– Nadia El Mabrouk: ‘’Secularism is a great step towards freedom and emancipation.’’

Nadia El Mabrouk: ‘’Secularism is a great step towards freedom and emancipation.’’


Nadia El-Mabrouk is a Quebecker of Tunisian origin. She completed all her elementary and high school education in Tunisia, then her college studies in France. After her Ph.D. in theoretical computer science from the University of Paris VII, she moved to Quebec to do a Postdoctoral internship at the Centre de Recherche Mathématiques at Université de Montreal. She is currently a professor at the Department of Computer Science at Université de Montréal. Her field of research is bioinformatics. Nadia El-Mabrouk is also a member of the Association Québécoise des Nord-Africains pour la Laïcité and of Pour les Droits des Femmes du Québec (PDF Québec). As a secular feminist, she tries to make her voice heard in Quebec, despite attacks and censorship. She has all our admiration and support!

French version here

The veil:

Like all women, our identity has been built through a long socio-cultural, ethnic-linguistic, academic and professional journey. Muslim women do not have the same cultural references whether they come from Tunisia, Egypt, Afghanistan or elsewhere. They do not have the same background, not the same experiences, they are all different. Today, if we feel the need to expose such evidence, it is because we are witnessing an essentialization of the Muslim woman: she has become an archetype. Generally speaking, immigrant women are identified by their national belonging, but when it comes to citizens of Muslim countries, it appears − very oddly − that all cultural references other than religion are disappearing. Since Islam has taken a dominant place in the Quebec media, the Muslim woman has been frozen in a unique, archetypal model. When a newspaper article talks about Islam, very often the photo chosen to illustrate it is that of a woman wearing a veil or the niqab. When a Muslim woman’s point of view is heard on the news, it is usually a woman wearing the hijab who is invited. In the textbooks for the Ethics and Religious Culture course, the veiled woman is often chosen to illustrate a statement about Islam. Thus, the image of the veiled woman is practically the only representative symbol of the Muslim woman in Quebec. While all veiled women are Muslims, not all Muslim women are veiled. They have very diverse relationships with faith and practice an à la carte religion that is strongly influenced by various cultural, social and personal factors. For example, the wearing of the niqab, chador or burqa is not a matter of religion, but of cultural tradition preserved from the medieval era to the present day in several post-colonial Muslim countries. As for the hijab, it is an interpretation of Koranic verses that is far from unanimous among exegetes. In patriarchal Muslim societies, women’s status is marginalized and their presence as theologians and exegetes is absent. Men’s interpretation of the verses on « Hijab » prescribes that women cover themselves from head to toe to protect the virtuous city from vice. This prescription was recuperated by Islamism for political ideological reasons. We share with Quebec women who have had to fight to free themselves from the hold of religion on their lives the common aspiration to fully occupy our place in society. We are well placed to understand their concern to preserve the Quiet Revolution’s gains! For the patriarchal culture of the past and present confines women to the traditional role of mothers. In Quebec, we can develop fully and participate in society, giving our full potential. We do not want to risk losing these gains by increasingly bowing to requests for so-called religious accommodations that want to bring us back to archaic cultural traditions. We want to help preserve Quebec’s modernity.  (text co-written with Mounia Aït Kabboura (https://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/author/mounia-ait-kabboura/)

In many Arab and Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, the 1950s and 1960s were a period of great social, cultural, literary and artistic liberation. This reformist and modernist period came to an end with the fundamentalist Khomeini revolution in Iran and the strong return of the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt. It was in this movement, which fiercely opposed all forms of freedom, that the Islamic veil imposed itself in society. The Islam of my childhood was more synonymous with festive celebrations than with religious constraints. Everything changed with the arrival of Islamism as a political protest movement. That’s when my cousins veiled themselves, that my aunts began to catch up on all the prayers they hadn’t made when they were younger, and the restrictions on freedom multiplied. I remember a cousin telling me that women shouldn’t sing in public, and that Oum Kalthoum might be the greatest singer in the Arab world, but she now belonged in hell. I’ve never heard of the veil as a freedom. It was more of an obligation accompanied by a series of prohibitions. How ironic that it is now the so-called freedom to wear the veil that is being put forward in Quebec as the supreme argument against the bill on the secularism of the state!

