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Quebec Values and Women Rights

October 22, 2009

So as I already mentioned, the local edition of the Metro newspaper has recently run a piece in which they interviewed a few public figures – a member of the national assembly for the opposition (Maka Kotto), a major media host (Marie-France Bazzo), and the Québec prime minister premier, Jean Charest (silly English Canadians and their silly distinctions…), asking them which three values they felt best described Québec.

The results have been…interesting. Not all of them, of course: Maka Kotto took the chance to score a few political points by trying to paint Social Justice (eg, social democracy) as a core value of Québec (he’s from a left-leaning party, of course), although that’s probably not altogether false; Jean Charest went with the boring but safe answer of “separation of church and state” (Zzzzzz, mr. Premier, Zzzzzz), and of course both politicians of the lot answered some variation to “The importance of the French language”. (DUH).

Actually, that right there is interesting – the importance of the French language was not an unanimous answer. What makes this even more surprising is that there was an unanimous answer from all three. If there hadn’t been any, then French not being unanimous would be…expected. But the thing is, there is one. And it’s not necessarily the most obvious answer. No separation of church and state (as I said, that was Charest’ answer). No freedom (of anything), no justice, not even solidarity or general equal rights.

It was, very specifically, gender equality.

Not a very unique answer at first glance. A lot of place have seen struggles for gender equality, of course; it’s an important value to many people, if sometimes as part of a broader “equal rights” vision of the world. But they’re not just saying it’s important: they’re saying it’s a core value of Québec. It’s the only one all three of them agree on, ahead of even French.  And not the least important of them: Bazzo and Kotto both named it first; Charest second.

They know what they’re talking about, I think. It’s not merely that gender equality is important; it’s that gender equality comes first, in the mind of many Quebecers, when compared to lots of other values and things of importance. Down to and including French (after a fashion).

With regard to the last, one has but to look at Wiki’s page on Quebec French. Chief difference between Quebec French and France French (and, therefore, correct French) when it comes to the formal language? Québecers have been disregarding the official rules of French on feminizing professions names, that’s what.

This, of course, might not make much sense in English, where a minister is a minister: a genderless noun. In French, though, every noun has a gender. You don’t have, strictly speaking, a gender-neutral word that mean minister: due to the way adjectives and suchlike work, it’s, effectively (traditionally, and per the official rules of French) a ministerman. A researcherman. Per the formal rules, which were used in France until sometime in the nineties, you called a woman minister “Madam Ministerman” (effectively). Québec? Been ministerwoman (researcherwoman, etc) for decades. The example of maire and mairesse is perhaps even more relevant: in Euro-French, at least until recently, the maire (“Mayorman”) is the leader of the town, and the Mairesse (“Mayorwoman”) is his wife. Québec has long since flipped off “proper french” on that score: a mairesse is a woman who’s a mayor in Québec.

Little things, perhaps, but things that show that Québec culture, by and large, is quite ready and willing to disregard “proper” French in the name of gender equality, and eliminating the implication that a woman who is a mayor, or a minister, or a researcher is doing a man’s job.

If that goes for our beloved French language, you’d better believe it goes elsewhere, too. Elsewhere, in this case, being freedom.

We’re not even talking about the “Equal pay vs economic freedom” debate ongoing in the USA I’m told. That particular argument wouldn’t have much traction in Quebec (where economic freedom, while an important value, take a backseat fairly frequently), where equal pay for equal work has been in law for thirty years and equal pay for similar work that have been traditionally gender-oriented has been in law for near a decade (and more or less the only fights we have is over what, exactly, constitute “similar work”).

We’re talking about things like a political party getting politically murdered because one of their MP suggested that it would be better to give parents a stipend for each child they have (so they’d be free to raise their children however they will, including one of them staying home and raising the kids) rather than have a state-funded network of nurseries (which has its issues, but they’re besides the point here and now). By murdered, we mean everyone in the province howling for blood (and accusing said MP of wanting to send women back to their kitchen) , and going from 41 to 7 seats at the very next elections.

We’re talking about things like a newlywed woman who wanted to take her husband’s name, yelling in the desert (because no one in Quebec is listening; a search on wiki is actually the first I heard of the above story) demanding that the Quebec laws that stipulate a woman’s name is the name she was born with (unless she gets the same – very difficult – name change procedure anyone else can get), end of story, be changed. And the laws (article 393 of the Quebec civil code, for the record) very much not being changed, because we’re fine with it (as for “same name as my kids complaints: there’s a reason many people born in the 70-80s onward in Quebec have hyphenated family names. Starting with, say, me).

We’re talking things like the whole “Reasonable Accommodations” fiasco two years ago. There were plenty of things, of fears (and quite some racism) that went in the whole thing, but what set the whole powder keg ablaze? A perceived attack by people, in the name of their religious rights, on gender equality, whether in the form of demanding that a gym that allowed women to train have darkened windows (to protect orthodox jews teenage boys from having to see them…); or another group of fundamentalist blatantly disregarding policewomen to the point that the Montreal police drafted a policy that involved sending policemen to deal with those people. And, of course, random assorted muslim  headgear-for-girls.

We’re talking about things, like the demand that’s been in the background and expressed fairly clearly since then, that a new law be explicitly written to clarify that gender equality trumps freedom of religion in Québec – IIRC, some have gone as far as to suggest a Quebec constitution with those explicit terms.

I think that’s what the three of them are getting at, ultimately.

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