Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail
Hugh MacLennan's novel Two Solitudes (1945) is a landmark description of the divide--linguistic, cultural, social, and political--between Canada's two founding national heritages, English and French. A Montreal novelist, and Professor of English Literature at McGill University, MacLennan captured well the di-cultural community relations of his time, in an allegory that holds somewhat true at all times in our bi-national state.
In a March 13, 2010 article in Canada's largest daily Anglophone paper The Globe and Mail, controversial, conservative, and American born Margaret Wente reprises the metaphor to describe the responses to Naema Ahmed's niqab problems in a Quebec/Canadian government run French as a Second Language (FSL) course for new immigrants: "Two solitudes and the niqab: There's a French version and an English version to this story – and they're completely different". Wente accurately describes the divide on the issue as portrayed in the French language press, and in the English language one, which is now just catching up.
As if to prove the point about Anglophone vs Francophone, rather than Quebec vs Canada, the major Quebec English daily The Montreal Gazette sarcastically headlines their take on the topic Just What Quebec Needs: A Dress Code.
The article continues with analogies to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan :
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.In fact, the case concerns a 29-year-old Egyptian pharmacist and married mother of 3, who is a new immigrant to Quebec/Canada (Quebec is the only province which supervises and administers its own immigration program). Naima/Naema Ahmed normally wears a niqab, and wore it to her Quebec and Canadian government sponsored FSL classes at a CEGEP (a school that normally offers a combination last 2 years of high school and first year of college/university). She was asked repeatedly to remove the niqab so that the instructor could see her mouth to correct her French language pronunciation (this type of correction often involves observing where the student places tongue, teeth, and the shapes made by the lips to give alternatives that will result in the appropriate sounds coming out). She was reluctant, initially agreed to do so in the presence of a female teacher only, then was allowed to give her obligatory class presentation while facing away from the class. However, she then requested that the men in the class face away as she did. There was a sense that her complaints and requests for accommodation created undue stress in the learning environment. Apparently immigration officials were called by a teacher (not hers) who saw her with her niqab on in the hallways of the GEGEP, and had her removed from a classroom for wearing it. She has launched a human rights complaint. She is particularly concerned as she needs adequate French to be licensed as a pharmacist in Canada, and feels she was not offered reasonable accommodation for what is for her a religious requirement. She also denies that she was the problem in the situation.
A review of the Canadian English language press on this case reveals a microcosm of Canadian regional politics. Over all, the nation is dismayed and unwilling to follow Quebec on this (at least officially), according to the Canadian Press--"Other provinces leery about withholding public services due to religious garb":
In the struggle to integrate newcomers to Canada, Quebec has distanced itself from other provinces with its hardline stand against religious face coverings, which is likely to earn it a reputation as either a far-sighted pioneer or intolerant loner.
Provincial governments in the rest of the country appear leery about setting rules imiting access to public services for people who wear certain forms of religious attire, as Quebec did earlier this week.
Immigration Department officials in the province expelled a Muslim woman from government-sponsored language classes after she refused to remove her niqab, a Muslim face covering that reveals only the eyes.The Toronto Star repeats the superiority of all things Toronto, "A Muslim veil roils Quebec":
A baby born in Toronto or its suburbs today will attend grade school in a region where the white population is in the minority, Statistics Canada reports. We are fast becoming a global community that glories in its diversity, vibrancy and cultural riches. The world is us.The Winnipeg Free Press, the newspaper of one of Canada's most historically activist cities, opines in Competing Rights:
That makes it all the more painful to watch the fuss that is playing out in Quebec over Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa that veil their faces and bodies. While a tiny minority dresses this way, those who do draw a disproportionate – and unjustifiable – share of intolerant attention.
In a Keystone Kops spectacle that should make Canadians cringe, a Quebec "francization" official chased down Naema Ahmed as she wrote a French exam in a Montreal immigrant centre on Tuesday and told her to remove her veil or leave. She left, in tears.
THERE are many explanations being offered up in the controversy over the banning of a Muslim woman wearing her religious headgear from a Quebec government language classroom. The one that can be dismissed outright is that Naema Ahmed was kicked out of class because she refused to remove her full veil, preventing her teacher from watching her pronounce words.
The ban on "pedagogical" principles is laughable; the Montrealer was told that now she can follow lessons online. Perfecting pronunciation in the cyber-world happens magically, it seems.
