Whenever I hear of a terrorist attack, my first thoughts are ones of empathy for the innocent lives lost, and possibly worse – the lives left behind to grieve. But as a visibly Muslim woman, the second thought racing through my head is almost always: Please. Just please don’t let him be Muslim. Because if the attacker is, then it isn’t just him/her that suffers. It’s the everyday Muslims – the mom at the grocery store, the bearded student on his way to university, the niqab-wearing woman at work – that face the full brunt of Islamophobic rhetoric that’s widespread, even here in Canada.
It was nearly one week ago today that a seemingly small lie garnered international attention, and later, outrage. On Jan. 15, an 11-year-old girl claimed she was assaulted by a man who cut her hijab with a pair of scissors, as she and her little brother walked to school one morning.
Rather than the perpetrator being Muslim, it was the victim this time around - and a young child at that. This is a narrative we (thankfully) hardly hear of, yet one that sheds light on how hate knows no age, race, or gender. And then, in a twist many couldn’t see coming, the police released a statement after a mere three days, concluding that that attack had never actually happened in the first place.
We’ll never know why she chose to lie the way she did, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. My role as a journalist isn’t to sit around and try to make sense of her questionable behaviour - that isn’t going to help us move forward. Don’t get me wrong- I’m neither trivializing what she’s done, nor am I justifying it. But I am defending her against the slew of angry and hateful comments thrown her way following the incident, including those calling for criminal charges to be laid against her.
Hate crimes and their validity - or lack thereof
It only took two women and a New York Times journalist to first break word of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A mere five days later another 13 women came forward, describing their stories of unwanted sexual advances, rape, and harassment instigated by Weinstein.
Humour me for a moment as I play devil’s advocate: what if these women were lying?
But obviously they aren’t, you say. After all, it wasn’t just one woman that came forward, but an astounding 15. And I wholeheartedly agree - there undoubtedly is both strength and validity in numbers. Now think about hate crimes in Toronto that target lone victims, like that of a hijab-wearing woman being physically abused and called a "terrorist," or another veiled woman who was slapped and verbally assaulted by a man in Vancouver.
While cases like the ones cited above luckily had witnesses present to corroborate that the events did in fact take place, not all acts of Islamophobia occur out in the open for everyone to see. Sometimes, it’s the comments muttered loudly enough for only you to hear, or a slight shove and a menacing glare. Falsely reported hate crimes only give people further reason to distrust Muslims, or worse, claim Islamophobia doesn’t exist at all. It’s incidents like the one last week that are likely to only make it harder for lone victims of hate to come forward and be met with support, rather than disbelief.
I grew up in the closely-knit community of Scarborough, with an almost utopian idea of what Canada ought to be. Despite racist and far-right ideologies being preached by a certain orange-looking man down south, Trudeau’s messages of an open and unified Canada slowly helped to solidify my vision. Yet, when I started university in the heart of downtown this past fall, I realized just how sheltered a life I had been leading. It wasn’t anything serious: no comments, no gestures, no physical violence of any sort. But there were the occasional uncomfortable stares on the subway and around campus that I hadn’t come across before- yet most wearing the hijab will tell you these are commonplace. When someone sees me, they see my hijab, and who knows what negative connotations they’ve attached to my faith?
I’m fortunate enough not to have been a victim of acts of Islamophobia, unlike the many Muslim women who are - and just fail to report them.
A study conducted by UofT researcher Sidrah Ahmed found that that while many Muslim women in the GTA are facing attacks of Islamophobia, few end up reporting these attacks to police. Ahmed spoke to Muslim women who shared their experiences of being called terrorists, being sworn at, spit at, or having their hijab pulled by others on the subway. Out of the 40 incidents these women shared with her, the police were only involved in three. “These aren’t recorded in the hate crime database,” said Sabrina Ghaffar-Siddqui, a researcher at McMaster University, “they stay within the person.”
How frustrating must it be for women to feel unsafe in the places they call home - on the bus routes they grew up taking, in the local stores they shop at, on the streets they used to ride their bikes down?
Learning about the falsely reported hate crime was a frustrating experience, to say the least. Yet it made me reflect on how much more commonplace Islamophobia is than we may realise, and how it won’t be dissipating anytime soon. It seems we have some work to do until we can emulate Trudeau’s vision - and in part, mine as well.