A taekwondo team of Muslim girls withdrew from a tournament yesterday after they were barred from taking part with their hijabs, threatening to re-ignite Quebec’s contentious debate about accommodating religious minorities.

“I feel very sad because we practised so hard,” said 11-year-old Bissan Mansour. “We pulled out for a useless reason.”

Referees at the Quebec regional Raymond Mourad Championship met yesterday morning, the first day of the tournament, to talk about rules and regulations.

During the discussion, it was brought up that a team from a Muslim community centre in Montreal would be competing with their hijabs.

“The equipment that is allowed under the World Taekwondo Federation rules doesn’t include the hijab,” said international referee Stephane Menard.

“We applied the rules to the letter.”

The team, made up of girls between eight and 12 years old, went home following the decision. A boys team from the same community centre withdrew upon hearing the news.

Tournament founder Raymond Mourad said he wanted officials to let the Muslim girls compete, but his pleas went unheard.

“The kids who came today, we could have let them compete and warned them for next time,” Mourad said. “I tried my hardest to do that, but the referee didn’t want to hear it.”

Officials said the decision was taken for security reasons. Taekwondo is a martial art that involves mainly kicking and throwing, and the fear is that the hijab could come loose.

The sport’s international rules stipulate that players must not wear anything under their protective helmets.

Jean Faucher, president of the provincial taekwondo federation, ultimately made the decision to apply the rules concerning hijabs.

“I am not a racist or anything,” Faucher told Radio-Canada’s all-news channel, RDI. “It’s a rule and I’m a guy for the rules.”

But May Haydar of the Montreal Muslim Community Centre said the team had participated in the tournament in recent years without any controversy over the wearing of hijabs. . .

The Canadian Council of American-Islamic Relations said the decision won’t encourage Muslim women to participate in sports.

“This recent fixation on the hijab is only serving to marginalize Muslim women who wish to participate in athletic activity,” the Ottawa-based organization said.

The “reasonable accommodation” debate has become so intense that Premier Jean Charest has struck a committee to study the issue.


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