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Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom

Secularism supposedly only limits public life, but hundreds of thousands of Quebecers know it’s not that simple.

It was a glorious fall day, just warm enough that a light sweater could keep you comfortable. I was sitting in a cafe in my Montreal suburb with a novel, a croissant and a coffee. Two hours of freedom stretched before me until I needed to pick up my baby from daycare. I took a sip of my coffee and opened my book slowly, deliciously. 

Ten minutes later, I looked up to find an older lady coming toward me. She was maybe fifty, well put together in slacks and a shawl, expensive sunglasses propped on her coiffed hair. I smiled, and she smiled back before stopping in front of my table. 

“Beautiful day,” she started.

“Yes, absolutely,” I agreed. 

“Can I ask you a question?” 

“Sure,” I replied. The answer is always sure. I’ve been a minority my whole life; I’ve been wearing hijab since I was eleven years old. I’d rather have an opportunity to answer people’s questions than have them listen to a so-called expert on TV. 

At this stage, I could probably ask the question with her, I’d been asked it so many times.

“Why do you wear that?”

I started into my standard response, explaining that hijab was a way to identify myself as a Muslim woman, but also to force people to look at me for ­something beyond my appearance. To pay more attention to my character and my skills. I was preparing to smile, answer one or two follow-up questions and get back to my novel. But she cleared her throat and looked intently at me. I knew now where this was going. 

The question she began with hadn’t been a question at all, just a launching point from which to explain to me that I was letting the men in my life control me. You don’t have  to do this. You seem like a smart girl. Just because your husband wants you to wear it, you don’t have to listen to him. She went on. 

At first, I tried to interject, to explain that my husband never told me what to wear, that my dad hadn’t before him, that this was my choice, that I didn’t need saving. Each time I spoke, she moved a little closer, drew herself higher over me, still sitting at my little table, her tone authoritative, utterly convinced of her words. Eventually, I gave up and let her speak. When she’d tired herself out, I nodded and wished her a nice afternoon. 

The whole exchange had taken maybe thirty minutes. I still had time to read, but I couldn’t. My concentration was gone and I found myself looking up constantly from my book. 

I left the coffee shop and went to the nearby grocery store, wandering slowly through the aisles, half-reading the ingredients on cooking sauces in a daze. It was 2011, and despite the fact that I’d been living in Montreal for over three years, the degree to which people felt comfortable openly questioning me, my appearance, was still jarring. It threw me off balance.

As an Ottawa kid, Quebec had always been the place across the river, the home of some of my parents’ francophone friends, the reason I did an hour of French in school every day. When I fell in love with hockey in sixth grade, the Ottawa Senators’ brutal record made it impossible to root for them. I cheered for the Leafs at first, but my older sister was a Habs fan who eventually won me over to the other side. Quebec became the home of my glorious Montreal Canadiens; I read articles by the great Red Fisher the day after each game and learned how to say, “Et le passe! Et le but!” from watching Soirée du Hockey on Radio-­Canada. Then, in my mid-twenties, I moved to Montreal when I got married. I was excited about its metropolitan feel, its incredible bike paths and better local cuisine than my sleepy hometown. 

What I wasn’t expecting was the constant debate about my “Muslimness,” about my “Hijabi-ness.” But it was everywhere. When I relocated to Montreal in 2008, the province was in the midst of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation.” The commission had been ordered by then-­premier Jean Charest to investigate the subject of accommodations related to cultural differences. 

The year before, the town of Hérouxville, Quebec—population 1,300—had passed a code of conduct warning potential immigrants that stoning people or burning them alive would not be acceptable. The story had caused a huge uproar both across the province and the country. But somehow, at the same time, it had ignited a discussion around what minority populations could reasonably request by way of accommodation from the majority. Charest asked the lieutenant governor to appoint a two-man commission, made up of academics Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, to investigate and report back on the issue. 

It seemed as though every time I turned on the radio, or looked at a headline, the story was about reasonable accommodations. Suddenly, everything seemed up for debate: Could a woman wear niqab while using provincial services like going to a hospital or taking a driving exam? (Hello? Of course!) Could religious minorities demand that a public nativity scene be taken down? (No! Why would they?

