Tempest in a Niqab

What Naema Ahmed’s expulsion from a French class really shows


In August 2009, Naema Ahmed, a pharmacist, mother of three and an observant Muslim living in Montreal, began what is known in French as a cour de francisation—literally, a Frenchifying class—at CEGEP Saint-Laurent in the city’s north end. Apart from being taught the (often confounding) rules of French conjugation, students taking the 33-week, 1,000-hour class learn rhythm, intonation and the practical use of the language: how to shop for groceries and clothes, as well as how to ask for help if they get lost or confused. They also learn the basic workings of Quebec society: that it is French-speaking, secular and considers men and women as equals. In other words, the class teaches integration nearly as much as it does the French language.

At the behest of a school official, Ahmed lifted her niqab—a garment worn by certain observant Muslim women that covers the whole face except the eyes—when registering for the course. When she showed up for class, however, Ahmed refused to remove her veil in the presence of the three male students in attendance in the class of 19. The following 11 weeks, according to a government source, “were one step forward, two steps back”; the teacher often had to halt oral exercises between students to accommodate Ahmed—she didn’t want to speak unveiled to the men of the class. Moreover, the source said, Ahmed at first agreed to remove her niqab for certain exercises, then changed her mind as the classes wore on. “There was no will on her part to compromise,” said the source. (Ahmed was contacted by Maclean’s for this story, but she declined an interview.)

Midway through the second 11-week block of classes, the teacher had had enough. She went to the director of the school, Paul-Émile Bourque. School officials further attempted to have Ahmed remove the veil, which failed; Bourque then called the province’s Immigration Ministry, which runs the classes. (The $4,000-program is entirely subsidized by the Quebec government.) With the consent of Yolande James, Quebec’s minister of immigration, Ahmed was asked to leave the class. It was likely the first time in the program’s 40-year history that a student was turned away on account of a few square centimetres of black cloth.

Ahmed has now become the centrepiece of the ensuing media storm; another school asked her to leave when her name hit the headlines across the country, after she refused yet again to remove her niqab. She has since filed a complaint with Quebec’s human rights tribunal. It is the latest salvo in the continuing debate over so-called “reasonable accommodations,” pitting the Quebec model of integration against the religious convictions of a handful of recent arrivals—and, some say, the rest-of-Canada model that exists outside Quebec’s borders.

Welcoming—and fretting about—immigration has been something of a national pastime since well before the federal government enshrined multiculturalism as its official policy in 1971. From outrage at the spectre of pork-free cabanes à sucre in Quebec to a backlash against religious schools in Ontario and beyond, the country as a whole has experienced certain growing pains as it has come to depend on immigrants to buoy its flagging number of old-stock Canadians.

But what Ahmed’s case shows, more than any intolerance in Quebec, may be how the country remains divided along linguistic lines. “It was a decision that needed to be made,” James told Maclean’s recently, of her decision to become personally involved in the case. “We have a responsibility to defend the individual rights and freedoms, but I also believe that one person’s rights must take into account the individual rights of others.” And the vast majority of Quebecers agreed with the government’s decision to ask Ahmed to leave.

But reaction outside Quebec was swift and righteously outraged. “Quebec…is proving to be unreasonable,” opined the Globe and Mail in an editorial, suggesting that the removal of Ahmed from the class was akin to “empowering state agents to enforce dress codes”—something usually reserved for “Arab and West Asian countries, such as the former Taliban regime.” “Quebec…is fast becoming the most hostile province in Canada for anyone of a minority culture or religion,” wrote Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz. “In Quebec they don’t like the burka,” wrote CBC business columnist and anchor Amanda Lang on her Twitter account. “[A]nd they’re funding in vitro with tax dollars…anyone see a pattern here?” (Lang, who didn’t respond to requests to elaborate, apparently confused the niqab with the burka, the far more constraining garment worn primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

This sentiment doesn’t necessarily stand up to the facts. In the past 10 years, Quebec has seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of permanent residents living within its borders. Yet, says Université de Montréal professor Marie McAndrew, the province is still seen as intolerant and backward. At the same time, many Quebecers believe the rest of Canada is a cabal of “ghettoized communities where no one speaks to each other.” A recent Environics poll suggests that while Canadians feel discrimination on the whole is on the wane, they make an exception when it comes to English-French relations: each group feels persecuted by the other in roughly the same measures as five years ago, when the poll was last conducted.

