Violence against Muslim women on the rise, group says

A network of women's centres says it's seen an alarming rise in intolerance, racism and violence against Muslim women in Quebec, coinciding with the debate over the Parti Québécois government’s proposed Charter of Quebec values.

Since the debate began last month, there have been dozens of incidents involving Muslim women wearing hijabs or other head coverings, said Valérie Letourneau, a spokeswoman for le Regroupement des Centres des Femmes du Québec. The group represents 97 women's centres across the province.

Veiled women spit on

“For sure there are the disdainful, condescending looks,” Letourneau said. “But there are also hateful or racist comments, such as, ‘Go back to your country.’”

“There are also physical acts, such as having people spit in their face or being bumped with a shopping cart in the grocery store,” she added.

Letourneau said her network has received many reports of such incidents — mostly in Montreal, where the vast majority of Muslims live, but also from elsewhere in the province.

She said because the womens’ centres promise their clients confidentiality, women have felt free to go into detail about their experiences — leaving centres’ workers appalled by what they’ve heard.

“We don’t want to prevent discussion on secularism — on the contrary, we think it’s an important debate," she said. "At the same time, I think we all need to make an effort to be open towards our differences."

“People have to act in a civilized, respectful way, to ensure women’s safety in the course of this debate.”

Charter minister calls for 'serene debate'

"These incidents must be condemned. They are intolerable,” said Bernard Drainville, the PQ minister responsible for the charter, reminding Quebecers that citizens do have the right to wear religious signs in their daily lives.

"Even though we may have disagreements, we have to respect each other," he said. "We must keep on having this debate in a calm and respectful manner."

However, Letourneau said Drainville’s repeated appeals for calm don’t seem to be working.

“He has to make sure to steer the debate on his charter project goes in the direction of inclusion and equality of all women,” she said -- and not in the direction of violence and racism.