The only reason Ms. Ahmed was set upon by provincial officials -- a teacher noticed her, cloaked in her niqab, in the hallway and made the call -- is because there is an ardent campaign among some groups in that province to rid public life of face veils -- "ambulatory prisons," as Quebec's minister for the status of women, Christine St-Pierre, said. In Canada, immigrants have to look more Canadian, is the demand.
In this heady brew of immigrants, it would be difficult to define precisely what a Canadian looks like. Quebec has no law banning the niqab or burqa, but many in Quebec have agitated for one. Many and maybe most people raised in a liberal-democratic society understandably regard a religious or cultural precept for women to cover up as offensive to the ideal of equality. But if a woman cannot have the freedom to choose what she wears, the protections for individual rights within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ring hollow, indeed.
Calgary Herald: A child waves a flag at Quebec's Fete Nationale
--photo accompanying the article linked below
--photo accompanying the article linked below
In Alberta, a conservative and Conservative province, where it seems that, at least unofficially, the preference is to attack Quebec for everything and hope they separate, Naomi Likritz of The Calgary Herald waxes indignant, "Lakritz: La belle province shows ugly side to minorities":
What part of the word "freedom" does Quebec not understand? Two news stories this week should leave the rest of Canada scratching its head over just how clear la belle province is on the concept.
In the first incident, an Egyptian immigrant named Naema Ahmed was tossed out of a French class for newcomers to the province because she was wearing a niqab, a veil that leaves only the eyes exposed. One of the recommendations that came out of the Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2008 on religious and minority accommodation was that judges, Crown attorneys, police and jail guards not be allowed to wear religious symbols. Ahmed is none of those. She was a student at Montreal's Cegep St-Laurent. In fact, the commission recommended that students be permitted to wear hijabs, kippahs, turbans, etc. in class if they want to, something that is already happening because in Canada, one is free to dress as one pleases. Regardless, none of these taboos are enshrined in law -- yet.
The niqab is not a religious symbol, but a tribal one, and to western cultures it represents the subsuming of a woman's identity to patriarchal dictates. Here in Canada, we don't think women should cover their faces. And we think immigrant women need to realize this. [...]
Where Quebec errs in its obsession about minorities is in thinking it has a right to tell people what to wear. [...]
Westernization can't be forced on an immigrant from the outside. It has to take root and grow, like new tendrils appearing on a vine and reaching out in different directions; it's an evolutionary process, not a sudden metamorphosis. Ahmed was initiating it herself by learning French.
In another bizarre spasm of minority-phobia, the Quebec government announced that 20 government-subsidized day-care centres will be banned from offering religious instruction. One is an Islamic-run centre in Laval, and another is Montreal's Beth Rivkah day care, where, according to its website, the children's "activities are driven by the spirit of Torah and the Jewish tradition." [...]
In the late 19th century, brochures were circulated in Europe advertising for immigrants to Canada and extolling the beauties and prosperity of this country. Maybe new brochures should be circulated -- warning people to stay away from Quebec, which is fast becoming the most hostile province in Canada for anyone of a minority culture or religion.
Always eager to draw attention from their big neighbour the United States, this time Canadians have been gratified in style, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life,"Muslim woman expelled from school in veil dispute", which was picked up by the Huffington Post:
A Muslim woman has filed a human rights complaint after she was expelled from a Canadian college for refusing to remove her face veil.
The Egyptian-born woman, who is a permanent resident of Canada, was enrolled in a government-sponsored French language class for new immigrants in Montreal, Quebec.
The school, CGEP St. Laurent, expelled her last November after she refused to remove her niqab, a veil that covers the face with only a slit for the eyes.
The school argued that the niqab interfered with the language teaching, since part of the class involves proper elocution and seeing how a person pronounces words in French.
"For the teacher, it was more difficult to hear her, and it was more difficult for all the people to understand what she had to say," said the school's director, Paul-mile Bourque.
School officials said they had tried different ways of accommodating the woman between February and November 2009. She had previously asked that male students in the class not face her, so school officials allowed her to give an oral presentation at the far end of the classroom with her back turned to the other students.
The order to remove her niqab came after officials from Quebec's immigration ministry visited the class. She was told she could take the class on the Internet.
The woman, identified only as Naema, told Canada's CBC News that she wants to learn French so that she can work as a pharmacist. She has filed a complaint with Quebec's Human Rights Commission, saying that her freedom of religion was violated.
