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Philippe Couillard waves to supporters as he announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec LiberalsWednesday, October 3, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Philippe Couillard waves to supporters as he announces his candidacy for the leadership of the Quebec LiberalsWednesday, October 3, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rift opens in Quebec Liberals over question of religious dress Add to ...

A rift has opened in the Quebec Liberal party over the wearing of religious garb by their candidates, as debate in the province continues about the Parti Québécois’s proposed ban on religious symbols in the public service.

The Quebec Liberals oppose the public-sector ban because they say it goes too far. But on Friday, leader Philippe Couillard says he would never allow a candidate for his party to wear the chador, a type of cloak worn by Muslim women.

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Mr. Couillard said his position was compatible with the party line that requires a women wearing a niqab to unveil her face to either work or receive services in the public sector.

In fact, he said, his position was not unlike the one taken by Liberal member Fatima Houda-Pepin, who initially broke with her party and publicly criticized a caucus colleague. Marc Tanguay said he would welcome Liberal candidates wearing the chador.

Mr. Couillard says the chador is a sign of religious fundamentalism and oppression that violates the fundamental rights of equality between men and women.

“I would never allow the wearing of the chador by a candidate. But this is a hypothetical situation. It will never happen. There is not much difference between the chador and the fully faced veil. … It is a garment that represents a total social withdrawal which is incompatible with our way of doing politics,” Mr. Couillard said in a news conference in Montreal on Friday, suggesting Mr. Tanguay made a mistake in making the remark.

Mr. Tanguay’s comments created a major rift within Liberal ranks after Ms. Houda-Pepin said she was “hurt” and “shocked” by the remarks. Ms. Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman sitting in the Quebec National Assembly, noted that the chador was the “ultimate expression of oppression of women” and a “radical symbol of fundamentalism.” She feared that the party was drifting away from its roots by failing to stand up for the rights of women in the face of the rise of religious fundamentalism.

“I am women of ideas,” she said in a Radio-Canada interview on Friday. Ms. Houda-Pepin said she was not breaking ranks with the Liberal party, adding she supported her party’s opposition to the contentious Parti Québécois secular charter bill which proposes to prohibit the wearing of overt religious symbols by public sector employees.

“On the question of the chador we both agree,” Mr. Couillard said in a news conference in Montreal. “I’m holding out my hand to Ms. Houda-Pepin for her to come to caucus and explain her position.”

Mr. Couillard said he had no intentions of expelling Ms. Houda-Pepin from caucus for publicly criticizing her colleague. But he added that it was up to her to take the first step towards reconciliation, otherwise she would be expelling herself from the caucus, he said.

The Liberal leader said his caucus is preparing a bill that will define the party’s views on secularism and will prohibit extremist and radical religious views from undermining fundamental rights, such as gender equality.

Ms. Houda-Pepin proposed to take the debate one step further by inviting Premier Pauline Marois to sit down with the other party leaders to draw up a compromise in order to define a non-partisan secular charter.

“I am for a dialogue on this issue that goes beyond party lines,” she said.

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