Quebec’s Lady of Fatima: Lifting the Veil on Opposing Values

by danieljlaxer

Fatima Houda-Pepin’s objections to her own party’s stance on Quebec values highlights all that is problematic about Liberal/liberal opposition to the PQ’s proposed values charter.

Houda-Pepin finally broke her silence this past week, taking strong, emotional exception to a statement by her colleague, Liberal secularism critic (I can’t believe we even have one of those) Marc Tanguay, who said that he’d welcome Liberal candidates who wear the chador, and would have no qualms about sitting next to them in the legislature. The problem is one that I’ve written about before: our province’s alleged concern with gender equality and how it colours our objection to the implicit racism in the values charter.

What Tanguay said is tantamount to the worn-out tokenism defense of the mock-tolerant: some of my best friends wear the chador. His statement is overly politically correct, and serves to undermine, and even ridicule genuine opposition to the racial and cultural discrimination inherent in the charter. Houda-Pepin’s stance, on the other hand, is more in keeping with the equality of the sexes and with opposition to the oppression of women in fundamentalist countries. It bears repeating that Houda-Pepin is the only Muslim woman in the provincial legislature. She is also highly educated, with several degrees, including a doctorate, and has amassed several honours for her work in the community. By speaking out this week she effectively proclaimed what our stance here in the west ought to be regarding women’s rights and fundamentalism. But that’s where the waters tend to get muddied. The absurdity arises when we claim to object to the suppression of women, while defending their supposed right to wear the mantle of the oppressed. It reminds me of a memorable scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The embryonic Peoples’ Front of Judea are arguing over policy when one man says he wants to have a baby, arguing that it’s every man’s right to have babies, his lack of a womb notwithstanding. Everyone around him thinks it’s ridiculous, until one woman offers: “I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.”

“What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies,” asks a frustrated PFJ member.

“It’s symbolic,” another explains, “of our struggle against oppression.”

Of course, the struggle against oppression in Quebec is markedly different than the struggle against oppression, say, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And a few things need to be worked out before we can have a definitive stance either for or against a charter delineating the values under which we all would like to agree to live.

First, let’s acknowledge that gender equality in Quebec doesn’t really exist. The government’s own website points out that there is still much to be done to ensure the economic equality of the sexes, to ensure pay equity, work-life balance, women’s healthcare services, respect for women’s physical integrity and safety, and the participation of women in decision-making. These would be anathema to fundamentalists who are reluctant to relinquish strongly-held views from their home countries in favour of the freedoms they might enjoy here.

Second, to what extent do we want to entertain a woman’s “right” to be covered vis a vis our distaste for what we think of as oppression, or the strong opposition that some have toward covered faces?

It seems to me that we need to clean up our own house before we can presume to impose our divergent views on others. And until we can narrow or even erase that divergence we probably shouldn’t have anything like a charter of values. To wit, we are being called upon to agree to something that we can’t even agree on. The debate continues (I wouldn’t say it rages, necessarily) in the media. But Fatima Houda-Pepin’s sudden, and apparently surprising declaration brings it to the fore, forcing us to question, to reconsider our own values both as individuals and as a society.

I’ve said before that the answer lies in education, and not in legislation. Learning the facts from those who are directly affected by them, as opposed to basing the charter on our own morality, or rather one foisted upon us by the state, would bring us closer to a harmonious society instead of the discordant one that we seem to be perpetuating. And despite my own views against whatever the charter is about to become, Houda-Pepin has raised some important points that deserve to be considered.