When human rights collide: Woman files complaint against Muslim barbers

An ongoing dispute pitting a Muslim barber's religious freedom against a woman's right to request service without discrimination will soon be the focus of an Ontario human rights trial — but please spare the battlefield imagery.

Faith McGregor launched the human rights complaint against the barbers at the Terminal Barbershop in downtown Toronto last June after requesting a men's haircut.

The woman, who wears her hair short, did not seem to expect the response she received.

The barber refused, but not because she was a woman asking for a men's haircut. The barber said his Muslim faith prohibited his from touching women to whom he was not related.

The other barbers at the shop, also Muslim, were unable to help for the same reason.

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The Toronto Star reports that McGregor filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario saying she was treated as a "second-class citizen" because she was a woman. The barbers have defended themselves, claiming that being forced to cut McGregor's hair would violate their religious rights.

So who is right and who is in the wrong? If it were only that simple.

This is not "Human Rights Thunderdome," where two rights enter and one right leaves. This is a story about a woman who wanted a haircut and the Muslim barbers who could not give it to her.

The outcome of the trial could be considered precedent-setting, with two equal human rights seeming to come in direct conflict.

Pascale Demers, a spokesman for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, told the Star's Tim Alamenciak:

There's no hierarchy of rights under the legislation, so it's not about one right necessarily trumping the other. It's about looking at the facts of the case.

It's useful because, as you know, Ontario's population is increasingly diverse and these things are bound to happen.

Both sides appear to have strong arguments, and the decision itself must be left for the province's adjudicator, best set to weigh those facts.

But whatever the outcome, there can be declared no winner. These are not opponents, just two sides wishing fair treatment.

What the barbers believed was them defending their rights McGregor viewed as an attack on her own. But while the barbershop appears to seek a solution, McGregor appears set on forcing the hand of the Terminal Barbershop.

In her complaint, the Star reports, she asks the tribunal to force the shop to offer men's haircuts to both genders and post a sign welcoming both men and women.

Karim Saaden, co-owner of the Terminal Barber Shop, told the Toronto Star:

We live for our values. We are people who have values and we hold on to it. I am not going to change what the faith has stated to us to do. This is not extreme — this is just a basic value that we follow.

Saadan went on the tell the Star that they know there is more money in running a hair salon, but the group specifically established a barber shop that does not cater to women.

The Terminal Barbershop is a quintessential "shave and a haircut" type of outfit. A spinning barber pole sits outside its door, and inside customers are seated on ancient chairs each more than 100 years old.

It has the atmosphere of a men's club, specializing in beard trims and shaves. The shop's website describes it as the "Boys Club on Bay Street," but there is no sign on its actual door describing it as a men-only establishment.

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Perhaps there should be. While McGregor wants there to be a sign promising service to both men and women, perhaps a clarification that the barbershop was only able to serve men would be more appropriate.

Had McGregor known when she walked in that the barbers were only able to cut men's hair, would she have been as offended? Would we still be here today, waiting for a provincial tribunal to rule whether gender rights trump religious rights, or vise versa?

Because no one will be satisfied with that settlement. And it won't be the end of the debate.

(Photo courtesy CBC)