GUEST COLUMN: Quebec’s religious symbol ban is state-sanctioned bigotry

Mashoka Maimona

My mom started wearing the hijab (Muslim headscarf) in Sarnia right after 9/11.

Mashoka Maimona

Her unilateral decision to do so surprised the rest of the family. My dad and I were anxious, especially as Muslims battled a deluge of hate crimes following the deadliest terrorist attack on North American soil.

My response as a teenager was to blend in. My mom’s response was to embrace her faith — show Sarnians the cowardly acts of a few didn’t speak for a billion-strong community.

It was a bold feminist choice that has made me the woman I am today, nearly two decades later.

I exercise that fundamental right to equality and freedom to choose when I wear a bikini to Canatara Beach when I visit my parents now. I make the call — not my husband, not my parents, and certainly not the state. As Canadians, we have the freedom to wear our faith on our metaphorical sleeves, should we choose.

The Quebec government took away some of our Canadian freedom with the recent passage of a controversial law that bans many public employees in the province from wearing religious symbols at work. Teachers, prosecutors, and police officers, among other civil servants, can no longer wear hijabs, Jewish kippahs, Sikh turbans, and other symbols of their faith in the workplace.

Even more alarming, the law prohibits anyone wearing face coverings — Muslim women wearing niqabs (face veils) being the primary target — from receiving government services, including health care and public transit.

Quebec is the first jurisdiction in North America to ban religious symbols for public servants, sending a dangerous message: you must dress, think, and believe like us to be one of us, and we are willing to flagrantly limit individual rights and freedoms to do so.

The province’s ban is the textbook example of religious persecution. This form of state-sanctioned bigotry and institutionalized animus targeting religious and racial minorities inflames the fire fueling terrorist attacks like those in Quebec City, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, Charleston — to name a few in recent memory.

History has shown us time and time again what the targeting of minority groups can lead to: systematic persecution turns into violence and worse.

Quebec’s law will cause tangible harm to Muslim women. This ban will isolate women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab by pushing them out of public life. Fewer will be able to get an education, progress in their careers, ride the subway, or go to the doctor. Threats to their physical safety are a real collateral consequence too. Unfortunately, my mom can attest from personal experience.

A woman who chooses to wear a hijab or niqab in Canada is exercising a personal choice. My mom is a shining example of this. Our country has promised her that freedom. A province should not take away her and thousands of others’ right to freedom of religion and equality.

Mashoka Maimona is a law student at the University of Toronto, a member of the Human Rights Watch staff in Washington, D.C., and a former Financial Post journalist.