The Quebec writer and feminist Janette Bertrand has published (in four different newspapers) an open letter “To the women of Quebec”, co-signed by 19 other women (“the Janettes” as they have become known), which bizarrely claims that the proposed law banning the hijab is equivalent to the law granting women the right to vote. The letter reads:
All my life I have fought for equality between men and women and I have always thought that if we want to keep this equality we have to be vigilant. At this point the principle of gender equality seems to me to have been compromised in the name of freedom of religion. I would like to remind you that men always and still today use religion in order to dominate women, to put them in their place, that is to say below them.
Faced with the prospect of a step backwards I feel the need to speak out. So I agree that there should be a charter of Quebec values – often rightly called the charter of secularism – and that the government should legislate. In this regard, we would never have had the right to vote, we would still be under the domination of men and the clergy, if the government of the time had not legislated. At that time, I recall, many men and women did not want this law, yet without the right to vote, where would we be today?
We must admit our sincere disappointment in your reaction to the Charter of Quebec values. It is undeniable that women’s right to vote is a precious asset and we owe much those who fought to gain it. Obviously we must salute the courage and determination of the pioneers of Québécois feminism, who, like yourself, throughout their lives carried out a struggle to free women from their systematic subordination to men.
We nevertheless feel the need to express our disagreement with the vision of feminism put forward in your letter published on Tuesday. In our view, the emancipation of women can be achieved by the imposition of a paternalistic measure like the prohibition of ostentatious religious signs.
First of all, it seems to us seriously inappropriate to draw a parallel between women’s right to vote and the proposed legislation that will apply to state employees. Although the method may be similar, the effects are in reality diametrically opposed. Remember that the law is not only to ensure certain rights to individuals; it can also in dispossess them of their rights. So, although we can criticise the sexist and patriarchal positions adopted by the major religions, this does not however justify attacking the right of everyone to express their religious beliefs.
It is indeed true that the monotheistic religions have historically been manipulated by men to dominate women. But it should be noted that today many women are reclaiming their religion, specifically to counter the ascendancy that men have always had over them. In this regard, it is staggering to see the refusal of some to conceive female emancipation can indeed take many faces, including religious. Moreover, woman’s autonomy implies above all a recognition of her freedom to take decisions concerning her own person.
We understand therefore that the veil can appear as a symbol of submission in the eyes of some; and indeed it is in certain situations. But this does not justify stigmatising all the women who choose to wear it, as if it were a voluntary and shameful subordination.
If the granting of the right to vote to women corrected a fundamentally unjust historical inequality, the draft Charter of Values is in our opinion far from being part of the same progressive line, quite the contrary! Is it necessary to repeat that the Charter will help rather to marginalise women from religious minorities, by excluding them from public service employment? In our opinion such a perspective has nothing to do with “consolidating” women’s rights.