Girls’ veiling:

As this school year begins, as discussions multiply around Bill 62 on the religious neutrality of the state, the reality of religious fundamentalism is catching up with us in Quebec schools. This year, several little girls came back to my children’s school with veils on, including a 7-year-old girl! Some mothers tell me about their discomfort. « My daughter hasn’t stopped asking me for the past three days why most educators wear a veil and why this year two little girls are veiled as well; they weren’t last year. My daughter asks a lot of questions and I’m having a really hard time answering, it’s starting to take up a lot of space at school. » There is indeed reason to wonder! The Islamic veil is not just a garment, it conditions children to conform to religious dogmas that are imposed on them. It sends back the shocking idea that the little girl’s body would be an object of seduction that would have to be hidden from the eyes of the boys, while they are not under any constraint. It stigmatizes Muslim girls in the schoolyard and is a barrier to their interaction with other children. It hinders their movements and prevents them from participating fully in physical activities, not to mention the discomfort it causes in often overheated classrooms. How can free choice be advocated for such young children?

The practice of veiling little girls is neither a Koranic prescription nor the legacy of ancestral traditions that should be preserved. In most Arab countries, it has emerged recently with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic scholars, including Ghaleb and Soheib Bencheikh, do not hesitate to call it abuse of young girls. Tunisia, a country whose religion is Islam, has even banned the veil in elementary schools in 2015 on the grounds that it goes against children’s rights. A poll conducted at the time indicated that 75% of Tunisians were in favour of the ban. However, due to a very broad interpretation of religious freedom, the Québec’s Human Rights and Youth Protection Commission has twice (in 1995 and 2005) ruled against banning the Islamic veil for students. Since then, parents’ right to impose the veil on their daughters has not been questioned in Quebec or Canada. Would charters protect the religious freedom of parents at the expense of children’s physical integrity and freedom of conscience? Respect for religious freedom should not relieve the State of its obligations to respect its action plan on gender equality (MELS, 2013-2014), which advocates, among other things, « the promotion of healthy, responsible and egalitarian sexuality among young people’’. Nor should it exempt it from complying with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Canada in 1982, or with international treaties on the rights of children. Fundamentalism is rarely a personal choice. It is, more often than not, the result of social pressure and long-term indoctrination that destroys any ability to think for oneself. The government has a responsibility to protect children’s freedom by providing them with a secular education, free from religious pressure or proselytism. However, much remains to be done. How can we be surprised by the increase in the number of girls wearing the veil at school when the Ethics and Religious Culture course and school textbooks convey the idea that it is a sign of recognition of the good Muslim woman? Why should we be surprised when, year after year, the number of veiled teachers continues to increase in the Early Childhood Centres and schools in the Montreal metropolitan region? Rather than protecting children from fundamentalism, schools contribute to its promotion and its sustainable implementation in Quebec. How long will this conspiracy of silence in the face of these little girls abandoned to themselves last? Many parents are disconcerted by this laissez-faire attitude on the part of educational authorities. Will we only have the right to express concern without being indicted with charges of « Islamophobia »? Can we hope that measures will be taken to ensure an educational environment free of religious identity manifestations? Only a secular school can fulfil its social integration function of children of all origins, regardless of their cultures or religions.


Bella Ciao was the melody the crowd sang about freedom and joie de vivre in the streets of Algiers this week.

Earlier, a video of a determined young woman proclaiming that the country could not be liberated until women were free was shared on all the stands. Despite the uncertainty about the country’s political future, it is the hope of democracy, freedom and equality that is blowing over Algeria.  What a contrast with the demonstrations against the bill on secularism of the state that were taking place at the same time in Montreal! The one on April 7 was particularly shocking: a crowd, the majority of whom were women wearing the hijab, brandishing Quebec phobic signs, led by fundamentalist bearded men, and two notorious Islamists vociferating against the bill by shouting « Allahou Akbar ». The staging is reminiscent of the Islamic Salvation Front’s gatherings during the Black Decade in Algeria. How did we get there? The Islam of my childhood was an Islam of sharing and hospitality, which imposed itself on no one. Last week, during a conference I gave on secularism, I met a Tunisian who had lived at the same time as me, in the same city as me, in Tunisia. For him, as for me, it makes good sense not to impose a religious viewpoint when working for the state. Faith is a personal matter that cannot be measured by the length of a veil or the length of a beard. Unfortunately, in Canada, dogmatic and assertive Islam advocates are encouraged by an absolutist interpretation of rights, considering that any limitation of religious display would infringe on religious freedom. However, by seeing the world through the sole lens of individual rights, we lose the overall picture, the sense of the common good; we open the door to religious fundamentalism.  As Yolande Geadah says in her book The right to be different, not different in rights, « the Western legal approach to religious freedom from the perspective of individual choice does not allow for a broader sociological reality to be taken into account, where individuals and organized groups use democracy in an attempt to gain abusive power, thereby denying fundamental freedoms ». This legal approach that supports the right of those who claim the veil is a free choice offers no protection to those who are forced to wear it, thus violating their right to freedom of conscience. The deployment of heavy artillery and the verbal swelling that we are currently witnessing in the secularism case are directed against the prohibition of religious display among state employees, particularly female teachers. The arguments put forward take the form of a defence of the Islamic veil, with lawyer Julius Grey going so far as to suggest that a veiled teacher would be a good role model for her students. Have we come this far in the achievement of equality to get that? Is the Islamic veil, which is the most effective vehicle for Islamist propaganda, on its way to becoming the vehicle of Canadian multiculturalism? Are Muslim women and girls held hostage by this political confrontation aimed at challenging Quebec’s distinctiveness within the Canadian federation?

