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Muslim MNA tables own bill to fight religious fundamentalism

Quebec Liberal MLA Fatima Houda-Pepin is surrounded by reporters as she walks to a party caucus meeting on Jan. 20, 2014.


Quebec's only Muslim female member of the National Assembly is proposing a bill to fight religious fundamentalism, portions of which the Parti Québécois will include in its controversial secular charter.

In a bill tabled on Wednesday, former Liberal Fatima Houda-Pepin contends that the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms must include a provision to ensure that government institutions be neutral in relation to all religions.

Unlike the PQ's proposed Charter of Values, which prohibits all public-sector employees from wearing overt religious symbols, Ms. Houda-Pepin wants the ban to be limited to those in positions of authority such as judges, prosecutors, police and correctional officers.

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"This is the only part of the bill that is different from what we are proposing. The rest is compatible. We will look at it and listen to what Ms. Houda-Pepin has to say when she presents her case to the PQ caucus next week," said Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the secular charter.

The PQ appeared willing to jump at the opportunity to further embarrass the Liberals, who have wavered on the secular charter bill. Ms. Houda-Pepin was forced out of the Liberal caucus last month by leader Philippe Couillard when he refused to bow to Ms. Houda-Pepin's demand that the wearing of religious symbols be banned for certain public sector employees.

Ms. Houda-Pepin, who now sits as an Independent MNA, said on Wednesday that Mr. Couillard lied to her when he said he would give her the opportunity to make her case to the Liberal caucus. She says she was never given that chance. Mr. Couillard denied the allegations, saying he did give her the opportunity to make her case.

She said she came under intense pressure to fall into line from Mr. Couillard's chief of staff, who even offered her a cabinet post if the Liberals formed government.

Ms. Houda-Pepin broke down in tears as she described the difficulties in dealing with Mr. Couillard, arguing that he failed to properly consult his caucus before taking a position. "I never thought I could be treated in this way by the Quebec Liberal party," she said.

Under Ms. Houda-Pepin's bill, public sector employees would be barred specifically from wearing a chador, a niqab or a burka, viewed by her as symbols of female oppression imposed by Muslim fundamentalists. Equality between men and women must be protected at all cost against fundamentalists, she argued.

Religious fundamentalism is defined in the bill as a "political ideology" that imposes practices and values "stemming from a radical interpretation of a religion, including speeches undermining the right to equality of women and men and encouraging discrimination and violence and hate propaganda …"

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Religious convictions could not be invoked as a reason to refuse to comply with a school curriculum, under the private member's bill. And segregation based on gender identity or religious affiliation would be prohibited.

The bill also takes direct aim at religions that practise forced marriages, polygamy, genital mutilation or segregation based on a person's sex or religious affiliation. Reasonable accommodations would be refused to religious groups if they were too costly, failed to comply with gender equality or were inconsistent "with the protection of Quebec's cultural and religious heritage."

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