A Canadian judge has been criticised by both the Prime Minister and the Premier of Québec after demanding a witness remove her hijab (headscarf), before giving her testimony.
The judge told Rania El-Alloul that appearing in a Montreal, Quebec, courtroom on February 24 she would not hear her case until she removed her hijab.
In an audio recording obtained of the proceedings, Judge Eliana Marengo was heard telling El-Alloul that the courtroom is a secular place, and that she was not suitably dressed.
“Hats and sunglasses for example, are not allowed. And I don’t see why scarves on the head would be either,” Marengo says in the recording.
El-Alloul, who moved to Canada from Kuwait 13 years ago, said the incident made her “feel afraid” and that she was not being treated as “a human being”.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office said that “if someone is not covering their face, we believe they should be allowed to testify.” Earlier this month Prime Minister Stephen Harper upset Muslim Canadians saying the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-woman”.
Premier Philippe Couillard said religious clothing should be removed only if it creates a problem for communication or security. “I’m a little bit disturbed by this event, I must say.”
The mother of three said: “When I came the first day when I made landing in Canada, I was wearing my hijab.
“When I swore by God to be a good Canadian citizen I was wearing my hijab, and the judge, I shook hands with him the same day I became Canadian. I was really very happy. But what happened in court made me feel afraid. I felt that I’m not Canadian anymore.
“When she insisted I should remove my hijab, really I felt like she was talking with me as … not a human being. I don’t want this thing to happen to any other lady. This is not the work of a judge. She doesn’t deserve to be a judge.”
El-Alloul was in court to apply to get her car back after it was seized by Quebec’s automobile insurance board.
A spokeswoman for Elizabeth Corte, the chief judge of Quebec Court, said the court has no plan to intervene to clarify the rules relating to religious symbols in courtrooms. “In the regulation for Quebec Court, there is nothing that talks of wearing religious symbols. It talks of decorum and of being suitably dressed. There are no other guidelines,” Annie-Claude Bergeron said.
Support has been pouring in for El-Alloul, including a crowd funding campaign that raised more than $50,000 to help her buy a car after a judge refused to hear her case to retrieve her seized vehicle.
El-Alloul expressed her gratitude for the campaign but declined the gift by what she called a “generous and warm hearted campaign”.
“The awareness raised by this campaign has brought us people from all over, who have offered support to carry this issue forward. As a result, I believe that these funds can be put to better use helping those whose rights have been forfeited and stories left untold,” she said.
Campaign co-funder, Nouman Ahmad, said he was “dismayed” when he heard media reports that El-Alloul was told that her case against the province’s auto insurance board would not be heard unless she removed her headscarf.