Since the idea was floated in the public about the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, there has been a debate over the role of religion in the public sphere, the equality of women, and the meaning of the right to religious freedom more generally. Those in support of the Charter have argued that the bill is necessary to protect women and establish a better working relationship between the accommodation for religion and the place of religion in Quebec.
Those who have countered this proposal have questioned the motivations of the Parti Québécois, the legality of such a proposal, the effects on minorities, and the problems with the narrowing of religious freedom. There is much at stake here, including the values that should guide and nurture the culture of Quebec in the future.
No one can tell what the consequences of passing such a bill would be. However, one global study on the effects of restrictions on religious freedom may provide us with some facts to reflect on. Since 2007, the PEW Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about issues and trends affecting societies around the world, has been monitoring levels of religious hostilities in 198 countries and self-administering territories. They found that the more a government limits religious freedom, the more violence a society sees.
Incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47 per cent of countries in 2012. This is up from 38 per cent in 2011 and 24 per cent in the baseline year of the study. An example of one type of incidence was abuse that was perpetrated on private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country. What's more, women were harassed because of religious dress in nearly a third of countries in 2012 (32 per cent), up from 7 per cent in 2007.
We cannot help but draw parallels with Quebec. Since the Charter of Values was introduced, reports of islamophobic harassment have increased such as the case of the Saguenay mosque being stained with pork blood and an increase in reports of persecution by women wearing the veil. We can – and should – ask ourselves what building blocks we need which best prepare us to create a tolerant, violent-free society.
Louise Arbour suggested that it is rights that create a free and fair society. As she says:
"But in the end, it's all quite simple. To have rights is like having an umbrella; it's only useful when it's raining. Freedom of religion will mean nothing if it is completely relegated to the private sphere."
Having studied the reasons Muslim women veil themselves for the last 15 years, we conclude that the overwhelming majority of women who veil do it out of choice, not hardship or coercion. We would go so far as to say that there is a consensus amongst scholars on the point that women are choosing the veil. And they choose it for many reasons – faith, culture, and identity, amongst others. They do not need special rights protection; what they say they need is an open, equal, non-discriminatory society that grants them the space to make personal decisions that others may not agree with.
Looking at the case of France in 2004, after an extensive consultation on the nature of secularism, the parliament banned all ostentatious religious symbols from public schools across the country. Then in 2011, a law was passed that sweepingly prohibits face coverings in government buildings, buses, and other public spaces. Women who choose to wear the face veil in France must decide if the manifestation of their religion is as important as getting on a bus and going to school or buying groceries for their children. Is this the kind of society we hope to build in Quebec?
The questions before us are weighty: how will we go about promoting tolerance and equality and building a free society? To what extent does equality mean similarity? The option that has been proposed with Bill 60 is that we limit religious freedom and relegate it increasingly to the private sphere. Out of sight, out of mind? We think not. It is time to fortify our umbrella.
Melanie Adrian and Claudia Lahaie are professors in the Department of Public Affairs at Carleton University