The notion that equality between women and men will be served through banning religious symbols in the public service has so many ripped seams that even the best haute couture designer wouldn`t know where to start mending. But don`t we all want the separation of Church and State? On the surface, there should be a lot in the Quebec Charter to unite Quebecers of every origin and religion but the Charter`s claim to protect values and it`s means to achieve state neutrality are bones of contention. The Charter reinforces poverty not equality for women.
Women in Quebec still face gender inequality. Consider the fact that women work disproportionately in `female' jobs in services, health, education, and administration areas. There is still a steep climb when it comes to women in decision-making roles in government, media, business, science, technology, engineering and math, and other areas that shape society.
Across all provinces, there is a gender income gap for women in the workforce. Statistics Canada reports women make 64% of what men earn, and 2/3 of minimum wage earners are women. In Quebec, women's income is 72% of men's. Immigrant and racialized women make even less than other women or men. One report indicates that visible minority women earn some $5,000 less than non-visible minority women; the difference is $7,000 between visible minority women and men.
Now consider this scenario, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, who already earns less than her white female counterparts and much less than males, is asked to leave her job while her equally devoted husband gets to keep his. A system that already places one strike against her for being a woman, another strike for being a woman of colour, now adds another because of her choice to dress according to her beliefs. The systemic discrimination that already creates barriers for women and reinforces financial insecurity is now curtailing participation in the public service.
The impact of this obstacle has a ripple effect. The daughters of the woman in the scenario, still struggling with decisions about whether to wear hijabs, are now debating whether to pursue higher education. After all, the chances of getting a better paying job as a public employee, which requires higher education credentials, are reduced unless they conform to provincial dress codes.
Fostering economic vulnerability will only feed tensions and divisions within Quebec society not strengthen a sense of shared values.
The government says it needs to respond to religious plurality through a set of common rules for all public employees - too much difference is perceived to be dangerous, creating a general malaise that needs to be contained in order to preserve peace and harmony. This preemptive stance to limit individual rights has undertones of fear mongering - the government is creating a problem that doesn't exist. There are debates and tensions around religion and culture but these debates should inform public policy with the objective of inclusion not exclusion.
Think about the collateral already created by the Charter. Janette Bertrand, an influential feminist Quebecer sparked a movement of pro-Charter followers. The 'Janettes' make generalizations that equate the headscarf with female oppression. Taking the pulpit from a position of privilege, the group negates the personal, cultural and religious reasons why Muslim women wear a veil, and advocate taking away women's choice -- a pillar of gender equality.
With all the ways the government could promote gender equality - review policies to integrate newcomers into the labour force, foster women's entry into non-traditional female occupations, address the gender wage gap, for example - the government is choosing to place road blocks and feed divisions instead.
The Marois government wants to use a tape measure to ban religious symbols, on the one hand. On the other, it wants to keep the most ostentatious symbol of all, the crucifix, in the National Assembly as a legacy of an era that kept women in the kitchen and delivery room.
Legal experts remind us that state neutrality is meant to prevent the state from imposing particular religious beliefs rather than limit rights of individuals to express personal beliefs. By privileging religious symbols of the majority, limiting religious expression by minorities, the Quebec Charter is a complete misreading of the rationale for the separation of Church and State.
Rather than affirming values, Quebec is redefining citizenship so that if you don't look like the majority you're not welcome. If left untouched, this is a legacy that will impact our children's children.
We need policies that address why disparities exist between women and men, and more so for newcomers and racialized women, this means removing not adding barriers to participation in the workforce.
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