Nobody I knew was asking for Christmas trees to be removed from public spheres. It was as though these outrageous, in­vented requests for accommodation came more from the hypo­thetical threat of an imagined community than from the actual community living in Quebec. 

The whole thing baffled me. During high school and university, in Ottawa, I had volunteered as a mosque tour guide at an annual event where heritage buildings and places of interest offered free tours to the public. I knew the mosque inside out, having grown up three blocks away. My own parents had been part of the tiny Ottawa community that had founded it, meeting in the basement of the church next door in the 1970s when their numbers were small and they had nowhere else to pray. Thirty years later, at this annual event, neighbours, city councillors, and members of parliament would pass through, learning about the mosque’s history and purpose, asking ­curious questions, eager to hear more. 

In Montreal, in spite of the presence of similarly old mosques—one dating back to the mid-sixties—it felt to me as though Quebecers still didn’t know who we were. My ­mother had once told me a story about something that happened to her in Ottawa in the mid-seventies: she was walking in a white ­hijab and was confused for a nun, the whole thing made absurd by the fact that she was visibly pregnant with my older sister at the time. This story popped into my head whenever I had a strange interaction with someone in Montreal, as though our relationship was stuck back in time; people still had a decades-­old perception of us as Muslims.

I had never heard of the phrase “reasonable accommodation” before moving to Montreal. Every school I had ever attended had given me a place to pray while making exactly zero fuss, whether it was the spare room in student services or the corner of the vice principal’s office. Every place of work didn’t care if I snuck into a boardroom for five minutes over lunch, or even prayed in my cubicle.

After moving to Montreal, I’d become close with many ­other Muslims there—a mix of family friends, graduate students and locals from the mosques. Among them, there was a great deal of concern. Those who’d lived in Quebec a long time were used to the outsized attention paid to minority issues. But this time the spotlight felt stronger than usual, the scrutiny more intense. I, on the other hand, was beyond concern and well into the realm of shock. Ottawa was less than three hours away, but it felt much further. 

Still, back then, I couldn’t foresee how things would escalate over the coming decade. I hoped I’d just happened to move to the province at a period of heightened cultural controversy. But the longer I lived there, the less I felt myself clinging to that hope.

For much of Canada, the passing of Bill 21 last year seemed to come as a shock. Prominent journalists such as Andrew Coyne dedicated columns to denunciating it; Toronto city council passed a unanimous motion reaffirming its commitment to “freedom of religion and expression.” But for those of us paying attention, and certainly for Quebec Muslims, it felt nearly inevitable.

You wouldn’t necessarily know what was really going on from listening to the genteel, polite, abstract-seeming debate. Politicians and the media in Quebec tend to frame these questions as if they’re not talking about the daily realities of real people. They make controversies out of the mundane, filling the news cycle with non-stories week after week. 

Of course, while the discussion may be genteel, the ramifications are not. On the heels of the Bill 21 debate, in the first three months of 2019, the percentage of religious hate crimes targeting Muslims in Montreal rose to 58 percent from 44 percent the previous year. Then there’s the livelihoods of thousands of Muslim women, Jewish men and women, and Sikh men who are directly affected by the bill. 

But that’s not even close to the whole cost. Make no mistake—Bill 21, and the debate that carried on for over a decade before it, has transformed hundreds of thousands of lives. 

It was a hot August day in 2009. I had arrived in Quebec more than a year ago and, by now, had learned to link what was written in the papers and how I was treated by my neighbours.

Stepping out onto the street each morning, for example, I began instinctively gauging how I thought strangers would react to me depending on the news coverage of the previous day. If the call-in radio shows had spent time discussing hijab or niqab, I found myself anxious as I picked up my coffee or bought my groceries. I would often get looks walking down the street or hear comments muttered in my direction. 

That day in August, my sister and I went down to the pool in my downtown condo building, a pool I’d often used. We wore our burkinis, full-length swimsuits with head pieces attached. We smiled our greetings at the handful of people who were there—no more than five of them—and got in. Half an hour later, a woman and two men in uniform entered the pool area, and the woman came straight to us and introduced herself as the custodian. 

Then she told us to get out. 

I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach and a wave of nausea roil over me, but I plastered a polite smile on my face, stayed put, and asked in my calmest voice why we needed to leave.

