During the late 1980's and early 1990's, I remember the stories emanating from France of young Muslim schoolgirls expelled for wearing the Hijab.
While many of the young sisters were permitted to return to school wearing the Hijab, wider questions had been raised.
How does a purely secular public school system accommodate religious beliefs? What about the issues of freedom and oppression of women? Were these girls influenced by the “integristes” of Algeria, who were aspiring to implement an Islamic government in the former French colony?
Was this another example of “immigrants” failing to integrate into French society (a favorite theme of le Front National, a national anti-immigrant party)? Was this the beginning of the end of the strict separation between church and state?
At the time, I thought the problem was peculiar to France. Impossible for such an event to happen in Quebec, Canada.
Then on September 10th, 1994, the Muslim community of Quebec (and Canada) received a strong wake-up call.
THE CASE OF EMILIE OUIMET
Emilie Ouimet, a 13-year-old high school student, was sent home from school for wearing the Hijab. The primary reason given by the principal was that the school had a strict code that forbade the use of caps or attire that would distinguish students from their peers – part of a dress code for disciplinary reasons.
Soon after, a debate raged for months through Quebec society.
Incredibly, the issues raised were similar to those raised in France: religious belief in a secular system; the fear of religious fundamentalism; Hijab as a symbol of oppression versus liberation; and integration of “immigrants” into Quebec society (the failure of which was exploited by La Societe St-Jean Baptiste, a Quebec organization).
NO EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO THE ISSUE
A few more incidents of young Hijabis expelled from school emerged. In some cases, parents of girls were interrogated by school administrators on whether they forced their daughters against their will to wear the Hijab.
A few school principals questioned the right of Muslim students to fast during the month of Ramadan.
The Muslim community found itself at the center of a debate for which it had no unifying voice.
Divisions within prevented any meaningful coalition of resources to address the pressing needs.
However, that did not stop individuals from taking action, including the parents of Dania Bali, a straight-A student who was asked to remove her Hijab. They filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
A RULING THAT TURNED THE TIDE
As Ramadan arrived, the Commission made a landmark ruling that turned the tide: Quebec schools did not have the right to prohibit any student from wearing religious attire (be it a Sikh turban, a Jewish yarmulke, a Christian cross, or Islamic Hijab).
More importantly, Quebec society was asked to consider the issues of religious pluralism in the emerging “global village”.
The Quebec Charter of Rights guaranteed religious freedom, and no school administrator or employer could take that right away.
OTHER GROUPS ALSO SUPPORTED RIGHT TO WEAR HIJAB
In addition, the Quebec Council for the Status of Women and the Canadian Jewish Congress came out in favor of the Hijab – for different reasons.
For the Council, it was an issue of freedom of choice and access to education. If the Hijab were banned, the Council argued, many of these young Muslim girls would simply not attend school, and thus be penalized for their choice of belief.
For the Congress, it was an issue of religious rights for minorities.
COMMISSION ALSO RULED AGAINST A MUSLIM SCHOOL
It should be also noted that the Commission ruled against a Muslim school in Quebec that required non-Muslim teachers to wear the Hijab while teaching. One cannot force one's beliefs on others – be it for or against the Hijab.
Since that time, there have been fewer incidents of Hijab discrimination in the schools.
COMMUNITY HAS TO BE MORE PROACTIVE
However, the Muslim community must become more proactive in educating Quebec society about its beliefs and practices. It must also put aside differences for the common good of the community.
It must be ready to defend its rights by using the appropriate channels readily available.
Sheema Khan was a member of the Ottawa, Canada branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and was one of the few Muslim activists at the forefront in defending the right of Muslim girls to wear Hijab during the 1994-95 controversy in Quebec, Canada.