Ameni Ben Ammar lays out a spread of Tunisian hospitality on the coffee table of her small apartment in downtown Montreal.
Traditional pastries, a homemade cheese chicken pie and Tunisian wine.
Despite having left six years ago, the bond with her North African homeland is still strong.
But she says as much as she misses the Mediterranean lifestyle, for her, living in Tunisia had become untenable.
“I couldn’t handle the changes in my country,” she said, referring to what she describes as a steady progression of religious influence on society, the company where she worked, and even her own family.
Ben Ammar was raised by an atheist father and a mother who was a practising Muslim but didn’t wear the veil … at least until recently.
“She saw that the neighbours wore it, her friends wore it, and said, ‘I don’t want to be the only one not wearing it,'” Ben Ammar said. “She didn’t want to be different.”
Ben Ammar’s mother’s decision to don the veil is just one example of what she sees as her country’s transformation from a secular state to a place where government and religion now coexist, and sometimes clash.
An atheist, she strongly supports the CAQ government’s plan to ban religious symbols such as the hijab for government workers in positions of authority, like police officers, prosecutors and teachers.
“The woman is representing the state and for me the state should be neutral.”
Quebec is home to thousands of Muslims originally from French-language countries in North Africa.
While many have come out strongly against the ban, others, like Ben Ammar, relish the idea of a clear-cut line between church and state after having to negotiate the blurring of those lines in their home countries.
Ben Ammar was disappointed to see such a large march against the law on Sunday as thousands poured into downtown Montreal to decry Bill 21 as discriminatory.
Ben Ammar says the protest, organized by a group headed by controversial Imam Adil Charkaoui, does not represent the views of all of the province’s Muslims.
“Who gave this association that organized the [protest] the right to talk in the name of Muslims here?” she said.
Aunt of mosque shooting widow favours bill
Two people who did speak at Sunday’s protest were Aymen Derbali and Saïd El-Amari, survivors of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.
El-Amari called Bill 21 “racist” and “Islamophobic.”
But that perspective is not shared by someone else whose life was broken by the tragedy.
Zahra Boukersi’s niece Louiza lost her husband, Abdelkrim Hassane, in the shooting.
Hassane was murdered by a gunman, along with five other Muslim men, because of his faith.
Still, Boukersi, who teaches French at Montreal-area private elementary school, does not see the CAQ’s bill as fuelling Islamophobia, but as a necessary bulwark against what she calls “radical Islamization.”
“I have students who see me as a role model,” she said. “I’m not sure what kind of role model these [veiled] women will represent for the young generation.”
Boukersi fears a replay of what she lived through in her native Algeria, where she says as a teacher, wearing a hijab went from a personal choice to a social imposition.
“We thought like you do here,” she said. “That it’s nothing at all, nothing at all. But no, it became a real nightmare.”
Boukersi left Algeria in 1996 during the country’s “black decade,” when Islamist rebels battled the Algerian army for power in a bloody civil war.
She says many North Africans who have lived a similar experience also support Bill 21.
Still, Boukersi feels the law should be modified to allow more flexibility for veiled women who want to become teachers so they don’t end up dependent and marginalized.
“Yes, there are women who wear the veil to proselytize, but there are women who wear the veil because it encourages them to emancipate themselves,” she said.
“This is how they’re going to earn their financial independence.”