Commentary | Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves

A truncated version of this article appeared in the March 18 issue of The Daily.

Accommodation is a word with baggage in Quebec. In 2007, the public sphere was overtaken by debates about what accounts for reasonable and unreasonable accommodation. Who were we afraid of accommodating too much? Generally speaking, immigrants and their children, people of different faiths and customs whose demands were, some felt, unreasonable.

If you recall, the media had a party, as did the politicians. Action Démocratique du Québec’s popularity rose in the polls. All of a sudden, we heard countless tales of clashes between well-meaning Quebeckers and demanding immigrants. While we heard rational arguments aimed at clarifying the code of conduct in a pluralist democratic society, we also heard what amounted to thinly-veiled racism, and calls for a return to “Quebec values.”

Naïma Amed’s expulsion for refusing to remove her niqab has caused the tension regarding reasonable accommodation to resurface. Amed was first expelled from her French course at CEGEP St-Laurent and then once again from the Centre d’Appui aux Communautés Immigrantes (CACI).

There are two versions of this story. One favours Amed and the other depicts the authorities’ actions as legitimate. Journalists, newspapers, and editorial boards seem to be unable to agree on the facts: compare the Globe and Mail’s news piece “Woman shocked by portrayal as hard-line Islamist” (March 5) and the National Post’s “A tale of two burkas” (March 9). (An important side-note here: she was not wearing a burqa, she was wearing a niqab.)
According to the National Post and the authorities involved, Amed had asked to be seated at the back of the class with her back to the other students. She had allegedly asked the male students to move so that they wouldn’t be able to see her face and had refused to work with them. Amed has denied all of these allegations, insisting in an interview with the Globe that “as long as I had the niqab on, it made no difference to me.”

Both stories seem to converge, however, on the fact that she was repeatedly and insistently asked to remove her niqab. In fact, she had lowered her veil many times: once to be photographed for her student identification card, and then on numerous occasions in class, at the request of the teacher and despite the presence of the male students.

The school authorities at CEGEP St. Laurent and Quebec officials cited pedagogical reasons for expelling her: she could not be taught as long as she was wearing a niqab. At the CACI however, the instructors and school personnel didn’t have any problems teaching her French with her veil up. She was studying there until the immigration ministry found out and interrupted her during an exam to expel her.

Everyone seems to have an opinion. Julius Grey, the civil rights lawyer who defended Sikh students’ right to wear a ceremonial dagger, said that Amed’s request to wear a niqab was unreasonable. Grey is effectively comparing a type of clothing to a dagger, a potential weapon, and deciding that the former is more unreasonable and more threatening than the latter.

Yolande James, Quebec’s immigration minister, even suggested future legislation banning the niqab in Quebec. Many don’t feel that this is an overreaction. Now, I will agree that there are situations where a woman in a niqab should legitimately be required to lower her veil, such as when voting or in a court of law. But a complete ban on the garment, a piece of clothing, seems to be a waste of our tax dollars. Similarly, provincial officials tracking her down to expel her from French classes, seems to be an equally gratuitous use of public money. Imagine the cost of campaigning for and implementing this legislation. Is it worth it?
Why do we want to ban the niqab? It is at least partly because many consider it a symbol of patriarchy. Apparently we think we live in a post-feminist utopia where only the niqab and practices of “other” cultures are symbols of patriarchy. Marriage is a symbol of patriarchy. You know the part where the father gives away the bride, because she used to belong to her father, but now she belongs to the groom? It’s a symbol of an ancient and current practice of what Gayle Rubin called the traffic in women. So, let’s ban marriage! Any takers? No? Hmm.

Furthermore, feminism and women’s liberation is about choice. Empowerment is about choice. Let’s say it again, folks, CHOICE. It is her body, and her choice how to dress it. In no way is it legitimate for anyone to question her decisions. She should not have to explain her reasons.

