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religion and secularism

Mahvish Ahmad (R) lifts her three year old daughter with Saima Sajid (C) and Asma Ahmad while in the park, in the West Island of Montreal, Quebec October 26, 2017. The women who have chosen to wear the niqab are concerned about the impact that the new Quebec law, Bill 62, will have on them.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

They have been shoved, spat on and told to return to their country more times than they can remember. Because they are covered from head to toe, they have been mockingly called "Ninja."

That one, they find funny.

The three women all wear the face-covering niqab. And they have been drawn into the epicentre of the debate over Bill 62, the new Quebec law requiring people to show their faces to obtain public services.

Explainer: How will Quebec's Bill 62 work? What we know (and don't) so far

Margaret Wente: Banning the niqab is bigoted and sexist. Or is it?

Konrad Yakabuski: Why Quebec is ground zero in the battle over secularism

The legislation's rollout has been so shrouded in confusion that no one knows precisely how it will apply. Yet the women fear they will pay the price for the law. They decided to speak out, worried that women like themselves will bear the brunt of Bill 62.

The three are confident and well-spoken, busy raising children and driving to the mall. All insist they are not victims, not submissive and not the instruments of their husbands' will.

"People are trying to liberate us, but they're doing the opposite when they're telling us what to do," said Asma Ahmad, 30, who moved to Canada from the United Arab Emirates a decade ago. "Nobody is forcing us to cover ourselves, but this law is forcing us to uncover ourselves."

They met a reporter at one of the women's homes in Montreal's suburban West Island this week, on a street of tidy single-family homes and driveways with vans. They uncovered their faces to a female reporter; they cover up again when they step beyond the door. The women understand that hiding one's face in public makes people feel uncomfortable. They are used to stares and muttered insults.

"I don't mind. If you see anything for the first time, you can be shocked," said Ms. Ahmad, who has worn the face veil since age 15, an act of religious conviction and modesty.

"I believe the face is the most attractive part of the body," Ms. Ahmad said by way of explaining why she covers hers. "I'm not getting judged by my looks, by my makeup, or how beautiful I am."

Saima Sajid, a 31-year-old Concordia University graduate, began wearing the niqab as a teenager in Montreal. "I was raised to believe that as a confident individual I can make my own choices, no less than a man," she said.

"My love of Islam made me feel I wanted to take the extra step," Ms. Sajid said. "If you tell me to take my niqab off my face I would feel like I'm walking naked down the street."

Now, the veil is part of her identity. "If you can choose to wear a bikini, why can't I cover myself? Feminists should support women and the choices they make. Youngsters are so worried about their body images. I don't have to worry about that."

No one knows exactly how many women wear the niqab in Quebec. Estimates vary from 50 to more than 100; one can spend a year in Montreal and perhaps cross the path of one or two. But to hear the debate over Bill 62, one would imagine the veils are everywhere. They have become a flashpoint in the debate over identity, religious accommodations and Quebec's attachment to secular values.

To some in Quebec, the veils evoke the domination of the Catholic Church and represent a threat to the legacy of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Others see the veil as a symbol of oppression – what the head of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women once called a "retrograde cultural practice that signifies women are inferior to men."

Some critics also say wearing the veil stems more from tribal practice than Islamic teachings.

"It's a prison for women," said Nadia El-Mabrouk, a Tunisian-born professor at the University of Montreal who belongs to a pro-secularism group. "It's incredible that it's being defended. It's not religious. It's the oppression of women, the erasing of women from the public space."

Yet research shows that most women who wear the niqab in Canada arrive at the choice themselves – as an expression of their Muslim identity, as a spiritual awakening, or as a personal challenge. They often do so despite the disapproval of loved ones and the larger Muslim community.

"The women do it entirely for their own reasons, and certainly against the will of the community," said Lynda Clarke, a specialist of religion and Islam at Montreal's Concordia University and author of a 2013 study on women who wear the niqab in Canada. "They're not following any authority, and are almost always acting against the will of family and sometimes their husband."

It's still unclear under Bill 62 exactly where or when anyone will be told to unveil. The three women say they are already accustomed to removing their veils for security purposes at the airport, licence bureau and other places where needed. They fear the law's real impact will be to embolden those who already harbour anti-Muslim feelings.

"It's going to justify some people to say: We didn't like the niqab before, and now the government is on our side," said Ms. Sajid, who arrived in Canada from Pakistan when she was six months old. "It's going to encourage more hate."

The women, with their young children, worry about placing themselves at risk. They worry the law will isolate them, and others like them.

One of the three has already had the experience first-hand. Seven years ago, Mahvish Ahmad was attending a government French class in her face veil, eager to learn the language of Quebec after emigrating from India. One day, two Quebec government officials turned up and Ms. Ahmad was told she'd have to either unveil or leave. At the time, Quebec's then-Liberal government was taking a hardening stance on the wearing of religious displays when using public services.

Ms. Ahmad felt she could not remove her niqab. The woman, who says she had been appreciated by her classmates and described as a model student, left the community centre in tears.

She never returned to school. She never learned French.

"I was so traumatized, my self-confidence was shattered," says Ms. Ahmad, now 33. "It was just a shock."

Quebec's Justice Minister says that under the new law, a person will also have to uncover her face in classrooms for the purposes of communication with the teacher. Ms. Ahmad wonders whether more women like her will stay home.

"You can't judge me just by my looks and what I'm wearing. You have to judge me on the person I am and how I'm being loyal to this country and its people," she says. "We're not harming anyone. We're not a threat. It's wrong to judge people on their looks, their colour or the clothes they wear."

Rarely has a piece of clothing worn by so few inflamed passions among so many. From behind their veils, the women just ask people to try to understand them.

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