According to its critics, the bill on secularism, approved by most Quebecers, would discriminate against minorities. This speech doesn’t make any sense. First, the resulting requirement for neutrality applies to all employees in the sectors concerned, regardless of religion, culture or ethnic origin. Moreover, many organizations that bring together citizens of all backgrounds, including the Quebec North Africans for secularism Association (AQNAL), of which I am a member, express their support for this Quebec concept of secularism. Also, according to various surveys and field researches, there is no binary opposition between the majority and ethnocultural minorities in this area. Finally, let us stop repeating ad nauseam that the Muslim minority is against secularism. As TQ5 journalist Kamel Amari said in a video clip broadcast on the Pour les droits des femmes du Québec page, « It is Islamists who are in the minority. That’s why they must make a lot of noise to get noticed’’. Beyond the protection of individual rights, the government’s responsibility is to ensure common good and social peace. To this end, it is essential to ensure that religion does not interfere in the relations between state institutions and citizens. Although imperfect, Bill 21 is a major step forward in affirming the secular nature of the state, finally recognized as a fundamental principle of Quebec, stemming from a specific historical journey of the Quebec nation. It is a law of social progress that, once the tide has passed, will make Quebec a model for secularism in North America, as it has been in terms of social protection and education.

If opponents to Bill 21 were concerned about freedom, they would be more concerned about the conditioning of children imprisoned in restrictive religious settings. What is planned to defend the freedom of children from certain evangelical communities with sectarian aberrations, from families practicing a rigid Islam who veil girls before the age of puberty, or from certain Hasidic Jewish communities deprived of a suitable education? Beyond the secular public school, this question also raises that of private denominational schools. What is being proposed to prevent religious rules from eroding the values of equality and freedom for women? At the very least, we should ensure that religious accommodations cannot be made if they do not respect women’s equality rights. However, Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Protection Commission (CDPDJ), the very commission that should be a bulwark against any setback to individual and collective rights, opposed the mention of gender equality as a criterion that must be respected when processing a request for religious accommodation. Exactly what freedom does the Commission defend? During the hearings for Bill 21, Fatima Houda-Pepin recalled the decision taken by a Montreal school in 2011 to accommodate the fundamentalist parents of a little girl in kindergarten, arguing that Islam did not allow music. Officials at the school agreed to equip the little girl with a noise protection shell so that she could not hear the songs of her little classmates! Do we realize how odious this decision is? Did the Commission object to the violation of this little girl’s right to equality? On the contrary, it seems that this deprivation was acceptable in the name of the parents’ freedom of religion. Clearly, the children’s right to freedom is not a priority of the CDPDJ nor of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which illustrates its 2018 report with the photo of a veiled little girl, fist up! By turning a blind eye to the reality of religious fundamentalism, we are guilty of complicity with the opponents of individual freedoms and of neglecting children. By tolerating the intolerable, we « pave the hell of others with good intentions », to use the words of Chahdortt Djavann, a woman who suffered under the Islamic regime in Iran. Let us stop twisting words. The freedom we seek is the freedom that breaks the chains, that advances collective rights, the equality of women, that leads to the development of children. As long as religious rules can interfere in the running of the state, women are not immune to the erosion of their rights and freedoms. As for children, the protection of their fundamental rights, including their right to education and freedom of conscience, should be the priority of any developed society. These rights should take precedence over the rights of teachers to display their religious symbols. As defined in Bill 21, secularism does not restrict any freedom. On the contrary, it ensures equality and freedom of conscience and religion for all citizens. Secularism is a great step towards freedom and emancipation.


The term “Islamophobia” is used excessively to justify censorship or for political purposes and maintains a victimizing discourse that does not improve the lot of Muslims. We need to take the right means to establish a healthy dialogue between citizens. Therefore, relying on guilt and accusations of Islamophobia is not, in my opinion, the right way to do this, and instead contributes to fuelling extremes. Statistical studies and surveys show that Quebec is not distinguished from the rest of Canada by an excess of xenophobia, but that religion and religious symbols are the least accepted in Quebec. This confirms Quebecers’ attachment to the secular model that emerged during the Quiet Revolution. The Catholic Church then agreed to give up its privileges, and to remove crosses and religious clothing from public institutions, including schools and the health care system, in order to be open to the diversity of other religions and non-believers. Islamophobia, and now Holocaust denial, are used as defamatory bludgeon words to disqualify the opponent. Diversity of viewpoints addressed with serenity and respect is the key to debating secularism and living together.

