Taking a stance against Bill 62
On Wednesday October 18, the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 62, called the “Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality.” The bill explicitly requires municipal and provincial public servants and those accessing public services to uncover their faces, in order to eliminate religious symbols from the public sphere. It includes services such as hospitals, libraries, universities, public schools, and public transit. Initially, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée maintained that “as long as the [public] service is being rendered, the face should be uncovered;” she later softened her stance by clarifying that people are expected to uncover their faces only under specific circumstances—for example, when entering public transit. The major political parties most opposed to Bill 62, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the Coalition Avenir Quebec, argued that it “didn’t go far enough.”
While Bill 62 targets those who wear the niqab and burqa under the guise of ‘religious neutrality,’ Quebec’s claim to be secular and religiously neutral is contestable. Religious neutrality stops short of removing Catholic symbols, like the cross in Quebec’s Assembly Hall, considered to be part of Quebec’s “cultural legacy.” Yet other religions are excluded from the “cultural legacy” claim. Bill 62 supporters are thus making a discriminatory distinction between which religious practices are accepted and which are not.
Vallée has attempted to deflect criticism of the bill by maintaining that it does not target religious minorities and in fact prohibits all face coverings, such as sunglasses. Yet this bill for “religious neutrality” only addresses face covering, and in Quebec the majority of women who cover their faces for religious purposes are Muslim. In addition, supporters of the law have iterated the need for the bill as a matter of “safety and respect.” Couching the bill in the rhetoric of “safety” indicates that it responds to a perceived danger; given the law’s clear discrimination against Muslim women, we can understand it to be responding to a constructed fear of Muslim people. While the bill doesn’t explicitly target those who wear the burqa and niqab, its ambiguity leaves room for law enforcement to apply it as they see fit.
The bill sanctions state violence against Muslim women and emboldens regular citizens to commit acts of racial violence. Hate crimes against Muslims are already on the rise, up by more than 250 per cent in the past four years. This rationalization of state control over religious expression, specifically that of Muslims, also relates to the patronizing belief that such a bill “liberates” Muslim women. However, the bill that supposedly responds to the coercion of Muslim women to wear face coverings is in itself coercive by demanding that they take these face coverings off.
Bill 62 is a direct threat to the safety of the Muslim community, and should be treated as such. We must not wait for it to be challenged in court, as the Parti Quebecois is calling for all such challenges to be automatically blocked. Instead, those who can should take action immediately by writing to their political representatives. Furthermore, we must speak up if we witness the harassment of women wearing a niqab or a burqa at the hands of law enforcement or civilians. There are Facebook groups such as “Faire le trajet ensemble MTL I’ll ride with you” for those willing to ride public transport with women who feel unsafe riding alone. We cannot speak on behalf of the Muslim community, and so we all hold responsibility to research and engage in strong opposition to this discriminatory bill.