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Hijab debate gets political in Canada

[PoliticsWatch updated 4:35 p.m., February 27, 2007]

Eleven-year-old Asmahan Mansour is at the centre of a controversy receiving international media attention. 

OTTAWA  — A Muslim Liberal MP expressed surprise and disappointed on Tuesday after learning of Quebec Premier Jean Chrarest's comments supporting a Quebec soccer referee's ejection of an 11-year-old girl from wearing a headscarf during a soccer game for safety reasons.  

I think it's unfortunate," Liberal MP Omar Alghabra said in an interview with PoliticsWatch. "I really think it's unfortunate that he's spoken out in that regard."

"I think it's really important to ask him why he did that." 

While on the campaign trail on Monday, Charest defended the decision of the a Quebec soccer referee, who ordered an 11-year-old Ottawa-area girl, Asmahan Mansour, to remove her hijab. The premier compared the decision to rules governing players tucking in their shirts when he played soccer as a youth. 

The girl's team was playing a soccer tournament in Laval, Quebec at the time. The team pulled out of the tournament after the ruling. The referee's decision has the support of the Quebec Soccer Federation. 

Charest's comments had already created an uproar with Liberals in Quebec but on Tuesday he again stood his ground. 

"On this issue, though, I haven't changed my mind. I think the federation applies their rules and they should,” Charest said on Tuesday. 

”They have their rules, and they're for safety. It's up to them to apply the rules, and they applied them in the way they saw fit … and I don't have a problem with that.”

Charest's decision to take a public stand on the issue officially brings to Canada what has been a heated political debate that has been raging in  Europe and Australia in recent years. 

France and the UK have had numerous cases where burkas or headscarves have been banned or politicians have raised concerns. 

But up until recently, such controversies have not been seen in Canada. 

Last year, Jack Straw, the UK Leader of the House of Commons, sparked a debate about wearing the veil when he said he would prefer if his constituents didn't wear them when he met with them. Straw called the veil "a visible statement of separation." 

Recently at the trial of Yassin Omar, a 21/7 London bombing suspect, the court was shown closed circuit video of the suspect escaping London by disguising himself as a woman wearing a burka. 

"The issue of people hiding their faces under the burka, which covers the whole face, or behind the niqab, which exposes only the eyes, has also posed difficulties for banks, immigration authorities and benefit offices," a Times of London story recently reported. "But questions of security have tended to be overruled by the need to maintain good community relations."

In Canada, Quebec now appears to be the battleground for a debate about what is described as "reasonable accommodation." This came after a small community called Herouxville approved a code of conduct outlawing veils and the stoning of women among other things. 

And recently another Quebec politician, Mario Dumont ,leader of the Action Democratique du Quebec, has called for a Quebec constitution to protect the province's Christian-based values. Dumont's popularity has increased substantially in recent polls.  

"I think it's really unfortunate how this debate has been going in Quebec," Alghabra told PoliticsWatch. 

"There's a mix of emotion and hyperbole and rhetoric instead of focusing on the actual substance and rights and freedoms. So I think some people are exploiting certain feelings for their own political gains."

While Charest had no problems wading into the hijab debate, the federal government won't go there.  

When PoliticsWatch asked Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney what he thought about Charest's comments he said, "To be honest, I don't know anything about soccer." 

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