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.

Just Posted

Celebrating Family Day in Grand Forks

The activities on Market offered plenty for the whole family to do.

Grand Forks council flip-flops on BC Housing proposal

The low-income housing project on 19th was recalled for a second vote.

Rescued snowmobilers ill-prepared for emergency, Castlegar RCMP say

Two men rescued Wednesday night were not ready for overnight in back country

B.C. Interior free from measles

Vancouver measles outbreak hasn’t spread to the B.C. Interior

Indigenous leaders, politicians say Trans Mountain report flawed

The National Energy Board has endorsed an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline a second time

Legislation to protect B.C. farmland comes into effect

Regulations enhance food security, encourage long-term farming

Have you heard the legend of Shuswaggi, the Shuswap Lake monster?

Witness accounts as old as 1904, and as recent as 2018, place a creature in the lake’s depths

UPDATE: B.C. ticket holder winner of $25.9-million Lotto Max jackpot

Next draw set for Mar. 1 with an estimated jackpot of $10 million

B.C.-based ‘Team Tardi’ brings home gold in junior curling worlds

In a 9-4 victory over Switzerland, a Langley-based curling team earned its 2nd straight world title

People gather for funeral of seven children killed in fast-moving Halifax fire

Traditional portion of the service will be followed by words from community members

B.C. weavers to help Alaska Native project honouring survivors of violence

Dozens of Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers from all over North America will be weaving 5-inch-by-5-inch squares

B.C. skip Sarah Wark and team eliminated at Scotties Tournament of Hearts

Nontheless pretty impressive stuff from the 24th-ranked team in the country

Pope’s sex abuse prevention summit explained

It’s A high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops the global problem

Most Read