Dr. Dawg

Political synechdoche in Quebec

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Niqabi Quebec.jpg

With the looming passage of Bill 62, Quebec is poised, in the name of “secularism,” to ban Muslim niqabi (women wearing face veils) from boarding city transit.

In its first incarnation, as Bill 94, then federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff expressed strong support for it: a crass bit of political pandering to hérouxvilliste yokels, but in fairness hardly the only one. The Bill died when an election was called and the ruling Quebec Liberals lost. The Parti Québécois, a social-democratic party under René Lévesque but now one that oozes xenophobia, had opposed that Bill because it did not go far enough. They had their own go at it in 2013 with the infamous Quebec Charter of Values, but that legislation died as well when the Liberals regained power in 2014.

Now it’s the Liberals’ turn once more, and the band plays on. Yet again the “religious neutrality of the state” is trundled out of its musty vault, no longer the laïcité that protected citizens from a once-powerful Roman Catholic Church, but now a blunt-force instrument to be used by vielle souche Quebeckers against the Others.

The total number of women wearing niqab in Quebec may be as high as 90. Yes, you read right.

So clearly we aren’t dealing with a serious practical matter. What we have instead is a synechdoche: the part, in this case, standing for the whole. That’s why the public and political furor seems so exaggerated.

As an earlier example, consider the angry opposition to long hair on men in the ‘sixties. It wasn’t really about long hair at all, but stood for one side of a broader politico-cultural war being waged simultaneously on a number of fronts. The fight was fuelled by the powerful who had a fear of losing control: parents over children (the “generation gap”), the state over its citizens (Vietnam draft evasion), or an embedded white supremacism (segregation). Button-down minds and the assorted brutes eager to do their bidding were ranged against creativity, experimentation, freedom and revolt. Summer of Love, if you will, versus “law and order.” Or so, at least, it seemed, if one read the headlines—although decent folks were swept up into the wrong side of the conflict as well.

Like all political synechdoche, however, the part developed a life in some ways independent of the whole. Long hair was held to be “unkempt,” “dirty,” “girly” and/or “faggoty.” Every one of those adjectives, of course, could potentially open up into wide discursive avenues, but usually didn’t. Long hair also became associated with drugs: that one imperfect but immediate way out of the Matrix, and hence heavily punished by a veritable army of Agent Smiths.

So too it is with the partial but significant ban on the niqab in La Belle Province. “The veil oppresses women,” we are told, although the women often say otherwise, when people allegedly fighting on their behalf deign to talk to them. “We don’t want religion and the state mixed together,” say Quebec legislators, enacting “religious neutrality” under the crucifix that adorns the wall behind the Speaker of the Quebec National Assembly.

“Nothing really to do with religion at all,” humphs Stéphanie Vallée, Quebec’s justice minister. It could apply just as well to masked protesters, she insists. To this barefaced lie, one can only reply, “Mon oeil.” Here is the title of the Bill: “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.” The Bill itself is all about the providers and recipients of public services: it says nothing whatsoever about masking in public. In fact, the mayor of Quebec City recently bemoaned that very fact.

In practical terms, just to remind everyone, the Bill will apply only to niqabis. That’s it and that’s all.

What is the whole, then, of which this niqabi-ban is a part? Quite simply, an ugly, exclusionary nationalism, that has even led, at its extreme fringe, to mass murder. Whether Liberal or Parti Québécois, it appears politically expedient for the party in power to pander to the unsavoury Lionel Groux/Marcel Chaput current of Quebec nationalism, which, along with its progressive counterpart, has been present in the province for many decades. This strategy has proven to be the path of least resistance to obtain the support of a substantial block of swing voters, although it’s a narrow path, to be sure: the PQ overplayed its hand with its Charter of Values, while the Liberals cannot afford to stray too far in the direction of, well, liberalism. Pandering to bigotry has its own intricate political calculus.

In any case, to conform to the law, the minuscule number of niqabis in Quebec will now be less able to leave their houses, more dependent than ever, one might suppose, upon the swarthy male brutes of popular imagination who allegedly force the “Islamic” dress code upon them in the first place. Outside the house, the state lies waiting to enforce a different dress code—even on public transport. O lucky women! You’re about to become, like earthlings in the old science fiction story, as thoroughly liberated as it’s possible to be.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 16, 2017 10:40 PM.

Patriarchal essentialism and the reproductive "estates" was the previous entry in this blog.

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