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Quebec ban on religious symbols would fall heavily on hijab-wearing teachers

Demonstrators protest the Quebec government's newly tabled Bill 21 in Montreal. The legislation, which is expected to take effect in June, would prohibit public employees from wearing religious symbols on the job. (Graham Hughes/AP)

MONTREAL — For Nadia Naqvi, the choice is clear.

As a schoolteacher in Quebec, she would be subject to a proposed ban on public employees wearing religious symbols on the job. But the Muslim woman says she is not taking off her headscarf.

She says she’s thinking largely of her ninth-graders.

“What message does that send to my students?” Naqvi asked. “We’re supposed to teach them to stand up for their beliefs.”

The prohibition, introduced by Quebec’s new center-right government and expected to take effect in June, would apply to a range of public employees and religious practices. Police officers, prosecutors and teachers hold positions of authority in their communities, provincial Premier François Legault says, and shouldn’t be wearing symbols that might promote their faith while they serve the public.

But the reality is that not many police officers or prosecutors here wear Jewish skullcaps or turbans. The ban would likely fall most heavily on the province’s hijab-wearing teachers — of which there are believed to be hundreds. Which means that the latest battle in Quebec’s long-running culture wars is being fought in front of children.

Polls show that nearly 2 in 3 Quebecers support the prohibition. But it has drawn strong criticism, within the province and beyond.

“It’s unthinkable to me that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month.

France-Isabelle Langlois, the director of Amnesty International for French-speaking Canada, said the ban would violate international law protecting freedom of expression. Thousands of demonstrators crowded the streets of Montreal this month to protest.

New leader of Quebec wants to bar public servants from wearing religious symbols at work

It’s an emotional debate in this province, where Muslims have been targeted with violence. A gunman killed six people and wounded 19 at a Quebec City mosque two years ago, white supremacists have conducted “safety patrols” of Muslim neighborhoods in that city, and online pictures of veiled women in Montreal have drawn threats.

“It’s the question of national identity,” said Christian Nadeau, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Montreal. The loss of momentum in the separatist movement in the French-speaking province, he said, has led to “a lot of resentment” and repeated attempts to legislate a specific vision of Quebec culture into reality.

The ruling Coalition Avenir Quebec (Quebec Future Coalition) says the ban isn’t aimed at a specific religion. Officials describe it as a move toward a secular future.

“We believe that Bill 21 is the logical next step after the deconfessionalization of school boards that occurred in the late ’90s,” said Marc-André Gosselin, a spokesman for the government. The province has spent decades decoupling Catholicism from its public schools, where at one time most students were taught by priests and nuns.

Previous governments have attempted similar legislation. But now the Coalition Avenir Quebec, elected with a majority in October, has the votes to pass it.

David Rand, president of the Quebec-based Atheist Freethinkers, said banning religious symbols in schools makes sense. Children are “much more easily influenced” than adults, he said, and wearing a religious headscarf amounts to “passive proselytizing.”

But many teachers, hijab-wearing and not, have been infuriated to hear their students invoked in this way.

Maha Kassef, who teaches first-graders in Montreal, said she would sooner lose her job than compromise her values in front of the children.

“I’m not going to be the one to pass along this message to students,” said Kassef, 35. “I’m still a teacher who has to teach my kids that you can be anything.”

In Quebec’s election, voters showed more interest in moving right than separating from Canada

New teachers would be affected most by the bill. A grandfather clause would allow current public employees to continue to wear headscarves — but they could not be promoted while continuing to wear them.

Chahira Battou is set to graduate this spring from teachers college.

“The thing is that if I submit to the law, and I remove my scarf when I go to teach, that is when I become a submissive woman,” said Battou, 29.

School officials have mostly sided with the teachers. Two English-language school boards in the Montreal area have said they will not enforce the ban.

“This goes completely against the whole idea of educating kids with critical minds,” said Heidi Yetman, the president of the teachers union for Quebec’s English-language school system.

Naqvi, a high school science teacher in suburban Montreal, taught Yetman’s two sons. Yetman saw how they reacted to her hijab.

“They may walk into a class and notice it,” she said. “But after a week, when they get to know the person, they don’t even see it anymore.

“I always say that adults are the ones who are kind of wrecking it for the future, because we come from a different generation, [and] maybe we see things differently.”

The Quebec curriculum teaches diversity and acceptance. Educators say those values have become more important since the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.

Not long after that attack, Naqvi said, a new art teacher at her school, a Jewish man, was “targeted” by students who began drawing swastikas and Hitler in their artwork.

Their principal asked Naqvi and a different Jewish teacher to lead an assembly on hate.

The students had learned about the Holocaust. Now they heard that the Quebec City shooter had searched for neo-Nazi images online.

“We related it all together,” Naqvi said, “saying ‘Hate is hate is hate.’ ”

In 2013, a previous government proposed a similar law that would have applied to day-care workers as well as teachers. Two day-care workers in veils were walking children to a Montreal park when someone took a photo and posted it online. The post drew a barrage of threats, including “2 bullets; it’s hunting season, let’s go!”

Gosselin, the government spokesman, said the incident was unrelated to Bill 21.

“We strongly denounce every intolerant act or speech,” he said.

Kassef said she is considering leaving her home province. She loves her students, she said, but the decision will come down to what’s best for her own toddler.

“Do I want [my kids] to be raised in a place where . . . we have to explain ourselves every few years?” she asked.

“Nobody would want it for their child.”

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