Early last month, an Egyptian immigrant was banned from her French classes in Quebec. At issue was neither grades nor bad behavior but dress. Naema Ahmed, 29, refused to remove her niqab, the full veil that covers all but the eyes. The school, which helps integrate immigrants
into French-speaking Quebec through language immersion, said that having Ahmed's mouth covered impeded her teacher's ability to correct pronunciation. Further, they couldn't guarantee that Ahmed's teacher would be a woman, which she requested. Ahmed was asked to either remove her veil or not return to class. She opted for the latter.
Already well acquainted with the mores of the West, Ahmed filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission
. The move backfired
. "There is no ambiguity about this question," Quebec's immigration minister, Yolande James, told the press. "If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face." Further, Quebec Premier Jean Charest took a cue from Belgium, France and the Netherlands, pushing forward a bill that bans women wearing a burqa, niqab or any sort of full-face veil from receiving or applying for government services, including non-emergency medicine and day care. In other words: The ban applies pretty much everywhere but the street itself.
"This is a symbol of affirmation and respect -- first of all, for ourselves, and also for those to whom we open our arms," Charest told reporters
. "This is not about making our home less welcoming, but about stressing the values that unite us. . . . An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state."
In the weeks since Ahmed's story first broke, the Canadian media have debated the merits of reasonable accommodation, multiculturalism and integration. There have been protests, including this past weekend
, on both sides
of the debate. And the Muslim community is also divided. The Muslim Council
of Montreal argues that "all Canadians, whether Muslim or not, are guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
the freedom of religion and conscience. The state has no business in the wardrobes of the nation." And there are those like the Muslim Canadian Congress
, which wants Canada to ban the burqa.
Some 80 percent of Canadians in general and 95 percent of Quebecois
support the move.
For North Americans, this debate is relatively new. But the move to abolish the "total veil," as the French call it, has dominated European news for years now. Last fall, France initiated a parliamentary review on the subject, and on Wednesday President Nicholas Sarkozy renewed his push
for a full ban, similar to a bill proposed by the Belgians
-- once less roiled by these debates than their French neighbors but who have moved to halt the wearing of full veils in public, calling it a threat to public security.
"Women are already limited in their right to wear the burqa" in France, said Patrick Weill, a senior research fellow at the French National Research Center, who served on a 2003 French commission on secularism. "You cannot be a teacher, or a student. You cannot be a civil servant. You are already limited." But he pointed out a problem for even the most militant of secularists intent upon further bans: "What if [a woman who wears this veil] lives alone and she thinks she cannot go out without it, she cannot go out for food? She cannot go to a hospital if she is sick? That would be an attack on basic human rights. Whatever you think about wearing the burqa, you have to provide this person basic rights to eat. The European Court of Human Rights might declare the law unconstitutional. In that case it will a big victory for the fundamentalists."
The veil is seen, alternatively, as a means of repression
, a public security risk, an indicator of fundamentalism, and a form of religious expression that must, in democratic societies, be tolerated
Americans, known for championing religious liberties, are also not beyond seeing this as question of repression. But as my colleague Delia Lloyd
pointed out in January, banning the total veil is hard to support philosophically (where do religious rights begin and end?), politically (bans certainly don't extend olive branches) and practically (very few women actually wear the veil).
"The debate in Europe is about the visibility of Islam," said Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. "You have the traditional Christian right, which considers Islam 'foreign' and that it should be as invisible as possible – for example, those who were against the minarets in Switzerland. Then there are the secularists, who feel burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women."
Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian who has lived in Paris for 30 years, is a professor at l'École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. We first met in 2003, when I was looking for girls who were fighting to wear the hijab -- a head scarf -- in school. (They would lose the battle.) Khosrokhavar sees the issue as three-tiered.
"This sort of total veil," he said by telephone from Paris, "touches something deeply in Europe and in Western identity: individualism. In the West, people are associated intimately with their face and . . . this full veil is a denial of personhood, of individuality. In that respect it is rejected because it goes against Western values, independence."
The second point, he said, is security. Post 9/11 (New York), 3/11 (Madrid) and 7/7 (London), there is fear that if society accepts the veil, "Islamic radicals will ask, always, for more. . . . So they have to set limits. I was in Holland a few days ago and there, too, they were somehow disturbed by this total veil. They say, 'What does it mean? And why?' And many Muslims in Europe and some secular Muslims say this is not dominant Islam. [Those] in the total veil are going beyond the limits of what might be called the legitimate limits of Islam itself."
The third point involves how the veil squares with feminism. The total veil is seen as a symbol of subservience, but one curiosity Khosrokhavar points out is that a large number of converts wear the total veil, and these are women who have adopted both Islam and the veil willingly.
Khosrokhavar said that the veil becomes a focus of "scapegoating" in a time of economic crisis -- that the issue deflects criticism of failed economic policies by creating a false debate involving a small group of women. "It is a very complicated matter. Most of the Muslims [in the West] disapprove of the total veil, but they also disapprove of the law because they believe the law will stigmatize Muslims as a whole.
"It is a symptom of a crisis within most European countries," he continued. "French or German or Dutch identities were clear-cut decades ago, but now they are more and more blurred because of globalization and [the creation of a] European identity. It is very difficult to know who you are unless you oppose someone. If you oppose the [veil] and say, 'That's not French' or Belgian rather than defining what is French or Belgian, one's identity is constructed through opposition."
That identity crisis now extends to North America. Canadians seem just as confused
about what it means to be Canadian as their European cousins -- is Canada a country of multiculturalism, devoted to respecting each new culture that comes to it shores? Or is it a nation that requires some give on the part of immigrants? In Canada the fissures extend to the age-old tensions between the French and English regions of the country.
The anxiety and stress surrounding Muslim women and their garb reverberate around the globe, and certainly to Canada's neighbor to the south. And yet, even as uncomfortable as the image of a fully veiled women may make some Americans, the United States lives by the values reiterated by President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech
to Muslims last June:
"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. . . . Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility toward any religion behind the pretense of liberalism. Indeed, faith should bring us together."