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.
“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.”
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.”
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