SHOULD WOMEN’S EQUALITY TRUMP RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?

Premier Jean Charest has announced his government will introduce an amendment to the Quebec Charter of Rights this fall to give the equality of women with men precedence over freedom of religion.

He did so shortly after the province’s advisory council on the status of women proposed such an amendment and on the very day that new poll results were published confirming Quebec’s opposition to the accomodation of non-Christian religious. No doubt Charest and the Liberals are politically motivated to take this step. Mario Dumont and the ADQ are running hard with the whole issue of “reasonable accomodation.”

At the Bouchard-Taylor hearings, a common fear expressed is that religious freedom is being used as a pretext to treat women as inferiors. Thus the negative reaction to dress codes where women must cover themselves while men walk around dressed as they want.

What’s behind this issue is that Christian or non-Christian fundamentalism puts some women in situations where equality is rendered impossible by doctrines used by religious leaders to exercise control over women’s lives e.g. contraception, abortion, male priesthood. Particularly older French women who lived with the Catholic clergy’s control over their lives are especially sensitive to any similar manifestation from other minority religions. The Catholic Church still bars women from the priesthood and opposed their right to vote well into the 20th century.

On the other hand, the distinguished civil rights lawyer, Julius Grey, calls what Charest is proposing to do “electoral demagogy.” Grey is not aware of of any jurisprudence in which the Quebec Charter’s freedom of religion has been used to limit women’s right to equality. Grey and other experts say the government should not be decreeing a hierarchy of fundamental rights in which some turn out to be less fundamental than others. Their position is that when there is an argument about competing rights the final arbiter should be the courts. They further contend that Charest is in fact taking what is a legal issue and transforming it into a political one.

Do you think the Quebec government should be decreeing a hierarchy of rights?

Do you think women’s equality should trump religious freedom?

11 Comments »

  1. 1
    SUZANNE Says:

    No.

    They’re basically imposing a feminist ideology on the people.

    But the Conseil du Statut de la femme was talking about banning hijabs from schools.

    I realize they believe that the hijab denigrates women.

    But there are women who wear hijabs choose to do so. And since they are autonomous human beings, they should have the right to do that for themselves.

    That’s the kind of world we’re coming to if we cave into the feminists. What’s next? You can’t shave your legs because it’s degrading to women? Okay, somewhat of an exaggeration, but that’s the kind of logic we’re coming to.

    I say: let the people concerned decide if they want to accommodate or not. If a group of people want to have a women’s only pre-natal class, I think that’s wrong, but it’s their affair. If the husband won’t learn how to help his wife during childbirth, or change a diaper, let them sort it out.

    Government intervention a one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t take into account every eventuality. Instead of imposing values on unwilling individuals who are innocent, let’s just deal with each situation on a case-by-case situation. That makes a lot more sense to me.

  2. 2

    Suzanne:
    Broadly speaking I agree. I noticed last night at the Bouchard-Taylor hearings in St. Hyacinthe several Muslim women said they wore the hijab because they chose to do so, not because anyone forced them. Certainly they did not feel inferior because of it. Your general principle that these issues should be judged on a case-by-case basis (and by the courts in the last resort) makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. 3
    Paul Costopoulos Says:

    One basic flaw of the Québec Charter is that it is not a constitutional document but a mere law at the whim and will of politicians of all stripes and tendancies. Thus a weak governement can be tempted to use it for political advantage.
    I agree that religious symbols are part and parcel of our CULTURES and I resent the fact that laicism is becoming just another religion with its high priests and integrists trying to ram it down the throat of people who could’t care less.
    I say live and let live.

  4. 4
    Chimera Says:

    “Do you think women’s equality should trump religious freedom?”

    There are two different issues here, and they need to be kept separate.

    Human rights trump everything. Period. Men and women have equal rights to govern their own lives without interference from anyone for any reason barring infringement on someone else’s rights to the same thing.

    Religion is a choice. People are not born with it. They have to be taught. Just like they have to be taught language. It’s not automatic. And, like all other choices, they are free to change their minds about it. That’s a human right.

    So…I know some Muslim women who wear “western” clothing. I know some who wear the traditional “eastern” style. I know some who wear both, depending on the situation. I also know some Muslim men who wear the turban, tunic, underwear, and trousers (yes, even men have a “dress code”), and other who don’t. Each is free to choose when, where, and if to dress in whatever style.

    But I think Charest is out of his depth, here. He looks at a woman wearing a burqa or niqab and he thinks she’s being forced to wear it. Most of the time, that is simply not the case. Sometimes it is. Sometimes the woman doesn’t know she has an option (especially if she’s new to this society).

    Charest should focus on his government’s providing information about choices and stay away from telling people how to interpret a culture he does not understand. His thinking (if you can call what he does thinking) is a paraphrase of Henry Ford: You are free to believe whatever you want so long as you believe what I believe.

  5. 5

    Paul:
    Good point but I am not sure how a provincial legislature could pass a law that would be constitutionally bullet-proof. I expect only the federal parliament can do that.

    Chimera:
    To change your image slightly, I think Charest is in the political shallows. He is desperate to head off Dumont who wants to run with the “political accomodation” issue. And he thinks he can do that by knuckling under to pressure groups like the Quebec Council on the Status of Women.

  6. 6
    Paul Costopoulos Says:

    Hi Neil,
    Of course you are right on the constitutional power of Québec. Don’t interpret my remarks as separitist leaning. They are not. However a province can have a constitution. For instance, New-Brunswick has one…but it must be approved by our House of Commons and the Senate then sent to our Governor General. A thing no Québec government, no matter who is at the helm would dare do.

  7. 7

    Paul:

    I was not aware that New Brunswick has its own constitution. How isi it amended? Thanks for your comments.

  8. 8
    Chimera Says:

    Neil: Interesting speculation with visual metaphors…is Charest drowning or just dipping his toes?

    Living at the far end of the country as I do, the only things I know about Charest are what I get via the news. And he seems more like a reactionary than a leader to me. He seems defensive rather than innovative. Does that square with what you know of him?

    On the other hand, sucking up to special interest groups is a political requirement in this country, at least until elected. I don’t take political promises seriously from either side. Dumont or Charest — is there really that much of a difference when all is said and done?

  9. 9
    Paul Costopoulos Says:

    Same way it came into being. Public consultation (referendum), local House voted, then on to Ottawa for final approval.

  10. 10

    Chimera:

    I think the basic problem is that Charest has never been comfortable in Quebec provincial politics. Had he remained in Ottawa he might have become prime minister but he was pressured by every federalist in the country to come and save Quebec. He had a number of good ideas such as reducing the bloated Quebec public service but he could never carry his cabinet or his caucus with him. We are glad to have your perspective from the other side of the country.

    Paul:

    It seems to me we may be back where we started. If the New Brunswick decision on an amendment goes to Ottawa for approval (a procedure I confess I have never heard of) then it would still be the federal government approving a provincial bill. No bullet proof Charter there.

  11. 11
    Chimera Says:

    He probably should have stayed in federal politics. If I remember correctly, he was one of only two original Progressive Conservatives to survive the backlash that Mulroney caused to avalanche on Kim Campbell’s head. The joke was, “If you see Jean Charest talking to himself, don’t bother him — he’s holding a caucus meeting.”

    But now that he’s gone into provincial politics, he’s almost off the radar out here.


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