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Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois greets candidate Gyslaine Desrosiers during a campaign stop in Blainville, Que., March 7, 2014.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

The Parti Québécois unveiled a slate of minority female candidates that it hopes will send a strong message to voters that leaders in the Arab community and other ethnic groups are willing to support its controversial secular charter proposal.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois was beaming Friday as she presented three candidates of Maghreb descent who gave their unequivocal support to the charter. The charter of Quebec values bill tabled last November has sparked a divisive debate, especially over the proposal to ban public servants from wearing overt religious symbols, such as the hijab, kippa or crucifix.

"It's a significant message that we wanted to send," Ms. Marois told reporters, referring to the charter's support among minority groups. "Listening to the statements of each of these women, I was moved.

"They [the candidates] were impressive. They chose Quebec. And they chose to support the secularism, the neutrality of the state because they want more integration for all those who choose to live in Quebec … It's a considerable and significant show of support."

However, the three candidates Ms. Marois introduced Friday are running in Liberal strongholds in Montreal where a PQ win would require a major swing in voter support.

The candidates are strong opponents of religious fundamentalism and the obligation of Muslim women to wear a veil, which they contend represents female submission.

Yasmina Chouakri came to Canada from Algeria in 1994, concerned over the mounting violence and religious fundamentalism in her native country. Named Quebec Arab Women of the year in 2008, Ms. Chouakri heads the University of Quebec at Montreal research chair on immigration, ethnicity and citizenship. "The charter confirms the secularism of Quebec society," she said.

Leila Mahiout, originally from Algeria, was also a prominent figure in Quebec's Arab community as vice-president of the Festival du monde arabe in Montreal. The computer engineer said she has always embraced sovereignty and defended the need for a secular state that protects the equality between men and women.

Another long-time sovereigntist, Evelyne Abitbol, was Bloc Québécois founding leader Lucien Bouchard's press secretary in the early 1990s. Ms. Abitbol, whose background is Jewish, was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and came to Quebec at a young age in 1964.

"It is the debate over the secular charter that convinced me to run," Ms. Abitbol said. "Whereby elsewhere in the world people face violence in their fight for a secular state, we cannot afford to step backward in Quebec."

Earlier in the day, Ms. Marois confirmed Djemila Benhabib as the PQ candidate in the City of Laval riding of Mille-Îles. An intellectual with strong pro-charter convictions, Ms. Benhabib, also of Algerian descent, is considered by the party to have a good chance of winning a seat for the PQ.

In a bid to mark Saturday's International Women's Day, Ms. Marois confirmed on Friday the candidacy of several prominent female candidates. They included Diane Lamarre, outgoing president of the College of Quebec Pharmacists, Gyslaine Desrosiers, former president of the Quebec College of Nurses, and Martine Desjardins, the former president of the Quebec Federation of University Students who was a leading figure in the spring 2012 fight against the former Liberal government's tuition fee hikes.

So far, the PQ has had more success in attracting female candidates than the other two main parties. Approximately 40 per cent of PQ candidates named so far are women compared with about one-quarter for the Liberals and the CAQ.

Only the fourth party, Québec Solidaire can claim anything resembling parity with 38 of the 80 candidates chosen so far being women.

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