Enlightening Report by Samaa Elibyari on Naima Ahmad, the woman recently kicked out of a French-language school for wearing the niqab or face veil
Report by Samaa Elibyari’s visit to Naima Ahmad, Monday March 8 2010
1. The context
I am sure you have been following the news about the case of Naima Ahmad, a Canadian resident of Egyptian origin living in Montreal.
Naima was expelled from CEGEP St-Laurent (College) because she refused to take off her niqab during one of her French classes. According to the College, tensions have been building up since the teacher believed Naima should remove her niqab for better communication (in particular during a presentation) and Naima refused because there were men in the classroom.
This led to the laughable situation where Naima gave her presentation with her back turned to the class! Originally, madame Mercier, the teacher, had suggested that the men (there are 3 in the class of 22) should turn their chairs and face the wall, which was not accepted by Naima. All this because Naima refuses to let men outside her family, see her face.
The confrontation led the College, with the approval of the minister of Immigration, to expel Naima from the French course.
Remember that those French classes are offered by the Government of Québec for immigrants, free of charge. This is why the office of Quebec minister of Immigration Yolande James, was involved.
Accompanied by her husband Naima went to the Human Rights Commission and filed a complaint against the college in November 2009. On March 2nd, the case, that she thought would be confidential, was splashed on the front page of La Presse and every other media outlet. Naima confided to me that the College must have leaked the story to the media with arguments justifying their decision. Arguments that Naima is contesting. Was this an infringement of Naima’s privacy? No one asked this question. The question of the burqua was still hot in France and the Quebec government was trying to circumvent the issue by remaining silent.
The local media didn’t miss this golden opportunity. I am sure you are aware of this sensationalist reporting so I will not comment on this side of the story.
2. The contact
As I followed the reporting of this case in the popular media, I got the impression that Naima could not be in her own mind so I was very curious to find out for myself.
I got an appointment to meet her at her place with Souad, another activist from the community on Monday March 8 at 1:00 p.m. She agreed to my presence after being assured that I am an activist, to be trusted. So, in writing this report, I hope I will not be betraying her trust.
In the car, Souad and I thought that we might be able to give some advice. Souad felt strongly that Naima should remove her niqab as the best gesture to counter the criticism of Quebec feminists. I had a more modest goal: suggest that she retracts her complaint from the Human Rights Commission and accepts some kind of mediation.
3. The visit
When Naima opened the door, I couldn’t believe it was the woman featured in the news. Of course, she wasn’t wearing her niqab. Beyond that she looks like any Egyptian woman of her age(30), with make-up, western clothes, jewellery.. She didn’t want me to give more details about her appearance in this report so I will simply say that she is very pleasant looking. And she was smiling. A far cry from the anguished look behind a black opaque veil. My God, I thought what is she doing with this niqab? She could / should lead a productive, happy life in Montreal.
I noticed immediately that Naima is still very much connected to Egypt, her home country: The satellite dish was very prominent on the porch and the recitation of recorded Qoranic verses greeted us as we entered the apartment.
I am stating this not as a criticism (I also watch Arabic channels and listen to Qoran) but I also read the local newspapers. The problem is that Naima isn’t (doesn’t seem to be) aware of the situation of Muslims in Quebec.
She referred several times to a booklet given to immigrants where (as you can image) there is no mention of bias against hijab or niqab. So she kept on asking ` where does it say that I cannot wear niqab in class?’ Maybe this is what led Michèle Ouimet (the well known journalist in La Presse) to write about Naima under the title `Elle ne comprend pas’ (she doesn’t understand).
Consequently according to this booklet, Naima felt that she was treated unfairly and that her rights were violated. This is a valid argument. Had we been living is a perfectly just society, she wouldn’t be discriminated against because of her attire. However, the reality as most Muslims know is very different.
Naima doesn’t live alone. She has a husband, a very busy husband who studies for his doctorate at Concordia. The couple has 3 young boys, the oldest being 5. Not surprisingly, financial resources are limited in the family (reported in La Presse).
This young woman has a lot of responsibilities on her shoulders. As a good mother, she mentioned that she wanted to be able to understand what her sons are saying, seeing and learning. To her credit, she decided to learn French in spite of being very busy with the kids and the household. She enrolled in the first levels (at a different school) until she landed in this College where the problems started.
Shortly after we put small talk aside and were served fresh orange juice and nuts, Souad stated emphatically giving multiple arguments that Naima should remove her niqab. Naima didn’t argue with Souad. In fact, it seems to me she was avoiding any discussion on that particular issue.
