Quebec’s hearings into a controversial secularism bill opened Tuesday morning with testimony claiming that Muslim women who refuse to remove their hijab at work are “fundamentalists.”
The legislative committee examining Bill 21 arranged for several supporters of the bill to kick off the hearings. Among them was Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken advocate of limiting where religious symbols can be worn.
If passed, the legislation would bar Quebec civil servants in positions of authority — including public teachers, police officers and Crown prosecutors — from wearing garments like the kippa or hijab while at work.
Benhabib, who represents a group called Collectif citoyen pour l’égalité et la laïcité, was asked if she thought all women who wear a hijab are religious extremists.
Not if they agree to take off their hijab while working civil service jobs, she replied. She added: “Women who wear the hijab … are engaging in emotional hostage-taking when they say they won’t take it off. I consider them to be fundamentalists.”
Benhabib’s organization and a feminist group that also testified Tuesday morning both argued for the bill’s scope to be widened.
They want to see the ban on religious symbols extended to Quebec’s private schools (many of which have religious affiliations) as well as its daycare network. The Parti Québécois indicated earlier that it might support the bill if these measures were included in it.
“The law needs to be more coherent when it comes to schools,” said Leila Lesbet, speaking for a group called Pour les droits des femmes du Québec.
“The responsibility of a school is to create future citizens, not believers.”
Critics to appear later Tuesday
The commission was to hear from critics of the bill Tuesday evening. Philosopher Charles Taylor, co-author of a landmark government-sponsored report on religious symbols, is expected to testify about 5 p.m. ET.
Quebec’s human rights commission and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs are also scheduled to appear this evening to denounce the bill.
Other religious group held a news conference earlier Tuesday, saying they’ve been largely excluded from the hearings even though they have the most to lose if the law is passed.
The bill’s sponsor, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, opened the legislative hearings by addressing the widespread criticism the draft legislation has attracted.
Jolin-Barrette said the results of the election — which handed the Coalition Avenir Québec a majority — give the government a clear mandate to move forward with its proposals.
“The government of Quebec is convinced it has found the right balance between individual rights and collective rights,” said Jolin-Barrette in his opening remarks. The Opposition Liberals are opposed to Bill 21. Hélène David, the party’s secularism critic, appealed for legislation that will unite Quebecers.
“The danger is that this bill divides rather than it unites,” David said in her opening remarks to the commission.
This story originally appeared on CBC