In the roughly one-and-a-half months since Quebec’s legislature tabled a bill to ban public sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work, advocates say Muslim women in the province are facing increased incidents of hate.
Justice Femme, a Montreal-based group that offers legal support to women in the province, says it has received more reports of hate-fueled incidents since the March 28 tabling than ever before.
Hanadi Saad, the president of the Justice Femme, told Global News that the organization has received 40 reports of such incidents since then. She noted the number was “minimal” prior to Coalition Avenir Québec’s election, but has been steadily growing in the last few months.
“They report to our organization via Facebook, by phone, email and through our website,” she explained. “We received 40 reports. It’s the first time since the creation of Justice Femme that we had this number in two months and that’s really not good news for us at all.”
The reports included 12 cases of cyberbullying, which resulted in some women removing their photos from social media. There were two reports of women being refused early childhood education jobs on the basis of their hijabs. In several other cases, women said they were harassed or intimidated at work.
There were also four cases of physical assault — in two cases, individuals attempted to rip off hijabs, and in one case a woman was spat on.
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Saad noted that many women she speaks with do not report to police or speak publicly.
The proposed ban on symbols such as hijabs, turbans and kippas would apply to several professions — including teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards and Crown prosecutors — and has been the subject of criticism for several months, even before it was introduced by the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Hearings into Quebec’s secularism bill have been taking place at the legislature committee studying the proposed law, and have at times turned tense. Last Thursday, former senator Celine Hervieux-Payette drew a connection between the Muslim headscarf, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
And earlier in the week, another supporter of the bill, Djemila Benhabib, told the hearings that any woman who refuses to take off her hijab to work in the public service is a “fundamentalist.” That prompted Legault to appeal for people to be “careful with labels.”
Saad explained that many advocacy and faith groups, including Justice Femme, requested to attend the hearings but were not allowed. The groups have since been holding their own meetings and inviting media.
“We organized a conference last week with the Sikh, Muslim and Jewish community because they refused our invitation to go to the hearing,” she said.
The rising tensions have also been observed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
Sarah Abou-Bakr, a Quebec-based representative for the advocacy group, explained to Global News that the spike in hate-related incidents reported by Justice Femme are not necessarily surprising.
“A lot of women are afraid of taking the metro, getting on public transportation,” she said.
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Abou-Bakr noted that several Muslim women come to her with stories themselves, some of which include physical assaults such as having their niqabs being ripped off. She also cited the case of a Muslim woman whom she accompanied to the police station days ago, who was facing online hate.
“She found a woman taking a picture of her and her children and putting on social media, saying all sorts of things about her,” Abou-Bakr explained.
“Yes, there was discrimination [before the bill], but it wasn’t that much,” she said.
“People weren’t comfortable communicating it, they were not comfortable committing Islamophobic acts,” Abou-Bakr said, noting she’s observed a difference since talks about the bill began.
It’s a problem that has been simmering for some time, according to Statistics Canada’s latest data on hate crimes. Police-reported numbers show that such crimes rose for all religious groups in 2017, and much of the increase was driven by incidents in Ontario and Quebec.
In Quebec in particular, there was a 50 per cent year-over-year increase in reports — there were 489 in 2017 and 327 in 2016. The StatCan report noted that increase was largely due to the rise of crimes against Muslims, which almost tripled from 2016 to 2017.
Support for the ban
Despite criticism from human rights advocates, Legault has said the majority of Quebecers support the ban.
An Angus-Reid poll conducted earlier this month showed that about two-thirds of Quebecers support the bill at 64 per cent. Forty-three per cent of Quebec respondents also believed it would be “appropriate” to fire those who disobey the law from their jobs, the same amount say it would be “inappropriate,” while 14 per cent are unsure.
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However, 48 per cent of Quebecers also believe it would have a negative impact on relations with minorities and the government.
Outside the province, support for the bill is notably lower — 52 per cent disapprove of the move while 37 per cent approve.
The Angus Reid poll cited in this story was conducted online from April 26-30, 2019 by 1,525 Canadian adults, including 400 Quebec residents. It is considered accurate with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points and 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.