Listening to CBC’s The Current this morning I heard the Québec immigration minister Yolande James state that a woman cannot wear the niqab to learn french, “point à la ligne” (full stop). The woman, a recent Egyptian immigrant, had chosen to learn french, presumably to better integrate into her new community, and has now been expelled from two separate government-run French classes. That blanket statement by the Québec government is frankly disgusting – I cannot comprehend how the wearing of a Niqab interferes with learning French.
If the story were that simple, this would be the end of it, but of course, it’s not. Over the course of the interview on the CBC with (I believe – my apologies if I have got the wrong person) Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, it comes out that the reason she was expelled from the first class was her reaction to a request to do a class presentation (again, I’m working from memory of an interview I heard while driving Liam to school – I hope I have all the facts right here):
When joining the class, the woman, Naema, had made an arrangement with the teacher to sit in the front row, as she was uncomfortable having strange men look at her (presumably in the face) – the teacher agreed – that to me seems like “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs. Where I start to lack support for Naema is when, asked to present to the class, she refused to stand up in front of the class and speak, unless the men in the class weren’t there, or turned around. For me, at that point, she crosses the line from holding firm in her own beliefs over to imposing her world view on the others in her class. It is reasonable, to me, to accommodate her beliefs and ensure she has a seat where she is comfortable. It is not reasonable to allow her to speak from her seat, not facing the class, when everyone else must speak from the front. If you wish to attend government-run classes, some concession to the cultural mores of your new country should probably be expected. If you’re not comfortable with making those concessions, find a different class. Perhaps immigrant services, or groups such as the Canadian Muslim Forum could keep lists of privately-run classes that are more sensitive to the (for Canada) unique needs of devout Muslim women.
However, while I agree with the stand to not let her have special treatment relative to the other students, it in no way excuses a blanket ban on niqab-wearing women from learning French. It seems to be part of a growing (and worse, growing in acceptance) trend in Western Nations to isolate, demean and alienate Muslims living here. Given how already culturally isolating it would be to wear the niqab in Québec, it would seem right to encourage women such as Naema to attend French class, to have a better chance of assimilating somewhat into francophone culture in the province.