There was barely enough time to grieve properly for all the victims of this month’s terror attacks, before I and countless other Muslims were pushed into fearing for our own safety. Waking up one morning last week, I heard the news that a Muslim woman was attacked outside her children’s school. She was beaten by two white men who pulled at her hijab and called her a ‘terrorist’ – in broad daylight.
I am quite confident that this woman had nothing to do with the destruction and terror in Paris, or Beirut or Baghdad or Ankara. Nor is she responsible for any of the murders committed by ISIS or the acts of terror and violence executed in the name of her faith.
As she lay on the ground yelling’ “Stop, please stop,” her white, male attackers cared little about that striking difference. She wears hijab and is an easy target for their hatred.
That she lives in one of Toronto’s most diverse communities is irrelevant.
Perhaps, we have been living with a false sense of security. This is Toronto, after all. We are a safe city. We are a safe country. People are not attacked because of what they look like.
Well, no. Muslim women actually are and those incidents are growing across Canada.
The recent political climate and ensuing vitriol has racialized Muslim women’s bodies. The incessant discussion of our clothing and choices is a heavy burden for many Muslim women to bear. It has exploded beyond political discussions marinated in ignorance and bigotry. It has escalated to physical attacks. I know of some Muslim women who are contemplating removing their hijabs as added protection. Because we can never be too safe. We can never take enough precautions. If a Muslim woman chooses to (un)veil, that is her choice. But she should never have to sacrifice a peaceful part of her worship protected by the Canadian Charter of Freedoms and Rights, because she has little confidence that she won’t be a victim of violence.
I have lived my whole life in Canada. I was born here. But I have experienced intense racism and Islamophobia after human tragedies that are conducted by violent extremists. I have dealt with microaggressions in daily life. I have been demanded to apologize and be accountable for unspeakable crimes by people I do not know, from a violent culture I am not a part of. It is exhausting and draining. In the meantime, I and many women of my community are on high alert. Some refuse to go outdoors unaccompanied, just in case. We are trying to organize martial arts classes; encouraging enrollment in kickboxing studios; we are checking up on each other and offering support. But we need to continue living our lives.
Should I walk around with a white flag or hijab? Should I wear my Montreal Canadiens jersey to prove my Canadian-ness and commitment to Muslim non-violence? Do I carry a sign so I won’t be attacked? Should I wear a button that says “Extremists Suck”? Will people then stop harassing me online?
I grew up in Halifax where I was taught the usual precautions about safety by my law-abiding parents. I signed up for a Women’s Self-Defense class when I started high school. But I have already had conversations about safety with my children. This morning I advised my son, who is fifteen, to step up if he sees a woman, any woman, getting attacked.
It is our responsibility as Muslims, Canadians to ensure the safety of our community members. But at this moment, the chances of that woman being Muslim are heightened. He knows this. Many Muslim kids know this.
I am teaching my children that it is their duty to enjoin good and forbid evil. They must fight for justice. They have to stand tall against all prejudice. That might mean my son getting involved and helping the victim of an attack, whether that is calling authorities or actually protecting someone with his body. His mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts are potential victims of those attacks.
I am thinking about having to phrase this properly to my 13-year-old daughter if she goes out with her friends: “Hey, Love! Keep your phone close and try not to get beat up by Islamophobic maniacs! Have a great time!” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
To speak up against these intolerable acts is our duties as Torontonians. I have been contacted by friends, family and colleagues who are horrified. And they understand my stress, my anger and my frustration. And they empathize.
It would be appreciated if the rest of the city and the prominent media personalities showed some solidarity too. But a Muslim woman getting beaten and attacked in Flemingdon Park is far less glamorous to tweet or write about.
We are all horrified at the deaths of innocent people. Their geographic location is unimportant. To rally for peace is meaningless when a select group of your fellow Torontonians are being targeted and attacked. Speak up about it. Be as outraged and outspoken about the terror and violence elsewhere. It is happening in our own backyard.
This abridged article was republished to mark international day to eliminate violence against women. Read the full length version here
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For information on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women go here
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Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and Sports Activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Follow her on Twitter @_shireenahmed_ Her website is shireenahmed.com
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