English Canada’s New Passion for the Niqab

with 327 comments

There is something profoundly dishonest about Canada’s English-language press coverage of the expulsion of Ms. Naema Ahmed from her French class in Montreal for refusing to remove her niqab–a form of dress apparently inspired by Star Wars’ Imperial guard favoured by ultra-orthodox muslim women.

According the Globe and Mail, Ms. Ahmed “was told to remove the niqab or leave because a student’s mouth must be visible so an instructor can work on pronunciation.”  This, according to the Globe, was akin to the practices “in some Arab and west Asian countries, such as the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan” and that “empowering state agents to enforce dress codes and bar the education of women is hitherto unknown in Canada.”

Sure…  Except that, as it has widely been reported in the French-language press, even though Ms Ahmed’s teacher had agreed to let her do some exercises one-on-one and give oral presentations facing away from the class,  she STILL refused to remove her veil AND demanded that male students be removed from her line of sight in the class.

The student was expelled after the teacher, the school and her classmates, who also, by the way, have the right to learn French, had made considerable efforts to accommodate her.  Her demands reached the point where other students were being penalized.

We could forgive the editors of the Globe and Mail who are so thoroughly isolated in the English language that they actually published an editorial last week against changing the word forefathers in the first line of the French lyrics of Canada’s national anthem on the grounds that “Forebears doesn’t really work, because it sounds like four bears.”  (Actually, Forefathers and Forbears are English words and therefore neither are in the French lyrics of O Canada.  In French the word is Aieux, which sounds nothing like four bears or quatre ours, but a little bit like loser.)

But the boys and girls at the Montreal Gazette certainly speak French and yet they also chose to grossly simplify a complex issue that still divides Muslim nations like Turkey and Egypt–Ms. Ahmed’s homeland–centuries after the passing of the Prophet and turn into the more familiar narrative of redneck Québécois chasing out a foreigner out “their” schools.   “Your face or your faith, she was told. She chose her faith.”

Well, if it’s OK to ask that men, be denied the privilege of contemplating your holy self, if that what your faith says, is it OK to ask that, say, Jews, gentiles and infidels sit in the back of the class?  Maybe that they try not to touch to many things?

Just last year the case of a woman refusing to remove her niqab in a courtroom was in the news in Ontario.  No Canadian newspaper thought this story worthy of an editorial.  In fact, a quick search of “Quebec +niqab” and “Ontario+niqab” on the Canadian Newstand search engine tells me that the Canada’s English media has already killed four times as many trees over the Quebec incident.

Four times?  Surely the right to cover your face in court will have consequences on our justice system and society at least as important as the right to learn French with a mask.

What’s going on here is that the “French people Bad, Canada Rocks!” bit is just English Canada’s natural defence mechanism against controversial issues that it is not mature enough to face yet.  But it doesn’t work.  These things are complicated and repeating “Canada is bilingual and multicultural” over and over again won’t make them go away.

Written by angryfrenchguy

March 14, 2010 at 12:08 am

327 Responses

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  1. The niqab in the courtroom was in a criminal case where she was the accuser, and it was argued her face needed to be seen during her testimony, in order that her demeanour could be judged. Convicting a criminal defendant is a more important matter than seeing someone’s lips to teach them pronunciation.

    Also, importantly, the judge found that her belief that she needed to wear the niqab was not sincere.

    The decision is being appealed, and may well be overturned.

    I don’t think the comparison with Naima is entirely fair.

    Also, the “accommodations” that the cegep made were all based on the fact that, according to them, she sometimes needed to remove her veil. The need for all of the gymnastics involved in deciding who would sit wear would have been obviated if she had simply been allowed to wear her veil in the first place.

    If you read the French-language press, most accounts make it sound as if she wanted to force the men to move around and face the wall while giving a talk, all while wearing the veil. But this seems unlikely, since the very raison d’etre of the veil is to allow her to be in the presence of men without these difficulties.

    Here is her version of events, which seems entirely plausible:

    The Journal de Montréal says, several days after her side of the story came out:

    “La semaine dernière, le débat sur les accommodements raisonnables a refait surface au Québec après l’expulsion de la jeune Naïma d’un cours de francisation. Le Cégep de Saint-Laurent affirme avoir fait le maximum pour satisfaire les demandes de la jeune femme avant de finalement référer son dossier au gouvernement.

    On lui avait notamment permis de s’isoler pour faire ses exercices et de faire un exposé oral, de dos, au fond de classe. Le cégep a toutefois refusé d’accéder à sa requête lorsqu’elle a exigé que des hommes changent de place parce qu’ils lui faisaient face. ”

    No mention of the fact that this is disputed by her, and that, it would seem, these events occurred at times she’d been required to remove her niqab.