Amed’s case got a lot of media attention. She was accused of being a religious fundamentalist. She was pulled out of class in the middle of an exam. She was repeatedly picked on in class with frequent requests to lower her veil, having to justify her choice over and over. In the end, she was denied education. Quebec officials and politicians, the people who speak for us, refused to allow her to participate in Quebec society – all because of an over-politicized piece of cloth. All in all, wearing a niqab seems to be a tough gig.

La Presse published an article, “La vie en noir” (March 6), describing the experiences of a journalist who wore a niqab in public for two days. While most tried to ignore her, some people screamed at her (that she looked Afghani), glared at her, asked her whether she was deliberately trying to provoke them, and asked her to go back to her country.

Now, let us imagine a hypothetical situation of a woman who wears a niqab because she is forced to. She puts it on and it is not her choice to do so. But when she leaves her house, she finds herself attacked everywhere she goes. Public services are denied to her, and this piece of cloth, which she wears to make her life easier, turns out to be highly politicized and prompts people to view her with contempt. She is effectively in a double bind: there is nothing she can do that will not result in some kind of punishment and some kind of loss. In what way is this empowering women and supporting women’s choices?

Many newspapers, when talking about Amed’s case, questioned whether Quebec should accommodate Islamic fundamentalism (the Post’s “A tale of two burkas” and the Globe’s “Beyond the pale on the veil” are two examples). The niqab is seen as an extreme expression of religious faith and so the wearer must be a religious fundamentalist. The question then became: should we really be accommodating fundamentalism?
This is where Islamophobia comes in, since there is absolutely no reason to believe that the niqab is a symbol of religious fundamentalism. Amed did not try to impose the niqab on anyone else and she did not preach her religion to others. There is no evidence that she advocates violence or extremism. All she expresses when she chooses to wear a niqab is that she is a woman who wears a niqab.

Additionally, there seems to be a fear that women in niqabs threaten secularism. This is again unfounded since Amed was not in a position of authority, she was not employed in public service, and she was not representing the government in any way to anyone. She is a civilian, hopefully a future citizen, who is dressed differently and engaging in public participation. Adding her voice to the vox populi does not make us any less secular as a province, as a nation.

Then there is the question of integration; many argue that a woman who wears a niqab cannot possibly integrate. I ask you then, what is integration anyway? Does it imply that one cannot express their cultural and ethnic identity? Would anyone argue that men clad in Hasidic attire cannot integrate? That veiled Catholic nuns are unable to fully participate in Quebec society? That turban-clad Sikh men are isolated?
Amed was a pharmacist in Egypt and she expressed a desire to learn French with the hope that she could pursue a similar career in Montreal. After being expelled from CEGEP St. Laurent, she did not give up; she found herself another French class in which to enrol. Subsequently, when denied again, she filed a human rights complaint against the province. These are not the actions of someone who is isolated or unwilling to integrate in Quebec society.

According to the Montreal Muslim Council, there are a couple dozen women in Quebec who wear the niqab. Accommodating these women does not seem excessive or costly: they could simply be told to lower their veil to identify themselves to institutions, and then be free to put it back up while enjoying the public service of their choice. Did the media, the politicians, and the state officials really have nothing better to do than to fixate on this for the last two weeks? Even Jean Charest found time to say that Amed was asking for too much accommodation.

The Muslim community itself is also divided on the issue of the niqab. Some suggest that a ban is necessary and others insist that wearing a niqab is a personal choice. I would personally like to hear more Muslim voices on this controversy. There is something deeply disconcerting about the majority deciding what is acceptable attire for a minority.

It seems that this case has brought out a lot of fear in everyone. I will leave you today with a few thoughts on tolerance. When it comes to a practice that does not violate anyone else’s rights, is there really such a thing as too much tolerance? And when it comes to Naïma Amed, were we, as a host society, really too tolerant of her?

Sheetal Pathak is a U3 IDS student. Write her at