Last fall, the University of Alberta awarded an honorary doctorate to 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman. Visionary MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans arranged for Ms. Karman to address the Alberta Legislature. During her travels in Canada, she inspired audiences to strive for social justice. Years before the Arab Spring, Ms. Karman campaigned for press freedom in Yemen. She was shot at, imprisoned and vilified by the country's government and religious clergy for her courageous stand against injustice.
Yet, according to les féministes laïques du Québec, Ms. Karman is an oppressed woman. Under the Charter of Quebec Values, one doubts she would be invited to address the National Assembly.
This fall, Harvard Law School announced the appointment of its newest tenured professor, Dr. Intisar Rabb. She is a brilliant legal scholar with a stellar record, and will be the new director of Harvard's Islamic legal studies program. Under the values charter, she never would have been hired by a Quebec law school.
In Canada, we have the dignified example of Monia Mazigh, who fought for the release of her husband, Maher Arar, after his immoral rendition to Syria. Dr. Mazigh took on the governments and security agencies of the United States, Canada and Syria, and won. Yet, according to les féministes laïques, she is yet another meek Muslim woman, in need of liberation for her own good.
Then there is Malala Yousafzai – Nobel Prize nominee, shining light in the struggle for female education, example to the world. She wanted to become a doctor, but is now thinking of politics. Under the values charter, she would never be hired as a doctor nor elected as a politician, let alone be allowed to address impressionable school girls.
All these women of distinction are Muslim and cover their hair in some form.
As many have noted, from Charles Taylor to Jacques Parizeau, the values charter's real target is Muslim women's dress, driven by Islamophobia. However, a surgical strike targeting Islam would be too obvious. Thus, the carpet-bombing approach to target all "conspicuous" religious symbols (except beards). And militant feminists are behind the push to force Muslim women employed by the government to remove the hijab.
Le féminisme laïque on display in Quebec is offensive on so many levels. There is no respect for the actual choice of the women they purportedly seek to liberate. Some apply their previous negative experience with the Roman Catholic Church to all religions (even Islam, where there is neither a centralized institution nor a pope to regulate adherents' lives). God is not the Father, nor the Son, in Islam. All patriarchal roots to the divine are undercut.
North African expatriates, who are among Quebec's most militant féministes laïques, live in a universe where Algeria's bloody civil war is at the doorstep of la belle province. For them, the hijab is purely a political symbol – a sign of militancy and a vehicle for extremist infiltration. All hijabis and niqabis are brainwashed and must not be allowed to change Quebec's values, they say. Apparently, secular liberalism is no longer a Quebec value, according to these feminists. So who is actually changing Quebec's values?
Behind this militancy, one senses fear. Muslim women make up about 1 per cent of Quebec's population. Even fewer cover their hair, and the ones who do have a variety of reasons: identity, religious belief, modesty, culture. Some have been pressured to wear it – or to take it off. A longtime friend was beaten by her father when she first decided to don the hijab. She refused to remove it.
Feminism, we thought, was about empowering women to make choices for themselves. Instead, le féminisme laïque is the new patriarchy, with its condescending, my-way-or-the-highway attitude. But Muslim women are fusing a new breed of feminism, where spirituality melds with activism to advance the cause of both genders. Their role model is Malala – not Miley or Marois. Spirituality is seen not as an enemy, but as an ally in providing the impetus to seek equal opportunities for women in education, health, wealth and political participation.
Despite negative stereotypes, Muslim women are on the rise, working with allies on a foundation of mutual respect and, where differences arise, agreeing to disagree. It's something les féministes laïques could learn from.