Hearings into Quebec's secularism legislation open with chorus of support from feminists

Public hearings into Quebec's controversial secularism bill opened Tuesday with a series of women celebrating the government's legislation as an advance for feminism and suggesting it go even further.

One group called on Quebec to enshrine into law a separation of church and state in order to protect the rights of women.

They stand in contrast to other activists who criticize Bill 21 for targeting minorities such as Muslim women who wear the hijab.

The bill seeks to prohibit public sector workers in positions of authority, including judges, police officers, prison guards and teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Opinion polls suggest the legislation enjoys strong public support in Quebec.

As the hearings got underway in Quebec City, organizations representing Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians held a news conference in Montreal claiming the government ignored their requests to appear before the committee.

The committee did hear from Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken critic of Islam, who said any woman who refuses to take off her hijab to work in the public service is a ``fundamentalist.''

She called the hijab ``sexist,'' saying it has no place in government institutions such as schools or daycares.

She asked how schools can accept sexist symbols when their mission is to promote equality between men and women.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has set aside six days for public consultations on its bill.

The CAQ and the Parti Quebecois favour restrictions on religious symbols including the hijab, kippa, turban and cross, while the two other parties with seats in the legislature, the Liberals and Quebec solidaire, are opposed.