CANADA: WILL QUEBEC ADOPT FRANCE’S PECULIAR BRAND OF LIBERTY?
In September of 1994, 12-year-old Emilie Ouimet arrived at her Montreal high school wearing an Islamic head scarf. The principal ordered her to remove the scarf or face expulsion for violating a school prohibition against all headgear. The code was meant to deter students from wearing symbols associated with gangs. Emilie insisted that her action was out of religious conviction, and transferred out.
Within months, Quebec society became engulfed in heated debate about the hijab. Did it symbolize an extremist trend? What did it mean for Quebec identity? Were there limits to religious expression in public space?
The rest of Canada, meanwhile, seemed puzzled by an issue that grabbed headlines in Quebec daily.
One view held that the tempest was due to events in Algeria and France. After the annulment of democratic elections in 1992, Algerians experienced a vicious civil war between the government and Islamists. The conflict spilled onto French soil when terrorists bombed a Paris Metro station. With France’s Muslims under the microscope, scrutiny focused on the hijab. French officialdom branded the “foulard Islamique” as a political statement with tenuous connections to terrorism, despite assertions by Muslim women to the contrary.
The news from France was followed closely in Quebec. North African expats were often the most strident in their opposition to the hijab. In addition to fears of extremism, they stressed that there was no place for the “foulard Islamique” in a secular school system.