Elsewhere in Canada, an Ontario court in 2009 ordered an alleged sexual assault victim to remove her niqab to testify in court against two men accused of assaulting her. The woman appealed the order and is awaiting a new hearing into the matter.
AFP photo accompanying Journal de Montréal article giving Naima Ahmed her say
While much was being said about her, Ms Ahmed was finally given a chance to express her own view of the situation, by reporter Omar El Akkad of The Globe and Mail, "Woman shocked by portrayal as hard-line Islamist":
When Naima Ahmed went to college in Egypt to study pharmacy, she took courses alongside men and women. When she dispensed medication, she dealt with men and women.
So it came as a shock to the 29-year-old immigrant to find herself portrayed this week as a hard-line Islamist who forces men to look away when she gives presentations.
"I'm just like any other person," Ms. Ahmed said in an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, speaking in her native Arabic tongue. "The only difference is that I wear a veil over my face. It doesn't mean I'm wearing a veil over my mind." [...]
The incident began when school officials demanded Ms. Ahmed remove her niqab - the full veil some Muslim women wear. According to school officials, it's impossible to critique French pronunciation correctly without viewing a person's mouth.
But what Ms. Ahmed initially thought would be a confidential human-rights complaint quickly became the subject of a media firestorm that gave voice to accusations she refused to work with men and gave presentations with her back to the rest of the classroom.
Ms. Ahmed said that is simply not true.
"This is the first time I felt racism [in Canada]," she said of her experience at the CEGEP, adding that she believes school officials were out to remove her from the beginning. "I went to many places previously where there were no issues - when I went for my driving test nobody told me you can't drive with a niqab."
She added that in her part-time French course prior to the CEGEP class - and in a subsequent class elsewhere - she encountered no issues. [...]
"[The teacher] said either you take off the niqab, or I'll make the two men face the wall," Ms. Ahmed said.
As a compromise, she raised her niqab but turned away from the edge of the U-shaped classroom seating arrangement, where the two men sat.
Ms. Ahmed said she had no issue taking off her veil when being photographed for her school ID by a female staff member, nor did she have any problem working in groups with the men or participating in other class projects.
"As long as I had the niqab on it made no difference to me," she said.
"If I didn't want to interact, I would have stayed at home."
Mais, qu'est-ce que l'on dit chez l'autre solitude? In the other solitude, the Francophone press, the story is indeed somewhat (beaucoup) different. One major daily Le Journal de Montréal featured the story at each phase of the student being expelled from class: "MONTRÉAL Expulsée d'une classe à cause de son voile"; "COURS DE FRANCISATION L'étudiante au niqab de nouveau expulsée". It emphasized the absolute interdiction of wearing the niqab in the classroom, and yet signaled that this was a highly unusual circumstance, in fact it had never occurred before. The same daily did give her a chance to present her side of the story, "EXPULSÉE À CAUSE DE SON NIQAB La jeune femme donne sa version des faits", which reiterates essentially the same viewpoint as the English language article. However it adds that the founder of the intercultural mediation group Al-Arabiya, Souad Bounakhla, insists Naima Ahmed cannot be forced to remove the niqab in the class room, while the president of the Quebec teachers' union, Luc Perron, insists the niqab should not be allowed, and is happy the Quebec government will be forced to rule on it.
Le Journal de Montréal, photo of Naima Ahmed accompanying the final article on her being evicted from the classroom
The major daily La Presse had a number of articles on Quebec values and the niqab, "Voile et valeurs", an interview with Quebec immigration and cultural communities minister, African-Quebecker Yolande James, "Entrevue avec Yolande James: en quête de balises", and in French except for the title: "«The Globe», reporting from Mars!" about The Globe and Mail's coverage of the story.
Many are angry at The Globe and Mail for its Taliban analogy in its main editorial, Intolerant Intrusion, including the prestigious Le Devoir, "Le Québec et le niqab--Comme des talibans?" which also cites the unanimous approval of the Quebec government actions by the French language press, and the far right National Post's break with the rest of the Anglophone press in its approval of the Quebec government, "A tale of two burkas". It goes further to support the National Post's argument that some religious accommodations are illegal, like genital excision and honour killings, and so should be asking men in a class to turn the other way when a woman removes her niqab at the request of the instructor.
