Today I removed a small silver and pink cross pendant from around my neck. It was a gift I received from a friend on the occasion of my baptism–the Feast of All Saints in 2005–and I have been wearing it on and off ever since that event. While I have not always worn the cross, my decision to remove it today was far more felt and deliberate than in the past.
A ‘Charter of Values’ proposed this past September by the Quebec government–my government–has called for the removal of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ by public sector employees in an effort to bolster ‘state neutrality’. To clarify for the general public what would constitute an ostentatious religious symbol, the government created a stylish pictogram that illustrates permitted versus prohibited articles of dress and accessories. The small cross that I have worn, not unlike many small crosses I see worn by women and men alike (mostly the former) that vary in quality, expense, and provenance, is not considered an ostentatious religious symbol and therefore would not be banned. Also not subject to ban are the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, the massive metres-high cross on Mount Royal, as well as the countless street names through the province that cite Christian saints and martyrs, and the normative Christian-based holidays. The government has argued that these numerous and exclusive state-sponsored symbols are part of the history and heritage of the province (or ‘nation’) and thereby have a role to play in public life. The only kind of cross subject to prohibition is the large pectoral cross–the kind one normally only sees worn by a cleric of high rank or by a blinged out hip hop artist.
If you clicked on the link above to view the pictogram of accepted and banned religious symbols according to this proposed Charter, you will have seen that women’s headscarves (worn by many practising Muslim women), kippahs (worn by many practising Jewish men and some practising Jewish women), and turbans (worn by many practising Sikh men) would all be banned. The government has made an attempt to get creative by devising alternatives to those banned articles: a pair of crescent moon earrings for Muslims, a star of David ring for Jews… A designer line of pret-a-porter faith symbols for newcomers?
In addition to ‘state neutrality’, one of the motivations for this ban, explicitly laid out in the Charter, is to highlight and ‘enforce’ the rights to which men and women are entitled equally (while already clearly enshrined in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, is taken up again in section 1.B of the newly proposed Charter). If you have been following French Quebec media over the past month or more, you will have encountered many proclamations of outright disgust directed at women who wear headscarves, because they couldn’t possibly have chosen to wear such a garment motivated by either 1) their own personal agency, or 2) a good and intelligent reason. According to Louise Mailloux, a philosophy teacher at the CEGEP du Vieux Montreal who supports the Charter: religion was designed by men to control and dominate women. As someone pointed out to me recently about the longstanding and strictly enforced ban (only recently rescinded) on headscarves worn by members of parliament and even students in majority Muslim Turkey: in 1999 when a female MP attempted to take her oath wearing a headscarf, the prime minister of the day put a stop to it, declaring: “put this woman in her place”. So it appears militant secularism does not provide a panacea for the involuntary muscle spasms of male chauvinism after all.
I am already vaguely aware of the privileges I can easily (and some would argue unjustifiably) claim for myself because of the colour of my skin, my place of birth and my home, my social networks, my education. Do I want to use a piece of jewellery to enshrine this privileged existence explicitly in my daily life of faith as well? Since the government is determined to make it hard for newcomers to integrate into society while retaining a visibly different (from Christian) faith identity, I’m happy to remove my own state-sanctioned symbol as a small gesture of solidarity with those who are currently threatened. It’s true these proposed rules only apply to employees of the public sector, which I am not; however, the appropriation and approval of this ‘small cross’ as a matter of civil dress code, coupled with the fact that most people who see me any given day do not know who I am or where I work yet are invited immediately to speculate on something very complex and intimate about me through the cross I wear, is enough for me to remove this (let’s admit it) long-compromised symbol that is once again a locus of privilege.
So I’ve lost my cross. Where shall I–and others who come to know me–find it if it’s no longer hanging around my neck? A few places: in communion with God, in scripture that speaks to me and challenges my worldview, in prayer, in confessing my transgressions and asking for forgiveness, in forgiving my transgressors, in gathering with other disciples of the faith, in reaching out, connecting with, and serving those who are not of my peculiar faith incarnation. And I welcome your suggestions, especially ideas around visually creative civil disobedience! (As for wearing a pectoral cross, I’ve considered it, but feel it may send out some rather mixed signals given its normative use? Perhaps a large and elaborate fish or dove would be better?) One would think ‘rulers’ by now would know better than to throw people of faith into the lion’s den; then again, maybe we are being offered a unique opportunity to identify and manifest what we really care about and make greater strides towards it.