Monday, November 26, 2007

"Reasonable Accommodation: A Feminist Response"

A statement from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute of Concordia University, challenging the moral legitimacy of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission:

As anti-racist, anti-colonial, feminists in Québec, we have serious misgivings about the Commission de Consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles. The Conseil du statut de la femme du Québec (CSF) has proposed that the Québec Charter be changed so as to accord the right of gender equality relative priority over the right to religious expression and to ban the wearing of "ostentatious" religious symbols in public institutions by public employees. Our concern is that the Commission and the CSF's subsequent intervention pave the way for legislation that will restrict rather than enhance the rights of women. We invite you to join us in questioning the exclusionary structure of the Commission, the assumptions it supports, and the negative impact it is likely to have on women's lives.

So, why call into question the legitimacy and the effects of the Commission?

1. because although we see the urgent need for dialogue about racism and sexism in Québec society, we object to how this consultation process has been undertaken. Listening to people "air out" their racism is not conducive to promoting critical reflection and dialogue, but instead creates a climate of fear-mongering and moral panic. Furthermore, in asking whether or not "difference" and "minorities" should be accommodated the commission assumes and perpetuates "commonsense" racist understandings of some "cultures" as homogeneous, backward and inferior. In addition, the Commission's reliance on the notion of "reason" must also be critically examined. Historically, white men have been positioned as the exclusive bearers of reason, and the Commission runs the risk of reproducing this in a context of ongoing social inequality.

2. because the design of the Commission and the language of "accommodation" assumes and perpetuates a system of power whereby western "hosts" act as gatekeepers for non-western "guests." A better consultative process would start with the recognition that Canada is a white-settler state, and that its history is one of colonial and patriarchal violence against Indigenous people.

3. because the public debates that the Commission has sparked construct certain ethno-cultural communities as perpetual outsiders and as threats to Québec identity rather than as integral to it. Concerns about ethno-cultural others as socially regressive obscure the everyday homophobia, sexism and racism that pervade Québec society.

4. because the ways that the Commission has been represented in mainstream English media promotes the idea that racism is a feature exclusive to Québec society and is not a problem -- or is less of a problem -- in the rest of Canada.

5. because the preoccupation with veiled women serves to deflect from the sexism and racism that has historically pervaded Québec and Canadian society. As feminists, we must challenge our complicity with the state's violence against women both in its colonial relations with Indigenous people and in its use of the figure of the veiled woman as an alibi for imperialist war and occupation in Afghanistan.

6. because appeals to secularism as a guarantor of gender equality effectively function to promote Christian culture as the norm and to scapegoat Muslims as inherently sexist, erasing secular forms of sexism.

7. because although it is still underway, the Commission has already prompted the proposal of laws that could restrict, regulate, and otherwise impede the lives of immigrant and racialized people in Québec.

8. because regulating women's public religious expression is gender discrimination insofar as it takes away women's freedom and inhibits their civic participation.

9. because the CSF is failing to meet its mandate of "defending the interests of women." The CSF would better serve the interests of women in Québec by focusing on the conditions of poverty, violence, criminalization and racism that many of us face, and not on what women wear.

Signed: The Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University, November 2007


Please go to the Institute's website (above) to read the full version of the statement.

To personally endorse this statement, kindly write to:


For another view on the matter, please go to Little Miss Brightside's blog.


little miss brightside said...

I'm a bit troubled by the position of the Simone de Bouvoir Institute.

I've blogged at length about the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and while I agree with the Institute that the approach to the hearings has perhaps not been the most productive or effective, I absolutely commend the Quebec government for questioning Canada's blind faith in the politics of multiculturalism - particularly in terms of its consequences for women.

Canadians are incredibly fearful of appearing ‘intolerant’. We pride our ‘mosaic’ model of multiculturalism over America’s ‘melting pot’ ideology. Separate schools for minority groups? No problem. State funding? sure. Exemptions from teaching mandated curriculum? hey, that’s what tolerance is all about.

But I'm reminded of what Amartya Sen had to say about this practice of identifying people solely in terms of cultural identity:

"what we ought to take very seriously is the way Islamic identity, in this sort of depiction, is assumed to drown, if only implicitly, all other affiliations, priorities, and pursuits that a Muslim person may have. A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one…. To give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society… can result in a profound misunderstanding."

The recent focus on religion as a dominant cultural expression has led to what Sen calls “a confounded view of what a multiethnic society must do” to the point that in Canada (and many other ‘multicultural states’) state-financed religious schools have created a system under which “young children are placed in the domain of singular affiliations well before they have the ability to reason about different systems of identification that may compete for their attention” including: nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, and politics.

Our approach to multiculturalism creates a form of tribalism that pits groups against each other and treats each group as homogeneous, ignoring the fact that the so-called "leaders" of minority groups in Canada do not speak on behalf of all members of a particular group. Women are subordinated in all cultures and are particularly at risk when we give primacy to "cultural integrity" over human rights.

