Ottawa·Point of View

Why Quebec's religious symbols bill changed my university plans

Barâa Arar always planned to attend her mom's alma mater, McGill University. Then the Quebec government tabled Bill 21, which would ban religious symbols in parts of the civil service. For Arar, it was a deal-breaker.

Barâa Arar always dreamed of attending her mom's alma mater, McGill University — then came Bill 21

Barâa Arar always planned to attend her mom's alma mater, McGill University. Then the Quebec government tabled Bill 21, which would prevent some civil servants from wearing religious symbols such as hijab while on the job. (Ainslie Coghill)

I vividly remember the tour of McGill University's campus my parents took me on as a kid. Its gothic libraries, winding cobblestone alleyways and open soccer fields formed my idea of what a university should look like.

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After years of imagining myself walking through that beautiful campus, I applied last fall to a master's program at McGill. My parents met there, so I saw it as a sort of homecoming: McGill was written into my family history even before I was born.

Monia Mazigh holds her daughter, Barâa Arar, while her mother, Saida Nagti, looks on. (Submitted by Barâa Arar)

Twenty-five years ago my mother arrived in Montreal to pursue a graduate degree. She had just left Tunisia, where then president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali implemented anti-hijab policies on public university campuses. State officials and university administrators harassed women like my mother who wore hijab to school. Campus became a hostile space where women had to make an unfair choice: wear hijab or get an education.

I do not want to look over my shoulder as I walk through the halls of my university. I do not want to worry about taking the bus alone after an evening class. I do not want to go to a weekly protest to protect my freedoms.

My mother felt she was smoked out of her own university. Not only was she denied the opportunities afforded to her counterparts, but her hijab was under constant scrutiny. Her ambition propelled to her to immigrate to Canada and study at McGill, where she received her PhD in finance.

For Barâa Arar, McGill University formed her idea of what post-secondary education should look like. (CBC)

Although it was not without its challenges, for my mother Canada represented the possibility of getting an education while practising her faith freely.

Two decades later, that same campus represents the opposite for me.

You've likely seen headlines about Quebec's proposed Bill 21. It would ban religious symbols for those in public positions of authority, such as teachers or judges. As a result, this proposed law is erasing the educational aspirations of many who wear hijabs, turbans or kippahs.

Barâa Arar's mom, Monia Mazigh, left Tunisia because of its anti-hijab policies on public university campuses. She went on to study business at HEC Montreal before attending McGill. (Submitted by Barâa Arar)

When the bill was first tabled in March, I had just been accepted to McGill for my master's in history. The kid inside me should have been giddy when the acceptance letter appeared in my inbox. After all, I would finally walk down those winding cobblestone streets and roam those gothic libraries. I would finally get the chance to experience the campus where my mom, pregnant with me, wrote her doctoral comprehensive exam.

But when it came to making a final choice between universities, I wasn't just picking between the best cafeterias and campus pubs. I had to consider what it would feel like to study in a province where women who looked like me could lose their jobs or have less access to public sector employment.

As a graduate student, I do not want to look over my shoulder as I walk through the halls of my university. I do not want to worry about taking the bus alone after an evening class. I do not want to go to a weekly protest to protect my freedoms. I want to be a 22-year-old graduate student, stressed about writing papers and annoyed at the poor food selection on campus, not one who has to prove I am welcome.

Those worries are not just in my head. Women who wear hijab and niqab have reported increased harassment since the bill's introduction, according to a women's advocacy group that tracked complaints. The harassment has seeped into the streets.

My mother left her birth country because she was forced to choose between her education and being herself. She never anticipated her daughter would have to make the same choice 25 years later. And just like my mother, I refuse to compromise who I am.  

This September, I will go to class somewhere I feel safe to be who I am: at the University of Toronto.

Monia Mazigh graduated with a bachelor's degree in Tunisia before arriving in Canada. (Submitted by Barâa Arar)
Barâa Arar always planned to attend her mom's alma mater, McGill University. Then the Quebec government tabled Bill 21, which would ban religious symbols in parts of the civil service. For Arar, it was a deal-breaker. 8:02

Barâa Arar will start a master's in history at the University of Toronto in the fall, researching gender and French colonialism.