Someone had complained and felt uncomfortable.

Respectfully, I asked, how exactly was that our problem?

Well, you aren’t wearing swimsuits.

Actually, we are. Our burkinis are made of swimsuit material. Did she want to touch them for herself to find out? 

She did.

But it would really be better if we left.

As a condo owner in this building, I asked if she could show me where exactly in the bylaws it said women in non-­traditional swimming clothes were not allowed to be in the pool. It was the mention of bylaws that stopped the debate. The custodian went to call someone from the condo board, while her colleagues made a big show of testing the water’s PH and wondering ­loudly if our swimsuits were altering it. 

We stayed sitting in the hot tub, acutely aware that if we left, we’d be ceding ground, and the actual rules would cease to matter. Each of us put on a brave face for the other, but I felt like crying. Meanwhile, the other swimmers kept swimming, and the complainant didn’t offer up their identity. 

Eventually, the custodian came back with the news that it was not, in fact, against condo by-laws to swim while hijabi, and left without apologizing for insulting us and ruining our afternoon. We stayed and swam a few more minutes, but the air was heavy and oppressive. My neighbours, people who smiled at me while I picked up my mail and rode the elevators, wouldn’t meet our eyes. 

Some might say that since we got to stay, no harm was done in the end. We “won.” 

Yet until then, each time the thought of being kicked out of a pool had crossed my mind, I had simply banished it, told myself to stop overreacting. Now I knew I hadn’t been inventing things to stress about. Each time I changed into my ­burkini I felt a creeping sense of anxiety and dread. That someone would complain. That a scene would be made. That I would be the one who had to leave. 

I had always loved swimming, and suddenly, one of my favourite things about our home had been taken away. It would be two more years before we moved out of the condo, but during that time I hardly used our pool anymore. 

I refused to stop swimming completely; I signed up for mom and baby swim classes when my first son was born—but only after reaching out to multiple friends in search of hijab-friendly pools around the city. Even after I’d called a facility in advance and confirmed that I would be allowed there, I entered on that first day with anxiety, worried that the person who had answered my call wouldn’t be the one at the counter, worried that it would only take one complaint from one fellow swimmer to ruin the whole program for me. 

In a sense, anyway, I did all of this out of a feeling that if I didn’t, I’d be admitting defeat. More and more, I would swim if I was visiting my parents in Ottawa, as if making up for lost time.

Still, I loved Montreal. There was something urban and yet down-to-earth about the way people lived there. The independent bookstores and coffee shops, the bakeries, the bike paths. 

Oh, the bike paths. Those first few years downtown, I cycled more than I ever had before. Nearly every afternoon, weather permitting, I’d take my bike along the Lachine Canal as far as I had time to go, passing urban art painted on the old concrete and brick warehouses, side by side with ancient trees and small gushing rapids in the water. Some days, I’d treat myself to some goodies at the Atwater Market, or buy our groceries from the vendors there and bike them home. 

In the summer of 2011, after our first baby was born, when I was in the middle of maternity leave, I walked my ­stroller down Notre-Dame Street more times than I could count. We were in search of a bigger apartment and sidewalks with room for strollers, which meant moving to the suburbs, and we were determined to try every bistro, every small restaurant before we moved. Eventually I traded my Notre-Dame walks for playtime at the park in Ville Saint-Laurent, putting the baby in the grass and watching him roll and crawl backwards. 

I met a group of moms at a post-natal support group and we became fast friends, making coffee dates and impromptu playdates. We did yoga together. We sent each other links to mommy boot camp programs from the local community ­centre. I remember looking around my tree-lined surroundings and feeling peaceful, thinking that maybe all of the religious debate had died down; maybe we could just move forward. The reasonable accommodation report had been submitted and discussed until there was nothing left to say. On the radio, I thought, the noon call-in shows could finally discuss taxes or doctor shortages, real problems that needed real solutions. 

But then in May 2013, when I was five months pregnant with our second baby, the Parti Québécois started talking about the “charter of values.” The proposal included provisions against public servants—including healthcare workers, teachers, and university staff—wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. Another provision prohibited people from receiving state services while wearing a face covering. It’s never going to stop, I thought. We’ll have one debate, and then just as we’re all moving on, we’ll have it all over again under another name. All it takes is one politician.

