Guest essay by Baljit Nagra on Québec’s Bill 21

Every month, the Blog of the Department of Criminology publishes essays written by our colleagues featuring their research or their analysis of current issues. In this essay, Baljit Nagra (Assistant Professor) offers her analysis of Québec’s Bill 21.

Québec’s Bill 21: The Othering and Policing of Muslim Women

By Baljit Nagra

Québec recently introduced Bill 21 which prohibits public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job. It has been widely speculated that the motivation behind the Bill is towards banning the hijab in Québec. This bill is the most recent attempt by a government body to try to control Muslim women’s bodies. In fact, in recent years, Muslim women’s bodies have taken central stage in policy changes in the country, with politicians problematically equating gender equality for Muslim women with the expulsion of Muslim cultural and religious practices. For instance, in their push for the now defunct Québec Charter of Values, the Bloc Québécois claimed that the bill would help promote gender equality. Furthermore, in his quest to ban the niqab (face covering) in citizenship ceremonies in Canada, then conservative immigration minister Jason Kenny claimed that the niqab represented a view of women that was unacceptable in Canada and was quoted as saying “we want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they're taking the citizenship oath, that's the right place to start”. Overall, misperceptions of Muslim women as passive and oppressed victims of Islam have become rampant in Canadian society, dominating media coverage, occupying popular discourses and influencing political policies.

However, little regard is shown for the impact of such representations on Canadian Muslim women.  In my recently published article in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, through the qualitative analysis of 56 in-depth interviews, I argue that while the representation of the ‘hyper oppressed’ Muslim women may allow Canadians to feel better about Canada and themselves, the effects they have on the lives of Canadian Muslim women can be quite detrimental in their everyday experiences and their access to important social institutions. My research shows that Muslim women are ridiculed for their religious choices, asked to assimilate to Western norms and imagined as oppressed, passive, and uneducated. Ironically, the notion that they are oppressed in their own communities works to further marginalize them from mainstream society. As a result, they become vulnerable to hate crimes, sit in hostile classrooms and face unpleasant workplace environments. The racialization of Muslim women has devastating effects on Muslim women’s lives at work, post-secondary institutions and in other public spheres. 

In sum, Muslim women are increasingly othered in mainstream society with the hijab playing a key role in this racialization process. When Muslim women are marginalized in public spaces, post-secondary institutions and in employment, their ability to successfully integrate into mainstream society is also threatened.  As a result, like many other racialized minority women, Canadian Muslim women are placed in precarious positions where both their social and economic security is also compromised. Therefore, rather than policing Muslim women’s bodies through misguided efforts to ‘liberate’ them, I argue through my research that it would be more fruitful if government policies and popular discourses focused on how the racialization of gender identities, white privilege, Islamophobia, and other system of social stratification present obstacles for the social and economic mobility of Muslim women living in Western societies.