Woman wearing a niqab (Steve Evans | Wikimedia Commons)
Controversy around reasonable accommodation of immigrants in Quebec has been fired up by recent reports that an unnamed Egyptian women was expelled from her francization course because she refused to remove her niqab during classes.
The veil in Quebec classrooms
Learning a new language is a task that involves both theory and practice. Along with lectures and written exercises, there must also be oral work that helps the student to become more familiar with the sounds of this new language. For an instructor to evaluate a student's progress and correct errors, it is necessary for the whole face to be visible – not just the eyes, as is the case with women who wear the niqab. The same issues may not arise in all classroom settings. For example, it would not necessarily follow that a math or history teacher must see the whole face in order to teach, correct or evaluate learning.
Head covering has also been a concern in physical education activities, but in the majority of cases it would seem that students and teachers have been able to work out arrangements that allow for safety and fair student evaluation, as well as for the religious expression and modesty of Muslim students. Some Muslim students and athletes have adopted a sports hijab, which allows them to safely take part in competitive sports like soccer and martial arts. Islamic swimwear is also available today.
Working out issues amicably
Women who wear the veil have generally worked with Quebec government officials to accommodate their religious expression, while also addressing concerns around such subjects as voting and the issuing of photo identification. When three women at the CEGEP de Ste-Foy arrived for francization classes last year they were asked to unveil their faces during class. Instructors at the school explained their reasons for wanting the women to show their faces, and all three agreed to lower their veils during class.
Civil rights lawyer Julius Gray is quoted as saying certain accommodations are acceptable, but the wearing of a niqab in educational settings is not reasonable. "A kirpan, a kippa, a kerchief is reasonable. This goes too far," he says.
In the present case complaints from the college, CEGEP de Saint-Laurent, seem to stem more from the student's other requests for accommodation, than from her wearing of the niqab. She was uncomfortable unveiling her face in a mixed gender group, and thus asked for a number of accommodations that allowed her to fulfil class requirements without compromising her modesty.
She worked with the female professor, one on one in a quiet corner of the classroom, so the instructor could view her face while speaking and make necessary corrections to her pronunciation. She also gave an oral presentation at the back of the classroom, with her back turned to her classmates. When she felt awkward sitting facing male students in the U-shaped seating arrangement set up by the teacher, others moved in order to make her more comfortable.
But the woman's multiple demands made the atmosphere in the class tense, says Luc Fortin, attaché of immigration minister Yolande James. This created hard feelings between the veiled student and her classmates, and also between her and the instructor. As time went by the student began to ask more and more of the college, and became less cooperative in class.
It is unclear who brought the matter to the attention of the Immigration Ministry, nor when or why this happened. All that is known is that the matter dragged out between February and November of 2009. At this point Roger Giroux, the government's director of francization ordered the student to remove her niqab or face expulsion.
The student chose expulsion, and has filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
“Niqab heats up rights controversy” Max Harrold (The Gazette)
“Student expelled for wearing niqab: report” Max Harrold (The Gazette)
“Banni, le niqab” Robert Dutrisac et Lisa-Marie Gervais (Le Devoir)
“Une musulmane expulsée d'un cours à cause du niqab” Vincent Marissal (La Presse)
“Port du niqab au cégep: accommodement sans heurts à Ste-Foy” Daphnée Dion-Viens (Le Soleil)