I started watching for women who wore niqab whenever I went out, paying special attention if I was at the mosque or a Middle Eastern grocery store. I rarely saw anyone, and I remember thinking to myself what a huge fuss, how much time and energy was being spent on a fraction of a percentage of the population. Meanwhile, infrastructure was in such bad shape that slabs of concrete were literally collapsing around the province. 

My second pregnancy was exhausting. Early on, I was so ­dizzy I couldn’t get out of bed. For months I lay nauseous on the couch, disgusted by the prospect of eating anything but olives and Miss Vickies chips, yet obsessed with watching The Food Network. I got one craving after another, sending my husband out for lobster rolls, poutine, nachos, but never managing to eat what he brought back. On the radio, the call-in shows talked about the charter of values. I felt nauseous when I woke up and nauseous when I listened to the news. 

How were we going to raise these boys to love themselves when the people around them were so clearly critical of their identities? I thought often about my childhood, growing up in Ottawa—how I’d always known I was different, but that the difference had rarely been treated as a problem. To my teachers or my friends, this difference wasn’t good or bad. It just was. Even then, being a minority hadn’t always been easy. I remembered all the ways I’d wanted to belong when I was little. How I’d wished my name was Nora instead of Noha, or that my lunch had baloney sandwiches instead of hummus and olives.

I talked about this a lot with my friends, other Muslim moms around my age with babies and toddlers, worrying about the same issues. One friend who’d grown up in Montreal told me it was just a fact of life that she’d always feel unwelcome in her own home—that there was nowhere more familiar in the world, but that she knew that people looked at her and saw a foreigner. 

When the Parti Québécois lost resoundingly in 2014, I felt a surge of energy, as though this meant we might be loved by our neighbours after all. I remember talking with an older Muslim friend, a Montreal native, later that year. I was cautiously optimistic, giving myself permission to believe we’d turned a corner. Here was progress. Did she think we could finally put the issue to rest? 

She looked straight at me as she answered. “It’s never going to change,” she said. “It’s been this way for the last thirty years. It’ll be this way for at least thirty more.” My heart broke a little. After all, she had lived here longer than I had. She knew better. 

We moved back to Ottawa in the fall of 2014, just as our older son was entering kindergarten. While the reason for the move was work-related, I found myself relieved by the sudden absence of debate about Muslims’ place in society. It was like a constant hum I’d gotten used to, and the silence that replaced it was both welcome and unexpected. 

We visited Montreal frequently, but I could tune out the details of a hate crime or another wave of debate. We threw ourselves into our work and our family. The kids got bigger. We bought our first house in the suburbs south of Ottawa. 

Every night after the kids went to bed, my husband and I would find ourselves on the living room couch, numbing our over-exhausted brains with Netflix, phones in our laps. My husband, ever the news junkie, saw the story online first. I remember him telling me there had been a shooting in Quebec. A pit formed in my stomach. My mind spun. And then a wave of numbness flooded over me, my body bending in on itself and refusing to react any more. I had a faraway sense that I was desperate to cry, as though maybe the tears would bring some relief. No tears came.

The shooting happened on a Sunday night, in 2017, and I went to work the next day as usual. I hurried from meeting to meeting, walked managers and senior analysts through their new product requirements, answered questions as though nothing had happened. But the grief filled me with a sense of absolute loneliness, a deep ache that wouldn’t pass for days.

It was amazing to me that we could talk about anything else. How was it possible? In my head, I started a hundred conversations: Did you hear about the mosque in Quebec City? These people look like me, they sound like me, they pray like me. Aloud, I couldn’t bring myself to say a word that first day. I was too raw, too afraid of how I might come apart if I started talking.

For several nights after, I looked up tweets with the pictures and names of the victims, retweeting them furiously, as though this virtual acknowledgment had some power, as though it could undo what happened or give voice to the impossible pain. I went back to look at their faces, to count the retweets of my retweets. Did this matter to anyone outside of my community? 

During the day, I kept my head down and worked. I talked to a handful of colleagues. I cried, once, and got a hug.

