Quebec Junior Education Minister and newly nominated as responsible for the Status of Women portfolio Isabelle Charest responds to reporters at a news conference on Feb. 5, 2019 at the legislature in Quebec City. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot)

Quebec status of women minister says Muslim women shouldn’t wear a hijab

Isabelle Charest said the Muslim head scarf is a symbol of oppression

Quebec’s new minister responsible for the status of women faced criticism Wednesday after saying she considers the hijab to be a symbol of oppression.

Speaking to reporters after being named to the portfolio Tuesday, Isabelle Charest said the Muslim head scarf does not correspond to her values and she believes it is “not something women should be wearing.”

“It does have, at some point, some significance about oppression of women, and the fact that they have to cover themselves, and for me it’s not in my values,” Charest said.

When asked to clarify, she said she objects to the hijab because it represents a requirement for women to cover themselves.

READ MORE: Abbotsford Muslim women speak to students about their faith, hijabs and dealing with harassment

“It’s the fact that you have to wear something, so it does command an action for the women, and I think women should be free to wear whatever they want,” she said.

Charest, a former Olympic short track speed skater, was elected for the first time on Oct. 1. She is also junior education minister.

Her statements came as the Coalition Avenir Quebec government prepares to introduce legislation prohibiting public servants in positions of authority — including teachers — from wearing visible religious symbols including the hijab, kippa and turban.

Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa-based human rights advocate, called Charest’s comments disappointing and potentially harmful to Muslim women.

“Whenever we see political officials begin to talk in a way that gives credence to an idea that Muslim women should be treated as second-class citizens, that we don’t have the capacity to think for ourselves, can’t make our own decisions and need the state to tell us what’s suitable dress, that’s very dangerous,” said Elghawaby, who wears a hijab.

“It sends the signal to the broader population that we don’t deserve respect, don’t deserve to be treated with dignity and that we don’t deserve the same freedoms everyone else enjoys.”

READ MORE: Changing stereotypes, one hijab at a time

Members of the opposition also jumped on her comments, which were described as ”clumsy” and “divisive.” Pierre Arcand, interim leader of the Opposition Liberals, said that tolerance and calm are needed in the debate prompted by the Coalition government.

“These are subjects that call for deep reflection,” he said Wednesday morning. “We’re for freedom of choice.”

In Ottawa, federal International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau reminded Charest that women have the right to choose “what they do with their body and how to dress.”

READ MORE: Walk a mile in her hijab event encourages religious tolerance

Charest modified her comments somewhat Wednesday, saying that while she personally sees the hijab as oppressive, she recognizes that for some women it is a personal choice.

“For women who have to wear it, who are dictated by religion that they have to wear a head scarf, for me, that’s a sign of oppression,” she said. “Now, I know there are some women who choose to wear it. That’s their choice and I fully respect it.”

But Elghawaby said that Charest’s attempts to nuance her comments came too late, and the damage was already done.

“What we really need is for elected officials to think very carefully before they start speaking about people’s experiences and freedoms and understand that they are elected to serve all of us in a way that respects our dignity,” she said.

Gabrielle Bouchard, the president of Quebec’s most prominent women’s group, said she was surprised to hear Charest take such a strong position on the issue so early in her mandate. “It shows she maybe didn’t have enough — or any — contact with Muslim women before making that statement,” she said.

Bouchard said her organization, the Federation des femmes du Quebec, has yet to determine its official position on the wearing of religious symbols. She said the issue is complex and members have varying opinions.

— With files from Morgan Lowrie

Caroline Plante and Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer up to 4 active COVID-19 cases

Province announced 77 new confirmed cases across Alberta Friday

Samson chief election set for July 14

Nine candidates, including the incumbent, running

46 new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday in Alberta

Province has completed more than 500,000 COVID-19 tests

PODCAST: COVID-19 and the US Election

The Expert welcomes Burman University Political Scientist Marc Froese

PODCAST: COVID-19 and the US Election

The Expert welcomes Burman University Political Scientist Marc Froese

Sylvan Lake RCMP continue search for missing man

43-year-old Steven Hull’s last known whereabouts were in the Sylvan Lake area on May 28

After lobbying, Catholic Church won $1.4B in virus aid

Faith-based organizations aren’t usually eligible for money

Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of genetic discrimination law

Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness challenges ruling

Racist slurs during Conservative leadership debate not surprising: Lewis

Racist slurs during Conservative leadership debate not surprising: Lewis

‘These kind of issues are out here’: New doc examines police violence in Calgary

‘These kind of issues are out here’: New doc examines police violence in Calgary

Most Read