Nasty remarks and dirty looks

Published on Nov 15, 2013 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: Canada, Diversity, Montreal, Quebec

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In the debate that has led up to the tabling Thursday of a charter of Quebec values, too many Quebecers, including some well-known Quebec feminists, appear to be supporting the idea of excluding Muslim women who wear head scarves from major employment opportunities in Quebec society.

But feminists who consider that these women threaten the values of Quebec society don’t seem to have bothered to find out very much about them.

There are hundreds of hijab-wearing women in Quebec’s universities, training in such fields as engineering, computer science, business administration and education, fields in which Quebec needs more skilled workers.

At Concordia University, where I was a professor of journalism and where I do research, there are as many as 6,000 Muslim students, according to the Muslim students’ association.

I have been talking to many of the young hijab-wearing women at Concordia and all of them say it is their personal choice to wear head scarves.

Those I have met — including those born here who went to French schools, as well as many from French-speaking North Africa — want to stay here. But now some are considering eventually leaving Quebec for another province.

These women pointed out that they experienced little discrimination in Quebec before the arrival of the proposed charter of Quebec values — which they feel is specifically targeting Muslim women.

One young woman of Iraqi origin, who was born here, told me she attended a French Catholic private school run by nuns. “I wore a hijab to school and they had no objection,” she said. “I am studying to become an elementary-school teacher and I intend to wear my hijab to work. I had no problems at all until this charter.”

Now, she says, some clients she meets in her part-time weekend job as a fill-in bank teller are refusing her services. And her sister, who also wears a hijab, and works for a Quebec-government agency, is beginning to receive critical remarks at work.

Another woman of Iraqi background, who is studying early-childhood education, and intends wear her hijab to work, said that she works part-time in the Eaton Centre as a sales clerk. “Now, for the first time,” she said, “I am getting nasty remarks and dirty looks.”

One young woman of Tunisian background who was born here and is studying engineering said most Muslim families she knows left their countries of origin to “get away from injustice of various kinds” and she can’t understand why her simple head scarf now symbolizes Muslim extremism or oppression against women.

“I have actually been told to go back to my country,” she said, “even though I was born here.”

She recounted how when she was out recently with two other scarf-wearing Muslim friends, a man approached the women and asked if they were all married to the same man. Making fun of him, and not bothering to point out that polygamy was banned in Tunisia in 1956, she told him, ‘Oh yes, and there is a fourth one who isn’t here.’ ”

She added that Muslim women in hijabs are even receiving negative treatment from Quebec civil servants, such as those taking photographs for renewals of medical-insurance cards.

Quebec has been specifically recruiting immigrants from French-speaking North African countries in an attempt to shore up the numbers of youth that are not being replaced by Quebec’s abysmally low birthrate.

But several North African women I have spoken to are very discouraged by the rising Islamophobic atmosphere they are encountering outside the university on the streets, in the métro and shopping malls, as well as from reading newspapers and watching television.

Every day there seems to be some new anti-Muslim issue that the women have to confront, the latest being a highly publicized study by the Quebec Council on the Status of Women on honour-crime incidents.

This, surely, should be addressed within the context of the much broader problem of overall violence against women by intimate partners and family members that cuts across all religions, races and classes in society.

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, based on police reports on family violence in Canada, shows that in 2011 alone, out of 77,943 women across the country who suffered a range of violent offences from intimate partners, 75 were killed. Another 79 murders by blood relatives were not broken down by gender. But the study indicated that out of 36,437 overall violent offences by family members, the majority of the victims were women.

View the original article in The Montreal Gazette, Nov 8, 2013: Opinion: ‘Nasty remarks and dirty looks’.