Quebec proposal: Your headscarf or your job?

A controversial proposal would ban the wearing of religious symbols -- from crucifix to hijab-- for all state employees

A Quebec government website shows on the left examples of what religious symbols will be approved and, on the right, what will be banned.

MONTREAL – Samira Lebali could soon be facing a difficult choice between her religious faith and her job.

The province of Quebec wants to ban public employees from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols, including the hijab, turban, kippa and large crosses.

The rule would apply to every government worker, including teachers, doctors and police as part of the Parti Quebecois government's proposed "Charter of Quebec Values" announced this week.

Not everyone is in favor of the proposal, however. More than 40,000 demonstrators, including representatives of the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and First Nations communities, attended a march Saturday against what some are calling "The Charter of Shame," Montreal Gazette and La Presse newspapers reported. 

Lebali, who wears a hijab and works at a daycare in the city of Laval, just north of Montreal, said she's still in shock over the proposal.

She can't imagine the charter will actually become law, and says she would be forced to quit if it did.

"My veil is part of my identity and I can't take it off," Lebali, a 40-year-old mother of three, said in an interview during a work break. "Right now I'm worried, of course, but I also think we'll find a solution."

The secularization of Quebec

The charter has been widely criticized in the rest of Canada, and has revived a longstanding debate inside Quebec over the accommodation of religious minorities.

With a population of more than 8 million, polls suggest a majority of Quebecers support the proposal, though many politicians and pundits have come out against it.

Support appears strongest in rural, heavily-francophone areas, while there's greater opposition in the Montreal area, where most of the province's 1 million immigrants have settled.

Premier Pauline Marois has said that the integration model in France, which banned headscarves from classrooms in 2004, is preferable to that of England, where she says multiculturalism is to blame for social unrest.

The separatist Parti Quebecois has presented the proposal as another step in the secularization of Quebec, a process that began during the 1960s when the Catholic Church's dominance over education, health care and social services was stripped away.

The majority of Quebecers still identify as Catholics, but no longer attend church.

Now, the PQ says it wants to ensure the neutrality of the state on religion and protect Quebec values, particularly equality between men and women.

"We are a society that's extraordinarily diverse, and in a society that's more and more multicultural there needs to be common rules and values," Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, said when it was announced.

Drainville said he would work with those affected and ensure the rules "will be done humanely" and with "common sense."

Crucifix in the legislature

An ad recruiting doctors in neighboring province Ontario plays off the controversial proposal.
Lakeview Health

There will also be exceptions.

 The large crucifix that hangs in the provincial legislature wouldn't have to come down, and the giant historic cross that overlooks Montreal from atop the city's mountain would also stay.

 Institutions such as hospitals could also be eligible for an exemption.

 For some, that means the PQ's proposal doesn't go far enough.

"It's got to be consistent," said Lucie Jobin, head of a pro-secular group called Mouvement laïque québécois.

Jobin said her group is in favor of a complete ban on religious symbols in public workspaces, without exception – crucifix in the legislature included.

The PQ has a minority in the provincial parliament and would require support from opposition parties, which likely won't happen without it being softened considerably.

If passed, experts predict the charter would be challenged in the courts for violating religious freedoms.

The federal government has already said it would explore its legal options.

Not just politics

A battle with the federal government could be precisely what the PQ wants, creating a rift between the province and the rest of Canada, giving strength to its ultimate goal, making Quebec its own country.

But politics aren't the only thing fuelling this debate, said a Quebec philosopher and expert on secularism.

"There's also some very basic philosophical disagreements within the Quebec public right now," said Jocelyn Maclure, a professor at Laval University in Quebec City and an advisor to the province's 2007 commission on religious accommodation.

"It's a polarized public in terms of what's the proper place of religion, what's the meaning of freedom of religion," she added.

Maclure said Quebec's historic struggle with the Roman Catholic Church helps explain the province's skepticism toward religion in general today.

Combine this with a post-Sept. 11 fear of Islam common in many Western countries and "it creates quite an explosive mix, and this is what we're living in Quebec."

Leaders in other Canadian provinces have been outspoken in criticizing the plan, urging religious minorities to settle in their jurisdictions instead.

An Ontario hospital even released a recruitment advertisement featuring a woman wearing a headscarf and the line "We don't care what's on your head. We care what's in it."

For now, Lebali, who emigrated from Morocco two decades ago, has no plans to leave.

She lives in a diverse section of Laval and said she gets along with her neighbors – who hail from Greece, Lebanon, and beyond – just fine.

"I've never had any problems with my veil," she said. "It's really multicultural and we've been able to live together."

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter