Tag Archives: religious freedoms

#SuitablyDressed: Rania El-Alloul, Hijabs, and Charter Rights in Canada’s Courtrooms

For Immediate Release (Toronto ON, Mar 16, 2015):

The Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law (CAMWL) stands in solidarity with Rania El-Alloul, a Muslim woman who was denied her day in court simply because she wears a headscarf.

On February 24, 2015, Ms. El-Alloul appeared before Judge Eliana Marengo seeking the return of her impounded car (Ms. El-Alloul had not been driving the car when it was impounded). Judge Marengo began the proceedings by asking Ms. El-Alloul why she was wearing a headscarf. Ms. El-Alloul explained that as a Muslim, she had been wearing headscarves for years, including when she swore her Oath of Allegiance to Canada. Judge Marengo responded, “I will not hear you.” She stated Ms. El-Alloul’s hijab was inappropriate attire for a court proceeding.

Ms. El-Alloul declined to unveil. Judge Marengo told Ms. El-Alloul she could either remove her headscarf or ask for a postponement in order to consult a lawyer. Ms. El-Alloul explained she relies on social assistance and cannot afford a lawyer. Judge Marengo adjourned the case indefinitely.

Without a ruling, Ms. El-Alloul, a single mother of three, continues to wait for her car.

Suitable Attire and the Charter

Judge Marengo’s actions are a clear violation of Canadian law.

In refusing to hear Ms. El-Alloul’s case, Judge Marengo cited Article 13 of the Regulations of the Court of Québec, which provides:

Any person appearing before the court must be suitably dressed.

Judge Marengo stated that Ms. El-Alloul’s hijab, because it is a religious symbol, was not suitable attire for a secular courtroom.  Her underlying analysis appears to have conflated two unrelated issues: suitable attire (as captured by Article 13) and courtroom secularity.

What Judge Marengo’s analysis fails to appreciate is that both arguments for prohibiting the hijab must still abide by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While Article 13 can properly be understood to be referring to professional attire, the Charter begins:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.

This attentiveness to “the supremacy of God” provides some groundwork to Section 2 of the Charter, which guarantees the right of freedom of religion, thought, belief, opinion and expression. As such, the Charter protects the right to hold and express one’s beliefs. Canadian courts routinely accommodate diverse religious and spiritual belief systems, for example by providing litigants with holy books and symbols (such as sacred eagle feathers) of choice with which to to make their oaths. This guarantee is subject only to demonstrably justified reasonable limits. To the rudimentary extent that it was articulated, Judge Marengo’s rationale for denying a hijab-wearing woman access to justice does not constitute a reasonable limit.

Section 15 of the Charter enshrines the right to equality, explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion and sex. In refusing to hear Ms. El-Alloul’s case because she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab, Judge Marengo discriminated against Ms. El-Alloul on the basis of both her religion and her sex.

Section 27 of the Charter further provides that the Charter itself must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians. This bears out the broader social goal of Sections 2 and 5: namely, the acknowledgement of and meaningful respect for Canada’s heterogeneity.

In short, the normative secularity of Canadian courts does not and cannot negate the fundamental Charter rights of litigants in Canada to wear, free of discrimination, religious symbols, including Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas, Christian nuns’ habits, or Muslim veils.

Suitable Attire in Canadian Courtrooms

Judge Marengo also overlooked clear Canadian case law.

By way of example, the Ontario Court of Appeal held in 1998 in R v Laws that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had been wrong to exclude a Black Muslim man from the courtroom for wearing a religious hat. The OCA ruled that the original decision would incorrectly suggest only dominant religious communities are protected by the Charter.

In a landmark decision on freedom of religion, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed in 2004 in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem that the legal test to determine whether or not a practice is protected as a religious freedom under the Charter is whether the practice is “sincerely held” by the subject, irrespective of whether the practice is required by official religious dogma or conforms with the position of religious officials.

Most recently in 2012, the Supreme Court considered the specific issue of the suitability of Muslim women’s veils, when it heard R v NS, in which a complainant in a sex-assault trial sought to wear a niqab while testifying. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stated that:

A secular response that requires witnesses to park their religion at the courtroom door is inconsistent with the jurisprudence and Canadian tradition, and limits freedom of religion where no limit can be justified.

In light of these cases, Judge Marengo’s action stands out as an aberration squarely at odds with Canadian law.

Complaint Process

A spokesperson for the Chief judge of the Quebec court told media that it is up to the judge to apply or interpret the law the way they see it.

While judges cannot be brought before human rights commissions, Ms. El-Alloul can file a complaint with the Conseil de la magistrature du Québec, which is mandated to examine complaints related to the conduct of judges. The council can issue a reprimand or recommend a judge’s removal.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims is assisting  Ms. El-Alloul with exploring her complaint options.

A complaint has also been filed by Montreal resident Jean-Pierre Lussier, who does not know Ms. El-Alloul. Mr. Lussier noted in his complaint that Judge Marengo’s decision has been decried by many citizens, politicians and groups across Canada.

