The women hold one hand to their chest and the other to their stomach as they’re told to breathe in and then out.
The workshop started with a guided meditation and a short discussion about how to cope emotionally with Quebec’s new secularism law, which bars them from wearing religious symbols at certain jobs. But it’s clear the 20 or so Muslim women here aren’t ready to relax.
A short time later, they’re at the edge of their seats shooting questions at lawyer William Korbatly about the law’s ins and outs.
What they really want to know is how to fight it.
“What is this law? What can we do now?” one woman lets out, shaking her head. “It’s ridiculous. I want us to end this law. It’s unjust.”
Considering social media campaigns — or self-defence
The women begin pitching ideas. Can they go around the law? Are there different ways they can hide their hair, perhaps?
“You put a wig on top of your hijab,” says Mejda Mouaffak, an elementary school teacher, with a laugh.
A social media campaign uniting different faiths (Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity) in solidarity against the law is pitched. Another campaign, to make fun of the law, is suggested. Self-defence workshops are another idea, ones that also touch on verbal attacks and how to react.
The workshop in an empty community centre in a northwestern Montreal neighbourhood ends up lasting nearly two hours longer than planned. The discussions are as nuanced and diverse as its participants, who hail from different backgrounds and ages and practice a range of professions.
Most of them wear a hijab.
‘We can be Muslim and feminist’
The gathering was organized for Muslim women to regroup after Quebec’s new CAQ government pushed through two key pieces of legislation, both affecting people of colour in the province, during a marathon weekend in the National Assembly the week before.
The new secularism law forbids certain groups of public servants — including teachers, police officers and government lawyers — from wearing religious symbols on the job. Critics say it impedes people’s right to practice their religion, and disproportionately targets Muslim women who wear a headscarf.
Participant Sara Hassanien wants to connect with Quebec feminists, a group that has been vocal in favour of the law, particularly in French media.
“I’m trying to tell them that unlike what you’ve always thought … we can be Muslim and feminist,” she said, noting there are about as many reasons women wear the hijab as there are women who do.
‘I totally understand what Quebec has been through’
Hassanien says, on the other hand, it’s important for her community to know the history of Quebec’s difficult relationship with the Catholic church.
“I totally empathize with you,” Hassanien told CBC later, as if addressing Quebec feminists.
“I totally understand what Quebec has been through. I understand that your mothers, your grandmothers, fought so hard for women’s liberation and I support that. I am here to comfort them, to reassure them that we are not ever going to call for going back.”
At the same time, Hassanien says she is tired of feeling like she has to speak for her entire community in spaces where it is under-represented.
‘The consquences can only be absurd’
Korbatly agreed with the women pointing out contradictions they see in the law: that the definition of “religious symbol” is vague and applies more to the Christian cross than the hijab, which they say is more of a practice.
He explained how disrespecting the law could lead to people being fired.
“When you have an absurd law, the consequences can only be absurd,” Korbatly told the group.
He hopes the legal challenge to the law launched last week, which argues Quebec can’t bypass Canadians’ right to religious freedom, will be successful.
Law effectively prevents a teacher’s promotion
Afterward, he told CBC News though the law does not affect him directly — he is Muslim, but does not wear religious garb — he felt it was his duty “to be there, present and give moral and legal support to the community.”
During the discussion he called himself a feminist “through and through.”
Amina B., who wished to withhold her last name because of fear it would affect her employment, is a substitute teacher.
The law effectively prevents her from being promoted to any other public education role in the province. It includes a grandfather clause that protects people hired before March 28, but as soon as they are promoted or access another position covered by the law, it applies.
‘This is shaking me to the core’
Amina had signed up for a two-year online teacher program at the University of Ottawa, but she’s not sure she’ll complete it now.
“If that means I will always have to be a substitute teacher, and that I can’t evolve, what’s the point?”
She came to the workshop because “when you get involved, maybe, you can make things change.”
Hassanien is an ESL teacher for a private company. She says it was important for her to join, too, because “I started to feel helpless about what’s happening on a daily basis to me as a veiled woman in Montreal.”
She says her trips on public transit now fill her with anxiety and fear that she will be harassed. Even strange looks are a cause of stress.
“This is shaking me to the core,” she said.
Spike in public harassment
The event was organized by Hanadi Saad, who founded Justice Femme after the first attempt by a Quebec government to legislate religious garb, when it was led by the Parti Québécois in 2013, to offer legal and psychological support to Muslim women who face harassment.
Since Bill 21, the current law, was introduced in May, her group has seen a spike in the public harassment of Muslim women in Quebec.
“It’s like we opened the door: ‘Now, you can go ahead and discriminate,'” Saad said, calling the law “violent.”
‘I feel like they are taking a part of me’
Saad immigrated to Canada with her family 30 years ago during the Lebanese Civil War and has lived in Quebec for 18 years. She says Quebec has been her true home ever since.
But she’ll be visiting Lebanon for the second time in those years this summer and wonders if it’ll feel more like home this time.
“I feel like they are taking a part of me, of my existence,” said Saad, who no longer wears a headscarf. She said it was a decision that took her months.
“To ask these women to take their hijab off, it’s like asking you to take your T-shirt off.”
Saad sees a silver lining, though.
“Now what has to be done, it’s to stand up for our rights as women. We are appropriating our cause; it’s women’s cause. So I will thank this government for what he’s creating, because he’s forcing us to come together.”
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