Quebec Muslims slam proposed ban on religious headwear

Canadian Muslim Kathy Nalas says she won't give up her headscarf or her job as a children's speech pathologist in Quebec, amid reports that the provincial government aims to ban religious dress and symbols from places that receive public funding -- a move that would essentially import controversial European legislation on religious dress to North America.

Quebecois hospital and school workers would reportedly need to "display their religious neutrality," according to a report that was published Tuesday in Le Journal de Quebec and sparked a lively debate on pluralism across Canada.

According to the article, which cited unnamed sources, ministers from the Parti Quebecois (PQ) government would need to amend the province’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to institute the ban, which would also allow private-sector employers to choose whether employees can wear religious dress.

A PQ spokesman told Al Jazeera that the report was baseless, and that the leftist, French-Canadian nationalist party's specific plans to promote secularism would be revealed when legislation goes before the provincial parliament in September.

He noted that secularism has always been a part of the party's platform, including in the September 2012 election, which won it a minority mandate in parliament -- with its leader, Pauline Marois, at the head of government, while the party occupies only 54 of 125 seats in Quebec's National Assembly.

Nalas, a Montreal native who considers herself a "Muslim feminist," says the reported measure "goes against the feminist movement in Quebec."

"If you ban (the headscarf), you don’t give the woman a chance to work. It will be impossible for women to study or work," she said.

Amira Elghawaby of the Ottawa-based advocacy organization the National Council of Canadian Muslims echoed Nalas.

"Quebec is supposed to be a progressive province, and PQ is a progressive party, so it’s unusual that a government that’s committed to equality to start dictating to women what they can and cannot wear."

Nalas and Elghawaby believe measures toward secularism are based on France's own legislated commitment to keeping religion out of the public sphere.

Former French President Jacques Chirac signed a law in 2004 banning "religious symbols" at French public schools. In 2010, France banned the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women.

In addition to potentially barring many Muslim women from work in the public sector, the Quebec ban would also affect observant Jewish and Sikh men’s ability to wear the headdresses mandated by their religions.

Elghawaby said the law contradicts Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees "freedom of religion."

"This will be challenged and struck down in the Supreme Court," she said.

But it seems that, for now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is leaving the discussion to the provinces.

"This is a debate for provincial leaders to have in Quebec," a spokesman for Harper’s office told Al Jazeera.