4. Why the niqab?
Naima told me in the course of the conversation that she wears the niqab because she likes it. In a subsequent telephone call she added that although it is a personal choice, it is inspired by religion.
She was reported in La Presse as saying she wears it because, the wives of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) wear it.
After a little while, it become clear to me that Naima wants first and foremost to be treated decently by all concerned, in particular the College. She wants to be enjoying `her rights’ to dress the way she wants. Because this is her choice, not because her religion compels her to do so.
She expects a full apology from the College and a reinstatement to her classes.
In fact she is convinced that the judgment of the Commission will be in her favour.
Whether the judgment will be in her favour (i.e. a reinstatement to the College plus an apology) or otherwise (she cannot attend those classes with her niqab), it is obvious that the popular opinion in Quebec supports the College.
I have seen some letters in the Globe and Mail that back Naima’s choice to wear her niqab and even one in The Gazette.
Regardless, we know that Minister Yolande James is about to introduce new legislations on niqab and burqua in the so called `public space’.
5. The well meaning neighbour
As our conversation was going nowhere, a friend and neighbour, erupted in the apartment. A woman wearing the niqab that she lifted in our presence. I will call her Mrs A. She was the one who gave the appointment to Souad.
We learnt that she (Mrs A) had a similar story with the same College. She complained to the Commission and got a ruling in her favour, forcing the College to apologize. This was two years ago.
I found this neighbour highly intelligent, very determined to enforce `her rights’ but totally disconnected from the Quebec reality. For instance, she had never heard about the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
Mrs A. asked us (Souad and myself) defiantly what was the purpose of our visit. Point blank.
I spoke forcefully of the implications of Naima’s story for our community. Of course, being not aware of the political climate, Naima didn’t appreciate what I was alluding to. She put forward the argument that with her or without her, the same laws will be enacted and that she has no responsibility (for what is happening). At this point , I realized that it was useless to ask for the retraction of the complaint at the Commission. Souad continued insisting on the removal of the niqab.
Mrs A. didn’t shy from accusing us of speaking like `them’ and that we (Souad and I) should be working instead to teach the society to be non discriminatory towards immigrants. She gave us numerous examples where she stood out and up to ascertain `her rights’. And how she frightens others into accepting her niqab by referring to the Charter! She also agreed that the niqab was not a religious obligation. It is her choice.
She was sharp, uncompromising and determined to continue in this way no matter what. Her talk was chilling. Honestly, I was scared from this woman.
Since Mrs A had stepped into the room Naima had not uttered a single word of any relevance to the issue of the niqab.
On our way out, Ziad (5 years), took my hand and lead me to his computer. He was playing a family game (that I had difficulty following). So he explained to me: that button is for his brother, his one for his parents, this one for his brother. A perfectly normal child (Mahsa Allah).
Isn’t it clear that this should be the priority, the education and wellfare of our children not the niqab.
6. The real problem
In my opinion it is the new environment that women like Naima have to face without proper support.
I am certain that it is a failure of the Government, society, community, that provoked this calamity! And we haven’t seen the end of it.
Naima is a victim. She deserves our support to be integrated. She has the right to wear her niqab (according to The Charter) but it should be known that it is a personal choice not imposed by Islam (as she herself stated to me).
It will also be helpful if we reiterate that her husband had no say in the matter.
Here ends my report on the visit.
Now speaking as a concerned member of the Muslim community:
I hope that had Naima (or any other woman in a similar situation) understood the context in which Muslims live today, she might have acted differently.
For ordinary Muslims, men and women, it is not a sin to show one’s face. The prophet’s (Peace be upon) wives were a special case. Even if Naima wants to emulate their condition, she is not infringing on her faith by showing her face occasionally, if need (for identification and knowledge for example) . Our religion is not dogmatic it has flexibility based on priorities. We have to be aware of this and have the courage to say it publicly.
Compare the gain Naima thinks she gets by wearing her niqab with what she loses but missing her classes. I am not talking about the tsunami of racism that washed over our community after the story was disclosed in the media.
Now, we have to reflect as a community on what we should do in anticipation of the next round.
Samaa is the host of Caravan on CKUT 90.3 FM (Montreal). Caravan airs weekly on Wednesday at 2pm.
Samaa Elibyari (514) 288-8609 firstname.lastname@example.org
Short URL: http://tinyurl.com/y93gnf8