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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

Beyond the pale on the veil Add to ...

There should be a limit to accommodating religious minorities, and that limit has been reached. An Egyptian-born woman wearing a niqab - the veil that hides the face except for the eyes - was expelled from a French-language class for immigrants in Montreal after all conceivable efforts had been made to try to accommodate her beliefs.

Naima Ahmed, a 29-year-old pharmacist and mother of three, reportedly refused to lift her veil to reveal her mouth when pronouncing words, something that's part of language instruction. She demanded to sit at the back of the room, with her back to the other students, because three males were in the class. Later, she insisted the men move even farther away from her.

For one-on-one exercises, the woman first agreed to retreat to a corner with the female instructor so she could remove part of her veil but then changed her mind when she couldn't be guaranteed that the instructor responsible for the next segment would be a woman. Another part of the course calls for students to sit around a U-shaped table and converse; the woman refused to participate because she couldn't tolerate the male students looking her in the eyes. (Ms. Ahmed has denied the allegations that she refused to work with men.)

These frictions - which exasperated the other students and disturbed the atmosphere of the class - went on for three months until the college, CEGEP de Saint-Laurent, backed by Quebec's Immigration Ministry (which finances the language classes), gave her an ultimatum: Take off the veil or quit the class. She quit, then filed a human-rights complaint against the province.

There's been a great deal of discussion in Quebec about the right to wear a veil in public institutions. The consensus among human-rights defenders is that the Islamic scarf that covers only the hair should be allowed everywhere, including in the civil service. But there's a growing school of thought, influenced by France's rigid definition of secularism, that wants to forbid civil servants who deal with the public from covering their hair - a prohibition that would certainly be intolerable in a North American pluralist society and one that would be quickly struck down by the courts. The face-covering veil, however, is another question, if only because it prevents normal human contact. Would a school allow a male student to wear a mask to hide his face?

There's also the question of security. A few weeks ago in France, two men entered a bank wearing burkas. The burka is even less revealing than the niqab because the eyes are hidden behind a fabric grill. A bank employee, assuming the two potential clients were women, let them in. But the duo had guns under their robes and held up the bank.

In Quebec, most agreed with the decision to expel the niqab-wearing woman, including constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who has defended the right of inmates to smoke in prison and the right of Sikh students to wear ceremonial daggers in class. "Accommodation should not lead to separation," he said.

Yolande Geadah, an Egyptian-born writer, said: "There is no possible compromise with people with such inflexible attitudes." Raheel Raza, a Pakistani-born Muslim women's rights activist, said: "When we come to Canada, we're not coming to the Islamic Republic of Canada."

The irony is that, last fall, Egypt's top Islamic cleric said students and teachers at Cairo's Al-Azhar University would not be allowed to wear face veils in classrooms and dorms on the grounds they had "nothing to do with Islam." The education ministry later barred the niqab during exams, to prevent students from sending others to take the tests. Although an Egyptian court subsequently ordered a stay on the Al-Azhar ban and overturned the education ministry's decision, we have to ask ourselves: Should Canadian colleges be more tolerant of Islamic fundamentalism than Cairo's universities?

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