Jean Charest wants to amend Quebec's Charter of Rights to give precedence to the equality of women and men over other rights, including freedom of religion.
Although the same suggestion was made by the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, the idea looks improvised, opportunistic and driven by Charest's obsession always to one-up Mario Dumont, as with the decision to create the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
But Charest isn't the only one jumping the gun on a very complex issue. At the speed of light, lawyers and commentators came out swinging against Charest's idea, as if he were mounting a dangerous judicial revolution.
Now, I'm a political scientist, not a lawyer. So I'll leave to them the minutiae of comparing the wording of the federal and Quebec charters or whether this would throw a wrench into "universal, indivisible and interrelated" human rights.
On a more political level, Charest's move probably sprang in part from having seen the unconditional support for equality of women and men expressed by most people who spoke at the Bouchard-Taylor forums, regardless of their origin, religion, region or gender.
This support is expressed at a time when there's a genuine fear that the rise of religious fundamentalism, Christian or non-Christian, across borders, puts some women in situations where equality is rendered impossible by doctrines used by religious leaders to exercise control over women's lives.
Older francophones who lived with the Catholic clergy's control over women's lives are especially sensitive to any similar manifestation from any other religion. So it's no surprise that there's less worry among younger Quebecers who don't know firsthand how overzealous religious authority can limit women's rights.
At the hearings, a common fear expressed is that religious freedom is being used as a pretext to treat women as inferiors. Thus, the negative reaction to dress codes where women must cover themselves while men walk around dressed as they want.
Women in Quebec fought hard for more equality in the political and socio-economic realm. But they also struggled to take back control over their private lives and their sexuality from their own religious leaders.
Thus, Quebecers worry about the resurgence of religious control over their lives, including dress codes imposed by male-driven dogma that controls these women's private lives, sexuality and the type of relations they can or cannot have with men in their own community or larger society.
Now the question becomes: Would amending the charter or passing a law, like in France, to ban ostentatious religious signs from public institutions succeed in lessening religious control over some women's lives?
Experience in France shows the answer is no. Hijabs or niqabs can't be worn in schools or in the public sector. But France's law didn't stop a very visible increase in the number of women covering themselves, even wearing niqabs, in everyday life. Today's fundamentalism isn't stopped by laws or charters.
Sure, putting more protection of the equality of women and men in thecharter could be a powerful, interpretive clause that would send a strong message - including to the Catholic clergy. But it's doubtful it would free women from fundamentalist dogma at large. As the past shows regarding the Catholic Church that still bars women from the priesthood and opposed their right to vote into the 20th century, fighting the grip of the more extreme expressions of religion over women's lives is a long and difficult path.
In a democracy, though, education and free discussion, especially with these women themselves, not the leaders who dictate their lifestyles, could be a more productive approach. But we have to address all religious practices that affect women's freedoms, not just Muslim fundamentalism.
A woman can have an engineering degree and earn a living, but if her private life, clothing, sexuality and relations with men are not of her own free will, whatever her religion, her freedom is far from complete.
Quebecers have legitimate concerns over religious controls on women
Charest tapped into the feelings on gender equality expressed at hearings