Quebec Feminist Publishes Broadside Against Peers Over Hijab

Que. feminist publishes broadside against peers over hijab

Canwest News Service
Published: Wednesday, November 05, 2008

MONTREAL – In an unusual act of non-solidarity, a veteran Quebec feminist has launched a public attack against her peers on the political left who, she says, undermine women's rights by supporting religious accommodations like the Muslim head scarf.

Singling out the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, Quebec Solidaire and the Federation des Femmes, as well as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, Diane Guilbault airs her criticism in a new French-language chapbook called Democratie et egalite des sexes (Democracy and Sexual Equality).

“It wasn't long ago in Quebec that women were obliged to cover themselves to go to church, and it's something we, as women, react strongly against now that we see it coming back in the form of the hijab,” Guilbault said at her book launch this week.

“For me, even if it's something those women choose to do, it is in no way a feminist act. A feminist act is something that aims for emancipation, both of oneself, as an individual, and as a group. It's not a feminist choice to choose the veil.”

Her book is a broadside against leftist intellectuals, feminists and social-democratic political parties who have come to support women's right to be religious as a way to get foreigners to better integrate into Quebec society.

Most Quebecers who advocate for religious rights aren't immigrants, she says, so how is it beneficial to Quebec to try to “integrate” people who already feel at home here?

The Quebec government should adopt a charter of secularism that forbids public servants from exhibiting any form of religious expression on the job, whether that means wearing a crucifix around their neck or a Sikh turban on their head, Guilbault said.

“A religious symbol is more than just a symbol. The hijab is more than just a piece of cloth. It's a discourse. And I don't think anyone who works for and represents the state should be a vehicle for any kind of religious or political discourse,” she said.

“In the street, anyone can dress like she wants. But in a public institution that's inherently secular, no way.”

The 53-year-old mother of four has long fought for women's rights in Quebec, including writing studies on immigrant and elderly women for the Quebec Council on the Status of Women.

But she was dismayed during the Bouchard-Taylor hearings on reasonable accommodation a year ago to hear people she used to support argue for greater religious tolerance in society, people who were quick to label opponents of their “open-minded” views as racists or xenophobes.

“Why write this book? Sometimes I ask myself the question. It scared me stiff to write it,” Guilbault said. “The positions I take aren't exactly a la mode, at least in the circles I'm in. For someone who's on the left, I'm putting my neck out here.”

The left in Quebec – meaning the Bloc Quebecois, the NDP and Quebec Solidaire “and the progressive elite in general” – isn't complacent when it comes to the rise of religious orthodoxy, she said. It's confused.

“Confused, in the sense that they want to integrate immigrants, when the debate on religion isn't just an immigration question,” she said.

“Even the Federation des femmes is having trouble deciding which leg to stand on. I think it's time we reframe the debate back to what it is fundamentally about, and that is whether or not the equality of men and women is being respected.”

Democratie et egalite des sexes, by Diane Guilbault, is published by Les editions Sisyphe. The 139-page chapbook is $12 and can be ordered online at