Tempest in a Niqab - Macleans.ca

Tempest in a Niqab

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

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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.