Women shouldn't be stoned, but is that really the point?

A rural Canadian town's declaration of "norms" may border on xenophobia.

Published January 30, 2007 9:26PM (EST)

It's funny, given the article today in Salon about virulent letters from readers, to write something that is guaranteed to provoke a response. But here goes.

According to the Globe and Mail, a rural Quebec town near Montreal called Hérouxville has passed a "declaration of 'norms'" that forbids people from stoning women or burning them with acid, and prevents kids from bringing weapons to school, even if they're ceremonial. Also, it declares that female police officers should be allowed to arrest male suspects regardless of the suspect's religion and that women are allowed to drive, dance and make decisions on their own.

Here's the quick background: Hérouxville, home to 1,338 residents, has only one immigrant family. It would like to have more, but it wants to make sure that immigrants who move to Hérouxville know a bit about the culture they're joining, so that they'll "assimilate," rather than ask for so-called reasonable accommodations for religious or cultural traditions, like wearing face coverings or allowing prayer in schools.

Hérouxville is reacting to other "reasonable accommodations" controversies in Canada, including a Montreal gym that was asked to obscure its windows so that women exercising wouldn't be visible to a Hasidic Jewish synagogue across the street, and requests for gender-specific swimming hours to accommodate religious groups.

"'I asked myself, 'How is it that these people can ask for such things?' And the only possible answer is that these people do not know who we are," André Drouin, one of the six town councilors and a major player behind the declaration, said. After a town meeting in December, Hérouxville's residents decided to tell people who they were.

Now, before you jump to make a comment on how ridiculous or reasonable this is, I suggest that you read the actual resolution, which can be found here. Some of it sounds very reasonable: "We consider that men and women are of the same value. Having said this, we consider that a woman can: drive a car, vote, sign checks, dance, decide for herself, speak her peace ... walk alone in public places, study, have a job, have her own belongings and anything else that a man can do." Fair enough.

But then there are also parts that are clearly aimed against specific religions. For example: Boys and girls "can eat any type of meat, vegetables or fruit ... If our children eat meat, for example, they don't need to know where it came from or who killed it."

And then there's the juxtaposition of saying that, for the most part, Hérouxville schools are secular but Christian traditions are OK: "In many of our schools no prayer is allowed. We teach more science and less religion. In our scholastic establishments, be [they] public or private, generally, at the end of the year you will possibly see 'Christmas Decorations,' or 'Christmas Trees.' The children might also sing 'Christmas Carols' if they want to." (Halloween face masks are also protected as a religious tradition.)

It's also important to note the community poll of 196 people, taken in December 2006, that led to this declaration. It's all in French, but basically, it shows that the declaration does accurately represent the views of the Hérouxville residents who showed up to the meeting that night -- all of whom think that it should be legal to drink alcohol and that men and women should be allowed to swim at the same time.

Is this a reasonable declaration of community values, meant to let immigrants know ahead of time what sort of culture they're getting themselves into and to prevent the use of religion to protect sexism? Or is it xenophobic, with particular restrictions against non-Christian faiths? If the town board's values (like the idea that men and women are equal, for example) weren't so close to our own standards, would such a declaration be acceptable?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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