Martine Biron François Legault Bill 21 Iranian women

No, Iranian women don’t want “their very own Bill 21.” Neither do most Quebec Muslim women

A recent statement by CAQ MNA Martine Biron, who’s also the Minister for the Status of Women, was particularly tone deaf given the legal challenge against the Quebec secularism law that’s currently in the courts.

It was groan-inducing to hear CAQ MNA Martine Biron, the Quebec Minister for the Status of Women, state during a recent radio interview that “Iranian women are probably hoping for their very own Bill 21.” That she shared that sentiment while Quebec Muslim women are currently waging a legal battle against the government’s secularism legislation and its discriminatory effects on them makes Biron’s statement twice as dismissive of their plight. 

To unironically appropriate a human rights struggle happening somewhere else and make it about your government and your legislation while simultaneously ignoring and undermining a legal challenge spearheaded by Quebec Muslim women denouncing your own government’s violation of their basic rights is frankly tone deaf. You can’t use the plight of Iranian women to pretend to speak for women’s rights while ignoring the women at home fighting for theirs.  

No, Iranian women don’t want “their very own Bill 21.” They want freedom of choice. Iranian women are fighting and risking their lives to be in control of their own bodies, their own choices and their own lives. Exactly what Muslim women in Quebec are fighting for.

“Political opportunism”

One of those Quebec women speaking out against the province’s secularism legislation, Zeinab Diab, is a PhD candidate at Université de Montréal, studying secularism, Islamophobia and the effects of Bill 21 in Quebec. She spoke last week at an event, Faith and Feminism, Muslim Women’s Rights in Quebec, organized by the McGill Law Students’ Association. 

Asked how she felt by Minister Biron’s statement, Diab told me she hopes the minister will stop her “political opportunism.” 

“Quebec Muslim women are resisting an oppressive system contained in Quebec’s secularism law,” she says. “Just like Iranian women are resisting their political system. White feminism shapes geopolitical trends around the world and this then spills over into biopolitics. Quebec is no better than Iran in this sense — it imposes a way of dressing on women, depriving them of their agency.”

White feminism is defined as the inability to consider intersectionality and all the ways in which minority women experience discrimination on multiple levels; ways in which white women never will. Both the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) have argued that Bill 21 fails to understand the intersectionality of Muslim women’s rights. White feminism patronizingly removes Muslim women’s agency, assuming they are brainwashed victims of religious indoctrination, unable to make up their own minds about the hijab, desperately needing to be “saved.” In the process of “liberation,” white feminism often creates and supports policies that take away Muslim women’s own agency. 

“Cruel consequences” for those targeted by bill

Of course, those who equate Bill 21 with secularism and women’s rights have a hard time seeing the legislation as oppressive. Supporters of Bill 21 believe that granting accommodations to religious groups usually comes at the expense of gender equality. However, regardless of intent, the real-life consequences of this legislation have proven anything but empowering to women. Both a Quebec Superior Court judge and subsequent studies since the bill was passed have concluded the legislation’s implementation is discriminatory and sexist in practice, unequivocally violating women’s rights and attacking their own choices about their own bodies and their own lives. 

In 2021, Quebec Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard had no choice but to uphold most of Bill 21 because of the CAQ’s use of the notwithstanding clause to shield it from challenges under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but made it very clear in his statement that there are “serious and negative consequences for all those who wear religious symbols in public. […] All these people who aspire to one of these jobs find themselves faced with the following dilemma: either they act according to their soul and conscience, in this case their beliefs, or they work in the profession of their choice. It is easy to understand that this is a cruel consequence which dehumanizes those targeted,” he wrote.

Even though the Quebec government has repeatedly stated that Bill 21 doesn’t discriminate against women and that secularism legislation equally applies to both genders, that’s hardly been the case at all. More than three years after the bill was pushed through, there is ample proof that women — particularly Muslim women — are more severely affected, impairing their equality rights and excluding them from being full participants in Quebec society. Many continue to question whether this was the unintended by-product of the legislation or its very purpose. 

