Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Why does a head scarf have us tied up in knots?

The right to wear the Islamic head scarf, the hijab, is once again in the news. The current hijab controversy involves Irene Waseem, 16, who was recently expelled from College Charlemagne, a private Catholic girls' school, for wearing the hijab on her first day back at the school she had attended since 1999. The Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) has ruled that a private religious institution cannot violate rights, such as freedom of religion, protected under the province's human-rights charter.

Such incidents, rare in the rest of Canada, occasionally occur in Quebec because of its secularism, its links to France -- and its nationalism. How inclusive is Quebec identity? Can it incorporate practices that are not pur laine? Last year, CBC news correspondent Celine Gallipeau unwittingly set off a firestorm in the province for wearing a loose-fitting head scarf while reporting from Afghanistan.

The issue first came up in 1994, when the provincial Human Rights Commission was asked to investigate the case of 12-year-old Emilie Ouimet. She showed up the first day of class wearing a hijab at École Louis Riel, a public high school. The principal ordered her to remove her headgear because it violated the school ban on caps. Despite her protests that the scarf was a garment of modesty in accordance with her faith, Ms. Ouimet was sent home. After changing schools, Ms. Ouimet filed a precedent-setting complaint with the QHRC, which ruled that, generally speaking, public schools cannot forbid the wearing of the hijab.

Story continues below advertisement

During this first hijab controversy, ardent secularists called for the abolition of all religious symbols in the public school system. The debate mirrored a parallel debate in France, an official secular state since the 18th century, which despite its large Muslim minority has adopted an anti- hijab policy in its schools.

So far, the QHRC has taken a different tack. That same year, 1994, it considered a second case, involving a private Montreal Muslim school that required all female teachers, including non-Muslims, to wear the hijab as a condition of employment. The school cited Section 20 of the Quebec Charter, which permits non-profit religious institutions to make certain regulations that would otherwise be deemed discriminatory (for example, to hire only teachers from its religious denomination).

But the wider Muslim community did not support the school's practice of forcing non-Muslim teachers to wear the hijab. Many saw this practice as antithetical to Islamic principles. The commission ruled against the school, noting that Section 20 could not be used to violate rights protected under the Charter. Forcing non-Muslim employees to observe Islamic religious practice was a restriction on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

The third case dealt with the expulsion of Dania Bali, a straight-A student at College Regina Assumpta, a private Catholic girls' school in north-end Montreal. Ms. Bali had been attending the school with her hijab for two years without any problem. But after the Ouimet controversy, the parents' committee at the college unanimously voted to preserve the integrity of the school uniform by banning all headgear. The administration concurred. Despite her fellow students' support, Ms. Bali was told to remove her scarf or shop for a new school the following year. Ms. Bali chose the latter. The Human Rights Commission reserved comment on the matter.

All three incidents set off heated debate in Quebec about the role of religion in contemporary society, and led to a Human Rights Commission document, Religious Pluralism in Quebec: A Social and Ethical Challenge, which emphasized the place of religion in Quebec's evolving society.

But a favourable ruling in the latest hijab controversy does not guarantee the end of skirmishes involving religious minorities. A Quebec court recently ruled that a Sikh boy could bring his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school, provided it was sheathed tightly -- but a local school board appealed the decision.

It's time to hear the voices of more Muslim women in this debate. Like Ms. Ouimet and Ms. Waseem, they have made a choice using their God-given intellect. If others deride and discredit that choice, it is all the more reason to stand up and articulate one's deep spiritual convictions.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to