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Intolerant intrusion Add to ...

There obviously need to be some limits on the accommodation of religious and cultural minorities. Female genital mutilation is one example. Child marriage is another. But the case of Naema Ahmed is not about accommodation at all - it is about the limits of tolerance, and in Quebec it is that which is proving to be unreasonable.

The Egyptian-born Ms. Ahmed was twice expelled from a French-language class for immigrants after she refused to take off her niqab - a veil that hides the face except for the eyes. Many people, including some Muslims, see such garb as undesirable. If nothing else, it sends an unwelcome message about the equality of women. But Ms. Ahmed was not teaching the class. She was not in a position of authority. She was not acting as a role model. She was a student. What is more, she was attempting to do what we fervently wish of all newcomers: That they become proficient in one of Canada's official languages - a vital step to integration.

The circumstances of her treatment are disturbing. Officials insist that she was told to remove the niqab or leave because a student's mouth must be visible so an instructor can work on pronunciation. They pretended to act in Ms. Ahmed's best interests. Perhaps they are correct. Perhaps her progress in French would have been hampered by the niqab. But their solution is still less acceptable: To guarantee her failure to learn the language by barring her from class.

More troubling is the involvement of Quebec politicians and bureaucrats. At one point, after a teacher at the school spotted her, provincial officials were alerted; a civil servant and an Arabic translator descended on the school. Ms. Ahmed said that when she saw the Quebec official, she started to cry: "I feel like the government is following me everywhere." It may be practiced in some Arab and west Asian countries, such as the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but empowering state agents to enforce dress codes and bar the education of women is hitherto unknown in Canada.

Of course, this is not really about Ms. Ahmed at all; it is about Quebec politics. The Liberal government has come under pressure from the opposition Parti Québécois to get tougher on those who display differences. Quebec's Immigration Minister, Yolande James, said the government is looking at legislation about head-coverings, explaining: "There is no ambiguity on this question: If you want to [attend]our classes, if you want to integrate in Quebec society, here our values are that we want to see your face."

It is always dangerous when politicians start prescribing "our values." Quebec, and all of Canada, remain a free society. Politicians need better justifications to limit individual rights than an intolerant attitude that says, in effect, "if they want to live here, they have to dress like the rest of us."

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