Oni Baba said...

I agree that multiculturalism is not an end that must be achieved at any cost, especially when it comes to women's right to equality.

However, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission has been hijacked from its very beginning by right-wing and/or Catholic and/or racist extremists, who, while showing open hostily towards members of cultural minority groups on the grounds, namely, of that they don't respect women's rights, wish that Québec reverts back to its old 1950's self, where the Catholic church ran the province, and where women knew their place and produced lots of good, White, French-Canadian Catholic babies...

I agree with the Institute's statement to the extent that it confronts the hypocrisy of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, which has become an inquisitorial endeavour, where "Canadian-born Canadians" accuse immigrants of the same sins of which they are/were guilty...

Anonymous said...

On why the Simone de Beauvoir Institute's statement on the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is tendentious, sanctimonious and more a "Rhodesian" perspective than a feminist one on Reasonable Accommodation:

1) because the statement occults any presentation of the national oppression of the French Canadians and Québécois in the British Imperial and Canadian space. By reducing what should be the "correct" premises of discussion to the idea "that Canada is a white-settler state, and that its history is one of colonial and patriarchal violence against Indigenous people," the statement airbrushes the Acadian Shoah, the forcible annexation of French Canadians and their Native American allies into Canada by Anglo-Saxon military conquest and their inferiorization by the English Canadian majority ever since, and the exclusion of French from federal institutions, economic decision-making and public life, such that more than two centuries following this conquest, Canada's cultural genocide program against French Canadians outside Québec was largely complete and irreversible, and French Canadians stood essentially at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid in Québec itself, excluded from all the senior echelons of socio-economic power, ranking 12th of 14 groups surveyed for income by the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission in a province where they formed the large majority of the population. Welcome to South Africa.

2) because like the English Canadian left and English Canadians generally, the statement ignores that language is a major metric of oppression and discrimination not only in Canada, but in Québec itself, where educational and health care institutions for anglophones are much better financed in proportion to their demographic base than are those of francophones, and that this inequitable and colonial situation has persisted for hundreds of years unchallenged by public opinion in English Canada. The drop-out rate for francophones in Québec schools is much higher than for anglophones as is the suicide rate, suicide being the leading cause of death for Québécois men between the ages of 17 and 45. This scandalous testament to inequality of opportunity and fulfilment between anglophones and francophones within Québec itself goes unmentioned by this institute based in an anglophone university which is part of this ethnically privileged system, which imposed the "gatekeeping" rule that francophone students should check with their profs to see if they "understand" French before submitting their assignments in their mother tongue, whose administration cannot even finance a single all-French newspaper despite 20% of the student body being Francophone, and whose "activists" cannot even muster a quorum to decide on supporting an all-Québec student strike. Perhaps the pontificating on "accommodation" and "othering" and "colonial attitudes" should start at home. It should also interest this institute that the chasm of socio-economic privilege separating anglophones from francophones, as well as chauvinistic sentiment toward the French fact, is reproducing itself "within" the immigration in Québec, such that allophone immigrants in Montréal who assimmilate only to English earn 30% more on average than those who assimmilate only to French, a matter which the commissioners themselves banalized despite being confronted with the evidence, because the stultifying climate of discussion created by the federalist and "post-nationalist" dominated media here - our "media of occupation" - renders the subject taboo.

3) because while pretending to deplore English Canadian media's stilted presentation of intercultural issues in Québec, the statement indulges in the very same technique, not just by the methods described above in (1) and (2), but by selectively highlighting and dishonestly conflating the views of marginal and unaffiliated individuals representing nobody but themselves with the views of the commissioners, whose published statements and reputations provide no grounds for such an amalgam at all. Nor do the commission's conclusions (summarized here in a particularly self-serving manner by the anglophone Gazette: The institute thus imitates the reflex of English Canadian observers, which as feminist Josée Legault put it, consists of "always assuming the worst" about any discussion of intercultural issues as it pertains to French Canadians. The institute also imitates the anglo-hegemonist media by intimating that the only intolerance given a "platform" was that of old-stock French Canadians toward "outsiders", when in fact its "open door" policy also provided a platform for very refractory anglo-chauvinist views (of people from various ethnicities) about francophone insistence on the primacy of French as a public language in Québec and banalizing well-founded francophone concerns about English gaining ground in Québec, anglophone privileges in health and education, Canada's inappropriate promotion of assimmilation to English in Québec, and so on. The commission also provided a platform for (mostly francophone) immigrants who solidarize with Québécois aspirations to sovereignty and autonomy, which are as absent from the institute's commentary as they are from the CBC or Globe and Mail coverage, as were descriptions of the overwhelming majority of views expressed, across all ethnicities and confessions, and which were supportive of the Québec and Canadian Charters of Rights, the equality of men and women, and the religious neutrality of public institutions.

