A Cultural Balance:
The issue of girls wearing hijabs on the soccer field should open a wide debate on how much diversity should Canadians accept.

Published: Tuesday, March 06

The latest subject of a clash of identities within the cultural mosaic of Canada is an 11-year-old Muslim girl by the name of Asmahan Mansour.

Asmahan, who wears the hijab and leaves it on even when she plays soccer, was recently barred from participating in a tournament in Laval by a referee. He said her head scarf might endanger her safety, for there was a real possibility of strangulation from the cloth, as the sport is potentially quite rough involving frequent body checking.

Not so, assert many of the Muslim organizations and human rights activists who have latched on to the controversy to defend multiculturalism and the accommodation of diversity. They claim the refusal to allow Asmahan to play was racist. On the flip side of the debate, there are those who feel Canadian values are increasingly under siege when minority communities come to define culture and policy with a vigour and religious zeal that is unprecedented in history.

Needless to say, these debates expose deep divisions in Canadian society that are bound to fester if nothing is done to achieve some consensus on these issues.

But the debate is no longer about whether diversity and pluralism should be prized in a liberal democracy like Canada. The debate is now about answering just how much and to what extent. Must religious precept and practice be accommodated to a point resulting in the marginalization of a segment within a religiously and ethnically distinct community? Is there a Canadian identity over and above the ethnic identity that must be inculcated among the subcultures that have chosen to make Canada their home? Most important, what must all Canadians do to achieve social cohesion in a society that is becoming increasingly complex because of its plurality?

Most Canadians agree diversity must be accommodated wherever possible. And though the hijab has become a religious symbol creating barriers within Canadian society, it does not pose dangers to Canadians, as perhaps a burqa and niqab might, because the full veil conceals the identity of the one wearing it. Asmahan Mansour should probably be allowed to play soccer even in her hijab, provided her safety is not in jeopardy.

But the divisions within society are larger than young Asmahan's predicament and bear heavily on the increasing cultural divide between Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians.

An uncompromising insistence, for example, on a distinct Muslim identity articulated by conservative Muslim organizations like the Canadian Islamic Congress, CAIR and ISCC is often promoted not only as part of a perceived religious requirement, but also as a political statement.

And while such cultural and religious identities are extremely important - for diversity only enriches our collective experience as Canadians - to confine people in enclaves with the type of stringency and intransigence demonstrated by orthodox Muslims is perhaps never in the interest of social and cultural harmony. Cultural baggage must not prevent newcomers to Canada from adopting the overarching values of Canadian society, which guarantee equal rights to men and women and uphold the separation of religion and state.

Identities can be multiple and they need not remain static. In a society that continues to evolve, identities, too, must be willing to adjust to changes that benefit all.

Pluralism does not mean the formation of religious ghettoes or impenetrable cultural barriers among the myriad communities, but that all communities are respected equally as Canadians while they uphold Canadian values.

The question that needs to be answered then is: What is the right balance among the ideals of pluralism, diversity accommodation and social cohesion?

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]