– Fatima Houda-Pepin: « At the origins of the so-called Islamic veil, there is rape and prostitution. »

Fatima Houda-Pepin: « At the origins of the so-called Islamic veil, there is rape and prostitution. »


Born in Morocco in 1951, Fatima Houda-Pepin is a Quebec politician and political scientist. She was a member of the Quebec National Assembly from 1994 to 2014. A student at Mohamed V University, she immigrated to Canada in 1976 to complete her studies in political science. She obtained her PhD at Université de Montréal in 1982. During the 1980s and 1990s, she was a consultant for the Canadian government, the Quebec government and the City of Montreal on immigration matters. She has received several honours for her community involvement. Fatima Houda-Pepin distinguished herself in the case of the possible legalization of Sharia law in Ontario. As a Muslim woman, she is strongly opposed to the introduction of Islamic law into Canadian Muslim households. « Sharia law is a complete system of law, an overlaying legal system. As a woman, I cannot accept that a segment of the population in Quebec and Canada cannot enjoy the same rights as other citizens ».

French version here

The veil:

« The so-called « Islamic veil » appeared in the Western media during the headscarf crisis in France in 1989. A father of Moroccan origin attended a Salafist mosque there. Overnight, he decided to defy the law on secularism and ordered his two young daughters (aged 10 and 13) to go to school wearing headscarves. An unprecedented crisis shook France. Islamists soon went to the front in a monster demonstration. Their banner that opened the march said: « The veil is our identity ». On the other side of the Mediterranean, the King of Morocco, Hassan II, also commander of the believers, had sent a clear message to the father of the little girls via his embassy in Paris. He said three things: 1. there is no such thing as an « Islamic » headscarf; 2. Between the veil and education, choose education; 3. the law of the land is the law. Respect French law. For Islamists, this event of 1989 is a founding moment in the struggle they will lead in the West to erect the so-called ‘’Islamic » veil as a political identity card, then as a « religious sign ». And to legitimize their claim, what better than the Koran. Indeed, several verses of the Koran mention the veil in very different contexts. (Read my text « Veil: Muslim women are not a monolithic group », La Presse, January 14, 1994).

The main source on which they still rely today, to make the so-called ‘’Islamic veil’ a fundamental right at the same level as freedom of religion, is verse 59 of Sura 33 « The coalition »; revealed in 627, the year the Prophet Muhammad was to fight the coalition that came to besiege him in Medina. They attacked women, raped and forced them into prostitution (Ta’arrud). Verse 59 will resolve this dilemma. « O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the Believers to bring a piece of their veil close to their faces, as this is more likely to make them recognizable from other women and thus prevent them from being bothered. God is infinitely absolute and merciful. » Islamists will refrain from explaining the context.

However, this verse has only moral significance. It is specifically addressed to the women of Medina’s high society to prevent them from being offended by Ta’arrud. It is suggested that they « bring a piece of their veil close to them » and fold it over their faces. Why is that? To distinguish them from other women. And which other women were they to be distinguished from? Slaves. Thus, the so-called ‘’Islamic veil’’ made a distinction between free women who should not be bothered (because they are veiled) and slaves who can be given over to rape and prostitution because they are not. Those who today allege freedom of religion in defence of the so-called Islamic veil must bear in mind the date 627, the day the veil became a symbol of discrimination against black slaves and their enslavement to rape and prostitution.

No authoritative source, namely the Koran and the Prophet’sHadiths (pbuh), speak of a « religious sign », let alone the veil as a symbolic expression of that religion. Even among fundamentalist theologians who twist the Koranic verses to make them say what they do not say, in order to impose the veil on Muslim women as a « religious obligation », many stand up when they see a scarf raised as a symbol of their religion. In the turmoil surrounding the bill banning religious symbols in public schools in France, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, travelled to Egypt on December 30, 2003 to seek support from religious leaders at the prestigious Al Azhar University. He hoped to obtain from them a statement that would ease tensions among Muslims in France on the eve of the bill’s adoption. What a surprise he had when he was called to order about the false representations of Islam in the West! Indeed, Dr Ali Jumâa, Mufti of Egypt and member of the Islamic Research Academy, did not fail to express his disapproval. The veil, he said, « is in no way a religious sign ». This view was confirmed by his predecessor, the former Mufti of Egypt, Dr Farid Ouassil, who set the record straight: « We cannot accept that the veil be presented as a religious sign, » he said. When you consider that in Sunni Islam the mere visual representation of the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden and can sometimes cause tragedy, such as that of Charlie Hebdo, it is understandable that for theologians who are the guardians of Islamic orthodoxy, to raise a scarf to the status of symbol of their religion is almost sacrilege.