Ms. El-Alloul’s case resembles that of Tomee Sojourner, who filed a complaint to the Conseil de la justice administrative after Quebec Rental Board Judge Luce De Palma, despite repeated corrections, persistently referred to Ms. Sojourner as a man, eventually suspending the hearing. The council rejected Ms. Sojourner’s complaint of judicial bias and discriminatory conduct. In 2014, Quebec’s Superior Court held that both Judge De Palma and the Council had failed to acknowledge the intersectionality of Ms. Sojourner’s multifaceted identity as a Black lesbian woman and ordered the council to rehear Ms. Sojourner’s complaint. Ms. Sojourner’s case continues before the Administrative Judicial Council and the Superior Court.

Ms. Sojourner’s case marked the first time a Quebec court clearly addressed the legal notion of intersectionality (i.e. intersecting discrimination), a principle already recognised by the Supreme Court of Canada. CAMWL hopes that the council in Ms. El-Alloul’s case will be similarly attentive to the intersectional issues at play in Judge Marengo’s refusal to hear Ms. El-Alloul because of Ms. El-Alloul’s sex and religion.

Going Forward

There has been an outpouring of support from across the country and abroad for Ms. El-Alloul. Supporters (none of whom know Ms. El-Alloul) in Vancouver, Toronto, and California had independently set up two separate crowdfunding campaigns to cover the costs of a new car and legal expenses, respectively, with the former collecting $20,000 within a single day. Ms. El-Alloul recently stated that she would not accept the donations and would like to see them instead going towards “helping those whose rights have been forfeited and stories left untold.”

CAMWL is heartened by this show of support, especially given recent political and legal developments that have disproportionately targeted Muslims in Canada, such as the federal government’s comments about women who wear niqabs, Bill C-51, and a longstanding populist fascination with interrogating Muslim women’s sartorial choices. These reductive and often explicitly exclusionary views perpetuate misogyny and Islamophobia, inside and outside courtrooms.

Moreover, the access-to-justice implications of this story are gravely concerning: a single mother living in poverty turned to a Canadian court to ensure her mobility so that she could care for her children, and was roundly evicted from the legal arena. Judge Marengo’s decision to evict a low-income woman from her courtroom is one that furthers the feminisation of poverty in Canada, which the Supreme Court identified in 1992 as an “entrenched social phenomenon.” That Judge Marengo evicted a woman who is visibly Muslim also contributes to the racialisation of poverty in Canada. The intersection of these vulnerabilities is deeply concerning for all who are committed to ensuring fair and equitable access to justice and resources in Canada.

Ms. El-Alloul has asked, “I am going to the court for the law. But if the court didn’t listen to me, where will I go? What’s left?”

CAMWL stands with Ms. El-Alloul and her many supporters in calling on the judicial system to answer for Judge Marengo’s error. As we are a collective of Muslim women studying, practicing and teaching law in Canada, we are grateful for Ms. El-Alloul’s bravery and dignity in sharing her story, her discontents, and her strength with her peers. It has opened her up to a great deal of negative backlash. We stand with Ms. El-Alloul and marginalised people across Canada in working together to chart stronger and more meaningful visions of the law and of justice.

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Media Contacts:

Thamina Jaferi: tjaferi@gmail.com
Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law: camwlaw@gmail.com

Further Reading:

Last updated Mon, Mar 16, 2015 at 1PM.

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Canadian Association of Muslim Women Lawyers denounces Parti Québécois’ proposed Quebec Charter of Values

* le français suivra * scroll down for endorsements *

The Canadian Association of Muslim Women Lawyers (CAMWL) joins a chorus of voices from across the country and within Quebec in denouncing the Parti Québécois’ (PQ) proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which would prohibit public servants of minority faiths from wearing mandatory religious symbols at work. The proposed Charter is intolerant and unconstitutional, and any anticipated benefits are far outweighed by its devastating impact on religious minorities. In particular, the CAMWL is deeply concerned about the proposed Charter’s effects on Muslim women who wear hijab and/or niqab.

The proposed Charter discriminates against and will disproportionately affect minority religions in the province. Symbols like yarmulkes, turbans and hijabs are considered mandatory articles of faith to those who wear them. The proposed Charter bans these symbols, but spares the unmistakable cross on Mount Royal and the cross above Quebec’s Legislative Chamber. This is a clear violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically sections 2(a) and 15, which uphold the rights to religious freedom and equality, respectively. The proposed Charter also replicates the marginalization in Canada of pre-existing Indigenous faiths, many of which include traditions that, until recently, were also banned, even criminalised. The discriminatory effect of the proposed Charter is unjustifiable in a free and democratic society.

The CAMWL further notes that the proposed Charter’s targeting of minority faiths is an affront to the key principle that democracy is not simply rule of the majority over (vulnerable) minorities, but includes (when necessary) the fundamental protection of minorities from the majority. The proposed Charter marginalizes minority communities by presenting them as threats to Quebecois identity. It assumes that those perceived as members of religious minorities are not and can never be authentically Quebecois, and that they should not help shape the values of their home province.

