MONTREAL – A poem in which a Muslim woman lauds the wearing of the hijab and suggests those who fear her are godless people who’ve led lives of debauchery, has sparked angry reaction in Quebec.
The poem, written in French by a young male Lebanese Montrealer for an Arab-language newspaper and disseminated on the Internet, is being called an outrage and the work of hypocritical fanatics.
The 22-year-old poet wrote it in response to the town of Herouxville, Que.’s, controversial guidelines for immigrants.
Herouxville’s council made international headlines last month after proclaiming a “code of life” that prospective immigrants should abide by – for example, by not stoning women or forcing them to wear veils.
The poet, Haydar Moussa, was part of a Muslim delegation that went to Herouxville on Sunday to plead for mutual respect and an end to ethnic stereotypes.
Moussa defended his work as merely a made-up cry of pain by what could be any devout Muslim woman hurt by anti-Islamic prejudice in Quebec.
“She’s criticizing anyone who tries to bring her down, who tells her ‘Your veil is bad for our society,'” said Moussa, who came to Canada from Lebanon when he was eight-years-old and speaks for the Association of Young Lebanese Muslims.
“She’s saying ‘You made mistakes and I never said anything. So why criticize me for something that is very personal?'” Moussa told the Montreal Gazette.
The poem, entitled Letter to You, reads in part: “My veil is not a kerchief/
“It’s my skin/My modesty, my dignity, my respect.
“And if you, old-stock immigrant woman/You have neither faith nor law/And you spent your youth drunk/And went from one male to the next/That’s not the case for me.”
The poem was published Jan. 23 in the Montreal biweekly Sada Al Mashrek (Echo of the Orient). It ran beside a column by Najat Boughaba (writing under her nom de plume Najat Moustapha), a French literature scholar who led the Canadian Islamic Congress delegation to Herouxville.
The village is at the centre of a debate in Quebec society over how far to “reasonably accommodate” the demands of traditional religious minorities.
“I’m not a woman, but I’m an immigrant, and it was hurtful” to hear Herouxville’s declaration and see it supported by a section of Quebec public opinion, said Moussa.
“I was hurt, and I wanted others to get a taste of what I got – you understand?”
Posted on several Quebec and French websites critical of Islamic fundamentalism, including the blog of well-known Quebec commentator Richard Martineau and a Jewish site called Judeoscope.ca, the poem has drawn a flood of criticism, much of it anti-Arab.
“The friends of Hezbollah thank Quebecers by calling their daughters sluts,” is the headline of one comment posted to the online forum of LibertyVox.com, a French site.
“This poem is in bad taste,” a writer named Abdelkarim Mohammed commented on Martineau’s site. “It juxtaposes the modesty and humility of Muslim women with the ‘depravity’ of Quebec women.”
Most Muslim women in Montreal do not wear the hijab, he noted.
“But they’re feeling the pressure of veiled women who are preaching and propagandizing for the veil.”
But Moussa says the poem is about individual feelings, and is not a blanket statement about Quebecers and their values.
This is the full poem, translated from French into English:
To whom it may concern
Or to the person
Who feels targeted
Who asked you to express yourself?
Who gave you the right to speak
To bark like dogs in the streets
In the end to insult,
Judge and say things
Insensitive and cursed?
That’s not freedom of expression.
So stop talking of freedom
If you don’t know what it means
Stop talking of democracy
If you act like a tyrant
Stop talking of dignity
If your words are disrespectful.
My veil is not a kerchief
It’s my skin
My modesty, my dignity, my respect.
And if you, old-stock immigrant woman,
You have neither faith nor law
And you spent your youth drunk
And went from one male to the next.
That’s not the case for me.
– Haydar Moussa