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by Sheema Khan

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Sr. Sheema Khan is 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.

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Your Comments

DeeDee, Toronto - wrote on 3/24/2012 10:39:55 PM
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Comment: Canada is considered a free society. The very nature of covering your face or head to support and accept that you are a second class citizen is not a Canadian construct. If you want to be free to wear a badge of dishonor, Canada is not your stage. As far as I am concerned you can take your warped acceptance of being an inferior gender and shove it up your @ss. Islam by its very nature is a backwards ideology Canada does not want to be associated with. We don't want your kind mixing with our progressive culture that promotes freedom and equality.

Kera, Winnipeg - wrote on 3/11/2012 11:37:59 AM
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Comment: For some of you that say when you come to canada you have to adapt to our culture. ITS NOT CULTURE making muslim women wear the hijab its RELIGION. there is a strict distinction between the two! I think people can wear whatever they choose, thats the great part about Canada.

proudangloquebecer, montreal - wrote on 3/5/2011 3:43:13 PM
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Comment: I agree with the first poster. If you wish to come to Canada for whatever reason u should be prepared to adapt to our culture. I feel like we bend over backwards to accomadate everyone and end up stifling our own culture. Its give and take. We gave u a place to live now show a little respect for our culture as it seems to be working better than most places. I think in quebec they should teach canadian manners not just french to newcomers.

JP Shaw, Abbotsford - wrote on 9/15/2010 11:17:16 AM
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Comment: I think your story is good, however you fail to note that becoming part of Canada does not mean for us to adopt or be educated about these beliefs, it's for all immigrants to become one. It insults me that we as Canadians born and raised here are being forced to continuously change the rules and laws for others wishing to be a part of our great nation. Like the helmet law for instance. Why should those wearing their custom hair hats be except to wearing helmets and others not???? You need to show your article from both sides not just one. There is too much talk about changing what Canada means and has always meant, from changing our anthem to include it being sung in another language than the native language always used ENGLISH! Too many cultures are forgetting how Canada has welcomed them into our country after fleeing persecution, war, famine and other reasons to shelter and give them a new start. I love how diverse our great nation is but I despise that immigrants feel they are owed more respect for their mothering countries. If there is such a respect needed... then why on God's earth move to Canada?

yusra, canada - wrote on 5/13/2006 11:07:37 AM
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Comment: I think you wrote a great essay and i think everyone should wrtie one since some people still discriminate us women and girls against wearing hijab, which is not a bad thing but it is respectful and it does not give the masculin eye any negative thoughts

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