MONTREAL — The video lasted just seven seconds, but it was enough to unleash a fury of online outrage. "They could have chosen anyone else to make an ad," one Facebook user wrote. "Things start to stink a hell of a lot when governments and big companies push the neighbor's religion on us …"

The source of the fury? An August 9 promotional video from the Canadian branch of retail chain The Home Depot featuring an orange-aproned employee wearing a hijab, ostensibly an example of the promotion of a diverse and well-trained work force. "Our specialized training programs and unlimited opportunities for advancement helped Sehrish go from cashier to talent acquisition specialist," declares the retailer.

In the days that followed, Francophone users of social media took to their keyboards to express their discontent. "Why do they always show someone with a tablecloth on their head?" one woman wrote. "They're [expletive] hypocrites and slaves, obedient to their masters, to make an ad for Muslims," another raged. Other Facebook users said they would boycott the store.


A Canadian journalist denounces the "violent" reactions to Home Depot's video — Screenshot: Twitter

Speaking to Montreal-based La Presse news website, Sociology professor Rachad Antonius acknowledged that such reactions are "clearly a racist, Islamophobic reaction," yet cautioned that it was limited to a small but vocal minority, and no public figures were involved. For its part, The Home Depot didn't take the video down, and decided not to comment on the backlash it provoked, releasing the following *statement: "Home Depot is proud of the diversity of its workforce, and the objective of this advertisement is the demonstrate the unlimited possibilities for advancement that the company offers."

Hijabs are banned in public primary and secondary schools in France.

Across the Atlantic, however, a similar uproar extended well beyond social media comment sections. After a Gap clothing store ad in July featured a hijab-wearing schoolgirl, several national politicians in France voiced their anger. Le Figaro reports that Anne-Christine Lang, a member of Parliament from President Emmanuel Macron's La République En Marche party, took to Twitter to say: "I will never accept seeing little girls veiled. I'll never shop at Gap again. #BoycottGap." She was joined by center-right party Les Républicains spokesperson Lydia Guirous, who tweeted: "Gap continues its submission to Islamism with posters of little girls wearing veils. On many occasions, I have denounced the growing occurrence of veils being imposed on little girls, which is a form of abuse and goes against our values of equality, liberty and laïcité (secularism)!"

From the new Gap ad campaign

An online petition for Gap Europe to dissociate itself from the campaign, which features students from a public school in New York, collected 7,500 signatures. Hijabs are banned in public primary and secondary schools in France.

Back in Quebec, where schoolgirls are free to wear headscarves, the issue of Muslim head covering is nonetheless far from apolitical. In October, the province's ruling Liberal party passed a religious neutrality law barring persons wearing a full-face veil from receiving public services, although this provision has since been suspended by the courts. The province's main opposition parties have criticized the law for lacking force and clarity, with the Parti Québecois promising to "go much further" on the issue of laïcité.

*The article has been updated to include the statement released by Home Depot when contacted by La Presse.

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