So, if the « Islamic veil » is not a « religious sign », can it be prohibited by legislation in the West? The Grand Mufti of Al Azhar and official interpreter of Muslim law, Mohamed Tantaoui, had replied in the affirmative to Nicolas Sarkozy, not because the veil is a « religious sign », but because Muslims living in the West must comply with the law of their adopted country, including secularism. « The Muslim is obliged to comply with the laws of the territory where they live, » he told him. (La Croix, March 10, 2010). Therefore, for this religious authority that issues legal opinions (fatwas), « Non-Muslim country, such as France, whose officials want to adopt laws against the veil, it is their right and I cannot oppose it’’ (Libération, December 31, 2003). Thus, from a Muslim perspective, the law of the land is the law. This message, although general in scope, was also addressed to young Muslim women in public schools, who were forced to remove their veils at the adoption of the French law.

Originally, there was the veil that women of different traditions, cultures and religions wore and continue to wear around the world. In Islam, it is mentioned in at least six verses of the Koran, with very different meanings and contexts. None of them makes it a religious obligation, but some people are willing to erect it as a pillar of Islam. There are five religious obligations in Islam, and the veil is not one of them. Why then make it a fundamental right, assimilated to a freedom of religion? And who has an interest in making it a fundamental right? It must be noted that this demand for the veil as a religious obligation is carried by Salafist, Wahhabi and Jihadist groups that are in a merciless struggle with the West, its symbols and its values. It is a sick obsession that goes back to the ideologues of Wahhabism and Salafism, such as Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, Hassan el-Banna, Youssef al-Qardaoui and many others. Those who defend the veil as an individual right equated with freedom of religion would benefit from reading these « great scholars of the apocalypse » to find out who their strategic allies in this rearguard struggle are. Standing up for human rights, I am in. But can we remain stuck on « free choice » without questioning the validity of what we are defending? Can we ignore the impact of this legal jihad on women’s rights? Yet, it has been at work for several decades.

1. In 1928, Hassan el-Banna, an Egyptian teacher, founded the secret society of the Muslim Brotherhood with a programme worthy of totalitarianism, and already the veiling of women was at the centre of their concerns. 2. In 1953, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, wishing to integrate them into the political game, consulted their supreme leader on the proposals he intended to make to the government. His main request was to impose the veil on all Egyptian women. Nasser refused. 3. In the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia accentuated its Islamisation offensive by deploying its Wahhabi tentacles in the Arab-Muslim world, in Europe and in Canada (funding mosques, schools, cultural centres, Islamic studies programmes, sending paid imams and Salafist preachers, deploying satellite television channels dedicated to the propagation of Wahhabism, etc.), accompanied by campaigns for the veiling of women and girls and the introduction of sharia law. 4. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran after 15 years of exile. One of his first decisions was to impose the chador on all women, including little girls, a burden from which they had been freed since 1936. 5. In 1989, France was shaken by a headscarf crisis. Islamists went up to the barricades. They claimed the veil as the standard bearer of their « political identity ». 6. In 2015, in the land of the care bears, Canadian courts overturned a Harper government directive that prohibited women from taking the oath of citizenship with their niqab. Should we also accept the burqa, an outfit that degrades women’s dignity? Is that why Canada went to war with the Taliban? »


« Two currents of thought clash in the Arab-Muslim world and in the diaspora about the separation of the political and the religious: Islamism and secularism (Almâniyya). While it is true that Islamist movements are more visible and often make headlines, less is known about Muslim reformers who defend the separation of religion and state. The Egyptian philosopher Fouad Zakariya sums it up well in his book ‘’Secularism or Islamism: Time for Arabs to decide’’ (Laïcité ou islamisme: les Arabes à l’heure du choix) (1991). This struggle is not unique to the West. If it is true that secularization is a clear advance in Western democracies, the Arab-Muslim world is far from being spared by these debates. Consider secular Turkey under the Atatürk regime and the progressive secularisation of law and morals in several Muslim countries, notably Tunisia and Morocco.

Several renowned intellectuals had thought of secularism from within Islam: Abdellah Laoui (Islam and modernity); Abdelwahab Meddeb (The disease of Islam); Mohammed Harbi (Islamism in all its states), and many others. But one must go back to the beginning of the 20th century to see the proponents of secularism burst into this debate in the Muslim world. An Egyptian reformer, Ali Abderrazik, had caused a real shock in the dominant thinking, for which Islam was « Din wa Dawla » (Religion and State). A judge and professor at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he set the cat among the pigeons in 1925, by publishing a founding essay on secular thought, ‘’Islam and the source of power’’ (L’islam et les fondements du pouvoir) (La Découverte, 1994), in which he argued that Islam was not incompatible with secularism. He demolished, brick by brick, the thesis of the Islamists that Muslims could not be governed by secular states, a pioneering and daring work for a theologian. It earned him waves of denigration and refutation. Al Azhar’s Council of Great Ulemas (theologians) had initiated legal proceedings against him. The indictment was overwhelming. He had responded publicly, point by point.

