Saturday, March 6, 2010

What not to Wear

Last week, controversy arose in Quebec regarding a Muslim woman from Egypt, who expected her French language class for new immigrants to make special accommodations for her. Dressed in full niqab with only slits for her eyes, she was not able to fully participate in the learning. The instructor’s approach involved helping students with pronunciation by watching the movements of their mouths; when asked to remove the veil covering her mouth, the woman refused.

She insisted on giving her presentations from the back of the classroom (with her back to the class) in order to avoid visual contact with the three male students in the room. She also asked the men to move away from her when they were too close for her comfort. When there were one-on-one exercises, she would only work with the female instructor.

Eventually, the school and the Quebec government had had enough. The woman was given the ultimatum to remove the veil covering her mouth to expose her face, or leave. She quit. Then she launched a human-rights complaint against the province.

She says that she wears the veil for religious reasons and is being treated unfairly. The province says that when a person receives public services, they must do it with their face uncovered. A barrier on the face inhibits integration.

The woman is deeply offended. She says her right to religious freedom has been violated.

This kind of debate is not new in our country and certainly not in the province of Ontario. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, with more languages spoken here than anywhere else. We welcome immigrants and we have much to gain from having such a diverse population. We learn about different customs and traditions, different viewpoints, and different societies. Despite cultural and religious differences, new immigrants are just like us in many ways; they care about similar things: their faith, family, community, the environment, health, and education. They enrich our communities and teach us tolerance.

However...they are guests in this country and they are privileged to be here. As are the rest of us—descendants of past immigrants. Canada is arguably the best country in the world to live in. It is still the land of opportunity and probably offers the greatest future for any immigrant today. Not to say that it is easy to start fresh in a new country. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents immigrated to Canada from Hungary after the Second World War and they had their share of tribulation.

Leaving their much loved homeland behind, with no knowledge of French or English, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch. Did they ever demand special privileges to accommodate their customs? Of course not. They were grateful to be here and were determined to integrate as quickly as possible.

They did what they needed to do—learned the language, got menial jobs to start with (although they were all professionals back in Hungary), and developed friendships with local people. Naturally they were homesick and missed their old pre-war life, and they had to adjust to strange new things like Wonderbread, which my grandmother thought tasted like paper.

They never took this country for granted and they appreciated the generosity and gracious welcome extended to them. Race and religion may not have been issues, but they still had many challenges to overcome.

Canada is a secular nation that accommodates and tolerates private religious practices of all kinds. But when these customs interfere with public affairs and infringe on the rights of others, isn’t it taking the privilege too far?

A few years ago, John Tory lost his run for premier of Ontario because he was advocating public funding for private religion-based schools. Ontarians did not jump onto his platform. Why? Because we don’t believe in promoting segregation. We respect all peaceful religions and we understand the need to maintain a cultural identity, but there is a limit. If immigrants do not want to be shut out by their newfound home, then likewise, they should not shut out those who have welcomed them into their fold, including male teachers, male students and any other person who offers goodwill. The Egyptian woman has three children; what are their chances of assimilating?

If the tables were turned and a Western woman was to emigrate to the Middle East, how would she be treated?

Here is an excerpt from a piece by contributing editor of Vanity Fair, Judy Bachrach, from her article Twice Branded: Western Women in Muslim Lands:

Western women who find themselves in the Middle East come in for their own fair share of daily insults, owing to their double deficit as women and foreigners. Every step outside the home or hotel is an invitation to a carefully directed barrage of verbal assaults, their components familiar and unvarying: vulgar and offensive remarks, leers and snickers, the occasional shove, all accompanied by grins of triumph.

Furthermore, Bachrach had this to say about her own experience in Egypt:

Thus it was that my Egyptian experience marked the only time in my life when the acquisition of the rudiments of a foreign language, far from making life more comfortable, actually ignited rage. The more Arabic we learned, the more xenophobic and sexually explicit trash talk we understood. There was a lot of it around (except, significantly, when we were escorted by our husbands).

Perhaps the Egyptian woman should reconsider her complaint, and think twice about how she has been treated in Canada. If she still feels slighted, she can always go back to her own country, where women have few, if any, rights at all.


  1. An interesting issue, Carla. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this one.

  2. What an interesting topic. I have to admit, your article elicited strong feelings. This whole issue is so laden with difficulty. We all want to be tolerant -- of other cultures, religions. And yet...The sense that new immigrants expect the host nation to accommodate their values, rather than the other way around, it is infuriating! On the other hand, I don't have any firsthand experience from the other side -- no friend's or personal experiences to draw from. I'm not sure if this is an apt analogy, but the best I can come up with is I try to imagine how we would feel if we moved a country where women were expected to walk around topless. And then add a religious imperative. In other words, not an easy issue. I'm just glad I don't have to make the ruling!

    Thanks for bringing up an intriguing situation.