Muslim women unequivocally affected the most 

This past August, research conducted at the Association for Canadian Studies surveyed close to 2,000 members of Quebec’s religious groups and found that, although all felt stigmatized by the legislation, the devastating effects were mostly felt by Muslim women, with a whopping 78% of them no longer feeling like they were being accepted as full-fledged members of Quebec society. “Two thirds of Muslim women said they’d been a victim of and/or a witness to a hate crime” and “83% of Muslim women surveyed said their confidence in their children’s future had worsened since Bill 21 passed.” 

As the court challenge continues against Bill 21, several civil liberties groups have come forward to argue the legislation overwhelmingly discriminates against Muslim women and that the right to gender equality can’t be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. 

The lawyer representing the English Montreal School Board argued last week that “eight people have lost jobs or been denied employment due to Bill 21. All were Muslim women.” That news isn’t surprising when one considers that 88% of Quebec’s preschool and primary teachers, and 61% of its high school teachers, are women. The bill need not target women to target women. 

In this current social context, Biron’s tone-deaf statement and inability to understand or even empathize with how Quebec women who freely choose to wear the hijab have been severely and systematically affected by her government’s legislation is particularly exasperating. The person entrusted with the Ministry for the Status of Women is touting legislation proven to undermine Quebec Muslim women’s rights here at home while pointing to and supporting another fight in another country because she mistakenly thinks it validates Bill 21’s existence in Quebec. 

Listen to marginalized women here 

“I am not Iranian, I cannot speak for Iranian women,” Diab tells me. “But I’m from Quebec and I can speak for Quebec Muslim women since my doctoral research focuses on them and the effects of Bill 21 in their personal and professional lives.”

“The Legault government supports the cause of Iranian women, who deserve their own law 21 on secularism,” said Biron in her interview. 

Great. I’m glad they support them. I don’t know of anyone — aside from the mullahs and the Iranian government — who doesn’t support the cause of Iranian women. It’s not hard to publicly lend one’s support to the brave women in Iran fighting a tyrannical theocracy with every fibre of their bodies, aiming to control their own destiny. 

It requires a little more work and a desire to listen to support women who are defending a decision they made which you may not understand fully or agree with. Because that’s what feminism is, after all: free will and free decision-making over your own body and life. 

If Biron “salutes the courage of these women who continue the fight for their rights, despite the repression of the police,” she should also salute the courage of women here currently fighting for the right to be able to live and work unencumbered by the government’s limiting and discriminatory imposition of state secularism.

When women who freely wear the hijab are prohibited from practising their chosen professions, that is a violation of their fundamental rights and freedom of choice. That prohibition marginalizes, penalizes and ultimately harms their ability to earn a living, have a career and be a full-fledged member of society. What exactly is feminist about that? 

One oppression for another? No, thanks!

Iranian women don’t want legislation that imposes the government’s vision of how things should be and patronizingly tells them what they can or cannot do with their own bodies. They want freedom of choice. They are standing up against a government that purports to know what is best for them and dictating the rules they must abide by in order to be accepted by society. 

How is that any different than legislation preventing Muslim women who wear the hijab from reaching their full potential and practising their professions, entering careers and using degrees they worked hard for? How are the mullahs dictating to Iranian women not to remove the hijab any different from this government dictating to Muslim women that they can’t keep it on? Where is freedom of choice in either scenario? 

“Quebec women aren’t getting killed for their choice to wear the hijab,” I’ve heard some people comment, as if that should somehow appease them. You don’t have to be threatened, killed, beaten or imprisoned to be oppressed. Sometimes, all it takes is a bill that instantly turns you into a second-class citizen. It’s deeply ironic that a minister for women’s rights would think Iranian women would be interested in trading one oppressive piece of legislation for another. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.