The face-off over cultural (in)tolerance

By Sydney Stokoe

Last week a woman was expelled from a French class in Quebec for refusing to remove the veil covering her face. The woman ­– identified as Naema — was wearing a niqab­, a veil exposing only the eyes of the wearer. When asked to remove the headwear for class, she refused, and was subsequently told to finish her education elsewhere. The Quebec government is standing behind the school’s decision to expel the woman. Quebec is the only province where the government has backed a decision such as this and immigration ministers from several other provinces have assured the public that this would not be tolerated.

Canada is a country that prides itself on acceptance, and actions such as this are hardly in line with that image. Supporters of the government’s decision have claimed that Canadian immigrants should assimilate to our culture. This statement in itself holds very little weight. What is the Canadian culture but a mixture of many immigrants’ cultures? As a country that is the sum total of its immigrants, it’s ridiculous to deny aspects of a foreign culture.

It’s a fact that we too easily forget, but most Canadians are immigrants. Our families all came from somewhere and each brought pieces of their cultures with them from whatever corner of the world they travelled from. These cultural puzzle pieces have formed what we deem “Canadian” today. For our society to ignore the fact that our identity is constantly shifting is not only short-sighted, but also denies our history.

What the issue really boils down to is fear, and the fact that we are letting petty fears dictate government actions is appalling. Naema’s veil was not hurting anyone, and it is her right to choose her religion, so if covering her face comes along with her religious beliefs, so be it. When it comes to religion, as long as the rights of other Canadians aren’t being infringed upon, there should be no issues. Ignorance and Islamophobia are not excuses for judging people. If we all associated with the same isolated conception of what we deem Canadian culture, our country would be a pretty bland place. We need to remember that every person who crosses our borders brings something new and special to our society.

Granted, it isn’t the norm for women to cover their faces in Canada, but that doesn’t take away a woman’s right to choose how she presents herself in public. If her upbringing and religious beliefs mean that she wears a scarf, then her decision should be respected. This is a free country and, let’s face it, that’s the reason so many immigrants come here each year. If she is uncomfortable with her face exposed, no one should force that upon her.

As members of a fairly liberal western society, it can be difficult to understand the reasoning behind covering one’s face, and the veil is often viewed as a symbol of oppression. What we have to understand is that ours is not the only way of life. Far be it from us to pass judgment on the morality of the veil. This is more an issue of a woman’s right of choice infringed upon by an overbearing government.

Who are we to question an individual’s desire to wear a niqab any more than to question a woman wearing a skirt? Sure, women have every right to wear pants, but if a choice is made to dress in more traditionally feminine clothing, it does not mean that she is surrendering her rights as a member of modern society, nor should she be told that she is wrong in what she is doing. Before judgment is passed on the actions of others, we must remember that even though we might not fully understand why they choose to do as they do, that doesn’t take away from their right to do it. It’s a shame that the Quebec government couldn’t be more open minded when it comes to diversity. Ignorance leads nowhere worthwhile.

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