Edmonton police plan to offer hijab option for female Muslim officers

·National Affairs Contributor
Supporters of a new coalition of Muslim groups attend a news conference denouncing Quebec's proposed Charter of Values Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Brace yourself for a spirited and, at times, probably uncivil debate as Edmonton police prepare to introduce a hijab option for its uniform in a bid to recruit Muslim women.

The National Post reports the Edmonton Police Service plans to include the hijab as optional headgear as early as next year.

"Several prototypes have been created and are now being tested to ensure officer safety and other considerations," the department said in an news release.

"It is important that anyone who has a calling to serve and protect Edmontonians, and who passes rigorous police training standards feel welcome and included in the EPS."

While much of Alberta is typically thought of as having very conservative values, it should be noted that Edmonton historically is not as conservative as the rest of the province, regularly electing Liberals and New Democrats to Parliament, as well as the provincial legislature.

[ Related: Montreal professors don hijab to protest secular charter ]

And for the record, it's not the first Canadian police service to introduce the headscarf worn by many devout Muslim women. The Toronto Police Service opened the door to hijab-wearing officers in 2011 and has actively worked at recruiting female Muslims to the force, QMI Agency reported at the time.

To be fair, the force didn't exactly trumpet that change. A subsequent news release on the swearing in of new auxiliary police officers buried the fact recruit Mona Tabesh was "the first woman to wear a hijab in a Toronto Police Service uniform."

Toronto's initiative drew a predictable reaction from traditionalists. Toronto Sun guest columnist David Menzies saw it as political correctness, an unreasonable extension of reasonable accommodation to the city's multicultural reality.

"Indeed, just how far do we take reasonable accommodation in the police department?" Menzies wrote.

"Do Muslim police officers reserve the right not to work with the Canine Unit, given that many Muslims consider dogs 'unclean?' Will ham sandwiches be banned from police stations due to dietary restrictions?"

Edmonton Councillor Scott McKeen called his city's initiative a "gesture of inclusion" toward the local Muslim community that sometimes feels "skittish" at times because of Islamophobia.

“One of the perceptions about Edmonton and Alberta is that we’re kind of redneck,” McKeen told the Post.

Offering the hijab as an option for police recruits, especially in the absence of any political pressure, “is sort of saying we want to have a diverse police service that reflects the diversity and multicultural aspects of Edmonton…. I’m proud of us.”

McKeen observed the decision is in striking contrast to Quebec's move, via its proposed values charter, to bar the hijab and other overt religious symbols from being worn by public servants.

[ Related: 6 niqab legal controversies in Canada ]

The move is a "natural evolution" for policing in Canada, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims Ihsaan Gardee told the Post, comparing it to the introduction of the Sikh turban to the RCMP uniform in 1990.

That change triggered heated debate at the time and still rankles in some quarters, but most people now take it for granted.

Muslim policewomen in London, England's Metropolitan Police Force have been allowed to wear a hijab since 2001.

"We know of many Muslim women who had thought of joining the Met, only to be put off when they were told they could not wear the hijab," Mahammad Mahroof, of the Association of Muslim Police told the Guardian at the time. "Hopefully, having this option will encourage more to become police officers."

Other British police forces have since implemented the change.

"The move is seen as a further sign of official acceptance of Britain as a religiously diverse society where faith-related accommodations should be made for all individuals," says a Facebook page on the topic.

In Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and the armed forces permit the hijab as part of the uniform.

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