Despite this, McAndrew says, “In the end, English and French Canada are about the same. We both practise mixed models of integration. We want diversity but we want to impose certain limits. We are both preoccupied with equality. But people don’t want to hear this.”

Consider the case of Richard Alary. In 1993, the Quebec municipal judge asked a woman on trial in his court to remove her hijab, or head covering. She refused, and the case became an Ahmed-style media circus that saw the judge praised within Quebec and pilloried in the rest of the country. “I was praised for sticking to my guns against the Muslims, but also made out to be some anti-Muslim fanatic,” Alary said recently. “I was advised by my Muslim friends not to travel to certain Muslim countries.”

Seventeen years after the fact, Alary sees certain parallels between his situation and the controversy surrounding CEGEP Saint-Laurent’s decision. “It should never have taken on the proportions that it did. We automatically jump to conclusions, we jump right to the barricades, and finally there’s really nothing there.” The latest dust-up also suggests an evolution within Quebec society; the fuss over Alary was over the hijab, which covers a Muslim woman’s head. Today, as La Presse columnist Michèle Ouimet points out, “the hijab is banal in Montreal.”

And certainly, the issue of religious garb in public institutions isn’t unique to Quebec. Last year, an Ontario Muslim woman resisted removing her veil while testifying in provincial court. The woman, known as N.S. because of a publication ban, was allegedly sexually assaulted by two men of her acquaintance. In the subsequent trial, she claimed that wearing her veil while testifying was a matter of religious freedom. A provincial judge ruled against her, though she won a partial victory on appeal; N.S., Superior Court justice Frank Marrocco ruled, had the right to wear the veil, but would have to face a hearing to determine the sincerity of her beliefs. The Ontario Human Rights Commission sided with N.S.

Though N.S.’s case involves certain accommodations for the particulars of her case, “the broad principles are the same” in the two cases, says David Butt, N.S.’s lawyer. “It’s a question of whether the system, be it justice or education or what have you, can function while accommodating that belief.”

Naema Ahmed’s case will soon head to Quebec’s human rights tribunal. She is reportedly smarting from all the attention. “I have three kids, and now, I am very nervous, and they’re crying, and I have quite a problem,” she told the CBC recently. Because she won’t be learning French anytime soon—and because of her sudden infamy—she doesn’t expect to find work at a pharmacy anytime soon.

“We use cases like this, not for the sake of immigrants, but only to make a point about how our model is better than the other, that the other side is foolish,” says McAndrew. It’s a classic bit of Canadiana: what is otherwise a legitimate discussion about the place of immigrants in our society has devolved into the mutual exchange of old stereotypes.


Tempest in a Niqab

  1. As a Muslim, I have to disagree with Ahmed’s actions as our religion clearly states that we must be a part of the society we live in while still respecting our religion. And, the religion only requires you to wear a Hijab to cover your hair, you can and should show your face to interact with the people you work and live with in the society. Islam teaches a person to be friendly towards everyone, and how are you supposed to do that with the veil on. If its such a problem, you should not put yourself in such classes or situations and avoid leaving your house or I hate to say it.. but go back to a society where you do not need to take off your veil and I am saying this as a Muslim.

  2. Suggesting there is a linguistic divide on this issue is pretty unreasonable. There are critics of both languages commenting on the decision of the Quebec Government (and for that matter, all levels of Government). I’m absolutely certain there is a statisticially significant portion of Canadian society outside of Quebec that supports the measures taken in this case.

    What is unfortunate to me is that this immigration case is being used as a ‘wedge issue’ to try to further inflame English/French relations in Canada.

    So far as I’m concerned: the Quebec Government is paying for the classes. It’s quite reasonable that they set some expectations for proper learning. All classrooms need rules to prevent disruptions to the learning experience.

  3. I do believe anonymous is correct. With all respect to the Muslims of Canada, I find the practice of covering the face a direct insult to our soldiers in Afghanistan. A very strong justification for fighting that war has been to free the people from the draconian measures imposed by the Taliban on their own people. One of those draconian measures has been to subject the females of the country to complete and utter slavery to the men under the disguise of religious laws. With all respect, each time I see a woman letting herself take that sort of stance in this free country of Canada, I feel disgust. I suspect this girl is acting like many teens or young women and dressing to make her personal statement. I do respect her choice to do so, but I draw the line when I am forced to interact with that person.

  4. I thought we made it pretty clear after we eliminated religion from the classroom a decade or few ago? I remember doing Christian prayers before class started as a child and then we got rid of it. As an Asian immigrant from a Budhist family, I was happy to see religion go out of the school and learn about my new country and what they were about without tinted glasses. Getting rid of the idea of the “other” is the first steps of becoming a true immigrant, and that requires both sides to comply. Welcome to being an immigrant Ahmed’s of the world, the west has always tried to separate church and state (failing at times, but the spirit of it fights on), and I learned that change goes both ways and I don’t mean just because you moved that that qualifies as a finish line. Sad to see that people ask for change, are given it and just squanders it with blockhead devotion to tradition/religion. What the point of moving if you just wanted to stay the same? And who’s the emphasis to change in this situation Ahmed? Canada? Or have we forgotten the real issue here maybe another salvo of the separation of church and state? Debate is the heart of every healthy relationship, but muddying the issues serve only to muck up the well and leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouths.

  5. I don’t think Ahmed was being reasonable. It wasn’t because of the veil that they could not accomodate her, it was because of the demands that infringed the rights of the male students in the class, such as asking them to leave the room when she made a presentation to the class. The teacher refused so Ahmed made her presentation facing away from the class and the three males. How do you think these male students felt, and what gave her the right to discriminate against them like that !

  6. As an immigrant of 40 years I disagree with the tone of the article and I agree with Ron. Most Canadians are horrified that any immigrant would insult this country with a mask by any other name. Many Muslim countries ban this outlandish practice. To borrow an unscientific survey from your rival, the Globe and Mail, 80 percent of the responders –English speaking responders across Canada– were against allowing this practice in public places. The ultimate security of society is knowing your neighbour. This is not religion, but a defiant gesture by immature young women used far more in this country than Turkey, Egypt and other “moderate” Muslim countries. This is not a French-English issue. Quebec is correct, and those who criticize this reasonable approach have not experienced this insulting behavour. “Reasonable accommodation” is a two-way process. A mask is unreasonable in public events requiring ID. This includes classrooms, Passport offices, airports, Motor Vehicle offices, banks, etc.

  7. p.s. I don’t agree with Kevin’s comment. Just as we should not have other’s values imposed on us, we should not impose our values on others (go figure eh?). Sorry if you feel it’s disrespectful to the troops, but we do not belong in Afghanistan, in their country. We have no right to be there imposing our values on them by force.

  8. Well,Francis, to say that we don’t impose our values to others is an illusion, and we must realize that. Ultimately, all rules are based on value type judgments. When we do not allow a male to beat his wife, we are imposing to him our values. When we want to allow all the religions, we are imposing our idea that all religions have the same right to exists, even when some religions say that all the unfaithful people must die.

  9. what’s wrong with french people?

  10. As a quebecker I find it refreshing and I am so glad to read all these pragmatic and well sounded comments amidst all those hysterical and offensive attacks that I have read lately in some english canadian media.
    Any good will canadian from any origin who knows what quebec society is about will affirm without any hesitation as I am that quebec is not an intolerant and racist society, actually not less and certainly not more than any other canadian province.
    I am the first to agree that quebec is a bit too sensitive to critics sometime, but when it comes to those kind of affirmations that the street of montreal are somewhat a reminiscence of nazi germany I get mad. That is so untrue has always been. Some journalists should come to visit next summer, sit on terrace somewhere on a busy street of montreal or quebec city, try some restaurant and talk with peoples, read a book from an immigrant quebec writer …. first observe these white negros of quebec for a while before you write about it.

  11. I agree with James, as a Muslim I even find this mask unreasonable in public places. If it bothers her that much, she should really just stay away from all public places. There are “men” everywhere and by wearing a veil and making a big deal about it, they are just getting more attention which is completely the opposite point of wearing a veil.

