What if my daughter is afraid of her?
I used to glare at niqab-wearing women on the street, but then I opened my heart and mind - to a wonderful daycare provider.
Not too long ago, if I saw a woman walking down the street with her face covered by a niqab, I would feel it was my duty to glare. As a non-religious feminist, I had decided that a woman who covers her face is oppressed - that she is uneducated, and that her husband is making her cover up because he’s crazy and/or jealous.
OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the point.
And yet until two months ago, I didn’t even really know a single Muslim. I went to high school in an Ottawa suburb, where I was baptized a Catholic so that I could qualify for schooling in the Catholic school system, which was considered better than the more open public system.
We had one year of religious education that gave us a glimpse of world religions. But I’m pretty sure my education about Islam came mainly from CNN, or Fox. I went to university in a small town in Ontario. I didn’t meet any Muslims there, either.
My real education about Islam came very recently, courtesy of a Montreal daycare.
Last December, I was seeking daycare for my daughter. At only 10 months old, she was still very dependent on her parents, and we wanted to find a place that would nurture her - rock her to sleep if need be, warm up my expressed breast milk and even be open to using our cloth diapers.
I punched our address into the magarderie.ca database, and the first one that came up was a 30-second walk from where we would be moving in a matter of weeks. The daycare provider, Sophie, had outlined her views on discipline, praise, healthy foods and the child-centred approach of Montessori. She was someone I felt I could get along with.
I phoned her and we talked for an hour, laughing and chatting and eventually deciding on a time to meet. She shared a great many of the values that my partner and I do. She was also highly educated, trained as a civil engineer.
Before we said goodbye, she added, “Oh, just so you know, I’m Muslim.”
I said I didn’t care, because I didn’t.
She assured me that her daycare didn’t teach religion. Cool.
But then she told me that when she’s in public, she covers her face.
She said the last time she didn’t warn a family over the phone that she wears the niqab, they walked into the meeting and then walked straight out.
I said I didn’t care, but when we got off the phone, I realized I did care. The first thing I thought was, “What if my daughter is afraid of her?”
My family drove over to meet Sophie, her husband and son.
She came to the door, dressed in black from head to toe.
It was the first time I had been in the same room as a woman wearing the niqab.
I felt nervous. But my daughter didn’t flinch.
The daycare was cozy; most of the toys were made of natural materials. There were lots of books, a reading corner and a birdwatching area. Books on Montessori activities lined the shelves. Nothing was battery-operated; there was no television.
It was perfect.
We spoke for a bit, all together in the room before Sophie’s husband put a hand on my fiancé’s back and they went downstairs to see the other half of the daycare. Once the guys left, Sophie took off the niqab.
I could feel my heart and my mind open at that very moment.
My daughter has been going to this daycare for more than two months now, and we are very happy with the care she is given.
When they are inside with the children, the daycare providers (the majority of whom are Muslim) are mostly dressed in plain clothes - jeans and a sweater, long hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. These women do not cover their faces in the presence of children, women or close family.
My daughter isn’t afraid of any of the women who take care of her, whether they have their faces covered or not. On the contrary, she reaches out to them for a hug every morning. To my daughter, the women who work at the daycare are simply the women who hold her when she’s sad, wipe blueberries off her face, clean her snotty nose and change her cloth diapers.
My daughter isn’t growing up with the same ideas about Muslim women that I did.
I’m glad she’s learning something in daycare.
So am I.
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette.