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The Charter of Quebec Values is creating a huge, perhaps irreparable rift in the province's women's movement. For feminists, there is no halfway position over the proposed ban on religious symbols worn by public employees.

On one side are those for whom the Muslim hijab (or any kind of religious headscarf) is anathema because it's seen as a symbol of female submission. On the other side are those who believe that wearing a headscarf is a woman's personal choice and that the law will victimize Muslim women in particular by excluding them from a large sector of the labour market.

In a way, it is a battle between radical feminists, who hold gender equality to supersede any other right, and liberal feminists, who believe that freedom of conscience and religion is a fundamental right that cannot be tampered with.

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The debate, inflamed by a flood of vicious xenophobic rants that have polluted social media, has become explosive enough to split families and break up friendships. Quebec has had more than its share of painfully divisive battles, from the two referendums to the recurrent language wars to last year's student rebellion, but this one might be the worst. Far from being a mere political disagreement, it touches one's deepest set of moral values.

Feminism is an offspring of the civil-rights movement. True to their roots, liberal feminists are using rational arguments based on liberal democratic principles. The hard-line secularists are much more emotional; their crusade is fuelled partly by a desire to imitate France's rigid secular model, and partly by a deep resentment against the Catholic church.

There are many raw emotions involved. Older women are settling scores with their strict upbringings; younger ones are lamenting their mothers' plights in a "priest-ridden" province. For them, the Muslim veil is an unbearable reminder of this long-gone era.

Women's-rights groups are among the sharply divided.

Françoise David, who is the province's best-known feminist leader and currently sits as an MNA, has spoken against the charter.

Members of Quebec's Council for the Status of Women, a government agency, are split on the issue. Council president Julie Miville-Dechêne, a former CBC journalist, has been skeptical and called for studies on the ban's impact (none appear to have been commissioned by the government before it threw this political grenade).

But her predecessor Christiane Pelchat (now Quebec's delegate-general to Mexico) is a hard-line proponent of secularism, and Premier Pauline Marois has been accused of hurriedly filling four council vacancies with pro-charter advocates to tip the balance in the government's favour.

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The Quebec Federation of Women, an independent organization, came out against the ban on religious symbols, which prompted a number of prominent women, including former Supreme Court judge Claire L'Heureux-Dubé and former PQ minister Louise Beaudoin, to form a pro-charter group. The next day, 50 feminist Muslim and French Canadian academics published a petition against the charter. And so it goes.

The two camps have largely agreed on several elements of the charter, notably the principle of neutrality of the state and the exclusion of the niqab, the face-covering veil, from the public service and school system; this is a matter of common sense.

And the civil libertarians would join hands with radical secularists against any move to set up sharia-based family tribunals, a proposal that was once considered in Ontario – abandoned, fortunately, but still on the agenda of some Islamist leaders.

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