  12. Francis – if you think that being in Afghanistan is “imposing our values” – how would you feel about living there? The country is full of thugs, dealers and terrorists. Get with the program – they are a threat to the safety and security of every single one of us who don’t believe in “Muslim Jihad” – how’s that for forcing values? Women there are nothing but reproductive machines – treated as worthless scum and beaten/abused regularly! In your books is that ok??

  13. One thing that should be kept in mind is that the male students in the class were most likely newly arrived immigrants also. As one of the stated aims of the course is to help students understand the Canadian/Quebecois values of secularism and the equality of men and woman, imposing on them special measures to accommodate would have been confusing and would have countered the important message that course was trying to convey.

    I lament about this story has given rise in Quebec to calls for strict secularism in the public service. I am an atheist, but I would consider such strict secularism to be draconian. As an English Canadian living in Quebec, I am proud that minority Canadians such as Sikhs can wear Cultural symbols when serving in the RCMP, governments and so on. However, This bit about covering the face is too much of an imposition on the other members of society and I feel the Quebec government has handled it correctly. It should be handled as a specific request and should not be used to argue against the entire range of “reasonable accommodations” Canada has made.

  14. Hi Nona,

    I wouldn’t like to live in Afghanistan. Just like I would prefer living in my house, with my family, to living in your house with your family. But that doesn’t mean I should drop a bomb on your house does it?

    The women there are reproductive machines, and we’re the exact opposite. The net result is our birthrate is well below replacment, our population is aging rapidly and we’re headed for that thing Charles Darwin mentioned (not evolution, the other thing). Which is why we so desparately need immigrants in the first place. Think about it . . .

  15. Francis, I begin to understand your position now. It’s something like this: if someone beats you well in your house, I have to stay happily in my house and not to interfere. Remarkable! As regarding to what can be inferred from your position about the “reproductive machines”, well, this is scary!

  16. We are a secular nation.No religion should think they have the right to not obey the national laws of the country.This stopped when we become multi cultural.You either accept our laws or you have the right to give up your citizenship and return to the country of your birth.If you have the luxury to be born here thank your lucky stars and adapt our ways freedom of religion within its confines and freedom of the country outside of them

  17. As much as I don’t agree with Naema Ahmed’s decisions, we must also look at the consequences of this event.

    Where do we draw the line or set boundries for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? What kind of message are we sending other young girls who also have to wear this veil? Are they not condmned for what they had no control over?

    I have Muslim friends and many of them have experienced racism in some way or another. One friend in particular, was called of to the principal’s office in America, the day after 9/11, despite having a perfect record.It was to avoid that racism, they came here, to Canada.

    I’m just worried that by punishing this one woman, we are unknowingly taking away the only chances for their daughters to be educated and become, well, Canadian.

    I just think that Quebec, and the rest of Canada for that matter, should tread lightly and resolve this case in the most diplomatic way as possible.

  18. While our Candian press tries its damndest to make this a story about religion, it is just another case of an unreasonable individual who just wants to make life miserable for everyone around her. Unfotunately I have met too many people like Neama. Race or Religion has nothing to do with it. They just want to be the center of attention and will do whatever it takes to be that. Just another spoiled rotten child in an adults body.

  19. Salaam

    It is easy to say” Go back to where you came from”,but do not forget that British Muslims are actually born and educated here. They are in the unenviable position of trying to combine two diffent worlds. That is no easy.

    Multiculturalism is not about separation, ghettoisation or balkanisation. It is, instead, a recognition of both diversity and the need for common ground, mutual espect,and cultural engagement.

    Muslims all over the world never opposed English as a language what they did was opposition of the English culture and their system of education. In Pakistan, the medium of instruction is English and the official language is both English and Urdu. Pakistan is going to send English teachers to Korea for the teaching of English language.

    Muslim parents would like their children to be well versed in standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. Majority of Muslim children leave schools with low grades because state schools with monolingual teachers are not capable of teaching English to bilingual children.At the same time, they need to learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.
    I am concerned with the education of the Muslim children. It is nothing to do with integration or segregation. Those state schools where Muslim children are in majority, in my opinion, may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models.

  20. I’m sorry – but the reason for a decline in the birth rate has nothing to do with a niqab – and women don’t need to be be suppressed in order to want to reproduce! The world is already overpopulated and it would be nice if people understood the difference between having a choice and being forced into it!