According to a survey conducted by the daily A-Sharq al-Awsat in 1993, almost all Arab writers place it at the top of the most influential works of our time. ‘’There is no religious principle that prohibits Muslims from destroying this outdated system that has debased them and put them to sleep beneath its grip. Nothing prevents them from building their state and their government based on systems whose solidarity has been proven, those which the experience of nations has designated as among the best, » says the theologian Ali Abderrazik. What this history teaches us is that struggles for democracy are never won in advance, neither in Quebec nor elsewhere in the world. Hence the importance of not reducing secularism to a simple matter of banning the wearing of religious symbols. That would deny the political and historical contexts in which these two struggles were fought. The apocalyptic arguments put forward by some opponents of secularism are not much different from those held against women’s right to vote by parliamentarians, intellectual elites and thousands of anti-suffragette women. This reminder is important for those who deplore that the debate on secularism has been going on for 10 years. France, for its part, has taken more than a century since the French Revolution to give birth to its law on the separation of church and state, in 1905. »


« How can we explain that of all the criteria for discrimination, religion is the one that raises the most social tensions in Quebec and in the world? Four reasons might shed some light on this issue: 1. Religions are marked by wars and conflicts that have left their mark on our collective consciousness, and this is not just ancient history. Although these conflicts occur elsewhere, the elsewhere is here and Quebecers of immigrant origin are affected by the political upheavals that affect their countries of origin. Moreover, Canada does not hesitate to get involved, by selling arms, participating directly in war, as in Afghanistan, or welcoming refugees from war. 2. Religions carry moral values that sometimes go against the host society’s conception of how best to live together. 3. Religions are instrumentalized for political purposes. Far from diminishing, religious extremism is becoming one of the major challenges of the 21st century. We see it with the American religious right using the courts to roll back women’s rights to control their bodies. We see it with Islamist groups spreading Wahhabi and Salafist ideology around the world. We saw them at work when they tried to implement sharia law in Quebec and Canada. 4. Quebecers have been marked by centuries of oppression by the Catholic Church. Although they still hold on to certain Christian values, they have moved on. In a context where ideologies under the guise of religions are on the rise, it is legitimate for citizens to be concerned about them and for the government to provide the necessary solutions. Quebec is not the only state facing these issues.

I come from Morocco, a country where Islam is the state religion. I grew up in the first Muslim city to be founded there, in the 7th century, by a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Its sanctuary is a place of pilgrimage where tens of thousands of believers converge every year. At the call of prayer, five times a day, the faithful converge towards the mosque in contemplation, all in piety and serenity. Songs and music accompany all the ceremonies, especially during the moussem, a religious festival that was and still is held there every summer. Spiritual groups from various brotherhoods performed in procession to the rhythm of sacred music. The Islam of my youth was synonymous with joy, celebration, pleasure, sharing, recollection and simplicity. At the Koranic school I attended, my imam never asked me to wear a headscarf, let alone taught me that it was a religious obligation. Rather, the headscarf was worn by women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, as a traditional clothing accessory, out of modesty, coquetry, taste or convenience, depending on the circumstances. From this experience, in a traditionalist environment imbued with spirituality and fervour without excess, I retain a deep respect for the sincere faith of believers. An experience that has led me, over the years, to distinguish clearly between what is religious, which I respect, and what is the instrumentalization of religions, which I fight against.

It is because freedom of religion is a fundamental value that it must be protected against the onslaught of extremists who seek to pervert it in order to impose their political agenda. This is what I did at the age of 16, when I gave my first public lecture in Morocco on the legal situation of women in Islam. The contours of secularism were already taking shape in my mind. I was shocked when I discovered, in Quebec and Canada, in the mid-1970s, a vindictive Islam, vociferating hatred against miscreants, Jews, Christians and especially secular Muslims. An Islam in which all prohibitions are imposed on women and all rights granted to men. It was also here that I learned that music and gender mixing were haram (forbidden). By my origins, I come from the First Nations of North Africa, the Berbers (of their real name, Imazighen) who over the centuries had adopted Christianity, Judaism and then Islam. Berber characters left their mark in the dynasties they founded, in North Africa, but also in the three monotheistic religions. They gave Christianity one of its most brilliant minds, Saint Augustine; Judaism, Kahina, Queen of the Aures who stood up against Arab invasions in the 7th century; and Islam, Tariq ibn Ziyad, governor of Andalusia, whose name Gibraltar still bears (Jabal Tariq, in Arabic). This multiple identity allows me to appreciate, without complacency, the invaluable contribution of each of these three monotheistic traditions, while openly denouncing the excesses that go through them. This is how I became interested, very early on, in religious phenomena because religions are interested in women and they carry radical currents that threaten their rights. Since 1985, I have given or organized countless national and international conferences on secularism, the religious neutrality of the State, Islam and interreligious dialogue, with one irrefutable fact: there is no religion that is feminist.

What we have witnessed in recent decades is the rise of a new fascism that drapes itself with « religious legitimacy » to better undermine the foundations of democracy. This is the case of violent Jihadist and Salafist groups that claim to be political Islam. They are draping themselves in the right to religious freedom to better destroy the edifice of fundamental rights that the international community has taken more than seven decades to build. The threat they pose to democracies is more devastating than we would like to admit. It is a battle that Westerners are still struggling to grasp. One way to stem the tide of hatred towards the unbelievers is to make secularism the cornerstone on which we can best live together and a foundation for our belonging to a civic citizenship that transcends our differences. »