Muslims Seeking Female Clerk Can ‘Line Up Again’

Graeme Hamilton, National Post (Toronto), March 17, 2010

In recent years, the few fully veiled Muslim women who had dealings with Quebec’s health-insurance board could choose to be served by a woman to avoid exposing their faces to a man outside their family.

But in the latest example of the province’s growing resistance to the accommodation of minority religious practices, the insurance board on Tuesday announced the end of the policy after the provincial human rights commission said it has no duty to acquiesce.

“From now on, for a woman who is veiled with a niqab or a burka and comes to our office asking to be photographed by a woman, the answer is no,” said Marc Lortie, spokesman for the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec. “Line up again, or come back another day.”

The news follows last week’s expulsion from a French-as-a-second-language course of an Egyptian woman who insisted on wearing a niqab during class. It was the second school Naema Ahmed was expelled from for wearing the full face covering, which leaves only a slit for the eyes. Authorities at the first school had said her teacher was unable to properly assess her pronunciation without seeing her mouth.

Quebec’s Immigration Department said she could not continue her studies while wearing the niqab.

“If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values,” Immigration Minister Yolande James told reporters last week. “We want to see your face.” Ms. Ahmed has filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.

After the health-insurance board sought its expertise on the niqab issue, the rights commission published its opinion on Monday that requiring a veiled woman to briefly expose her face to a male employee is not a significant breach of her rights.

In 2008-09, 10 people out of the 118,000 using the health-insurance board’s Montreal service centre had, for religious reasons, requested to be served by a woman. No such requests were made in its other centre in Quebec City. The centres process applications for new health cards, which require a photograph.

The commission reasoned that a woman would only have to remove her veil briefly for purposes of identification. It drew a distinction with people who for religious reasons ask that a driving test be given by a member of the same sex. In an earlier opinion, the commission said the province should accommodate such requests because the person is in a confined space with a member of the opposite sex for nearly an hour.

The new Quebec policy is at odds with practices for health-card applications in Ontario, where women are served by female employees if their religious beliefs require. The Ontario government has also established procedures to allow identity photos to be taken in private, if requested.

“Generally speaking, staff at Ontario service centres are very aware of cultural requirements and diversity and we do our best to accommodate individual situations,” said Alan Cairns, a spokesman for the Ministry of Government Services.

The furor over the still rarely seen niqab is a clear sign that Quebec’s debate over the “reasonable accommodation” of religious and ethnic minorities has returned with full force.

Three years ago, Quebec media were filled with reports of perceived threats to mainstream Quebec values–for example, a sugar shack that prepared a pork-free menu for Muslims and a gym that frosted its windows so young Hasidic men in a school next door would not be distracted by exercising women. In 2007, Premier Jean Charest appointed two respected thinkers–Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard–to study the question.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission’s hearings and 2008 final report calmed things down for a time, but Mr. Charest’s government failed to act on most of the commission’s key recommendations.

An example of the government’s skittishness on the question came last week when Family Minister Tony Tomassi said he had no objection to allowing religious instruction in government-subsidized daycares operated by Islamic and Jewish groups. The next day, faced with loud opposition, he reversed his position and said religious teaching would not be tolerated.

A group calling itself “Intellectuals for secularism” published a declaration on Tuesday arguing for a completely secular government. No government employee should be allowed to wear any religious symbol, and the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly should be removed, the group, which includes former premier Bernard Landry, argued.

Jean-François Lisée, executive director of the Université de Montréal’s international studies centre and a signatory of the declaration, said public opinion in Quebec is shifting towards secularism. The “neutrality of the state” that government employees represent is compromised when they wear a religious symbol, he said, whether it is a crucifix, a Jewish skullcap or a Muslim headscarf. Quebec, he said, is wrestling with how to respond to “a stronger assertiveness of orthodox religions, be they Jewish, Muslim or Catholic. The answer seems to be more secular now than would have been the case two or three years ago.”

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