Five young girls were suddenly thrust into Quebec's controversy over the rights of religious minorities yesterday when they weren't allowed to compete in a local tae kwon do meet unless they removed their Islamic head scarves.
The girls, between the ages of 10 and 14, had trained for days and were eagerly anticipating competing for medals at the competition in Longueuil, south of Montreal.
The members of the Montreal team were told they couldn't participate unless they removed their head scarves for safety reasons.
However, organizers from the Muslim community centre that sponsors them say they were at the same event in previous years and there was no problem whatsoever with their garments.
The incident -- the girls and their coaches refused to comply and were joined by the 10 members of the Muslim boys club who snubbed the event in a sympathy protest -- was a sharp reminder that the issue of so-called reasonable accommodation of religious minorities continues to simmer in Quebec.
It also has unfortunate similarities to a recent incident in the Montreal area in which an 11-year old Muslim girl from Ottawa was expelled by a referee from a soccer game for wearing a hijab, again for safety reasons.
Other, related, events have included protests after a Montreal YMCA agreed to install frosted windows to obscure the sight of females working out in scanty outfits that offended neighbouring conservative Jews, and a code of conduct enacted by the small town of Hérouxville solemnly banning the stoning of women.
"I was really very angry," rebuffed tae kwon do competitor Bissan Mansour, 11, told a local television network at the event.
"I find this unjust," said fellow team member Datoul Atwi, 12.
For Bassam Hussein, the only way to explain the apparent reversal on the wearing of the hijab by the provincial tae kwon do association is the public backlash against reasonable accommodation.
That backlash has played into the popularity of Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec, newly elected as the province's Official Opposition.
"The whole discussion about reasonable accommodation that has been taking place in Quebec has contributed to this, big time," said Mr. Hussein, the president of the executive committee of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montréal, which backs the boys' and girls' tae kwon do clubs.
"It used to be very normal, very natural [to wear the hijab at sporting events] Now, everyone is second-guessing this," he added, pointing out there is no danger of a choking or grabbing incident involving head scarves in tae kwon do, given the fact that the hijab is almost completely out of reach under the mandatory helmet.
"It's not something that was there before, it was never an issue. Now it's being politicized," he said.
Women from Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and other Muslim countries routinely participate in international tae kwon do competitions and are not banned from wearing the hijab, according to Mr. Hussein.
The danger is that seemingly unreasonable hijab bans will only succeed in alienating members of religious minorities when all they want is to be accepted as full members of society by joining activities such as tae kwon do, he said.
Jean Faucher, president of the Fédération de Tae kwondo du Québec and the individual responsible for yesterday's ban on the hijab, says he isn't at all happy about being thrust into the controversy.
"I don't want to get into religious issues. I'm not a racist," he said. "I understand they're disappointed. We're not shutting the door on the Muslim community, we're just enforcing the rules and regulations that are there to be respected."
The Muslim team's coaches and organizers have been invited to attend the next meeting of the tae kwon do association to discuss the issue and explore possible solutions, he said.
Mr. Faucher said there may well have been previous meets at which girls wearing the hijab were allowed to compete, but a few lapses in enforcement are no excuse to ignore the rulebook entirely.
Gael Texier, the girls' coach, said the issue will have to go all the way to the sport's governing body, the World Tae Kwon Do Federation.
"We'll have to take a stand," she said.
International referee Stéphane Ménard says the girls weren't allowed to take part in yesterday's event because the sport's rules don't allow hijabs.
Tournament organizer Raymond Mourad says he wanted officials to let the Muslim girls compete yesterday and warn them of the rule for next time, but his pleas went unheard.