“Some people seem to think that being a religious person is antithetical to being a good Quebecer,” says Mariam Aziz, a Montreal teacher who wears a headscarf and who recently decided to turn down a full-time teaching contract this fall because of Bill 21. “It’s such a flawed assumption.”
The 26-year-old Quebecer says she entered the teaching profession for the students, but she left for the teachers.
“Leaving is giving me my voice back,” Aziz says, explaining that she felt she could only be free to denounce the province’s legislation — which bans civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols — and share the way it made her feel by leaving her profession.
“What would you say to a friend you knew was in a relationship with someone who belittled her, stopped her from pursuing growth? Would you tell her to marry them? Or would you tell her she was an amazing woman worthy of a partner that treated her right?” she recently wrote in a Facebook post announcing her decision to leave teaching.
Deserving of respect
Comparing Bill 21 to an abusive relationship might appear hyperbolic self-victimizing to supporters of the legislation, who claim all anyone needs to do is remove their religious symbols while they are on the job, but the ban can feel quite different for those personally targeted.
The controversial legislation, forced through by the CAQ government via the notwithstanding clause because it violates both the Quebec Charter of Rights and the Canadian Constitution, recently marked its one-year anniversary. Those opposed to it say being ordered to remove a part of your identity is violent, alienating and deeply damaging to one’s sense of self and sense of belonging to a community. It also ‘others’ and stigmatizes, making people feel like second-class citizens.
“I am an amazing teacher and a writer worthy of an institution that treats me right,” Aziz wrote in her Facebook post. “Yet, I am no longer pursuing a career in education. It has taken me this entire school year to be able to say that out loud and even as I write it today it is with great difficulty.”
Aziz insists she doesn’t feel like a victim, but the system was making her one. When Bill 21 was pushed through, she immediately passed into action and decided to turn her freelance writing into a company. She took marketing and business classes and is now focusing all her efforts towards Word Covers, a content writing and strategy company.
Aziz has nothing but wonderful memories of being an educator. “My time as a teacher has been what my 16-year-old dreams were made of,” she says. “Walls to fill with inspirational quotes, trying new educational techniques and seeing the light bulb go on as students understood new material.” But she no longer felt she had a place in it.
Speaking up for those who can’t
Before walking away, Aziz, now free from the fear of losing her teaching contract if she spoke out, wanted people to understand what legislation like this has done to people like her. “I am speaking up for everyone who can’t,” she says.
“When Bill 21 took effect, there were no clear guidelines on contract positions,” she says. ‘“Keep my head down, do my job’ was my motto. Some parents questioned my right to be in school — I am sure with no ill intent, but perhaps more because they were confused by what they had seen in the media – and the reality is that I was confused, too.”
Aziz describes how every single parent-teacher night or event in which outside members were invited made her feel extremely apprehensive and stressed out.
“I felt like a second-class teacher to everyone else in the building because I could not feel comfortable being seen in pictures, and I was afraid of being dismissed at any moment. I always had to second-guess my moves.”
She says her school administration was extremely supportive and encouraged her to stay on, but a recent meeting with a member of the administration about pursuing her Master’s in Education — something she always intended on doing — made her re-assess her life goals. She no longer saw the point of pursuing her studies if Bill 21 prevented her from being promoted.
A dream denied
“That’s what really got me thinking,” she says.“How many nights had I stayed up while studying at McGill to make sure I made the Golden Key International Honour Society, to make sure I aced every exam, to make sure I had time to work as a specialized educator while completing my degree? How much effort had I put in to impress during my ‘stages,’ to make sure I was outstanding, to stay back after school and help with anything and everything I could to make sure I got a position? For what? When someone less qualified than me could in the future be promoted over me for the single reason that I wear a headscarf?”
“I had the pleasure of working with this amazing young woman,” says fellow teacher Pasquale Vari. “Her dedication to her students was second to none. Her leaving is a loss to the education system. How many more great teachers are we going to lose?”
Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge recently admitted that 1,500 teachers are desperately needed over the next five years, and the government is appealing to retired teachers to come back as substitutes. In this current context of severe teaching shortages in the province, many wonder whether legislation like this makes any sense at all.
Aziz was well-loved by her colleagues, and with several academic teaching awards and stellar job evaluations, she had multiple teaching offers coming her way. But she no longer felt true to herself by remaining.
A different type of oppression
“I’m a feminist and my father taught me to be independent and strong and fight for what I believe in,” she says. “Someone telling me what not to wear is just as bad as someone telling me what to wear. It’s just a different type of oppression. Feminism is about equal rights and equal rights means freedom of choice. It’s my lane, stay out of it.”
Knowing how much she loved the profession, friends and coworkers kept telling her to “stay for the kids.” But she quickly realized those two things wouldn’t align.
“Every day I tell my kids to be who they want to be, to dream big and stand up for themselves. Who would I be if I stayed and sold myself short? I was not okay with compromising after working extremely hard to get where I am,” she says.
With no clear guidelines about what was in the future for teachers wearing religious symbols, Aziz as a young professional also didn’t appreciate the financial insecurity.
“No one becomes a teacher for the money,” she says, chuckling, “but I still have to pay rent and buy groceries and provide for my basic needs. The insecurity and worries about my place in the field was just too much.” The unfairness of it all got to her.
False assumptions and single stories
“The headscarf is not a piece of clothing I can just remove,” she explains. “It’s part of my conviction. And if I ever decided to remove it, this is certainly not the way I would ever choose to do it. The idea that someone has the power over what you can wear is so personal, so invasive,” she adds.
Aziz believes that most Quebecers in support of the bill are not necessarily malicious or racist, but she considers Bill 21 a perfect example of systemic racism. She thinks many Quebecers are ill-informed about the legislation’s real-life consequences on people’s sense of belonging and their very livelihoods. The bill’s support also often stems from misguided assumptions about Muslim women being oppressed and needing to be “saved” which Aziz finds deeply condescending.
“I was born here,” she says. “My mother, who I lost to illness when I was 16 years old, was a French Quebecer. She converted to Islam when she married my dad. He practically raised three young girls as a single father, until he, too, passed away when I was 25 years old.
“He was so pro-education and so intent on us being financially independent and strong — the exact opposite of the clichés so many people believe about Muslim men,” she says. “My late father had always told me I had to work twice as hard as others and I was prepared for that. What I was not prepared for was being taken out of the running.” ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.