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(Fred Ernst/Fred Ernst/The Associated Press)
(Fred Ernst/Fred Ernst/The Associated Press)

Quebec Muslim woman ordered to unveil or leave French course Add to ...

One morning recently, a young Muslim woman whose face was hidden by a religious covering was pulled out of her government French class near Montreal and told to unveil or leave the course.

"Aisha," a 25-year-old permanent resident from India, is the second such case to come to light in Quebec. Last month, the same ultimatum was given to Naema Ahmed, an Egyptian-born woman whose case sparked an uproar and led to landmark provincial legislation against religious face veils.

But, while Ms. Ahmed was portrayed in media accounts as difficult to accommodate, Aisha, as she has asked to be called to shield her identity, didn't make waves.

According to former classmates and officials at the suburban centre she attended, the young woman was a model student who placed no demands on others and even teamed up with male students for class assignments.

She was an excellent student. I saw in this woman a will to integrate. ... The decision upset the whole class. Mustapha Kachani, Centre d'intégration multi-services de l'Ouest de l'Île

"She was an excellent student. I saw in this woman a will to integrate," said Mustapha Kachani, executive director of the Centre d'intégration multi-services de l'Ouest de l'Île.

The Immigration Department's assertion that her veil, or niqab, posed a problem for "pedagogical" reasons was unfounded, Mr. Kachani said.

"She demonstrated great diligence in the course, in addition to actively participating in class, all the while articulating very well," he wrote in a letter to Immigration Department officials and copied to Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James.

"The decision upset the whole class."

Aisha's expulsion on March 12 raises questions about the broader effects of limiting religious displays while trying to integrate immigrants. Quebec's proposed anti-niqab legislation, which would deny veiled women government services and has won widespread support inside and outside Quebec, has left women like Aisha at home rather than in the classroom. Aisha was completing the fifth week of her course at the immigrant integration centre when she was called into a private meeting with two government officials. Afterward, she left crying and shaken.

"I was heartbroken. I loved my French course and I loved that school, it was like a second home to me," Aisha said in an interview.

It's like ripping off my modesty, like someone asking me to take off my clothes. Aisha, who was ordered to unveil or leave class

Joanie Lavoie, co-ordinator at the centre, says Aisha's teacher had no complaints about her. Aisha and the 18 other students sat at desks formed into a U.

"The teacher said she was a model student," Ms. Lavoie said. "Now she's home. By staying home, she'll never integrate into Quebec and Canadian values."

Mr. Kachani, who favours the removal of the veil, says he wishes Aisha had been given time rather than an ultimatum. "I'm sure we could have found a solution instead of isolating her and marginalizing her," he said. "Maybe we would have convinced her to remove her veil."

Mr. Kachani made Aisha two offers in an effort to help her stay at school: Either she could sit in the front of the class, facing the teacher and with her back to the class, with her veil removed; the students agreed to rearrange the desks into rows so they wouldn't see her face. Or she could settle for a six-hour-a-week course on Quebec society given by the centre's employees, with her niqab. Her French class was 30 hours a week.

Aisha says she could not remove her niqab. "It's like ripping off my modesty, like someone asking me to take off my clothes," she said.

And Aisha, whose British-born husband grew up in Montreal, wants to study French full-time.

"I feel it's my right to go to any school," she said. "We pay our taxes."

Rachna Abrol, a former classmate, says the other students were unhappy with Aisha's expulsion.

"Everybody liked her. She co-operated with everybody. She talked to men. She liked French and she's intelligent, too," Ms. Abrol said at the government-funded centre, a low-slung building set among warehouses and suburban housing in Montreal's West Island. "Everybody wants her to come back."

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