You have to be careful how you express your anger and your hurt to people who’ve never lived with it. Too much of it, and you’re pushing a victim narrative. You have to keep your voice steady when you’re talking about fathers killed in a mosque, women whose scarves are ripped off their heads in the metro, kids who are heckled.

The shooting cracked open a part of me I had sealed shut. All the fear, all the pent-up frustration came pouring out. The number of times I’d forced a smile through an insult. The constant awareness to be polite because I was representing something bigger than myself. The woman holding the sleeve of my ­burkini in her hand, questioning the material. The random stranger shouting threats to kill me while he accused me of being a suicide bomber. The sudden need to get off the bus because a woman kept making shooting motions at my head. Turning on the radio in the car and turning it off again because they were talking about the charter of values. Or too many immigrants. Or a terrorist attack somewhere and God, please, I am begging you don’t make him a Muslim, please God please, and my heart is hurting and I am so unbelievably tired. 

I didn’t watch the funeral. I read about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit through clips of the politicians holding and hugging the families of the six victims. What could they tell these people? Their loved ones were gone because years of poisonous discourse had dehumanized them. What kind of mental gymnastics did they perform to call out the hate they had themselves sowed? You don’t plant a seed, you don’t water it and tend it and watch it grow, and then act shocked when it thrives.

Six months after the Quebec City mosque shooting, many people had moved on. By the fall of 2018, during the provincial election, one party promised to enact a bill banning religious symbols for civil servants if elected. It felt like a redux of the charter of values, with bans for teachers, judges and police officers. 

But this party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, actually moved forward with it—only by applying the notwithstanding clause, which allowed it to avoid legal challenges based on the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms. The clause creates a five-year period when the law cannot be challenged based on violations of freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association—Canadian fundamental rights. 

Outside of Quebec, reaction to the proposal was uni­versally negative, but within the province, support was at a strong 64 percent. Unlike the Parti Québécois several years before him, Premier François Legault with his CAQ won in a landslide, riding the popularity of the proposed ban straight to government. I shook my head in disbelief and tried to keep tuning the whole thing out.

Yet just as this was happening, my husband and I were considering a move back to Quebec, this time to the Gatineau Hills. We were both drained, spending hours in our daily work commute from the suburbs to downtown Ottawa, our health suffering. The Outaouais region was right there, nestled in the mountains and yet only fifteen minutes from downtown. He was ready; I was reticent. How could we go somewhere that so clearly didn’t want us as we were? I changed my mind almost daily. I talked to friends living in the area; I called schools; I went to visit on weekends while the kids were at their Arabic lessons. 

Two weeks after Bill 21 was tabled in the National Assembly, my husband and I bought a house on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. As we waited to take possession, I suddenly needed to pay attention to the discussion about what a Muslim woman could or couldn’t wear. We went to visit our old friends in Montreal, and crossing into the province on the Autoroute 40 felt different. We were part of whatever happened here. 

There is no denying the beauty of Quebec’s geography, the hilly terrain, the rivers that cut through the landscape. We met our friends on that visit at Mont-Royal, near Beaver Lake, for our picnic. One friend worked in the English Montreal School Board and told me she wouldn’t lose her job, but she couldn’t be promoted. She was upset but didn’t see a way out. Most of her colleagues had been supportive, but a couple of them had tried to start debates with her, insisting that it was no big deal, that the hijab was just a piece of cloth she could take off. 

Another had been working for years in the provincial government. She’d coped with the constant scrutiny by blocking out her surroundings in public spaces,  she told me—“I ­wanted to stay in my bubble.” She avoided swimming and other public leisure activities. Working as a civil servant, she’d had to ­worry about the impact of one government measure after another. It was ironic that here she was, working in the place with the supposed highest job security of any industry, perpetually worried about losing her job. 

At the picnic, we were of all ethnicities, men, women and children. We ate delicious food, we took pictures and played frisbee. Nothing happened that day. And yet on the drive home, I thought about each of my friends. Now, officially, there was a law in place that effectively made them second-class citizens.

Mostly, I cope with Bill 21 these days by doing my best to ignore it. But that also means recognizing that I have the luxury of ignoring it by virtue of my circumstances, by the absolute coincidence of who my employer is or isn’t. It takes active ­effort even to ignore it. 

