So much depends on a surname! This time it’s Benhabib.


As many are well aware, Quebec has recently been through an election and the issue of insiders and outsiders, of protecting the status quo, has been illuminated.  Quebec’s identity was made an election issue by the Parti Québécois (PQ), particularly its leader, Pauline Marois, as she argued for maintaining some symbols of religion (i.e., the Catholic crucifix) that are part of Quebec’s established cultural heritage, while banning other religious symbols (such as the Sikh kirpan and Muslim hijab). (She has more plans, too, like Quebec citizenship.)

And then names became part of this debate…

In the middle of August, Djemila Benhabib (pictured above), an (as it turned out) unsuccessful PQ candidate, voiced her disagreement with Marois, by arguing for consistency with use of religious symbols. (Though she later rescinded.)  Around the same time, during a radio call-in show, the city of Saguenay’s mayor, Jean Tremblay, condemned Benhabib’s statement with this comment:

“What’s outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who’s come here from Algeria, and we can’t even pronounce her name.”

Radio host Paul Arcand acknowledged Tremblay’s comments as racist and xenophobic and also told him how to pronounce Benhabib, but Mr. Tremblay continued, “They’re making our culture and religion disappear everywhere. You don’t realize that.” (This is excerpted from The Globe and Mail, August 16, 2012).

Trembaly’s concern with not knowing how to pronounce Benhabib’s name can be understood in more or less sympathetic ways.  1. We could feel for him, as one of Quebec’s dominant culture of “soft French Canadians,” for not being able to pronounce Benhabib.  2. But perhaps he means that someone whose name isn’t recognized, isn’t even pronounceable by him, should not be able to comment on directions forward for Quebec society, even as a potential elected representative.

Part of what is interesting here is how a name is called upon to determine who may comment on the maintenance of Quebec’s culture.  So much depends on a surname!

As well, Tremblay’s division between “us, the soft French Canadians” and “they” who are “making our culture and religion disappear” demonstrates a pretty intense insider/outsider demarcation.  For many residents of Quebec, in each of our particular positions, this difference exists as more of a continuum, not something so binary.

This interaction leaves me mulling some points: how does time figure into social belonging, into cultural representation?  Must a person who has immigrated always be an immigrant?

When can immigrating be seen as a verb, an action one takes, that we needn’t always define or be defined by?  After how many years in a country can one’s suggestions be considered relevant?  And shouldn’t that be based on the quality of your suggestions, not your last name?

Excerpted article

Contextualizing response from Antonia Maioni