Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois got the ball rolling Friday with a series of news conferences introducing prominent women candidates, including four with roots in the predominantly Muslim Maghreb region of North Africa.
The four — Djemila Benhabib, Yasmina Chouakri, Leila Mahiout, and Évelyne Abitbol — are seen as crucial to the PQ’s efforts to give the party an immigrant-friendly face despite the controversy surrounding its proposed secular charter.
The charter would bar all public sector employees from wearing overtly religious symbols, including the hijab, kippa and crucifix.
Benhabib, Chouakri and Mahiout all have Algerian roots. Abitbol moved to Montreal from Morocco as a child in 1964.
Chaoukri, Mahiout and Abitbol will run in Anjou–Louis-Riel, Bourassa-Sauvé, and Acadie respectively. All three ridings are Liberal strongholds and a PQ breakthrough in any of them goes against the odds.
Benhabib is the PQ candidate for the Mille-Îles riding in Laval.
Marois said of Chouakri, Mahiout and Abitbol in a press release that the three possess strong credentials on immigration issues and reflect and embrace Quebec’s secular values.
“They all chose to live in Quebec, where equality between men and women and state secularism are fundamental values,” she said.
Benhabib, a well-known women’s rights advocate, is also a prominent proponent of secularism.
Other women candidates introduced by Marois include Diane Lamarre in Taillon, Gyslaine Desrosiers in Blainville and Martine Desjardins in Groulx.
Desjardins gained prominence as one of the three main leaders of the Quebec student strike in the spring of 2012.
Liberals aim for the "parity zone"
At a press conference Saturday morning, Liberal leader Philippe Couillard surrounded himself with women candidates and promised to form a government that reflected the "parity zone."
That zone, Couillard explained, was a cabinet made up of 40 to 60 per cent women.
“This zone is what we find in all organizations, everywhere,” he told gathered journalists.
“We didn’t invent it, it’s a concept that’s well-established everywhere.”
Couillard still has some work to do to get this party’s numbers up in terms of its representation by women: only 27 per cent of Liberal candidates are women, compared to 39 per cent for the PQ and Québec Solidaire’s 48 per cent.
The Coalition Avenir Quebec trails all parties with 23 per cent.
CAQ leader Francois Legault dismissed the idea of selection based on concerns for parity, saying his cabinet would be based on credentials first and foremost.
Québec Solidaire comes out swinging
Québec Solidaire’s Françoise David used the pretext of International Women’s Day to challenge the PQ’s record on levelling the playing field between men and women.
Among other issues, David pointed to the PQ’s proposed secular charter as one example its shortcomings on women’s issues.
“It will exclude many women from the job market,” she said.