There’s also the other worry—that the tentacles of Islamophobia will reach out and take hold of me somehow. Hate crimes have risen in Canada over the last five years for which statistics are available, 2013 to 2018, fuelled in large part by incidents against the Muslim, Jewish and Black communities. Four different legal challenges have been filed against Bill 21 by civil rights groups, the English Montreal School Board, and a Quebec teachers’ union. But, limited by the notwithstanding clause, they haven’t yet succeeded in striking down the law or suspending it. 

And yet, this was going to be my home. I was determined to survive as my full self—to be a Quebecer and a hijabi at the same time. I also knew by then that this would take a lot of energy. I knew, from things like the mosque shooting, that tendency to shrink, to camouflage, for the sake of self defence. 

Some days, I am so exhausted that I still desperately want to do that. But I am who I am, a Muslim woman who believes in the right to carry my identity with pride. No law, politician or pundit can take that away.   

I often think back to that day in the pool with my sister a decade ago, how that one interaction is etched so deeply into my memory. How having to fight for the right to swim that day has made me nervous every time I’ve gone swimming in Quebec since. 

More than a decade later, I am back in the province. My family immediately felt right about our decision: we could see the mountains from our living room windows. The kids (I’d been so worried about the kids!) loved their new school immediately. The sky was open and vast when we looked outside. Our neighbours were warm and welcoming. The same closeness to nature I’d felt in Montreal, the same grounding tendency to slow down and breathe, was here. Quebec—somehow, despite everything—was giving us back our peace, our sense of self.

I have found my new Notre-Dame Street in a different part of the province, with its bistros and cafes and the canopy of trees that shades the street in the summer. This spring, I plan to cycle again on the nearby trails, to plant a vegetable garden the boys and I can tend together, to spend more time with the new neighbours who’ve welcomed us back to the province so warmly.  In all the big ways, my life is full and positive. 

But life is made up of both the big and the small. The routine interactions make me nervous still: the post office, the grocery store, the coffee shop. Or swimming. There is something depleting about losing the lightness of a carefree swim, about having to research any place you want to go in case it isn’t hijab-­friendly. It’s a small, simple joy to decide to go swimming on a whim—one I no longer have. I pre-plan my small joys, and this takes away from their pleasure. It’s nothing compared to being denied livelihood, but it’s these daily acts that make up a life, and my life is more measured, less spontaneous now.

When confronted with their encroachment on minorities’ religious freedoms, those who support measures like Bill 21 have always claimed that their aim is to achieve the religious neutrality of the state. Some people believe limitations on people’s public lives are a reasonable price to pay; they argue that these limitations don’t extend to other aspects of our lives.

I don’t agree, of course, that even these public limitations are acceptable. But more than that, I know the public cannot be separated from the private. The idea that a woman can be forced to remove her hijab at her place of work, and then be treated respectfully at the swimming pool, is laughable. The woman who is a teacher or a civil servant is not only her job. We are, all of us, more than the sum of our parts, and Bill 21 ignores that. 

The problems you can see are never the whole toll. Politicians who speak calmly are still normalizing a culture of intolerance; a culture that legislates discrimination is tacitly giving approval to Islamophobes to act on their hate. 

Hate crimes may only last for minutes or seconds; they may even be forgotten by the people who commit them, but for those who experience them, the moment stretches on. It is not an easy thing to get up the next day and go back out into the world believing it is still the place it was. 

Even carrying the possibility of a confrontation with you seeps into your health, colours your life.It’s like wearing a heavy backpack, a weight that nags at you and preoccupies you until, eventually, you can’t think about anything but finding somewhere to put it down. 

Early in the new year, after the kids were back at school and my husband and I were both back at our jobs, we snuck away for a quick date at a neighbourhood coffee shop before picking up the kids. As we sipped our hot drinks and ate our cheesecake, I heard the door open and watched another couple go to the counter. The woman caught my eye for a moment, the random exchange of strangers. I felt my breath catch, then quicken, felt the possibility of the uninvited question, of the evening peace pierced with another confrontation. 

Even so, I smiled—I always smile—and waited. She nodded back and turned to the menu on the wall.