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Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman in the Quebec legislature, has broken ranks with her Liberal Party to support the PQ’s planned secular charter.

MARIE FRANCE COALLIER/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In a political boost to Quebec's controversial values charter, the only Muslim woman in the provincial legislature has broken ranks with her Liberal Party's steadfast opposition to the plan.

Fatima Houda-Pepin wrote in a letter to The Canadian Press that she is "flabbergasted," "hurt" and "shocked" by one of her colleagues' comments on the chador, wondering if her party's views on equality between men and women was modeled on those of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

She had maintained a steadfast silence for months, even as newspaper columns and political opponents insisted she express herself on the issue of religious clothing.

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Now she says her colleague's comments were the final straw.

"I refuse any drift toward cultural relativism under the guise of religion, to legitimize a symbol like the chador, which is the ultimate expression of oppression of women, in addition to being the symbol of radical fundamentalism," she wrote.

The reaction was to comments by Marc Tanguay, her party's secularism critic, who said he would welcome Liberal candidates wearing the chador and would be happy to sit with them in the legislature. The chador is an open cloak which extends over the head but does not cover the face. It is worn by many Iranian women.

The Moroccan-born MNA said she has long been concerned about the rise of fundamentalism while staying silent on the Liberals' position, which opposes any ban on religious symbols as long as the face is uncovered.

Her public statement might not sway any actual votes in the legislature, where the Parti Québécois plan does not have enough support to pass.

But the government has threatened to make it a confidence issue and take the plan out onto the campaign trail, where Houda-Pepin's words would inevitably be used against her party.

Her Liberals had publicly maintained a united front against the PQ plan – now Houda-Pepin's coming-out on the issue has blown a hole in that unanimity.

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What's unclear is whether she will actually support the PQ project. Her letter did not go that far and she may have more to say if, as expected, she introduces her own private member's bill on fighting religious extremism.

The secularism charter proposed by the PQ government would ban anyone working in the public service from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab while on the job.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has decried it as an affront to human rights and has said he would only allow the plan to pass "over my dead body."

Houda-Pepin, who has sat in the legislature since 1994, says her party should agree to limit individual rights "when the public interest so requires," as in the case of equality between men and women.

She said there is already a precedent because Robert Bourassa, when he was premier, did not hesitate to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to protect collective French-language rights.

"The Quebec Liberal Party has already limited freedom of expression in commercial signs," she said. "In a democracy, it is permissible to prohibit when the public interest so requires. Gender equality is a fundamental right which remains fragile in an era of fundamentalism.

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"We must protect and defend it, not jeopardize it."

Houda-Pepin did not make any recommendations to Couillard in her letter.

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