4) because the statement recycles the lame canard (in its point 6) that anyone defending the principle of the religious neutrality of public institutions, viz. laicity, is acting from some thinly disguised motive of "Christian" chauvinism, a claim which breathlessly ignores the last 50 years of Québec history, in which the movement for laicity was an integral part of the Quiet Revolution, and sought to free the Québécois from the overweaning and oppressive controls of their own Christian Catholic Church in public and political life. There are probably no jurisdictions anywhere in North America where the Christian Church and Christian dogma has less sway in the intelligentsia and the political class than in Québec. This is a shameless trading in stereotypes nursed outside of Québec, and again belied by the Commission's report, which recommends removing the Crucifix from the National Assembly in Québec City. The statement encourages ignorance about the real basis of laical sentiment in Québec which many newcomers have owing to lack of corrective information about the historical context, as described here by a Québécois Muslim of Maghreban origin:

5) because the statement falsely suggests that the CSF is "focusing" on what women wear when in fact this focus is by the English Canadian media and not the CSF. The recommendation that public servants - and not clients of public institutions - not wear ostentatious religious symbols, is only one of several recommendations by the CSF, which include anti-racist education in schools. See here: A more restrictive version of the recommendation, referring to a very select group of public servants, was adopted by the Commission, whose final report incidentally was praised by a wide array of groups representing minorities in Québec including Muslim ones. e.g.

6) because the statement hypocritically stigmatizes the CSF and Québec feminists for wanting an interpretive clause in the Québec Charter of Rights which would disallow the inferiorization of women in the name of "religious freedom" when in fact such a clause already exists in the Canadian Charter of Rights and has never been the object of either denunciation nor critique by the institute, and this clause was incorporated because of the pressures applied by English Canadian feminists nearly thirty years ago. Why are English Canadian feminists allowed to realize that religious fundamentalists of all stripes share the objective of controlling women's sexuality and autonomy and not Québec feminists? Hypocrisy! The Canadian Bar Association supported such an amendment, as did all of Québec's political parties including Québec Solidaire, a progressive party with a multicultural base.

7) because while affecting to criticize the discourse of "othering", the statement does precisely that, by dishonestly magnifying the gulf supposedly separating the native-born and immigrant populations on the question of reasonable accommodation, when in fact public opinion research clearly demonstrates largely congruent views across these groups in support for laical public institutions, the equality of men and women etc. This was noted by the Commission, who found for example that immigrants from majority Muslim countries had very modern attitudes toward the separation of church and state and male-female equality.

8) because the statement falsely insinuates that the Québécois as a collectivity have no legitimate business reflecting on questions of interculturalism and how this should be negotiated within their public institutions since this would constitute "gatekeeping". Again the institute mirrors the arrogance of the English Canadian collectivity whose language is under no assimilative threat and who aren't experiencing colonial occupation by a contemptuous national-chauvinist oppressor nation with its attendant politicized immigration policies. Following the British Conquest all cultural contact with and immigration from the French-speaking world was cut off from French Canada and the stated goal of authorities was to assimilate the French Canadian nation to English and to anglicize all the immigration to English, including in Québec, producing a painful legacy which endures to this day, where a majority of Montréal allophones still assimilate to English. English Canadians and Anglo-Quebeckers are mostly refractory to the idea that immigrants to Québec assimmilate to French, yet this pervasive racist rejection of empowering the underprivilged Francophone majority goes uncritiqued by these supposed paragons of cross-cultural understanding, who are based in Québec and at an anglophone-privileged university. Quelle inconscience! French Canadians have a living memory of when virtually all immigrants assimilated to English in Québec as a matter of course, without any second thought and while adopting the old stock anglophones' contempt for and fear of the francophone majority, and the French Language Charter, an anti-racist law which sought to de-ghettoize and diversity the francophone collectivity has never been accepted in its basic principles by English Canadians anywhere including in Québec, which would be analogous to most white anglo Americans rejecting the principles of the Civil Rights Act. What shameful negligence for a "progressive" group to ignore this historical context to what has been happening, especially when nothing has changed in anglophone attitudes toward the French Language Charter and the primacy of French except a militant hardening of them. Would these pious anti-racists of the institute similarly banalize and airbrush China's policy of promoting Han immigration to Tibet without the immigrants assimilating to Tibetan, or the czarist and Stalinist policy of sending Russian immigrants to the Baltics who never assimilated? Or the westward expansion of anglo-Americans with no regard for Native American culture or rights? Hypocrisy! That empires have manipulated migration as an instrument of political control should be self-evident to any student of history.

Since it opposes colonial privilege What is this institute's position on providing equal funding to the francophone and anglophone health and educational systems? Does is support the French language Charter which has made the franco-Québécois collectivity more ethnically diverse than it's ever been and which is under constant challenge? Should anti-colonialism start at home?