Out in the Open

'I want Canadians to see me as who I am:' Quebec's religious neutrality law leaves student feeling unseen

As a woman who wears the niqab, 21-year-old McGill student Fatima Ahmad has found herself in the middle of a heated debate in her home province Quebec this year. But even though people curse at her or, in one case, try to grab off her niqab, Fatima says she's optimistic, especially now that the courts have pressed pause. Quebec’s religious neutrality law stems from misconceptions, she says, which she'd like to help clear up.
Fatima Ahmad, 21, is a university student in her hometown of Montreal; and she’s one of the people most affected by Quebec’s recent religious neutrality law. (Courtesy of Fatima Ahmad)

On October 18, Bill 62 in Quebec became the highly controversial religious neutrality law.

The law requires people in Quebec who give or receive any public service to uncover their faces. That means, you can accompany someone to the hospital, but if you want treatment yourself, you must uncover your face. You can drop your child off at daycare, but you can't pick them up. You can look for books in a library with your face covered, you wouldn't be able to get a book or engage with staff. 

Though certainly not a global first, Quebec is the first in North America to enact such a law, which was proudly noted by Quebec Premiere Philippe Couillard when announcing the law. Since then, a Quebec Superior Court judge has granted a temporary suspension, putting the law on hold until the province provides clearer guidelines. The province says to expect those by summer.

The law has the support of a large number of Quebecers, and Canadians. At the same time, it's draw sharp criticism. Some institutions in the province — like McGill University, for example — responded by refusing to enforce it.

As it stands, it's not clear whether or not the law will be knocked down by a legal challenge or whether it's the start of a trend on this continent. 

And in the middle of it all, are the hundred or so people the face-covering law affects the most — women who wear the niqab, like Montreal's Fatima Ahmad.

She's a 21 year old university student at McGill who hopes to become a public school teacher. Here's a part of her conversation with Piya.

Piya: When you say you face a lot of Islamophobia, what does that look like in real life for you?

Fatima: It's harder for me to walk down the streets because I don't know what people will say or do. People throw a lot of comments...

Piya: Like what?

Fatima: "This is Canada, this is not Afghanistan," "Go back to your country," "It's not Halloween." Most people just curse at me... and I try to ignore most of the comments. I don't want to hear what they are saying to me. And there was an incident when I was in the Metro, somebody tried to take my niqab off.

​Piya: Is it worth the risk [to wear the niqab]?

Fatima: Um, I think it is. I mean, I don't want to take it off just because people don't like it. I still want to practice my rights. I don't want to just give up. So I think it's worth it. The niqab means a lot to me.

Piya: You know that most of your fellow Quebecers support this law and some want it to go much further. And there seems to be a lot of support, at least according to one poll, for what it's worth, an Ipsos poll, that some 68 percent of Canadians outside of Quebec would support a similar law in their jurisdictions. Do you get why Canadians feel that way?

Fatima: Uh, yes. I've been thinking a lot about why, what's their feelings about the niqab...and I think if we address their concerns — because I think some of the concerns are very legitimate, some of them are misconceptions — if we have a dialogue I don't think a majority of Quebecers or Canadians would agree [with Bill 62].

Piya: How do you respond to that idea that seeing a face is important for a variety of reasons: communication, identification, security that it's the Canadian way. You've heard all these arguments.

Fatima: Yes. So for security reasons, there are millions of women around the world that wear the niqab and I've never heard of any story where it was security problem. In Canada, there are no news stories that can illustrate that the niqab has ever posed any security threat. If there is no evidence to back that up then I don't understand why it should be a concern.  

I think in Canada people are from all countries and cultures and religions. Religious coverings or any other cultural practices shouldn't be something viewed as negative, it should be something that is part of Canada and something that we should be proud of, like the diversity that exists within Canada. I think the Canadian way is not one particular way of living, I think it's diversity.

Fatima's answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.