Understanding the status of women in racialized communities: An Interview with Professor Vrinda Narain

Published Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Camylle Lanteigne



The Independent Women for Equality McGill had the privilege of interviewing Professor Vrinda Narain on the status of women in racialized minority communities within Québec and Canada in the context of the “reasonable accommodations” debate. This angle of inquiry was motivated by the disproportionate attention on women’s religious attire, such as the hijab and the niqab, and this, for the past decade. This interview assesses the current situation, identifies some issues with the role that is given to women in the “reasonable accommodations” debate, and proposes some alternatives to empower women.








*These selected excerpts have been shortened and edited for clarity. Listen to the audio recording for the full interview.


On the reasonable accommodations debate in Québec and the insight modern feminist theory can offer


In the past decade, the debate on religious freedom and reasonable accommodations in Québec and Canada has been largely focused on Muslim women who wear the hijab, which many consider to be a symbol of oppression against women. In your view, what insight can modern feminist theory offer on this, as an issue of sexism and racism?


If you look at the reasonable accommodations debate particularly in Quebec, it focuses a lot on the status of women within the racialized minority communities. And somehow, other issues structural issues – like employment, access to education, the high school dropout rate, health care – all of these structural inequalities are ignored, and we focus on what women can and can’t wear. So, I think it’s very important for us to refocus what we mean by the accommodation of difference and to have the political will to engage with minorities, as well. [...]


As feminists, we need to unpack [the meaning of secularism] [...]. Because if you look at Bill 94, Bill 62, the Charter of Values of Quebec, as well as the current law we have called “the zero tolerance for barbaric cultures and practices”, a federal bill that was just passed, again aimed at minority women, [the root of the problem] is that [...] the democratic state [is] regulating women, not the community itself [...]


On the inclusion of minority women in discussions within their communities


In “Taking culture out of Multiculturalism”, you point out that “[w]omen’s equality rights are presented as oppositional to group rights” and that even when women’s issues are discussed, they are left out of the conversation and their views are not taken into consideration. In contrast to the treatment of women’s equality as a secondary concern, how can we talk about women’s rights as necessary elements to overall equality for marginalized groups?


I think there is a huge place [...] for community responsibility. Men within the community must be accountable to the women, and we have to empower women to challenge their real self-appointed leaders. And if we’re [...] cutting them off at the knees by telling them that we’re here to help [them] and save [them] from the men in [their] community, then it deradicalizes any potential challenge that they may have. So, I think it’s [a complex situation], but we have to support [women] within the groups and include them in the conversation.


On Professor Narrain’s Research Project: “Difference and Inclusion: Reframing Multiculturalism and Reasonable Accommodation”


And finally, let me congratulate you in having been awarded this year’s Charles D. Gonthier research fellowship for your research project “Difference and Inclusion: Reframing Multiculturalism and Reasonable Accommodation”. Can you tell us more about this project?


[...] The Supreme Court of Canada has been generous in its interpretation of religious freedom, but the way the public discourse has unfolded it [...] pits women’s equality rights against religious freedom; so, we think about gender equality versus religious freedom, secularism versus minority rights. [...] I think that my idea is to [...] reframe the debate and try and understand who sets the terms for reasonable accommodation, who gets to decide what’s reasonable or not.


[Also], I think it’s incumbent on civil society as well as [...] representatives to have that dialogue to try and understand what is it we’re accommodating, [and] on whose terms. [...] Are we looking at [...] what women can wear and can’t wear and [...] not focusing on structural discrimination or systemic disadvantage? [...] I think we’d be better off looking at that systemic racism, for example, and including women in that conversation.


*Photo credit: Vrinda Narain, McGill University