The story also made the French newspapers, including Le Figaro (right wing), without overt commentary, "Canada: en niqab, elle est renvoyée". However, Le Monde (centre left wing) ends with the Quebec teachers' union's call for a France-style law enforcing la laïcité, essentially the ban on religion and religious symbols in public institutions, including schools: "Canada : une musulmane portant le niqab expulsée d'un cours de français".
Returning to the Canadian media, this 5 minute CBC television interview, with a Canadian journalist and self-described feminist, manages to offend, in my opinion, on many fronts: feminism, ethnicity, acculturation by immigrants, accomodation of immigrants, and of course ever so politely justified Islamophobia. It repeats the projected impression that people have that someone wearing a niqab is essentially telling others they are immodest, just by the fact of wearing the niqab.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
The National Post-- which is the far right of centre major Canadian Anglophone newspaper which supports the Quebec government against Naima Ahmed's request to study with her niqab on--has published an article on another move by the Quebec government to reduce accommodations for women wearing a niqab or a burqa, "Muslims seeking female clerk can ‘line up again’". This one affects the ability to obtain the provincial government health care insurance card providing free care to all legal residents of Quebec. It makes it harder to be photographed by a woman, and has an element of "shunning", by requiring that the Muslimah's who wish to wait for that to be arranged, return to the back of the line. The article also summarizes well the issues in Quebec with accommodation of Muslims over the last few years, while acknowledging in passing that only a very small minority of Quebec's Muslims wear a face veil, and there have been very few incidents of demands of accommodation beyond what is routinely in place. There is however a movement among Quebec intellectuals and academics to support a secularization of the province which is similar to the French law of laicity, and attempts to "ban the burqa". The full article, and the linked ones in the side bar address these. Some excerpts of the main article follow:
"If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values," Immigration Minister Yolande James told reporters last week. "We want to see your face." Ms. Ahmed has filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
After the health-insurance board sought its expertise on the niqab issue, the rights commission published its opinion on Monday that requiring a veiled woman to briefly expose her face to a male employee is not a significant breach of her rights.
In 2008-09, 10 people out of the 118,000 using the health-insurance board's Montreal service centre had, for religious reasons, requested to be served by a woman. No such requests were made in its other centre in Quebec City. The centres process applications for new health cards, which require a photograph.
The commission reasoned that a woman would only have to remove her veil briefly for purposes of identification. It drew a distinction with people who for religious reasons ask that a driving test be given by a member of the same sex. In an earlier opinion, the commission said the province should accommodate such requests because the person is in a confined space with a member of the opposite sex for nearly an hour.
The new Quebec policy is at odds with practices for health-card applications in Ontario, where women are served by female employees if their religious beliefs require. The Ontario government has also established procedures to allow identity photos to be taken in private, if requested.[...]
Three years ago, Quebec media were filled with reports of perceived threats to mainstream Quebec values -- for example, a sugar shack that prepared a pork-free menu for Muslims and a gym that frosted its windows so young Hasidic men in a school next door would not be distracted by exercising women. In 2007, Premier Jean Charest appointed two respected thinkers -- Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard -- to study the question.
The Bouchard-Taylor commission's hearings and 2008 final report calmed things down for a time, but Mr. Charest's government failed to act on most of the commission's key recommendations.
An example of the government's skittishness on the question came last week when Family Minister Tony Tomassi said he had no objection to allowing religious instruction in government-subsidized daycares operated by Islamic and Jewish groups. The next day, faced with loud opposition, he reversed his position and said religious teaching would not be tolerated.
What is your opinion?
Is is possible to learn a foreign language correctly while wearing a niqab?
Is this much ado about nothing, or a serious test of the Canadian Charter pf Rights and Freedoms?
Is this about language learning, Quebec or Canadian identity, religion, or playing politics?
Do the Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan analogies hold true for women wearing the niqab in the West, or the governments trying to stop them from doing so?
Is wearing a niqab or requesting men to avert their gaze on par with female genital excision, honour killings, or child marriages, all of which are illegal in Canada?
If you are Canadian, or have Canadian connections of any sort, what do you make of regional differences on such issues?
What associations do each of the 2 pictures of Naima Ahmed with a niqab evoke? What do you make of the contrast between pictures (each were in the same newspaper on different days accompanying different articles)?
What differences do you see between the reported version of the case, and the reports of Ms Ahmed's version? Which do you find more plausible?
What is your impression of the video?
What is your impression of the new issue of photographs for health care cards? Of the other accommodation issues addressed in the recent article in the Addendum above?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?