In 12 years teaching high school students in Montreal, the only comments Furheen Ahmed has received about her hijab are compliments on its colour or pattern, and occasional questions about why she wears the headscarf or what to call it.
Not once has it ever prompted any hostility or caused any offence, she told National Observer.
The English, history and geography teacher is “disheartened, frustrated and confused” by the newly-elected Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government pledge to ban teachers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols like the Muslim hijab, Sikh turban or Jewish kippah.
CAQ leader François Legault has said he will go as far as using the notwithstanding clause – recently deployed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford – if necessary to push the policy forward. The clause in the Canadian Constitution would be invoked to override provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In his first press conference as premier-designate last week, Legault said his party would create a framework where people employed by state in positions of authority are banned from wearing religious garments while at work. He said that his government will offer people who want to continue wearing the items desk jobs.
On Tuesday the party's position was confirmed by Simon Jolin-Barette, the CAQ MNA who is spokesperson for the government transition and former justice critic when the Liberals were in power. He said “people in authority should not wear religious signs,” including those who are “actually in a teaching position.” He appeared to soften the position by adding that while the party’s plans had not included a grandfather clause for teachers, it would be open to talking to the opposition parties about the possibility of making the policy only apply to new hires.
Ahmed, who has lived in Montreal her whole life, said “I don’t think I should be told what to wear and what not to wear, or to abandon the career that I’ve been pursuing for so long, that I have credentials and a university degree for.”
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Fellow Westmount High School teacher Robert Green told National Observer that he now is wearing Buddhist prayer beads to school in solidarity with his colleague.
“If they are going to force Ms. Ahmed to a desk job, there is going to be more of us," Green said. "I’m not going to take off my mala (prayer beads). If there are consequences imposed on her, we will be standing with her and doing it in the loudest way possible so that the media can see how abhorrent the actions this government is taking are.”
Religious requirements, not religious symbols
There has never been a complaint from a student or parent about any of his colleagues’ choice of clothing, he said. “Quite to the contrary, our parents want a school environment where they know human rights are being respected, where they know diversity is being respected, not proposed as something that is a problem with society […] Ultimately, we are dealing with a law here that is saying to young Muslim girls and young Jewish boys, you don’t have the same rights as everybody else, and we are going to force you to choose between your faith and your job.”
Thousands of protestors filled the streets of Downtown Montreal on Sunday to march against racism and the CAQ's suite of immigration and identity proposals, which include plans to expel new arrivals who don’t pass French and values tests after three years and to cut the number of annual immigrants to Quebec by a quarter.
Carolyn Gehr is an Orthodox Jewish woman who has taught math and science for 13 years at Royal West Academy. In keeping with her religious beliefs, she wears a kerchief to cover her hair. She was quick to emphasize to National Observer that her head covering is not a religious symbol.
“It’s a religious requirement. It’s not because I want to show everyone that I’m Jewish that I wear it […] And so they are not asking me to take off a symbol, they are asking me to break a rule.”
While her faith does give her the option of wearing a wig instead of a kerchief, Gehr said she avoided wigs her whole life because they are expensive, uncomfortable and require high maintenance. She vowed to fight any ban.
"[The CAQ] say women are being segregated by wearing these ‘symbols’ but they are the ones that are going to be causing the segregation."
'It breaks my heart'
Amrit Kaur is training to teach but but worries she might not find a job in Quebec – where she has always lived – on account of the turban she wears every day.
“I love my students that I teach right now, I have so much fun doing it, and it breaks my heart that I might not be able to,” she told National Observer.
Kaur lives in Vadreuil-Dorion, an off-island suburb of Montreal, and juggles her teacher training with responsibilities as the Quebec and Atlantic Canada vice-president of the World Sikh Organisation. She said the CAQ’s proposal “sends a very negative message that [Sikhs] are not considered as true Quebecers even though we pay taxes, we’ve had the same opportunities in terms of education. It makes us feel like second class citizens and that we have to compromise our values."
"Any devout Sikh will not give up their turban," Kaur said. I will not give it up. It’s not an option.”
She said her turban often triggers valuable discussions about different cultural and religious traditions and values in class. “It’s a prompt for other children to talk about themselves and be more comfortable in their skin and talk about their identity and culture, because I’m doing it openly,” she explained.
In August, the World Sikh Organisation appealed to the Montreal municipal and Quebec provincial governments to break down the systemic barriers that make it difficult for the approximately 15,000 Sikhs in Quebec to enter civil service. Currently, there are no Sikh police officers in Quebec.
Sikhs are naturally drawn to civil service, Kaur said. “In our culture, social justice is very important, standing up for peoples’ rights and not just your own, even if you have conflicting views […] human rights is a big cultural value and that’s why parents want their children to go into those jobs.”
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is Sikh, she added, “and I don’t think he’s clouded by his turban.”
'Camouflage for discrimination'
Marvin Rotrand, a city councilor who supported the Montreal Sikh community in its appeal, told National Observer that the CAQ’s religious symbols proposal was “camouflage for discrimination,” pointing out that many of its proponents “generally make exceptions for Christian faith crosses.”
Indeed, Jolin-Barette said Tuesday that the CAQ would not remove the controversial crucifix that has hung over the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly since 1936, calling it a “heritage object." He said the presence of the crucifix and the religious symbols issue were "two separate things."
A Québec solidaire party motion to remove the cross a year ago was quashed by the governing Liberals.
Haroun Bouazzi is co-president of the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la Laicité au Québec, a group of Muslims and Arabs who favour state secularism. He told National Observer that the CAQ’s proposal is an “attack on the fundamentals of our democracy.”
He explained that the present situation is a “ripple effect from what has been happening for the past 40 years in France" where the concept of laicité, or state securalism, “has evolved from something that was there to actually include minorities to something that is actually used to exclude minorities.”
He believes the continued misapplication of the concept in Quebec follows nefarious logic. “It’s tough to just say 'I want to take rights away from minorities.' It looks very racist. But a way to present laws that are actually there to exclude minorities and racialize people – specifically women – is to say, it’s for a good principle (i.e. state secularism).”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Legault last week that the notwithstanding clause was “not something that should be done lightly, because to remove or avoid defending the fundamental rights of Canadians, I think it’s something with which you have to pay careful attention.”
He added he was not “of the opinion that the state should be able to tell a woman what she can wear, nor what she cannot wear.”