Opponents condemn CAQ minister's hijab comments as 'clumsy, divisive'
Quebec’s official opposition party is criticizing the new Minister Responsible for the Status of Women over comments she made calling hijabs a symbol of oppression.
On Tuesday, Isabelle Charest said wearing a hijab does not correspond to Quebec values and keeps women from flourishing.
"For me, the hijab is not something women should be wearing because it does have, at some point, significance of oppression of women and the fact they have to cover themselves," she said on Tuesday.
“For me it's not in my values," she added.
Charest, a former Olympic short track speed skater, was elected for the first time on Oct. 1. She is also junior education minister.
When asked to clarify, she said she objects to the hijab because it represents a requirement for women to cover themselves.
"It's the fact that you have to wear something, so it does command an action for the women, and I think women should be free to wear whatever they want," she said.
On Wednesday, Charest again clarified her remarks, saying when women are not at liberty to choose what they want to wear; it's a sign of oppression.
“When women decide they want to wear the hijab, that's fine and I respect their choice," she added.
Her comments came as the debate over religious accommodation, secularism and religious symbols has heated up.
The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has vowed to pass legislation banning government workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs or kippahs.
Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand called on the CAQ government to debate religious symbols in a reasonable manner, saying Quebec needs tolerance.
"We feel very strongly these subjects are difficult to handle and we feel it's important to continue the debate in a very peaceful way," he said.
Liberal MNA Kathleen Weil called Charest’s remarks “very clumsy.”
Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said that Charest’s comments were “divisive.”
"The issue of religious symbols is a very divisive issue even inside the feminist movement," he said. "I think it's really clumsy for her to come into office and the first thing she does is put her finger on a very sensitive and divisive issue inside the women's movement."
Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa-based human rights advocate, called Charest's comments disappointing and potentially harmful to Muslim women.
"Whenever we see political officials begin to talk in a way that gives credence to an idea that Muslim women should be treated as second-class citizens, that we don't have the capacity to think for ourselves, can't make our own decisions and need the state to tell us what's suitable dress, that's very dangerous," said Elghawaby, who wears a hijab.
"It sends the signal to the broader population that we don't deserve respect, don't deserve to be treated with dignity and that we don't deserve the same freedoms everyone else enjoys."
In Ottawa, federal International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau reminded Charest that women have the right to choose "what they do with their body and how to dress."
But Elghawaby said that Charest's attempts to nuance her comments came too late, and the damage was already done.
"What we really need is for elected officials to think very carefully before they start speaking about people's experiences and freedoms and understand that they are elected to serve all of us in a way that respects our dignity," she said.
Gabrielle Bouchard, the president of Quebec's most prominent women's group, said she was surprised to hear Charest take such a strong position on the issue so early in her mandate. "It shows she maybe didn't have enough -- or any -- contact with Muslim women before making that statement," she said.
Bouchard said her organization, the Federation des femmes du Quebec, has yet to determine its official position on the wearing of religious symbols. She said the issue is complex and members have varying opinions.
Charest modified her comments somewhat Wednesday, saying that while she personally sees the hijab as oppressive, she recognizes that for some women it is a personal choice.