This article was originally published on November 10, 2017 on Huffington Post.
Quebec recently passed Bill 62, a discriminatory law that restricts individuals from covering their faces when receiving government services. While many Quebeckers and Canadians across the country have expressed outrage at the blatantly Islamophobic nature of this bill, this Islamophobia is inherently connected to a much larger, disturbing phenomenon – that of colonialism.
Bill 62 does not exist in a vacuum. Yes, polarizing “Clash of Civilizations” theories and our “War on Terror” political climate have, in recent decades, seemingly sparked an increase in Islamophobia. However, Islamophobia, the racial and religious prejudice directed toward the Muslim “Other”, has deeper roots in colonial practices and discourses that have existed for centuries.
Colonial powers, particularly the French under la mission civilisatrice, viewed women’s bodies as symbols of modernity. Colonizers believed that by symbolically ripping the veils off women’s bodies, thereby making them visibly Western, they could strip away the “backward” culture of the colonized. As prominent Islamic feminist professor Leila Ahmed has pointed out, colonizers viewed the status of women in any given context as a valid litmus test for civilization, with the advancement of society inextricably tied to the advancement of women. For Western imperialist powers, the status of women was associated with whether or not women chose to adopt Western dress.
For Westerners, women therefore became physical embodiments of the progress of a nation. In colonial Algeria, the French military often carried out mass unveiling ceremonies. These ceremonies had symbolic value as they demonstrated the subjugation of women, as well as the overall French subjugation of Algeria.
This gendered colonial tradition of placing women at the center of the civilization mission dominated the discourse around development for the centuries to come. In its formational years, even the majority-Muslim Republic of Turkey internalized this discourse, discouraging veiling, as they saw veiled women as an impediment to Turkey’s social and civilizational development. As Lila Abu-Lughod revealed in her groundbreaking, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving,” American politicians, celebrities, and media justified American actions in Afghanistan by citing the urgent need to “liberate” Afghan women from the burqa, a traditional veil that became a symbol of Otherness.
As a former French colony, Quebec has inherited this colonial discourse that links the veil to the level of a civilization’s worth. While Quebec has tried to justify this discriminatory bill in the name of “religious neutrality,” this is not the first time secularism has been used as a means for prejudiced ends.
We’ve seen the double standard in France today, where nuns can cover themselves, but a woman can’t cover her body on a beach. Now we’re seeing this hypocrisy unfold in Quebec, where someone will be able to wear sunglasses and a scarf on a metro, but a woman won’t be able to express her religious freedoms by donning a veil. All the while, a crucifix looms over politicians in the Quebec National Assembly as an “intrinsic part of Quebec history.”
This is the hypocrisy of Bill 62’s “religious neutrality.” Catholic Quebeckers can have peace of mind, knowing their religious traditions are protected by the province, whereas Muslim Quebeckers will be forced to recognize that the terms of their citizenship are contingent on the abandonment of their prior cultural and religious practices.
Bill 62 is the legacy of French colonialism unfolding before our very eyes in a supposedly modern, progressive Quebec. In the name of religious neutrality, Quebec is appropriating women’s bodies to reinforce this right-wing ideology, likely in hope of securing votes from Islamophobic Quebeckers in the next provincial election.
Much of the reason the Quebec government is able to get away with the perpetuation of these colonial discourses is due to Canada’s failure to decolonize.
Canada refuses to fully adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and recognize its own colonial failures, let alone those of other global powers around the world. It’s for this reason that prejudiced bills can be passed by our governments. It’s why damaging, historically revisionist comments like this one from the Foreign Affairs Minister proliferate: “Canada has never been an imperialist power. It's even almost funny to say that phrase. You know, we've been the colony.”
For a society that refuses to go through the processes of decolonization, actions like Bill 62 are not only predictable, but dare I say, expected. Only when Canada comes to terms with the consequences of colonialism, and faces up to its own colonial past, will Muslim women’s bodies stop being perceived as a civilizational threat. Until then, we can expect many more discriminatory laws and policies like Bill 62.