Quebec's religious symbols ban welcomed by some who left Muslim countries behind

Not all immigrants from Muslim countries are opposed to Quebec’s religious symbols ban. Some say the proposed law is a necessary bulwark against the kind of problems they left behind in their home countries.

For those who see the hijab as a symbol of repression, Bill 21 is a necessary line between church and state

Ameni Ben Ammar moved to Quebec from Tunisia in 2013 and supports Bill 21, especially the provisions that would ban teachers from wearing religious symbols (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Ameni Ben Ammar lays out a spread of Tunisian hospitality on the coffee table of her small apartment in downtown Montreal.

Traditional pastries, a homemade cheese chicken pie and Tunisian wine.

Despite having left six years ago, the bond with her North African homeland is still strong.

But she says as much as she misses the Mediterranean lifestyle, for her, living in Tunisia had become untenable.

"I couldn't handle the changes in my country," she said, referring to what she describes as a steady progression of religious influence on society, the company where she worked, and even her own family.

Ben Ammar was raised by an atheist father and a mother who was a practising Muslim but didn't wear the veil … at least until recently.

"She saw that the neighbours wore it, her friends wore it, and said, 'I don't want to be the only one not wearing it,'" Ben Ammar said. "She didn't want to be different."

Ben Ammar’s mother Manoubia Ben Ammar, left, in Tunisia in the late 1970s with her sister and more recently during a visit to Montreal. (Ammouna Ben Ammar)

Ben Ammar's mother's decision to don the veil is just one example of what she sees as her country's transformation from a secular state to a place where government and religion now coexist, and sometimes clash.

An atheist, she strongly supports the CAQ government's plan to ban religious symbols such as the hijab for government workers in positions of authority, like police officers, prosecutors and teachers.

"The woman is representing the state and for me the state should be neutral."

Quebec is home to thousands of Muslims originally from French-language countries in North Africa.

While many have come out strongly against the ban, others, like Ben Ammar, relish the idea of a clear-cut line between church and state after having to negotiate the blurring of those lines in their home countries.

Ben Ammar was disappointed to see such a large march against the law on Sunday as thousands poured into downtown Montreal to decry Bill 21 as discriminatory.

Ben Ammar says the protest, organized by a group headed by controversial Imam Adil Charkaoui, does not represent the views of all of the province's Muslims.

"Who gave this association that organized the [protest] the right to talk in the name of Muslims here?" she said.

Aunt of mosque shooting widow favours bill

Two people who did speak at Sunday's protest were Aymen Derbali and Saïd El-Amari, survivors of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.

El-Amari called Bill 21 "racist" and "Islamophobic."

But that perspective is not shared by someone else whose life was broken by the tragedy.

Zahra Boukersi's niece Louiza lost her husband, Abdelkrim Hassane, in the shooting.

Hassane was murdered by a gunman, along with five other Muslim men, because of his faith.

Still, Boukersi, who teaches French at Montreal-area private elementary school, does not see the CAQ's bill as fuelling Islamophobia, but as a necessary bulwark against what she calls "radical Islamization."

"I have students who see me as a role model," she said. "I'm not sure what kind of role model these [veiled] women will represent for the young generation."

Boukersi fears a replay of what she lived through in her native Algeria, where she says as a teacher, wearing a hijab went from a personal choice to a social imposition.

"We thought like you do here," she said. "That it's nothing at all, nothing at all. But no, it became a real nightmare."

Boukersi left Algeria in 1996 during the country's "black decade," when Islamist rebels battled the Algerian army for power in a bloody civil war.

She says many North Africans who have lived a similar experience also support Bill 21.

Still, Boukersi feels the law should be modified to allow more flexibility for veiled women who want to become teachers so they don't end up dependent and marginalized.

"Yes, there are women who wear the veil to proselytize, but there are women who wear the veil because it encourages them to emancipate themselves," she said.

"This is how they're going to earn their financial independence."

Iranian women's rights icon has mixed feelings about ban

Shaparak Shajarizadeh does not support a law banning the hijab for adult women, but says greater efforts should be made to educate people about its role as a ‘symbol of repression.’ (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

More mixed feelings were on display last week at McGill University as Shaparak Shajarizadeh told the story of her own battle against the hijab to a room of students and Iranian expats.

The 44-year-old has become a global icon of resistance after being arrested three times and jailed twice in her home country of Iran for removing her hijab in public and posting images of the act on social media.

After she fled to Canada via Turkey last year, Shajarizadeh was sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia, according to Amnesty International.

She's now living in Toronto but has been following the debate over Bill 21 and says she's conflicted about the religious symbols ban.

"The government can do better than forcing people," Shajarizadeh said. "But at the same time, as a woman who grew up in a Muslim community, I know the hijab is a symbol of sexism."

After living under a government-imposed dress code most of her life, she can't back a law that tells adult women what they can and can't wear, but she feels differently when it comes to minors.

"I know that in Muslim families they force their kids to wear the hijab at the age of nine and obviously a kid can't decide," she said.

A choice between freedom of, and freedom from religion

The forced hijab for women was one of the reasons Homan Davoodi left Iran five years ago, even though he's a man.

"You grew up with this whole idea, with this whole concept that you should not see a woman's hair or her body," said Davoodi.

He says as a schoolboy he was taught that forcing women to wear the veil was necessary to prevent men like him from becoming aroused and attacking them.

"It was a burden of guilt and shame on me. I have no idea how hard it could be for a woman."

The 38-year-old came to hear Shajarizadeh's in person, whom he describes as his "personal hero."

Homan Davoodi grew up as a practising Muslim in Iran but now describes himself as an ‘ex-Muslim.’ He supports Bill 21. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Davoodi strongly supports Bill 21, even going so far as to say the hijab is even more repressive than a KKK hood.

"I know some people argue that it's a violation of freedom," he said. "But I think if we have to choose between two violations, I go with the Quebec government."

Davoodi has since become a Canadian citizen. Trained as a chemist, he now works at the Port of Montreal as a monitor and describes himself as an "ex-Muslim."

He says many native-born Canadians now defending the hijab have never seen its negative effects up close.

"You're just seeing a shadow of it. I've seen the whole thing."