    You’ll note also that this is reporting, not even an opinion piece.

    So English Canadian newspapers may have a point in not getting caught up in these details, since it seems clear all of this could have been avoided by letting her wear her niqab at all times, and that is precisely what they say should have happened.

    So much has been made in parts of the francophone media of the fact that the school supposedly bent over backwards to accommodate her, that nobody seems to have noticed that this is now a moot point for other reasons. That’s because the government had her expelled from another school for wearing her niqab, even though there don’t seem to have been any problems there:

    I think the French press has been quite selective with facts itself. You want to reach a certain conclusion, so you pick the facts that suit you. That’s bad enough in an editorial, but it’s even worse in what’s supposed to be reporting.

    I. Hall

    March 14, 2010 at 1:00 am

  2. I’m confused….why would she be taking french lessons? Willingly ? The news keeps getting stranger by the day. If the Niqab were festooned with frogs and fleur-de-lis the franco-fascists would find themselves in quite the conundrum. Where is Marc Lepine when you need him frog people?


    March 14, 2010 at 3:45 am

  3. Yahya

    March 14, 2010 at 6:56 am

  4. I find that curious that they’re have not been news stories on this issue from say, very conservative and intolerant (for the most part, exceptions to every rule) Alberta (read teh blogging tories to find out how intolerant; they seem to think torturing Afghan detainees is just dandy or even the Alberta newspapers). This has never ever come up in their province?

    Or, maybe there are no facially covered folks in Alberta. That too should be a hint to the rest of Canada before they jump on Quebec.


    March 14, 2010 at 7:27 am

  5. JE ME SOUVIENS du 21 février 2012, ou la cour supreme a jugé que le crime d’honneur peut etre toléré mais non encouragé, dans la mesure ou il fait partie du droit a la liberté de religion et/ou de facon a faciliter l’intégration. La nouvelle a été fort mal acceuillie au Québec, alors le globe a publié un éditorial dont j’ai oublié le titre, ou on jugeait de haut les québécois, les considérants comme une nation réactionnaire, fermée a toute forme d’accomodements..


    March 14, 2010 at 8:04 am

  6. Thank you, I. Hall for that balanced presentation of the facts of the case. It is remarkably difficult to cut through the bias in both the French and English media and get to the truth.

    It sounds like core problem is the demand that the student show her face in class. Had her request simply been accommodated there would have been minimal inconvenience to the rest of the class and the only negative would have been that she would have received a slightly less adequate education in French, as her instructor could not help her shape her lips to form proper sounds. What sensible grounds for expulsion exist here?

    To permit the instructor to watch respiration during the speech of the students all students in the classroom should be topless. A small bra is acceptable but a loose fitting shirt prevents education and interferes with the learning experience of the rest of the students in the class. Prudish traditions of not exposing one’s chest in public have no place in a professional classroom.


    March 14, 2010 at 8:58 am

  7. The other side to the argument is that in immigrating to Québec, one should be willing to integrate fully into society. But where to draw the line between integration and self-abnegation?

    Is it necessary that we insist that anyone who comes here become a perfect clone of ourselves and reject everything that constitutes their identity…in public? Should every immigrant who is neither Catholic nor atheist have to abandon his religion to move here? Of course not. Again as I have stated repeatedly the line should be drawn at the point where the assertion of one’s own identity requires others to give up something substantial.

    Wearing a niqab simply does not meet that standard of excessive imposition. Asking male students to face the wall does. However it would appear that this imposition was made not by the student but rather by the instructor, whose own intolerance and lack of understanding of what for much of the world’s population is a perfectly normal behaviour, amplified a modest request by the student to cover her face into a national crisis.


    March 14, 2010 at 9:32 am

  8. to be fair, not all of English Canada is unanimous in its condemation of Quebec in this case. I was shocked to find that the National Post actually defended Quebec. Not the CBC or Globe and Mail, but the National Post.

    The National Post!!!!!

    Of all the media in English Canada that might be, just might be, more fair to Quebec, the National Post would have been last on the list.

    Hell has frozen over.


    March 14, 2010 at 9:42 am

  9. That the National Post supports this move by Quebec virtually constitutes proof that the decision is wrong-headed.

    AFG, the Gazette’s opinion piece you linked, while unnecessarily pessimistic and panicked, seems uncharacteristically reasonable for that particular rag. What exactly is it that disturbs you in the piece? A dress code is a perfectly apt description of what the government evidently intends on imposing.


