Tae-Kwon-Do Hijab Incident: Open Letter Of SupportApril 16, 2007
Dear Muslim Council of Montreal and Montreal Muslim Community Centre,
I wish to write to show my unequivocal admiration and support for Zeinab Nasser and Bissan Mansour, their coach, their team, families and community. The courage these two girls have recently displayed is tremendous and should be a source of pride for any person/community seeking justice and the practice of human rights.
First, I would like to say that I am 29 year-old woman of French-Canadian descent. For the past five generations, my family has lived in Western Canada, and as a result has fought many battles to practice our culture and speak our language outside Quebec, not to mention the many historical struggles as Acadians and Quebecois. That said, words cannot express my grave disappointment that it is Quebecois, my brothers and sisters in the struggle for cultural and linguistic rights in Canada, who have denied the girls their rights to practice their faith and their sport.
Under the guise of "safety," and "mandatory application of regulations," the Quebec Tae-Kwon-Do federation has acted in a racist and ethno-centric manner. This is a harsh description that the organization certainly does not want to hear, but it is unfortunately very accurate. And what makes it so accurate, is that the decision to disallow Muslim women's harmless external practice of faith during play was rendered with narrow and ignorant analysis.
French-Canadians should intuitively know that rules are not always just and that rules should be open to review and re-evaluation in efforts to make them just. Noting the rules that prevents scarves under helmets, and noting the team's participation, the referees and M. Jean Faucher should have immediately looked to review and re-evaluate the rules rather than blindly apply them.
However, from what I have read, they did not do this. Instead they claimed that Muslim women endanger themselves if they choose to practice Tae-Kwon-Do and wear the hijab simultaneously. International referee Stephane Menard went even further suggesting that hijab is akin to equipment when he said "the equipment that is allowed under the World Taekwondo Federation rules doesn't include the hijab" (Toronto Star, April 15).
This displays the level of ignorance that permeates throughout the organization. Rather than seeking information on a spiritual practice with which they are clearly unfamiliar, the leadership in this situation chose a path of arrogant ignorance when they decided that the rules as they currently stand were the only means to determine safety. They forgot that the rules were not written by Muslim women, nor did they have any input from Muslim women, so therefore were unlikely to take into consideration the safety concerns and practicalities for Muslim women and girls. Simply put, the leadership of the Quebec Tae-Kwon-Do Federation and its referees simply did not have the qualifications to speak on behalf of Muslim women, nor to make such a determination in isolation of Muslim women's input. Indeed, had they sought input from the Muslim community, and had they sought to meaningfully understand the practice of wearing hijab, they would have seen this excellent opportunity to increase Muslim women's participation in the sport and foster cultural understanding and diversity within the Tae-Kwon-Do community. Instead, they chose to shun what they do not know and act out of fear of difference, or "safety" as they put it.
Men have been defining "safety for women" for too long. Both Zeinab and Bissan, along with soccer-player Asmahan Mansour from Ottawa, are very courageous to step forward and define safety in their terms. It is no small step to declare that sports designed by and for men have to alter the rules to include the significant participation of women in all their diversity. Challenges for social justice are huge endeavours; they are emotionally, mentally and physically consuming. To put it more eloquently, they are a big deal.
But nothing important is ever easy. So while it is extremely disappointing that the young women trained so hard only to be systematically barred from competing, their training is not for nothing. Along with many other aspects of their lives, Tae-Kwon-Do has helped to prepare them for the challenging task of standing up for themselves, their rights, the rights of others, and also the task of challenging racism.
As a Canadian, I am incredibly proud of Zeinab and Bissan. Willing to take on such a challenge at their age is inspiring. On the other hand, I find the Quebec Tae-Kwon-Do Federation's actions --falling in line with the Quebec Soccer Association, IFAB and the current tide of racism and sexism towards Muslims— embarrassing and disheartening.
In short, I hope this letter has effectively communicated that the girls and their community have support and appreciation from other Canadians. I just wanted to let them know that there are people from every corner of the country who care about them and their choice to keep their hijab on, and who also choose to overcome ignorance by learning about the world's vast cultures that make Canada multiculturalism so beautiful.