POLITICS

Quebec Women Who Wear The Niqab Cannot 'Go Home To Their Country,' Consider Themselves 'Old Stock Canadians'

10/11/2015 05:59 EDT | Updated 10/12/2015 01:59 EDT

They eat halal shepherd's pie, are fond of maple syrup and believe Quebec should become an independent country — or did, at least until recently.

HuffPost Quebec sat down with three Quebec women who converted and decided to wear the veil at the risk of upsetting the people of "their country."

One would be tempted to think that Warda Naili, 31, Carina Demonceaux, 24, and Julie* (not her real name), 18, had converted to Islam after falling in love with a Muslim man and then been forced to start wearing the niqab. However, two of them are adamant that they chose to cover their faces to their husbands' great dismay.

The third, Julie, wears the jilbab, a long veil that leaves the face exposed but covers the entire body. This blue-eyed woman seemed a bit annoyed during our meeting. She would like to start wearing the niqab, she said, but her husband is categorical: he doesn't want to hear about it. He’s too afraid she might get assaulted.

"The veil is part of our religion. It's not because Christians have set religion aside that we have to set it aside as well,” she argued. “The majority of Quebecers no longer go to church, eat meat on Fridays or observe Lent."

Julie was raised in Montreal by a very strict, religious father. When she was younger, she thought nothing of insulting the Muslims in her multicultural neighborhood between two Hail Marys.

"Once I even asked a woman wearing a veil what she was doing wearing a tablecloth on her head," she recounted.

But when she heard an American pastor declare that he wanted to burn a copy of the Koran for each victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she wanted to know why this sacred text inspired so much hatred. Intrigued, she got a copy from the library. This interest in Islam later became a conversion. She was 15.

Carina also comes from a strict Catholic family. Her mother is Italian and her father's family is French. Her paternal grandmother left Algeria during the war for independence.

"I was confused. I didn't fit very well into society. I wanted to belong to a community that shared my values," said the mother of two young kids. She said she found what she was looking for during a trip to Algeria. But her family believes she is siding with the enemy by choosing to cover her face.

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Warda admits she had some "wild" years growing up. She decided to change her life completely by converting to Islam, and then by wearing increasingly concealing veils.

"I traded in one dependency for another," she stated.

People have spit on Warda, Carina or Julie, thrown bottles at their heads or have made like they would run them over. The three converts admit the situation has only grown worse since the debate surrounding the Quebec Charter of Values.

"It's like we are perpetually in an election campaign. We have to make an extra effort to be nice, patient, and tolerant. Because if we show any sign of irritation, it comes back on us," Warda said.

On the other hand, Julie added, if they try to ignore everyone, people will think that they are submissive women. "We can't always remain calm and polite,” she said. “Sometimes, our attitude comes out a bit."

Carina leaves home as little as possible. When she has no other choice but to go out, especially with her children, she has to prepare herself psychologically the night before she gets insulted and yelled at.

With all these problems caused by wearing the niqab, why is she so set on wearing it?

"I wish people would stop and ask me that question nicely, not aggressively,” she said. “Some people think you are renouncing your culture and your origins, but it isn't true."

Carina said she has a hard time dealing with both comments about her appearance and her looks. Even when she was pregnant and wearing the hijab, she was accosted in a corner by a man she didn't know. So the niqab serves as a kind of "shield" for her.

Warda admits she has wanted to let go of the niqab many times, because of the public opinion, but doesn’t want society to tell her how she should dress.

"I feel good wearing my niqab. I wear it for my Creator, and I wear it for myself. Why would I stop wearing it?"

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On Friday, Pakistan-born Zunera Ishaq swore the oath of citizenship wearing her niqab, after having become a focal point of the election campaign.

"She could have given in, but I'm glad she resisted,” Warda Naili said. “I am happy the Federal Court threw out the Conservative Party's appeal because it shows that, in some way, our rights are respected. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is upheld. And that's important."

As the election campaign draws to a close and electors begin early voting — wearing a potato sack on their heads — these three Quebecers feel the debate over the niqab allowed Conservatives to avoid talking about the real issues.

They deplore the idea that certain parties would have gained political capital at the expense of a "handful of women" who wear the niqab.

"Personally, I'm not going to vote, because there is no one who will defend my interests,” Carina lamented. “I don't feel like voting for the least worst candidate."

A sovereigntist at heart, she is worried about the identity issues that were raised in the election campaign in Quebec, especially. But Carina insisted that wearing the niqab does not signify a rejection of the values she was raised with.

"Aside from not drinking and not eating pork, I don't see how I am rejecting Quebec values," she said.

Warda, who changed her name after converting, was staunchly separatist. When she was younger, she militantly supported the application of Bill 101 and would go around Montreal’s anglophone neighbourhoods putting stickers on the businesses that would not conform to the legislation.

Now, she tells everyone she is Canadian.

"In that sense, I could see how someone would think I was betraying my homeland," she joked.

With people telling them to "go back to their country" and acting surprised when they answer they’re “old-stock Canadians," Warda, Carina and Julie say they have become like foreigners, despite themselves.

And although moving to a country where the niqab is more accepted might be an option, they hope to one day be able to walk around in their own country without fear of being assaulted.

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