    March 14, 2010 at 9:52 am

  10. “AFG, the Gazette’s opinion piece you linked, while unnecessarily pessimistic and panicked, seems uncharacteristically reasonable for that particular rag. What exactly is it that disturbs you in the piece?”

    How about:

    “Dress codes for women are something we associate with medieval kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, and throwing women out of school because their behaviour violates fuzzy societal values sounds like something that happens in the wilder reaches of Kandahar.”


    March 14, 2010 at 10:15 am

  11. Wait a few months for this issue in Quebec to blow over and then do a poll and ask English Canadians what they think of turbans in the RCMP. They will no longer seem like paragons of multicultural virtue I assure you.


    March 14, 2010 at 12:58 pm

  12. Secularism is a woman’s issue

    Peuple québécois, puis-je compter sur ta solidarité?
    by Djemila Benhabib (just another racist frog)

    L’islamisme politique est une idéologie misogyne, sexiste, xénophobe et homophobe qui porte en elle la haine et la violence. Dans ce contexte, les violences à l’égard des femmes sont monnaie courante, car les islamismes s’attaquent aux corps des femmes, qui sont devenus un enjeu politique.

    Je l’ai toujours dit et je le répète encore aujourd’hui: le voile islamique n’est pas un simple vêtement. Il est un élément parmi tant d’autres de tout un système de valeurs qui est incompatible avec nos choix démocratiques. L’attachement de certains, voire leur entêtement, à le porter traduit l’état de misère dans lequel a sombré vertigineusement le monde arabe et musulman depuis une trentaine d’années. Le voile islamique est devenu, ici, en Occident, le premier pilier de l’islam alors que de plus en plus de femmes en Iran, au Soudan, en Arabie saoudite et en Afghanistan le condamnent au péril de leur vie.

    C’est cette bataille du port des signes religieux dans la fonction publique du Québec qui se joue en ce moment sous nos yeux. Or rappelez-vous une chose: le voile islamique, quel qu’il soit, porte en lui la négation des femmes et leur asservissement. Lorsque les voiles avancent, les valeurs démocratiques reculent et les droits des femmes avec elles.

    Soyons nombreux à manifester, auprès de nos députés, notre aversion à l’endroit du port de TOUS les voiles islamiques dans la fonction publique ainsi que dans les établissements scolaires, aussi bien pour les enfants que pour leurs enseignantes.


    March 14, 2010 at 1:57 pm

  13. AFG. Hyperbolic yes, but when the entire government of Quebec appears to have been mobilized to keep this poor woman from being allowed to choose how she expresses her own religious beliefs it does start to sound just a bit like the Handmaid’s Tale.

    As if a practicing muslim woman seeking to learn French in public courses somehow jeopardizes the fabric of our society… If she would just stay shut in her home instead of trying to partake in public classes, the danger to society and morality would be neutralized.

    And Acajack is absolutely correct that Canada cannot glibly claim the moral high ground here.


    March 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  14. The assumption that bending backward to make increasing room for religious extremist practices, such as the full Islamic veil and sexual segregation, will result in a “little mosque on the prairie” utopia of social cohesion is not only naive, it is suicidal.

    The Unseen side of the Islamic veil

    by Rosa Valentini (another racist frog?)


    March 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm

  15. Bending over backwards? Suicidal, eh?
    Now who’s being hyperbolic?


    March 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  16. Valentini’s diatribe suggests that the root of the problem is islam itself. In that case, banning a form of dress or a religious practice is too little, too late. If we follow her logic, we should be barring all Muslims from our tranquil land. We should have a question on the immigration forms about religious beliefs and automatically disqualify those whose minds have been contaminated by the Islamic world.

    The veil is a mere symptom.

    ….”frog”? probably not…”racist”? most definitely.


    March 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

  17. Benhabib at least makes a cogent argument. But she too fails to distinguish between personal choice and political mandate.

    The veil, imposed on a woman is an object of oppression, for sure. The unveiling of a woman against her will is another form of oppression. When carried out by the state, either of these acts is a crime against humanity.


