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Canadian teacher reassigned under a controversial Quebec law for wearing a hijab

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A teacher in the Canadian province of Quebec has been removed from the classroom because she refused to remove a head covering worn by some Muslim women. The controversial Quebec law bans religious apparel on certain public employees, including public school teachers. This is one of the first cases in which somebody actually lost their job since the law came into effect. Reporter Emma Jacobs joins us from Montreal. Emma, thanks so much.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Please tell us more about this teacher and what happened.

JACOBS: So Fatemeh Anvari was a young teacher who was hired to teach third-grade language arts in October in Chelsea, Quebec, so that's just outside the Canadian capital of Ottawa. And in November, it seems like someone in the district realized that under a provincial law that was passed a couple of years ago, the school wasn't allowed to hire her as a teacher because she wears a hijab. And that's the headscarf worn by some Muslim women. So they moved her out of running her own classroom to an assistant role working with students on literacy and diversity.

SIMON: And tell us about the particulars of this - of Bill 21, this legislation.

JACOBS: Bill 21 is a law in the province of Quebec that bars people working in certain government roles from wearing religious symbols. It applies to people in positions of authority - judges, police officers and, where it's been most felt in practice, public school teachers. The rationale used to defend this legislation is that it's about maintaining the secularism of the state, that it's not targeted against one religion. So someone wearing a large cross could be asked to remove it. But it's been much more of an issue for people who belong to religious minorities in Quebec - so Sikhs who wear turbans or Jews who wear religious head coverings and particularly women who wear hijab, many of whom are teachers.

SIMON: And Bill 21 is under almost continuous legal challenge, isn't it?

JACOBS: Yeah. The bill was challenged in court, and different lawsuits have been combined into one court challenge. But that litigation is still underway. There was a grandfather clause for teachers and administrators who already held their roles when the law took effect, and that was in 2019. But they can't be promoted, and the schools can't hire new people who won't comply. There's been very vocal criticism from minorities in Quebec and people elsewhere in Canada. I spoke with Samaa Elibyari (ph), who's with the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

SAMAA ELIBYARI: You are putting this person in the margins of society. You're considering this woman who wears the hijab as a second-class citizen who cannot enjoy the rights that you confer to all citizens.

SIMON: Emma, what's the public reaction been to the case of this teacher?

JACOBS: Locally, this dismayed a lot of families at the school. This is an English language school, and there's much less support for Bill 21 among English speakers in Quebec, which is majority French-speaking. People began tying green ribbons on a fence outside the school to show their support for this teacher, and it got attention provincially and nationally. It really seems like, in hiring this teacher in violation of the law essentially by accident, the school district gave a face to people who are losing jobs as a result of this law. Before, we'd largely heard from young people graduating from school and not able to pursue their careers in Quebec, and this is a little different.

SIMON: Reporter Emma Jacobs in Montreal, thanks so much for being with us.

JACOBS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.