    Secondly – “It was to avoid that racism, they came here, to Canada.” – are you serious? So they came to Canada to AVOID RACISM IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY??? Why would their own country treat them that way? In Canada, how can one expect people to treat you when a large quantity of these individuals come to CANADA, threaten our very freedom and independence by expecting US to conform to THEIR ways rather than the other way around? Why on EARTH would I want to? I love the Canadian culture the way it is. THAT is what they come here for – and then they want to have their cake and eat it too.

    The men from these countries are brought up to believe that women are their BELONGINGS and need to be kept hidden so that other men might not see how beautiful they are – totally insecure if you ask me. What if one of your daughters married a Muslim and was forced to wear a hiqab and you could do NOTHING about it because its’ “cultural” or “religious”? How far does one take that before you threaten the very freedoms and liberties that we all as Canadians enjoy so much?

    I have a relative who teaches Elementary school in one of the Surrey school districts – she taught at a school that was predominately Muslim – one of the parents once said to her “Don’t worry, we are going to take over the world, our populations are growing in vast numbers”. Give that a thought….

  21. A couple of points:

    1) The fact that Canada is a secular society with a secular education system does not give it the right to interfere with the freedom of expression rights of any given student. We also have religious freedom. If a public school student were sent home from school for wearing a crucifix and a t-shirt with a religious slogan, people would be siding with the student. If a nun were refused the opportunity to take a French class in her habit, people would be siding with the nun.

    Unless you can explain to me how wearing a niqab prevents a person from speaking French or learning the language, then what we have hear is just standard racist backlash against a minority wanting the same rights as the majority.

    2) Canada has religious freedom. The only limits to religious freedom (and to freedom of expression) come in relation to breaking the law or when a person’s actions infringe on other people’s rights. I cannot for the life of me fathom whose rights were infringed on in this case. The teacher said the woman wouldn’t lift the veil to talk to other people, but why does she need to lift it at all? Can’t you hear her through it?

    3) I can’t say I’ve found English Canadians to be any more enlightened on this matter than the French. However, there is no question that the sovereignist-oriented Quebecois get a special prize for racism (and I say this as both a francophile and a sovereignist sympathizer). Part in parcel with the desire to grow the Quebec nation is the desire that it not be “watered down” either linguistically or culturally by immigrant populations, or threatened territorially by the land claims of the First Nations.
    These are opinions I have heard articulated not just by backwater conservatives but by people one would otherwise identify as progressive. One need only consider Parizeau’s comment about “money and the ethnic vote” costing Quebec the sovereignty referendum to realize how pervasive this attitude is.

  22. What does it mean when Immigration Canada says ” Bring your differences with you”. wearing niqab is the difference she has brought and no one has the right to tell her take it off or wear it back, I have seen women wearing just “two pieces” in public which is quite distructing and disturbing for some people but no one has objected them because they have the right what to wear and what not to.
    It is only Quebec where issues like this always arise, I dont know what is wrong with them? Quebec is one of the provinces of CANADA not one of France’s so they must obey the Canadian laws not the french ones.

  23. Comment by Anonymous on 24 March 2010:

    As a Muslim, I have to disagree with Ahmed’s actions as our religion clearly states that we must be a part of the society we live in while still respecting our religion.

    Thank you for stating this so clearly.

  24. I do not believe that anyone should have their face covered, except, in the case of snow sports, a ski-mask, when necessary for warmth. I do not feel safe when I meet people with their faces covered up. I wouldn’t know if that is a man or a woman coming into the ladies washroom. We would not permit someone to walk around the Mall wearing a ski mask, because people would not feel safe. These women cannot fully partake of Canadian society while their faces are covered up, they are not able to be treated as equal,and in some cases,they want special treatment.(ie: men leave the room while they are there) I have a right to look someone in the face and determine if they are friendly or not. I cannot do this with women wearing these garments. This is a public safety issue, first, and an erosion of human rights, secondly. The women who cover up their faces don’t have equal rights and men who have to leave a room because of these women don’t have equal rights. This is not a religious issue, and even if it was, there are other religious beliefs that are not allowed in Canada, like multiple wives, for example.

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