    March 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm

  18. for the record – i was not the least bit surprised by the article in the national post. however, i am consistently horrified by what passes for journalism in the globe and mail (affectionately known in some quarters as the “mop and pail”.)

    on the other hand – a close friend (just this week past) referred to my favourite newspaper as the “notional pest.” :)

    jean charest suggested legislation will be forthcoming – this is not that difficult to imagine.

    the way things are going – i can see being told what colour of shoes cannot be worn on wednesdays.

    the government pays for her language training – the government pays for the human rights commission, the government will pay the cegep to pay the fine if the human rights commission finds discrimination in her favour. the government will pay for the publicity in the new law awareness campaign. the government will pay for the lawyers to defend the new law when it is challenged. where does this end?

    that’s easy – it ends with the government’s hand in your pocket to pay for some goofy question on whether or not people can dress as they choose.

    take it off for voting, court, driver’s license (and when behind the wheel) and public service; these are valid concerns – but learning another language in a classroom?

    yes edward. teach her french to the best of her abilities given the circumstances and forget about it. all she wants to do is practice as a pharmacist and earn a living. i wish her the best of luck in her new country of choice.

    is anybody down at the immigration board capable of seeing problems in advance of their decisions? aren’t they paid good money to make good decisions?


    March 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm

  19. “The unveiling of a woman against her will is another form of oppression. When carried out by the state, either of these acts is a crime against humanity.”

    Bullshit. Someone has to call this bluff. If if anyone who claims a given item of clothing is an issue of faith and that forcing them to take it off is a crime against humanity Canada’s classroom will have to allow SS uniforms, KuKluxKlan robes, Klingon costumes and naked people.

    I believe if we err, we should err on the side of tolerance. I cautiously lean towards the opinion that the standard hijab, the simple scarf, should be allowed in public offices.

    But to call any limitation of someone’s dress a crime against humanity is a logical leap that could only be argued by the same people who argued the people of Westmount were an oppressed minority.


    March 14, 2010 at 3:27 pm

  20. Your choice of SS uniforms, KKK robes and naked people all suggest that there is something inherently offensive about the niqab. (including Klingon costumes — I can only guess — betrays your Vulcan bias).

    If your point is that the niqab offends the profeminist leanings of a majority in this society, then I concede the point but still respectfully suggest it goes too far.

    Do we ban skirts? engagement rings? Just because they imply that women and men are not identical?

    The real question then has nothing to do with the niqab and everything to do with the reactions and feelings it evokes in us. It offends our sense of social equality.

    Are we in fact justified in our revulsion of it even though an educated professional pharmacist subjects herself to it willingly and with conviction? Does it actually symbolize the things we are attributing to it?

    Does an engagement band symbolize the subjugation of woman as the property of her father being handed over the become the property of her husband? or the joy of a woman and a man in discovering their mutual love and desire to spend their lives together? Who gets to decide? I say the one wearing the ring gets to decide.


    March 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm

  21. OK maybe crime against humanity goes a tad too far. my bad ;-}

    But it really makes my blood boil to see the government dedicate so much energy and resources to stripping this woman of something (a right, a freedom, or maybe just a piece of cloth).

    Leave Naima alone! Leave her alone! Right now! I mean it!


    March 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm

  22. ” I say the one wearing the ring gets to decide.”

    100% with you on that one edward. but here’s the fine print:

    in choosing quebec (a modern western secular culture) she has agreed to live by our rules. here, she is free to make choices for herself – but when those choices produce consequences that are personally disagreeable to her – the onus falls on her to conform or retire from ambitions that will not pass in the mainstream.

    if she is not willing to bend, conform or provide the slightest appearance of compromise and insists that her host change – then one must question what the motive in coming here was in the first place.

    she can keep her niqab but it is going to cost her. imagine trying to set up the catholic boys and girls club in cairo or the bahai friendship centre in downtown tehran. or this is good – the bi gay lesbian transgendered dance club in mecca.

    with freedom of choice comes the responsibilty of consequences. i resent a definition of tolerance that includes some bogus right to impose intolerance and am not about to include that in my lexicon – today or tomorrow.

    but you can ask me about that next wednesday.


    March 14, 2010 at 6:07 pm

  23. Absolutely Johnny.

    I think the moment the “accommodation” involves asking others to change their lifestyles or actions rather than just opening their minds a bit wider, it becomes unreasonable. I think some of the demands made by the orthodox Jews in Outrement represent a pretty reasonable example of unreasonable.

    On the other hand making handicapped accessible movie theatres seems like an accommodation that ought to be made. At least here there is a valid question of having to weigh the expense to the theatre owner against the rights of the disabled. Something that confirms our humanity and compassion.

    By the way, for me, asking people to dig deeper into their pockets to provide health coverage for the poor falls into that same category. Poverty is not a lifestyle choice….


    March 14, 2010 at 6:20 pm

  24. oh you nasty big provocateur –

    you just want to see me foam at the mouth.


