Quebec judge who asked woman to remove hijab apologizes, 5 years later

It's been more than five years since Quebec Court Judge Eliana Marengo refused to hear the case of a Montreal woman because she was wearing a hijab. Marengo apologized on Tuesday.

Judge Eliana Marengo refused to hear case of woman unless she removed her hijab, prompting 5-year saga

In 2015, Rania El-Alloul was asked by a judge to remove her hijab in a Quebec courtroom in Montreal. (National Council of Canadian Muslims)

A Quebec court judge, who refused to hear the case of a Montreal woman because she was wearing a hijab, has finally apologized for the incident, more than five years after it happened.

At an online hearing of the Quebec Council of the Magistrature on Tuesday, a lawyer for the council read Judge Eliana Marengo's apology to Rania El-Alloul.

The council is the body responsible for disciplining judges in the province.

In her statement, Marengo said she acknowledged that she erred in asking El-Alloul to remove her hijab, that she regretted any inconvenience and that she never intended any offence or disrespect.

Marengo addressed the fact that at the time she had compared El-Alloul's hijab to a hat and sunglasses being worn in the courtroom.

"My reference to hats and sunglasses was simply meant to exemplify how the rules of decorum are generally applied in the courtroom and was most certainly not meant to disrespect either you or your beliefs," Marengo said.

She concluded by offering El-Alloul her most sincere apologies.

El-Alloul read her own statement in response, saying she accepted Marengo's apology.

"I remember that day in the courtroom like it was yesterday. I couldn't imagine that I would be turned away from the justice system because of my hijab, that my rights would be taken away because of my beliefs," El-Alloul said.

"I hope she understands the pain she caused me, and why it is so important for her to account for her actions. Our justice system is not made for some and not others. No, this is a democracy, where everyone is to be treated equally before the law," she continued.  

"I accept her apology. This is what my faith teaches me."

'Not suitably dressed'

The controversy dates back to February 2015 when El-Alloul was in court trying to get back her impounded car.

"In my opinion, you are not suitably dressed," Marengo told El-Alloul at the time. The judge said the court was a secular space, and no religious symbols should be worn by those before it.

The incident happened in Quebec court in Montreal. El-Alloul was seeking to recover her car, which had been impounded. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The case was suspended, and El-Alloul eventually got her car back. But the story made headlines around the world.

Dozens of people, including El-Alloul, ultimately filed complaints with the Council of the Magistrature.

El-Alloul's complaint was dismissed on a technicality, but the council agreed to look into the dozens of other complaints on the matter.

Marengo challenged the authority of the council to examine the complaints. She sought leave to appeal a Quebec Court of Appeal decision that unanimously found she was wrong to bar El-Alloul from her courtroom.

But in 2018, the Supreme Court refused to hear Marengo's challenge.

Change of heart

The Council of the Magistrature sent a letter earlier this summer to the complainants, informing them of today's hearing.

"The purpose of this hearing will be to study a settlement proposal from the prosecutors on file, including a letter of apology from Judge Marengo to Mrs. El-Alloul," the letter said.

The council also told the complainants the apology would be released to the public, in exchange for dropping the disciplinary charges against Marengo.

The settlement was jointly proposed by Marengo's lawyers and the lawyer handling the complaint for the council.

The panel of judges presiding over the hearing said it would take time to consider today's arguments before deciding whether to accept the settlement.


Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.