The passage of Bill 21 in the Assemblée nationale du Québec in June 2019 has meant a range of provisions that, in name, are aimed at making Quebec a more secular province, although in reality the new law targets religious minorities. Bill 21 specifically bans religious symbols (including head and face coverings) for those providing and receiving public services in the province,
Bill 21 has come under fire from a range of Muslim, civil rights, and feminist organizations, which have suggested that it will (it has) resulted in an increase in attacks and hate crimes. Further, because this law requires those receiving public services to remove religious face coverings, it will impede access to critical health and social services. And because it is women who most frequently access and provide public services, the effects are particularly gendered.
In an editorial published in the Montreal Gazette, scholars Jennifer Selby and Natasha Bakht reflect on the ways that the “secular” dress code imposed by this Bill is not about secularism, but about the regulation of religious freedom, and imposing a “narrow vision of women’s sexual emancipation” that will ensure that religious Muslim women in the province will never “rise through the ranks of the public sector.”
Indeed, Bill 21 is part of a long history of dress codes that focus political attention on women’s bodies, working to homogenize what “good women” look like, and to marginalize those who present otherwise—often in the name of “civility.” Most recently, it is garments typically associated with Muslim women that have made headlines, however women also continue to be regulated, now as in the past, for being too modest, or not modest, professional, or feminine enough.
For example, in March 2019, just as Bill 21 was being tabled in Quebec, the staff of the Sergeant-at-Arms of the British Columbia legislature were enforcing longstanding rules about what women could wear. One was told “to wear a slip under her dress as it was clinging to her legs as she walked,” and another that her “cap sleeve blouse was unprofessional.” Eight months later, a member of the Assemblée nationale, Catherine Dorion, was denied entry to the legislature for wearing a hooded sweater and jeans. And while these events led to mobilization around women’s right to wear what they want, the ongoing impulse of those in power to control women’s bodies through restrictions on their clothing ultimately means a restriction on what women can do and how they can live.
The stakes of wearing or not wearing certain garments vary widely for those affected, and a provincial law and policy enforced in legislatures are different things. But underlying all these efforts to control what women wear are attempts to reframe the denial of access and rights as a matter of women’s choice. In other words, women are denied access to a legislature, or to employment, or to public services, and the argument becomes “if you wear/don’t wear this skirt/bathing suit/hijab/niqab/sweater, you will be recognized as a human being, the choice is up to you.” The question often asked of sexual assault survivors (“what were you wearing”) looms large here, as women are made to be responsible for proving that they are the “right kind” of woman—entitled to equality and freedom from assault—through their attire. The onus is on women to adhere to ever-changing rules about the social acceptability of their bodies in order to prove that they are deserving of respect.
Documents in the archive reveal how feminists have long been fighting against the ways that dress codes seek to constrain women’s bodies and behaviours, and have historically limited women’s capacity to engage in school and work in ways that they desire:
In a report from the 7th Biennial Canadian Labour Congress’ Women’s Conference (1990), then-leader of the NDP, Audrey McLaughlin describes politics as “a culture of its own” with “its own language, own dress code, own rules. And it is male.”
An exchange printed in The New Feminist in 1970 between a woman and her daughter’s teacher about children wearing dresses to school that includes the assertion that “for health reasons alone we feel that girls benefit more from slims when worn outdoors only. Also, general behaviour is more ladylike when girls are dressed in skirts than when like their male schoolmates.” (The issue also includes a longer reflection on “femininity” that addresses “the symbolic sexual slavery of female garb” – which is worth a read on its own).
The August 1987 edition of the Alberta Status of Women Action Committee Newsletter includes a letter from Marilyne White, then-Chairperson of the CUPE Airline Division Women’s Committee. Calling for support for a human rights complaint by flight attendants, she wrote: “we are not allowed to wear slacks….[O]ur job is physically demanding and…we would feel more dignified and comfortable waring (sic) slacks. Also, we would no longer have to show off our legs for the passengers.”
Some extraordinary reflections on clothing, comfort, capitalism, and self-identity including a reprinted article by Julia Criukshank in the June 1971 issue of Pedestal (in an issue with articles on garment workers and “reminiscences on fashion”).
Some other excellent reflections from the archive include several pieces in Branching Out, including an article by Karen Lawrence in the March/April 1977 issue (on fashion and feminism), and an editorial in the July/August issue.