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The Globe and Mail

Quebec's view on niqab creates fault line

Ussra Hussain and Nafeesa Salar in Montreal.

John Morstad/john morstad The Globe and Mail

Quebec's movement to expel the niqab from much of civic life struck some Canadians as pure intolerance - a hunt more common to the pitchfork-wielding redneck anxious to preserve his cultural domination.

But in Quebec, opposition to allowing the niqab in government services expands far beyond the ranks of the usual bigots. In fact, the viewpoint has become the broadest social and political consensus the province has seen in years.

Quebec intellectuals and politicians, federalists and nationalists, libertarians and human-rights activists mostly agreed with the expulsion of a niqab-wearing student, Naema Ahmed, from French class.

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Staunch liberals were then stunned to see the position compared to a Taliban dress code by English-speaking Canada.

"Two weeks ago, we were called sellout multiculturalists by fringe [Quebec]nationalists for being too accommodating. Suddenly in English Canada, we were all racists," said Marie McAndrew, who holds the Canada Research Chair on Education and Ethnic Relations at the University of Montreal.

"I don't think we've all lost our minds. We might turn out to be wrong, but I don't think we all suddenly became racists."

There's a complex mix to the opposition to the niqab in Quebec. At the front of the charge are Quebec women, often from the vast ranks of feminists who lean left and believe in equality at all costs. Some threw off the shackles of a repressive church in the 1960s and 70s. Others are their daughters.

Tasneem Ghauri has encountered their disapproval, even though Muslim leaders estimate that there are only a few dozen women in Montreal who wear the full veil.

Ms. Ghauri drives, goes to Pizza Hut and even plays hockey from behind her black head cover with a small slit so she can see. Men often stare at her. Women come looking for an argument.

"I've had women in Montreal wait for me outside the bank so they can tell me how offended by are by the way I'm dressed," she said at a recent gathering of Muslim students at Concordia University.

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"They feel it's oppression for women and they don't understand why a woman would hide her femininity. Quebeckers tend to be more outspoken, and I understand it comes from their own history - they want to protect their language and culture. But [my niqab]is something to be admired, not feared."

In Quebec, veils provoke vivid memories of Catholic domination, when priests ordered women to stay out of the workplace and politics.

Françoise David, a long-time feminist leader and co-founder of the left-wing nationalist party, Québec Solidaire, recalls hearing how her mother was pressed by a priest about failing in her "conjugal duty" because she'd gone a year without giving birth. The recollection isn't ancient history: Ms. David is a baby boomer who came of age in the 1960s.

"There was a type of liberation from all that weight the church had on the state, and women are afraid of a return," Ms. David said. "I think that fear is largely exaggerated. But I understand it."

The push in Quebec against identity-concealing Muslim garments and other accommodations has been regaining steam for months after nearly two years of dormancy.

Quebec's leading feminist group called for formal limits on accommodation last year. Scores of intellectuals more recently signed at least two manifestos calling on Quebec to become a secular state.

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Two years ago, philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard issued a report calling on Quebec to adopt "open secularism" and guidelines putting equality ahead of religious accommodation. The duo had conducted hearings where Quebeckers blew off steam on the issue. Capping off two years of raucous debate, their report acted like a sedative that put the crisis to rest for a while.

Jean Charest's government left key recommendations to collect dust. Now the debate has moved to a new level, where intellectuals and advocates are taking the lead.

In the Ahmed case, many Quebeckers were less shocked by her expulsion than her teacher's tortured attempts over several months to separate her from the men in class - a no-no to those who put gender equality first.

While broad agreement has emerged from the case, consensus only goes so far. Some, including opposition parties, call for strict regulations banning most traces of religious faith in government, while the ruling Liberals appear to favour a case-by-case approach.

Ms. McAndrew said "a strong majority of Muslim organizations are against the niqab in public spaces" but most Muslims believe the way Ms. Ahmed was treated was distasteful. With no evidence other than her steadfast commitment to the niqab, prominent commentators vilified Ms. Ahmed as an extremist.

"I think it would be better if everybody could stay calm," said Shaheen Ashraf of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. "There is a fear factor in this province that doesn't do any good. But I don't know why a niqabi [a woman who wears a niqab]would come here and expect to live in comfort as the only person wearing it. Why would you come to a society where you know you will be shunned?"

Prominent Quebeckers known for promoting equality, including Mr. Taylor, Mr. Bouchard and Ms. McAndrew, argued the gender segregation that comes with the niqab - along the practical barrier of a covered mouth - was too much to expect from a provincial Immigration Ministry class designed to teach spoken French and help integration.

In the rest of Canada, it was often the mainstream view in Quebec that was shunned.

One Toronto television commentator linked Quebec's fertility subsidies to the banishment of Ms. Ahmed - a barely disguised suggestion that Quebec wants women to be uneducated and pregnant.

Ms. McAndrew argues Canadians looking down on Quebec should consider why debate seems impossible outside the province.

"Public debate in Quebec is vigorous, and the level of the debate is complex. On diversity, the debate is very poor in Canada. It's marshmallow multiculturalism. You're okay, I'm okay," she said.

"It's tolerance, but it's very soft and will face its own challenges at some point."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz

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