Bill 21 is nothing more than an islamophobic act meant to appease a racist Quebec society that has been appeased for far too long. By writing about this I don’t want to pretend that the intentions of those who have pushed this into the public dialogue were in any way intellectually honest. The politicians and bureaucrats who are pursuing this know exactly what they are doing; finding solutions for problems that do not exist, so they can stop us from talking about the minimum wage, our crumbling health care system, and rampant corruption.
I write this instead for those who are genuinely confused and unsure, because I understand that there is a certain appeal to living in a ‘secular’ society, and I also understand why someone might feel uncomfortable at the sight of the hijab. I think that discomfort is misguided but comes from an honest and decent place.
When we discuss Bill 21, we don’t usually discuss it in terms of getting religion out of the public sphere (although that is its supposed intent), it often boils down to a discussion on feminism, women’s rights, and viewing the hijab as a sexist symbol. Let’s stick with that example then and see if we can extrapolate something more generally about culture.
What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Woman’?
I don’t like women with hairy legs. I’m sorry. I’m a man and I feel kind of bad saying that. I mean, what does it matter what I think? Women should do whatever they want, if they don’t want to shave their legs, good for them! What’s interesting though is that I suspect you will agree with me that most men don’t like women with hairy legs, and yet, to my knowledge women only started regularly shaving their legs in the last hundred years or so. Why don’t men shave their legs? Men also don’t wear make-up or wear revealing clothing; it seems only women do that.
I know, I’m pointing out the obvious but it’s always the obvious that we accept as ‘normal’ and that’s when our perception of reality become skewed. There is nothing normal about women wearing makeup, shaving their legs, or wearing short skirts. These behaviors are very much an expression of femininity in western culture today, but they don’t tell us an essential truth about being a woman, because there is no essential truth to being a woman. These behaviours are not what ‘should’ be; there is nothing ‘normal’ about it, it is simply what is. We do other bizarre things as well; some cultures pierce the ears of little girls, others won’t let you eat seafood, and if you asked most North American women what a penis should look like, they would tell you that the foreskin of the child’s penis should be removed shortly after birth. There is nothing ‘normal’ about any of that, and yet it is accepted practice in our society.
Being a woman and being a man is mostly an abstract concept. It’s something we practice and is born out of the interaction within our respective communities. You’re not born liking Barbies or GI Joes. In the same way that you develop a palate for your own culture’s cuisine and fashion, you also develop a taste for what is masculine and feminine.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. I don’t think anyone would think it was okay to mandate that women should shave their legs; the righteous would be angry! Alternatively, I don’t think anyone would condone telling women they can’t shave their legs because it is an ideological practice that reinforces the objectification of women and patriarchy; the lay(wo)men would get out their pitchforks! I’m not sure which ones I am afraid of more. In the same way, how can we tell women what to wear when all they are doing is behaving within the context of their cultures expression of femininity? At the bare minimum, if we are going to be ideologically consistent, we need to enact rules so that women no longer practice in sexualizing themselves in public (and that includes makeup and revealing clothing). I wouldn’t agree with such a proposition at all, but at least it would be consistent.
Culture (& Multiplicity) Matters
I don’t want to live in a world where culture is further stripped away. I have to ask, what do you think we would be left with if we all acted ‘rationally’ and without the historical bias of culture? When I think of a cultureless world, I don’t think of some sort of global humanism with all of us living in peace; I see us becoming primal animals with no concerns except our most basic and immediate needs. Even more terrifying, I see us becoming robotic; programmed by those more powerful to be healthy and productive subjects and nothing more (I fear we are already not far from this). I guess the disagreement boils down to if you believe there is some essential form of humanity that can and will overcome the relics of the past, or, if like me, you eschew such essentialism, and embrace culture and the beautiful worlds we’ve co-created and gifted to each other.
Culture and Religion can be oppressive, we have to acknowledge that. The way to end that oppression is not by doing away with culture but by making that culture richer and more malleable. We don’t need to determine what it means to be a woman because such an exercise would be futile. What we need is a multiplicity of what it means to be a women, a man, the various shades of brown we come in, religious and secular. Rather than find the form of what a woman should and shouldn’t wear, or which religious symbols are and are not allowed, we should consider exposing ourselves to more and more variations of them; it is only then that we can both experience the beauty of our minds’ creation, all while acknowledging the absurdity of it all.
No one should have to lose their job because what matters to them doesn’t matter to some politicians in Quebec City (the most racist city in North America). To ask someone to stop wearing the hijab is akin to asking them to stop being a woman, and just be a human. That’s just not who we are. To be human is to believe in things that don’t exist, to make our lives mean something more than they do, and to actualize our collective imaginations. Anything less is precisely inhuman.