    March 14, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  25. The anglos are so libéral, so open, so generous, so ready to defend others liberty and rights.

    As long as they have the impression they are the providers of these rights and liberties.

    A remnant complex from their lost empire.


    Gébé Tremblay

    March 14, 2010 at 8:09 pm

  26. The thing that bothers me in all this debate is that it is too ideological and forgets to deal with the human being behind the hijab.


    March 14, 2010 at 8:47 pm

  27. SS uniforms are indeed the right comparison.
    But in a sense, these religious uniforms are worst.
    Religion is a disease of the mind, one that cannot be dealt with rational thought. Once you allow people some rights because of some delirious thoughts “based” on faith about some mythical being, bad things happens. Just let’s get rid of freedom of religion. I don’t care if you believe in all-powerful gnomes from Outer-space, just keep it to yourself, follow the minimal rules of life in society and don’t ask anything because of your foolish delusions.
    And by all means, someone please put the cross at the national assembly in the trashbin.


    March 15, 2010 at 7:31 am

  28. Sorry but relgion tends to get on my nerves and maybe there some qualification to make. By saying that we should get rid of freedom of religion, I was not saying that we should persecute believers. On the contrary, what consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business. But God is just a fantasy; people are entitled to their weird fantasy, but basing the law and rights on this fantasy is plain wrong. And when the fantasy become near fascistics, like in the case of the sexist islamic ideology embedded in the niqab (or the sexist christian ideology promoted of the fundamentalists) that’s even worse. If the libertarians here fear so much totalitarism, well, there is no worse totalitarism than a theocracy.


    March 15, 2010 at 7:46 am

  29. AFG : «I believe if we err, we should err on the side of tolerance. I cautiously lean towards the opinion that the standard hijab, the simple scarf, should be allowed in public offices.»

    Any person wearing a religious sign expresses an ensemble of values that go with the religious ideology that informs it.

    -A woman wearing even a “discreet” Islamic veil, communicates through it the inferior and morally impure status given to women in Islam.
    -It also communicates the idea that “God’s laws” should interfere in the conduct of social interactions.
    -And, more importantly, she communicates the idea that people of her (superior) religion should be morally segregated from infidels : Through food, through prayer, through customs and practices, through who gets to marry who, etc.

    Religions divide, segregate and foster mistrust. And that’s why they should be kept out of the social (public) realm.

    Now ask yourself 2 questions :

    1) How do societies where people openly parade their religious affiliations fare in terms of social cohesion and interfaith peace? (Hint : Think Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Kossovo, Pakistan, Malaysia…)

    2) If we should allow Muslim women to wear religious signs in public offices out of tolerance — because they express deep convictions — then could I ask to work as a gvt. officer while wearing a bandana with “Religion is for idiots” printed on it, which also expresses my very sincere and deepest conviction?


    March 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

  30. Raman’s question is a good one: religiousness gives you a free pass to wear symbols of a hateful ideology (almost every religion hate some group for no other reason than “it’s written there”: non-married couples, women having abortion, gays, divorced, atheists, etc.) _but_ at the same time, someone who sincerely believe that religion is a danger to society do not have this free pass. What if I were to went apply for a job to a government organisation with a t-shirt with the Danish cartoon or a “Bad Religion” t-shirt (a cross with a “don’t” sign on it). Or a “God is dead” t-shirt perhaps. Would I be given a free pass too because these fall in the category of conviction about religious matters ? Or would I be considering “breaking the peace” ? While a “God is dead” t-shirt may be offensive to some, it doesn’t promote any other lifestyle than “live and let live”, while a cross, a scarf or a kippa is a symbol that basically say that almost everyone around is unworthy and will burn in hell.

    Freedom of religion was mainly a way to prevent relgious people to burn each other. It was useful at the time (read Locke for an argument for it) but the fact remains that it was mainly a way to protect people believing crazy stuff no. 1 from other people believing crazy stuff no.2. What about just preventing religious delusions to have any impact at all on law – even as a foundation for “rights” ?

    After all if someone profoundly believe that he is Napoleon, we don’t grant him the right to wear a special hat and uniform in the workplace and to be called “votre majesté” by the staff. On the other hand, if someone is happy to believe he is Napoleon and doesn’t cause trouble, perhaps we should not interfere. But why belief in an almost incoherent fictional concept as “god” is any better than that ? Why not consider it on the same footing ?

    I know this is not going to happen. But this fact, and the fact that most blog would censure that line of thought and that “respect” is expected for beliefs that are not worthy of respect strikes me as the weirdest taboo we have in western societies.


    March 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

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