03 March 2010

The Islamic woman's North-American battleground, part one

(today, we detail the case of a student who wants to wear the niqab at school. Tomorrow, we will look at the case of women in Washington D.C. who are seeking the U.S. government’s help so they can pray in a traditionally male-restricted part of a mosque)

An immigrant student from Egypt has filed a human rights complaint after she was told to either remove her niqab or drop the French course she was taking at the CEGEP de Saint-Laurent in Montréal (CEGEP is a form of public prep school students must go to after high school and before university in the province of Québec).
The niqab is a form of head dress which hide a woman’s head and face, revealing only her eyes.
Reports from diverse sources assert that as accommodations were made to adapt to the student’s needs, her demands escalated until the CEGEP and the government agreed on giving the girl an ultimatum which resulted in her dropping.
As she began school in February of 2009, the unnamed woman provided a photo for her shool ID in which her face was uncovered. As part of the registration process, she also met the (female) language evaluator with her face bare.
In class, the student refused to take off her niqab so the teacher could see her pronunciation. The teacher was then asked by the CEGEP to do dialogue exercises with the student in isolation in a corner of the classroom, conditions under which the student accepts to remove her niqab.
(Different newspapers sources imply that the teacher has asked the student to remove her niqab in class without ever directly saying that she did. It may be that the media does not possess the details but how sensitivity with which this issue was broached will surely be part of the case.)
It seems that as the teacher tried to find different ways to accommodate the student, the teacher realised that these accommodations affected the climate of the class. Although the media sources used here do not cite experts, all state that language teaching is based upon situation scenarios in which students practice with one another. Also, we are told that seeing how a student’s mouth moves and facial expression is an essential part of language teaching. 
Two events in this case have particularly captured attention. In one instance, the student was allowed to give a presentation from the back of the class with her back to her classmates because some of them were male. Later in the semester, the student asked three male student to shift their chairs because they were facing her. The seat had been arranged by the teacher to facilitate exchanges for the class as a whole.
As time went on, the student refused to uncover her face before her teacher even when they were both alone.
In the division of powers in Canada, both Québec and Canada have immigration departments. The situation was eventually reviewed by ministers at both levels and they agreed with give the student the ultimatum. That was last November, the student recently filed a human rights complaint.
Even though just about the entire country (including moderate Muslim groups and minority rights lawyer Julius Grey) are applauding the decision taken by the government(s), the situation remains dicey. Now, the Québec pro-sovereignty party, le Parti Québecois demands that the Charest government make the niqab illegal in all Québec schools.
According to André Pratte of La Presse, it will be difficult for the unnamed student to win her case. The Human Rights Commission applies a standard of "reasonable accommodations". In the past, the Commission has ruled that both parties must act in good faith and cooperate, and both parties are bound to accept reasonable accommodations.
What strikes me most about this case is how the student seems to have gone out of her way to make her male class mates feel as undesirable second class citizens. The Toronto Star reports some individuals have intimated the student is an Islamic extremist plant sent out to provoke.
I find it problematic that this specific case might mark a cornerstone in how Québec (and/or Canada) further defines the state’s responsibility toward religious people. Hard cases make bad law as they say and here the psychology or the dubious motivations of the student are aspects that blur the situation. If the student’s case is dismissed purely on that she was not acting in good faith, then the government might avoid a Pandora’s Box.

We'd love our readers to leave comments and let us know what they think about this case.


  1. The only way out of this is for QC to allow Muslim schools. Since QC has a confessional school system already, why does the Province not encourage them (i.e., Muslims) to administer its own school board like the Protestant and Catholic (and Jewish) ones that exist already?

  2. The confessional school system was abolished about fifteen years ago. Do we want to turn back the clock? I'm not sure. It is an option of course.

  3. The Gazette (I think) reported yesterday that when she registered and paid for classes, she was not wearing the Niqab. What I understood was that she wasn't asked to remove the Niqab entirely, just show her face. As an English Second Language teacher, I have to see the students' mouths (and they have to see mine) to see if they are correctly pronouncing things like the "th" sound (very similar to "s" sound for them) and the difference between the sound in "cot" and "coat" which, for French students, sounds like the same vowel. Nobody goes into ESL (or probably FLS) teaching to make a mint; we do it to help people while getting paid. If the teacher in question was anything like the teachers I know (and am), she would have stood on her head to help this lady learn. Culture is also communicated in language class, but it's secondary to the actual language. It's hard to do anything in society without speaking to men at some point. Furthermore, once you teach a new structure or something, the students have to practice using it, and this is what the group activities are for.

    and PS to your commentator, we don't have Protestant and Catholic school boards and haven't had for about a decade, we have English and French school boards and that's it.You do have private schools for Armeniens and other minority groups here and there, which I don't know much about, but no more religious divide.We're a secular society now, that's part of the point.

    My mistake, it was the CBC not the Gazoo:




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