A niqab-wearing woman expelled from her French class by Quebec's immigration ministry last February has been removed from a second such program.
Egyptian pharmacist Naema Ahmed, a 29 year old mother who has already filed a human rights complaint against the government related to the first incident, says nobody has objected to her wearing of the head covering since she began the new class about 45 days ago.
But after the media attention to her case last week a teacher at her school reported her presence to the immigration authorities. Director of francization Robert Giroux had Ahmed pulled out of an exam last Friday, at which time he gave her an ultimatum through an Arabic interpreter: remove the niqab or be expelled again.
These actions, despite the fact that Ahmed was functioning well in her new classes, tend to challenge claims of pedagogical concerns. They place the focus on both government and popular reactions to the niqab. Media coverage of Ahmed's case has now mounted to the national level.
"There is no ambiguity about this question," immigration minister Yolande James said in reaction to Ahmed's second expulsion. "If you want to [attend] our classes, if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values: we want to see your face."
Christine St-Pierre, Quebec's minister for the status of women, calls both the niqab and burqa “ambulatory prisons.”Say St-Pierre, “There are people in Quebec, in Canada, and other countries around the world, who have gone to Afghanistan and spilled their blood so that these things won't be tolerated. Here, we cannot tolerate this sort of thing.”
But Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said Quebec is forcing Ahmed into isolation by expelling her from francization classes over her niqab. “We're missing a good opportunity to educate this woman and let her learn our language and culture. We're telling her: Don't go out,” he said.
Ahmed, who says she wears niqab by her own choice for religious reasons, was in tears after the latest expulsion. She said she feels “the government is following her everywhere,” and is now considering just staying at home because she cannot practice her profession if she is not allowed access to French classes.
While surveys show a majority of people in Quebec feel accommodation of immigrants has gone too far, the government's approach to the wearing of the veil may evolve into an issue of concern not only for immigrants but to the Anglophone minority in the province. Already, new immigrants must sign a contract in order to be allowed to live in Quebec. The contract says they will live by the values of our society – including secularism, gender equality, and the primacy of the French language.
At the present moment there is no specific mention of head covering, either in that contract or elsewhere in Quebec law. But the James has promised measures will be taken to change that in the coming weeks. The Parti Québécois has suggested the province needs a Charter of Secularism, and PQ immigration critic Louise Beaudoin has already compared such legislation to the province's Charter of the French Language, saying the province should be prepared to forge ahead despite the potential for human rights issues and even federal court challenges.
Bill 101, as the language law is commonly known, effectively removes the choice of language of instruction from the majority of primary and secondary students in the province despite the availability of both Anglophone and Francophone schools in Quebec. The new Charter, inspired partly by similar actions taken in France, could result in a ban of religious symbols in school and the public service.
- Slideshow of modest dress and women's head coverings
“Dispute reveals Quebec's hardening line on religious displays” Ingrid Peritz (Globe and Mail)
“James firm on niqabs in French class: 'We want to see your face'” Kevin Dougherty (The Gazette)
“Niqab-wearing woman blocked again from class” CBC News
“Quebec woman barred from course for second time over refusal to remove niqab” Jonathan Montpetit (CP)