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‘Abnormal’ spike in Muslim women reporting harassment, discrimination after Quebec secularism bill tabled

There has been a sharp increase in harassment directed at Muslim women in Quebec since the province tabled draft legislation to ban religious symbols in parts of the civil service, according to a women’s advocacy group.

Justice Femme, a Montreal organization that offers legal and psychological support to women, said it received more than 40 calls from women who wear the hijab after Bill 21 was tabled in late March. 

The women reported a wide range of incidents, from aggressive comments to physical violence.

On Tuesday, the organization intends to submit a summary of its findings to the elected officials studying the bill. Among other things, the summary will detail:

  • Four recent cases of physical assault in public, including two attempts to rip off the hijab and one of a woman being spat at.
  • Six cases of harassment and intimidation at work.
  • More than a dozen cases of cyber-bullying, prompting several women to remove profile photos featuring their hijab.

The legislative hearings into Bill 21 are scheduled to resume Tuesday in Quebec City. At last week’s hearings, multiple critics of the bill testified it could heighten Islamophobia or other forms of hatred.

Hanadi Saad, president of Justice Femme, detailed her group’s findings Monday at an event in Montreal that featured several groups that were denied invitations to take part in the National Assembly hearings.

The event was organized by the Coalition Inclusion Québec, an umbrella organization that represents several faith and community groups opposed to the so-called secularism bill.

bill 21 people s hearing

An umbrella organization opposed to the bill hosted Monday’s event in Montreal. Among those in attendance were Québec Solidaire MNA Vincent Marissal, left, and Liberal MNA David Birnbaum. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

In her presentation, Saad also reported two women were denied jobs at daycare education centres when their prospective employers told them they would have to remove their hijab while at work.

If the bill passes, it would apply to public teachers, police officers and government lawyers, but not to daycare workers.

Saad said her organization investigates all the cases reported, to ensure the complaints are well-founded and provide more tailored support to victims.

All the incidents in the Justice Femme report took place in the greater Montreal area.

Minister urges victims to come forward 

The number of cases her organization has received since March is “abnormal,” Saad said. She said the cases also demonstrate Muslim women are losing faith in the justice system.

“In all the cases, without exception, [the women] categorically refused to file complaints using the same phrase: the government is in the process of legitimizing discrimination,” Saad said Monday.

“We no longer have confidence in the system.”

Upon learning of the figures, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who sponsored the controversial bill, called on victims of discrimination and hate to come forward and file complaints.  

“The secularism bill encourages better living together,” Jolin-Barrette said through a spokesperson. “The Quebec government decries, without nuance, all acts of discrimination.”

Last week, the government was twice forced to distance itself from controversial statements about Islam that supporters of the bill made at the hearings.

Premier François Legault has repeatedly called for the bill to be debated calmly. He wants it adopted by mid-June.

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