Taking/Removing the Veil

illustration for Maya (2)

© Oleg Dergachov


Fatima woke up and rushed to turn the alarm clock off. She did not want the rest of the household to wake up before it was strictly necessary. She had taken her shower the night before just before slipping into bed. That way she would gain some time in the morning to get things organized. But what if? What if Mehmet was in the mood? Then she would have to take another shower. Nah, that hadn’t happened in some time. Not since this charter business. In any case Mehmet had a very demanding job and he needed his sleep. Besides, she preferred to prepare breakfast and have the lunch boxes ready and packed before waking Irfan and Mehmet.

She was proud of herself. Proud of her new job where she was valued for her skills and not judged for her gender. Or the way her vowels glided imperceptibly through the whole scale. Being a tax auditor, after all, was a profession important for the proper functioning of the economy. Moreover, her occasional grammatical lapses in French did not seem to matter too much, provided she didn’t put one zero too many on anybody’s tax bill. Or the other way around.

-Good morning habibi, Mehmet chirped, as he sauntered into the kitchen and planted a feathery kiss on her nearest cheek.

Fatima blushed and tried to suppress a smile. It was going to be a good day. The weatherman had predicted sunshine for the whole Montreal region.

After breakfast she realized she didn’t have time to clear up so she stacked the dirty dishes in the sink and finished getting Irfan ready. Today she had to drive him to daycare because Mehmet had an important business meeting. They had been lucky in finding such a wonderful little Montessori daycare. What’s more, it was subsidized so it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It was run by a cheerful Coptic nun whose old-fashioned habit and large silver crucifix belied her all-embracing warmth towards her little charges. She organized their play time and slipped in little learning moments in impeccable Parisian French which she had learned in a Catholic convent in Alexandria. As far as Sister Mariam was concerned, Coptic or Catholic was all the same to her. Or Calvinist or communist for that matter. But to go back to her little school. If the children did not understand her, she did not hesitate to switch to English or Arabic or to broken Spanish. What more could anyone want.

The traffic was a bit slow but fortunately Fatima had left the house with enough of a margin. As she approached Les Enfants d’ici she was surprised to see the large driveway empty. She held Irfan’s hand while she walked to the front door and tried to read the notice pinned on it. The school would be closed for an indefinite time. Fatima was baffled. What now? She debated whether to call in sick or take the bull by the horns and show up with Irfan. After all, she had her own private office.

A new security guard greeted them in front of the elevator.

-Where is Singh? Is he ill?

-No, Madame, he no longer works for us.

-But why? He’s been here forever.

The guard shrugged his shoulders.

Fatima had barely settled Irfan on the carpet near the window with a stash of paper, pencils and some colorful brochures when the phone rang.

It was her boss. He wanted to see her immediately. Now!

Fatima told Irfan that mummy would be back soon and walked down to the corner


-Madame, sit down please. I notice that you are still wearing your hijab.

-Why, yes, Monsieur. I always wear it.

-You know, Madame, in Quebec we believe in women’s equality so since last week it is forbidden to come to work with any religious symbols. Didn’t you read the memo?

Fatima was at a loss for words.

-I was on leave.

-Well, now you know. If you don’t remove it now I shall have to ask you to leave.

Here in Quebec the men don’t force their women to wear stupid veils.

-But nobody forces me to wear it. I wear it because it is part of who I am. Just like you wear your tie or Mr Cohen wears his yarmulke.

-Ah, Mr. Cohen, he no longer works for us. He refused to stop wearing his silly little cap with the hairpin so we let him go. Actually, he resigned.

Fatima’s eyes bored through Mr Chagnon’s skull.

-Is that why Singh was fired?

-Mais oui! He looked like a Taliban with his turban. And in any case, they say Sikh men don’t cut their hair. A government office is no place for hippies.

Fatima continued to stare at her boss.

-Well? Fatima did not reply. Instead she started fiddling with her veil, …

-Ah, so you are beginning to see reason…

…found her ID, pulled it over her head, placed it on Mr. Chagnon’s desk and walked out without a backward glance.

When she got home she was surprised to see her husband’s car in the driveway.

-What happened Fatima? Why so early? Is Irfan ill?

-You are also early. What’s wrong with everybody today!

Fatima and Mehmet looked at each other and then at Irfan who had burst into


-Let’s go back home, habibi.

-Home? This is our home, Fatima. We left our war-torn countries to enjoy some peace and quiet here and look at what’s happening now. No, we need to stay and fight back. Our son was born here, we both got our education here, we have both contributed to this province and here we shall stay. No more running away.

-What happened at work Mehmet? I hope you haven’t quit. After all, you work for a private company.

-True, I just needed some time to think. You remember Chaim, don’t you? One of the senior partners. He says that this is exactly how it all started in Germany when his parents were young. At first people tried to conform by changing their name or their religion and some even squealed on their own, but in the end everybody lost. So Chaim’s family came to Quebec. They reasoned that since Quebecers had fought another type of oppression history wouldn’t repeat itself here.

-By the way, Mehmet, Maria phoned to tell me that the reason they shut down the daycare centre was because Sister Mariam refused to remove her crucifix which, youmight have noticed, is larger and as far as I’m concerned, prettier than the catholic ones.

Mehmet walked towards his wife and child and held them long and tight in hisarms. He then released his hold and walked over to the phone.

-Hallo, Pierre? Mehmet here. This is to confirm me and my family shall be at the demo tomorrow at 12 sharp in front of the Quebec government building on McGill Street.

-Who else is coming with you?

-Jean Bouchard, Maria Rojas, Ahmed Khan, Nilambri Singh, Abraham Rosen, Peter Smith, Rustomji Lalkaka, Angela Schmidt, Yvette Lajoie, Vijay Varma, Joya Jain, Alain Laporte…

Stop it! I get it.


…to conclude the evening news: women in Turkey have been finally allowed to

wear the veil in Parliament for the first time since Kamal Attaturk’s secular government forbade religious garb…


Mehmet turned the TV off.

-Fatima, what’s taking you so long!

-I’m getting ready to take a bath.

-You don’t have to go to work tomorrow, remember? Don’t shower and come to bed. Let me smell your skin.


Illustration by Oleg Dergachov.  Oleg is a Ukrainian painter, cartoonist and sculptor who has made Quebec Province his home. He works and teaches in his cozy studio in Westmount, a municipality within Montreal.

Maya Khankhoje migrated from Mexico to India to the United States and is now a Canadian citizen.