young women in Ottawa puts on a headscarf, we look at it with a bit more subtlety, i hope.

That’s all for now… i’m two hours behind on my work thanks to this posting, so i’m wrapping it up…


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