A Muslim family says a Montreal karate centre barred their 12-year-old daughter from attending her class after she opted to begin wearing the hijab.

The Quebec Human Rights Commission is now seeking $13,000 in damages for the family while demanding the centre update its policies to not discriminate against any religions.

In a case brought before the provincial human rights tribunal in June, the commission alleges the centre’s director questioned the girl’s choice to wear the hijab and told her she needed to remove it to participate.

“(The girl) remains strongly marked by her exclusion,” the commission states in the documents, “as she continues to feel that she has to justify her choice to wear the veil on different occasions.”

The incident dates back to the fall of 2022 at Karate Auto Défense Lamarre, in the city’s Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough. While the girl had attended the centre for years, that summer, at age 12, she decided to start wearing the hijab.

According to the commission, upon arriving at the centre for her first course of the new season, the girl was called into the director’s office and asked why she was wearing a hijab. After refusing to remove it, the girl called her parents in tears to come pick her up.

Her mother spoke with the director to try to work out some sort of arrangement, but to no avail.

Instead, the commission says, the director explained that “according to the philosophy of karate, all students must wear the same uniform, with no jewelry …. and no sign of belonging to a particular religion, political position, professional rank or socio-economic status.”

Contacted for this report, the centre declined to comment on the allegations.

The commission says the centre doesn’t dispute the girl was told she couldn’t wear her hijab because the director in question believes all dojos should remain neutral and free of any religious symbols.

For the commission to bring a case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec, its lawyers need to have found a person’s complaint has merit. In this case, it’s seeking damages for the family on the basis the centre violated several articles of Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The commission also points to how the centre’s decision runs contrary to rules established by the World Karate Federation, which allows the hijab to be worn in competition as long as it meets its security standards.

In an email response, a spokesperson for Karate Canada, the body that governs the sport in the country, said the centre in question is not a member of the organization.

The spokesperson described the girl being asked to remove her hijab as a “very unfortunate situation.”

Karate Canada has led “all karate national sport organizations around the globe in petitioning the World Karate Federation to allow athletes to wear head coverings,” the spokesperson added, “and championed the recent change made in the world federation’s rules.”

Following the incident, the family removed their daughter and two other children from the centre’s classes.

For months after the incident, the girl questioned whether she wanted to continue with the sport or give it up altogether. The family ultimately enrolled her at different karate centre where other girls were already practising while wearing the veil.

She only felt comfortable enough to start again once reassured her hijab wouldn’t be an issue, the commission says, “as she remained very fearful of reliving the same situation.”

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