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."
Ms. Ahmed, a mother of three, ignited another round of debate over the controversial issue of accommodation in Quebec after she lodged a human-rights complaint against the province stemming from her experiences at CEGEP de Saint-Laurent, the school where she was learning French.
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.
Ms. Ahmed said the incident in which she is alleged to have turned her back on the men in the class was not prompted by her. She said a teacher asked her to give a presentation in front of the class - which contained only a couple of male students, of Bulgarian and Iranian origin - with her niqab removed, which she refused to do.
"[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."