Nour Farhat dreams of one day becoming a criminal prosecutor – a dream that’s now on hold. Baraa Arar, an aspiring academic, decided to pursue a master’s degree in Toronto instead of Montreal because she no longer sees a future for herself in the province where she was born. Ichrak Nourel Hak, who is studying to be a teacher, now finds the path to her chosen career blocked.
These three women are just a few of the Quebeckers struggling with the implications of the province’s religious symbols law (formerly Bill 21). Passed in June, 2019, the law prohibits public-services workers, including teachers, Crown prosecutors, judges and police officers, from wearing religious garments on the job. The law has derailed the lives and careers of thousands of Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab, Sikh men who wear a turban, orthodox Jews who wear a kippa, and others. It has also killed hopes of advancement for employees who’ve been grandfathered into their current public-service jobs but whose chances for promotion are now limited.
Several challenges to the bill have been launched, but on Dec. 12, the Quebec Court of Appeal rejected a request to suspend the ban until a final court ruling – despite the three-judge panel agreeing the law risks causing irreparable harm to some Quebeckers.
Muslim women are disproportionately affected by the law, and The Globe and Mail connected with six of them to talk about how it has disrupted their careers and education, damaged their mental health and left them wondering whether they are still welcome in Quebec. “I used to see myself as a complete Québécoise and presented myself as such when travelling abroad," Ms. Farhat says. "It’s been a few years now that I don’t see myself as such any more. But for the first time now, I am reconsidering my belonging to the province at all.”
Fatima Ahmad, 23Education student at McGill University
Bill 21 prevents me from working as a public school teacher in Quebec. I am in my fourth year and graduating in April, 2020. I am already planning to move to the United Arab Emirates or Calgary once I graduate.
My biggest concern about Bill 21 is that my safety would be jeopardized. Since I wear the niqab, I have already faced Islamophobia. However, since Bill 21 passed, things have only gotten worse. Last Ramadan, a man hit my chest and pulled my niqab. This was a shocking experience and it left me emotionally disturbed for days. It takes increasingly more courage to identify as a Muslim woman, especially a niqabi.
I feel like a second-class citizen with limited rights. I feel increasingly un-Canadian. When Bill 62 passed, banning face coverings on anyone receiving and providing government services, I was one of the two women who were part of the legal challenge. Thankfully we won, and Bill 62 was suspended. As for Bill 21, I also signed an affidavit for one of the legal challenges, but I am taking more of a back seat right now, as many other Muslim women are coming forward to challenge it.
Barâa Arar, 22Graduate student in history at the University of Toronto
I was choosing between two Canadian graduate schools – McGill and University of Toronto – when Bill 21 was announced in the spring. I was born in Montreal. Both my parents attended McGill, so that campus held sentimental value for me. But when the provincial government announced Bill 21 and voted for it, the prospect of walking the streets of Montreal scared me. When reports of hate crimes arose after the bill’s introduction, I knew my worries were founded.
People who are not affected by the bill, or people who do not identify with those affected, don’t understand the immediacy these politics have. It infiltrates my mind. It becomes another factor to think of when making life choices. I cannot study or teach at any university in Quebec, nor can I occupy a public service role. This bill basically eliminated Quebec as a safe space where I could work or study, and it did the same for thousands of people, especially women. That is why I think it is an anti-feminist bill. It tells women they can only occupy certain roles if they look certain ways. Is that not the antithesis of the message we’ve been promoting for decades to young women?
Nour Farhat, 28Lawyer in civil and corporate litigation and constitutional law at Gattuso Bourget Mazzone in Montreal
In 2019, I finished a master’s degree in criminal law with the sole purpose of becoming a criminal prosecutor. But Bill 21 changed my path, denying me the ability to work as a prosecutor or lawyer in any Quebec ministry or for any city in the province. To see your rights shattered in that way, when you were born and raised in Quebec, and went through the francophone system from primary school to graduate school, is a feeling I can’t describe in words. From now on, I take nothing for granted. My dreams, my goals, my ambitions and my future can be in jeopardy at any moment, for no reason – because I am a Muslim woman who decided to wear the hijab and because I live in a democracy of public display that responds to populist majority opinion at the expense of visible minorities.
I’m one of the lawyers working on one of the cases against Bill 21. I’m now more determined than ever to use my voice and my career as a tool to promote and defend the right of equality for all. The older I get, the less I feel I belong in Quebec. I feel like a stranger here now. But I’m determined to occupy spaces that weren’t built for me or anyone who looks like me, and I’ll stand up for people who can’t do so on their own. One violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms weakens the rights and freedoms of all Canadians.
Ichrak Nourel Hak, 28Education student at Université de Montréal
The message Bill 21 sent is clear: I should accept being dictated to and leave behind my hijab, or change careers. I’m graduating with a bachelor of education in teaching French as a second language. This has turned my life upside down, throwing into doubt the hours and years I’ve put into my degree. It’s insulting that the government has told certain people to give up their identity or their profession with no regard for individual experience. The professions targeted by the law, such as lawyers, teachers and police officers, all share a common goal: to contribute to improving Quebec society. This law insinuates that a person in a hijab is a second-class citizen.
Since the law passed, I haven’t stopped wondering if I can ever really be a full part of Quebec society. It is very stressful to be told you no longer have full mastery of your profession, regardless of your education and experience. I lack self-confidence now in a way that I fear affects my ability as a teacher, creating a vicious circle that’s also making me lose sleep at night.
I’m involved in one of the Bill 21 lawsuits, and a Journal de Montréal columnist called me a fundamentalist for exercising my rights. Some people are encouraging hatred toward women – and Muslim women in hijabs in particular. When I take transit, I have to be on guard while trying to maintain a benevolent air. It’s quite a complicated task.
Nadia Naqvi, 37High school science teacher
I’m grandfathered into my job, but Bill 21 means I can’t advance in my career. My next step, within a couple of years, was to move up to administration. I can no longer do that. I’m professionally stuck. Right before the bill was tabled, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called neuromyelitis optica. It’s a disease that attacks either the spinal cord or the optic nerve, and it has rendered me unable to walk. I’m in a wheelchair. Rather than concentrate purely on my recovery, I have this legislation hanging over my head. Psychologically, I’m not 100 per cent focused. Bill 21 has turned me into a second-class citizen in my own profession – my peers can advance professionally, but I cannot. That’s state-sanctioned discrimination.
As a child of immigrants, I’ve always had my feet in two worlds – the one of my ancestors and the country of my birth – never really belonging in either, despite having citizenship from both Pakistan and Canada. My passion for teaching gave me a sense of belonging. I am my truest self in my classroom. It’s my world. Bill 21 has undermined my place in the world.
Zahraa Sbaiti, 27Artist and community art educator
Although I don’t currently work in the public sector, Bill 21 has put up a barrier to my future career goals. It prevents me from evolving from teaching in community settings to teaching in a school. And it creates fear. It encourages discrimination and hatred toward visible Muslim women. When the Parti Québécois proposed the Charter of Values, I was verbally and physically assaulted numerous times, and that led to me spending a year and a half in therapy. Constant panic, anxiety attacks and paranoia have affected my day-to-day life and health.
Bill 21 put so much additional pressure on my mental health that I left Quebec for Lebanon six months ago. I needed to be far away from the chaos, away from the Islamophobia. I was born and raised in Montreal. I shouldn’t be questioning whether I belong in Quebec. I could have removed my headscarf to “integrate” into the society the Quebec government is envisioning, but I don’t think that’s fair. And will it cure hatred toward visible minorities?
In the past, I’ve been very vocal artistically against the Charter of Values. I’ve decided to no longer create political art – I truly believe I’m not a political being, that I shouldn’t be. I’m more than just a woman wearing a headscarf.
Alia Youssef is a Toronto-based artist and photographer.
The responses have been edited and condensed.
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