The proposed Charter also damages the livelihoods of religious minority communities. By tying employment in the public sector to mode of dress, employees from minority faiths are less likely to be able to serve the public. Rather than welcoming these communities to contribute to and participate in all aspects of life in Quebec, the proposed Charter sends the message that they are not welcome in places as essential as courts, hospitals, and schools, among others.

We emphasize our concern that the proposed Charter will marginalize and disempower the many Muslim women working or interested in working in the public sector, by forcing them to choose between their livelihoods and their deeply held religious beliefs. The CAMWL supports the position that in this case, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects individuals from having to make such a decision.

The CAMWL reiterates that the proposed Charter is unconstitutional and intolerant, and that it will have a severe and disproportionately negative impact not only on public sector employees from minority faiths, but on attitudes towards diversity in general. Indeed, whether or not the proposed Charter passes constitutional muster, the damage has already been done: far from uniting the province, it has paved the way for open animosity since its proposal, including an attack on a mosque in Saguenay. We stand with other justice-seeking groups in asserting that a far better approach would be to embrace all individuals and their desire to participate as full and equal members of Quebec society by acknowledging their right to express their faith as an intrinsic part of their identity.

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L’Association canadienne des femmes avocates musulmanes (L’ACFAM) se joint la foule des voix partout au Canada et à l’intérieur du Québec pour dénoncer les propositions de la Charte des valeurs Québécoises, proposée par le Parti Québécois (PQ), qui interdirait les fonctionnaires de confessions minoritaires de porter des signes religieux au travail. La Charte proposée est intolérante et inconstitutionnelle. Tous les bénéfices escomptés sont complètement dépasses par ses effets dévastateurs sur les minorités religieuses. En particulier, L’ACFAM est profondément préoccupée par les effets du projet de la Charte sur les femmes musulmanes qui portent le hijab et/ou le niqab.

La Charte proposée est discriminatoire et affecterait dans une façon disproportionnée les religions minoritaires. Les symboles comme les hijabs, turbans, kippas sont considérés des articles obligatoires de foi à ceux qui les portent. La Charte proposée interdit ces symboles mais épargne la croix unique sur le mont Royal, et la croix au-dessus de la Chambre législative du Québec. Il s’agit d’une violation flagrante de la Charte Canadienne des droits et libertés spécifiquement l’al. 2 a) et 15, qui soutient le droit à la liberté religieuse et l’égalité, respectivement. Le projet de la Charte réplique également la marginalisation au Canada des religions autochtones préexistantes, dont beaucoup de traditions jusqu’à récemment ont également été interdites, et meme criminalisé. L’effet discriminatoire de la Charte proposée n’est pas justifiable dans une société libre et démocratique.

De plus, L’ACFAM se constante que le projet de la Charte et le ciblage des religions minoritaires est un affront au principe clé que la démocratie n’est pas simplement une occasion où la majorité dirige la population minoritaire, mais il faut que la démocratie renforce la protection de base des minorités face à la majorité. La Charte proposée marginalise les communautés minoritaires en les présentant comme des menaces à l’identité québécoise. Il suppose que ceux qui sont perçus comme des membres des minorités religieuses ne sont pas et ne pourraient jamais être authentiquement québécois, et qu’ils ne devraient pas contribuer à développer les valeurs de leur province d’origine.
Le projet de la Charte se fait au détriment des moyens de subsistance des communautés religieuses minoritaires. En liant l’emploi dans le secteur public à la façon de s’habiller, les employés de confessions minoritaires seront moins à l’aise de trouver l’emploi dans le secteur public. Au lieu d’accueillir ces communautés à contribuer et à participer à tous les aspects de la vie au Québec, le projet de la Charte envoie le message qu’ils ne sont pas les bienvenus dans les lieux aussi essentiels que les tribunaux, les hôpitaux et les écoles, entre autres.

Nous soulignons notre préoccupation que le projet de la Charte marginalisera et déresponsabilisera les nombreuses femmes musulmanes qui travaille (et souhaitant travailler) dans le secteur public en les forçant à choisir entre leurs moyens de subsistance et leurs croyances religieuses profondément ancrées. L’ACFAM soutient la position que dans ce cas, la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés protège les individus de se confronter une telle décision.

L’ACFAM rappelle que la Charte proposée est inconstitutionnelle et intolérante, et que cela aura un impact sévère et négatif, et de manière disproportionné, non seulement sur les employés du secteur public de confessions minoritaires, mais sur les attitudes en concernant le multiculturalisme en général. En effet, même si on se trouve que le projet de la Charte est constitutionnellement valide, le préjudice aurait déjà été fait : loin d’unir la province, il a ouvert la voie à l’animosité ouverte depuis sa proposition, y compris une attaque contre une mosquée à Saguenay. Nous tenons à d’autres groupes de justice qui cherchent en affirmant que une bien meilleure approche serait d’embrasser tous les individus et leur désir de participer en tant que membres à part d’entière de la société québécoise en acceptant leur droit d’exprimer leur foi comme une partie intégrante de leur identité.

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Endorsed by:

We are also supported in our position by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association; read their statement online.

To endorse this statement, please email us.