Education / Politics / Social issues

York University’s Professor Grayson and the Continuing Debate over Secularism and Women’s Rights in Canada

Dr. J. Paul Grayson has incurred the wrath of ‘The Man.’

When Grayson, sociology professor at York University, defied his dean and denied his student’s request to be excused from a group assignment on religious grounds, he took a hit for the feminist movement and stirred the secularism pot.

Mr. X, the student in question whose religious persuasions have rightly remained under wraps, wrote: “one of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women. It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.” Grayson did his research, speaking with Jewish and Muslim scholars.

The verdict: neither Judaism, nor Islam prohibits public contact between men and women.

Request Denied. And Mr. X abided by the decision.

But York’s dean of arts, Martin Singer, had also been consulted and disagreed with Grayson’s initial instincts. Singer concluded that granting the accommodation was reasonable and “would have no substantial impact on the experience of other students.

Grayson defied his dean, arguing that approving the student’s request would make him “an accessory to sexism.Applause! In a letter to York’s Centre for Human Rights, Grayson wrote: “I doubt that we would sanction a student refusing, for religious reasons, to interact with Blacks in classes even though Biblical justification could be found.” Preach, brother! To the Toronto Star, Grayson said: “in order to meet an instance of a religious requirement we have tacitly accepted a negative definition of females. That’s not acceptable.” Yes!!! More!!!

Love me a man who takes on what has traditionally been deemed “women’s work” – schooling ‘The Man’ about how we women are unwilling to allow governments and institutions to set us back. LOVE me that man.

Until that man begins to “daddy” “save” women for our own good.

Because when Grayson spoke to Hélène Buzzetti of Le Devoir, he argued that beliefs should not be imposed on others and that, in that sense, the Quebec Charter of Values – including the clause prohibiting the Islamic hijab, the Jewish kippah, and the Sikh turban, is a good idea.

*Screeching halt*

Say what? What? WHAT? … the fuck?

When Buzzetti points out that the Quebec Charter of Values has been depicted racist, Grayson responds: “That’s the elites talking. A lot of folks I talk to think that Quebecers have good ideas when they’re faced with religious excess.”

Elites. People with ideas. *Shrug* – they’re just experts who have devoted their intellectual and political lives to stroking their beards in deep thought over these kinds of issues.

Elites like secular Canadian Charter of Freedoms experts; coalitions of university professors *ahem* much like Grayson himself; the federal Conservatives, Liberals, and NDPs; the provincial Liberals; the biggest names in Quebec’s sovereignty movement including the unholy political trinity of Jacques “Money & the Ethnic Vote” Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, and Gilles Duceppe (some have even argued that the formidable René Levesque would be rolling in his grave over the Charter).

Oh, and, you know, FEMINISTS.

But, no, seriously: feminists of all stripes have been duking it out in Quebec’s public sphere since plans for the Quebec Charter of Values were leaked last summer. And as much as the Bloc Québécois would like to argue that the Charter is about all so-called ostentatious religious symbols, it’s plainly obvious that the very nature of the debate – and its ugly, terrifying consequences – have focused on the hijab and on the faces of veiled women.

charter values quebec protest hijabPhoto: – National Post

Muslim feminists – veiled and unveiled – have argued critical notions, many of which are captured in this Manifeste by the CollectivE des Féministes Musulmanes: that the Charter stigmatizes and marginalizes Muslim women; that it designates some women as “enemies of the nation;” and that it will set back women’s access to decent work and economic empowerment (which many feminists, political scientists, and economists agree are critical to women’s emancipation).

And in discussions with Muslim feminists: that the Charter of Values debate has reduced Muslim women to the veil. That they have little to say or contribute as Canadians, as intellectuals, as active members of our society, and as women.

Mainstream English-speaking Canada has failed to make much sense of the ideological divide among Quebec’s feminists, particularly on Muslim feminists’ fundamental talking point: Ne me libère pas, je m’en charge | No need to save me. I’ve got this.

charter values protest quebec hijabPhoto – Ryan Remoirz, Canadian Press

But therein lays the problem: to Muslim feminists, it’s a feminist issue. But the Bloc Québécois has instrumentalized religion – and their unilateral vision of women’s rights – to consolidate their political base on the backs of Muslim women. It is a fundamentally anti-feminist measure.

And thus by supporting a theoretical Canadian ‘Charter of Values,’ Grayson robs women of agency over their body and allows the State to instrumentalize women in the interests of “the majority,” a coercive tactic long decried by feminists. By demanding a ban on the hijab, among other cultural and religious vestments, Grayson himself becomes “an accessory to sexism” and an accessory to the exclusion of women.

So listen up, folks: the ladies are talking. And they have spoken: not in my name.


You May Also Want to Check Out:

In Defense of the Hijab: Musings on Free Choice

Definitely Don’t Be These Guys

3 thoughts on “York University’s Professor Grayson and the Continuing Debate over Secularism and Women’s Rights in Canada

  1. Pingback: Stephen Harper and the ‘moral panic’ over the niqab and women’s Charter rights | Elle Beaver

  2. It is really amusing to watch some segments of the feminist community doing somersaults trying to rationalize a religious based practice rooted in patriarchal control of women. Well done! And what of the women who are coerced into the practice of veiling? You are seriously aligning yourself with religious based practices that, in the more conservative, extreme and radical variants, seek to control the expression of gender and sexuality. Wow.

    • Thanks for your comment, but we respectfully disagree. To be sure, there are many feminists who are working to ban the veil – however, as the author of this piece, I think it’s a fundamental tenant of feminism to respect a woman’s right to chose what she does with her body, and that includes taking (or casting off) the veil. To be sure, to force a woman to wear the veil is equally oppressive and I will support and fight for any woman who chooses to cast it aside. At its core, I am arguing that a society or government to dictate what a woman does with her body goes against every fundamental feminist belief that I personally hold to be true.

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