Civic inclusion

Quebec’s first provincial candidate to wear a hijab wants to pave way for other minority women

Eve Torres says Quebec is “drowning in discussions about identity instead of dealing with real economic, environmental and social problems”

Eve Torres converted to Islam in France but only started wearing a hijab after immigrating to Quebec. “I felt free to do it here,” she said. “There wasn’t any judgement.” Quebec’s social climate, she explained, was welcoming and “seemed far from the climate in France.”

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Torres’s love affair with Quebec never ended, and she is now a naturalized Canadian after 20 years in Montreal. She made history in April when she announced she was seeking the Quebec Solidaire nomination in Montreal’s Mount-Royal-Outremont riding. Billed as the first woman in a hijab to run in a Quebec provincial election, she has since won the nomination and been joined by another hijab-wearing candidate, Aziza Dini, who will represent the Green Party in a nearby riding on the city’s south shore.

QS policies on the wearing of religious symbols and face coverings — which do not prevent politicians from wearing hijabs but are tough on public servants and officials in “coercive positions” such as judges, police officers and prison guards — seem potentially at odds with her nomination. When asked about the contradiction, a QS party spokesperson responded that “it’s important not to confuse face coverings with, for instance, the hijab, which Mrs. Torres wears, or the Sikh dastaar.” He added that unlike the rival Parti Québécois, which believes Torres’s hijab will prevent her from being “neutral,” the QS believes her nomination is “a powerful reminder that everyone should feel empowered to participate in civic life.”

Fighting for civic inclusion

One reason Torres wants to enter provincial politics is she believes that the social climate she once found so enticing and inclusive has soured over the past decade thanks to a “sick” political system and a vicious media landscape.

“In 2007 and 2014, women like me were told, ‘You are different, you aren’t welcome,’” she said, referring to the era of the commission on reasonable accommodation, which exposed widespread race anxiety in the province and painted ethnic minorities as a threat, and the Parti Québécois’ divisive charter of Quebec values, which aimed to prohibit religious clothing for employees in virtually all state institutions. The ugly debate over Muslim women’s clothes was re-energized last year, when the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 62, a law preventing women wearing niqabs and burkas from receiving public services.

Torres lays blame for intolerance in the province squarely on the media and politicians.

Torres hopes that her candidature will pave the way for other women from minority groups to launch themselves into public life. It’s something she is passionate about; she has worked for five years for non-profit organization LaVOIEdesFemmes, which encourages Muslim women in particular to get involved in all spheres of society. The mother of three also has several university degrees under her belt — law, education, religious science, anthropology — and has worked for the Quebec chapter of the National Council of Muslims, for the Human and Youth Rights Commission of Quebec and as a teacher and director in public and private daycares. She described herself as “passionate about getting everyone actively involved in society.”

A secular state

There is no contradiction between the QS position on secularism and her candidature, Torres said. In her opinion, discussions about secularism in Quebec are plagued by the confusion between individuals who openly wear their faith and a secular style of governance — “we are all agreed, we want a secular state,” she laughed. She sees the party’s position on face coverings as “a political compromise with what the other parties were proposing at the time, which was to stop thousands of teachers from being able to work.”

Currently, QS advocates for women to receive public series à visage découvert (“with an uncovered face”) — in other words, without a burka or niqab. It also supports the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations, which ban employees in “coercive positions” from wearing any conspicuous religious symbol.

A political system of prejudice

Torres said that if elected she wants to “put the human back at the heart of our concerns and stop stoking issues that divide.” Top of her agenda in her riding is cinching sustainable funding for volunteer and community organizations and funnelling money from private schools to their public counterparts to ensure better services for all students. She is passionate about the QS commitment to universal dental care and its plan to implement a hiring quota of 25 per cent visible and ethnic minorities in public service jobs.

Torres lays blame for intolerance in the province squarely on the media and politicians. According to her, the current political system is “drowning in discussions about identity instead of dealing with real economic, environmental and social problems.” In her opinion, politicians must maintain social harmony, reduce tensions and ease cultural stigmas — not the reverse. “Instead, we have politicians who encourage prejudices about Indigenous people being alcoholics and drug addicts” and a party leader (the PQ’s Jean-François Lisée) who is “happy to discuss Manon Massé’s moustache and Véronique Hivon’s physique in 2018,” she said.

Indeed, when Torres announced her intention to run, the Journal de Montréal ran an editorial headlined “Our dark future” with a grainy photo of Torres frowning; another article identified her as an Islamist. A Huffington Post Quebec blog post warned of “a lobbyist for political Islam in Quebec Solidaire.”

‘I can take it’

Torres’s treatment draws parallels to the abuse received last month by 19-year-old Parisian student union president Maryam Pougetoux from the French press and politicians after she wore a headscarf in an interview on national television. Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo portrayed her on its cover as a drooling monkey wearing a hijab, and the state secretary for gender equality accused her of promoting political Islam.

Torres is not fazed. “I can take it. I’m used to it, and I have a hard shell. I’m built that way.” However, she is concerned about the effect public attacks have on moulding young Quebecers’ opinions, and also their potentially devastating impact on other marginalized women, who might be discouraged from becoming active citizens and participating in society.

Because it’s already tough, she said. “As a Muslim woman, in most arenas, it takes a lot more time than other people to gain people’s trust. It’s sad — but it’s just the truth.”

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