We need to react to the wrong, abusive and unfounded use of this term (Islamophobia). It is responsible for one of the most serious semantic and political confusions of our time: making people believe that resisting fanaticism is racism. It is a smoky concept, created to limit any vigilance towards Islamism and intimidate those who criticize this ideology. Rather than attacking those who are afraid of Islam, we should stand up to those who create that fear, those who manipulate democracy, who use Canada’s charters to advance their political Islam project. It is not difficult to see that women in niqab are part of this category of citizens who provoke the institutions of Quebec and Canada. In Quebec, it is the Islamists who claim to be victims of rejection, who refuse the way of life of the host society and blame all those who reject their rules and criticize their practices from another time. It is they, not us, who, although coming from the same cultural and religious sphere, claim to be victims of Islamophobia. Most Muslims are collateral but direct victims of this concept of Islamophobia.

Canada, Diversity and Inclusion:

The PyeongChang Olympics and Justin Trudeau’s trip to India occupied media space for two weeks. They were an opportunity to promote Canadian values, particularly those of diversity and inclusion, through a display of religious costumes and pageantry. But what exactly do we want to include? The costumes or the ideas they convey? « Because by showing the world why we’re proud, it will understand the value of our values, » says an Air Canada advertisement that was part of a state-run television ad campaign during the Olympics. And to show our values of diversity, a multinational company did not hesitate to invent, for the occasion, a figure skater in tights, sequins and hijab. In another Canadian Tire ad, a team of cosom hockey girls wearing the hijab is featured, and they’re told, « Many girls will be inspired by you!’’. Has the veil (hijab) just officially become a Canadian value? Unless it’s being used as a display of Canadian multiculturalism, regardless of the ideology it conveys. Does inclusion mean ignoring the ideas behind religious signs? Trudeau’s setbacks in India show the limits of this approach. With his family in local costume and his close guard in Sikh turbans, the Prime Minister probably thought he was helping to export Canadian values.  His Indian hosts, however, received a completely different message, seeing it as a proximity to Sikh fundamentalist movements close to the Punjabi separatists. As with the Sikh turban, the ideological significance of the veil cannot be ignored. It is associated with the political Islam movement. No matter how much we may divert it from its meaning and accuse all those who criticize it of Islamophobia, the link between the veil and Islamic fundamentalism will not disappear. In Quebec, the Chief Electoral Officer has just allowed the wearing of the veil and turban for photos of candidates, without any parliamentarian looking at the issue. Yet this amounts to dismissing the entire debate on the religious neutrality of the National Assembly. The veil is increasingly present in our schools without any concern from the school community. However, this is tantamount to axing the secularization process of the education system that has been going on in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution. It is present in all documents and reports relating to diversity, which amounts to considering it as a marker of Muslim women’s ethnicity. A Radio-Canada report on February 26 about a veiled Muslim lawyer illustrates this fact. Céline Galipeau speaks emphatically of « a committed citizen who proudly carries the torch of those who, like her, claim a multiple identity’’. Would unveiled Muslim women, to whom Radio-Canada has not yet devoted any reports based on identity, carry less pride? Clearly, the message of inclusion excludes them. In the wake of Trudeau’s trip to India, Indian columnist Ajit Datta writes this in relation to Sikh fundamentalism: « I don’t care if Canada’s leader wants to lead his country to its doom. But when it affects my own country, I draw the line’’. It’s the same outrage I feel at this promotion of the veil. It is outrageous that the need to display a folklorized multiculturalism is at the expense of women and girls who are being abandoned to discriminatory practices. I will be told about the freedom to veil oneself. So I will confine myself here to my personal experience. In the 1980s in Tunisia, the only veiled girl in my class at the beginning of high school explained to us that those who did not wear it would be hung by the lips in hell. I almost gave into the « free choice of the veil ». As for the arguments that the inclusion of the veil in all spheres of government would promote integration and its long-term disappearance, they’re not based on any evidence-based studies. Rather, the opposite is observed. According to a 2016 Environics Institute survey, half of Muslim women in Canada wear the veil, compared to only 42% 10 years earlier. At a time when Iranian women are imprisoned for removing their veils, it is a veiled woman who is serving as an illustration of equality in a federal campaign to celebrate March 8! This provocative propaganda is unacceptable. It is not a question of « hunting down the veil », as Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois says, but rather of measuring the consequences for women and having the courage to address, head-on, the subject of religious signs in state institutions.