This week, the federal government hosted a virtual summit on Islamophobia in the wake of last month’s pick-up truck attack in London that left four members of a Pakistani-Muslim family dead and one critically injured. While the summit delved into growing concerns over attacks against mosques and increasing vitriol aimed at the Muslim community online, it’s Muslim women and girls that are bearing the brunt of the rise in hate-motivated abuse, says the Canadian Council of Muslim Women in its submission to the summit.
After each major international conflict such as the first Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks or elections in Canada and the United States, we see a rise in harassment, intimidation and attacks on Canadian Muslims.
In more recent years, each time there is a hate-motivated attack on Muslims, such as the one in Christchurch, New Zealand, the murders at the Islamic Centre of Quebec, the murder outside the IMO mosque in Etobicoke, and the murders in London, Ontario, there is a spike in hate-motivated attacks on Canadian Muslims, particularly assaults and harassment against Black and/or other visibly Muslim women.
Canadians’ views towards Islam and Muslims are reported to be less favourable compared to other faith communities. According to a 2017 Angus Reid Institute study, 46 per cent of Canadians had an unfavourable view of Islam – more than for any other faith tradition. Stereotypes abound of Muslim men as violent terrorists and Muslim women as oppressed, lacking agency and being voiceless, and Islam itself being a violent religion. In the face of all of this, 11 Canadian Muslims have lost their lives since 2017
On the evening of June 6, 2021, Talat Afzaal, her son Salman, her daughter-in-law Madiha, her granddaughter Yumna, and her grandson Fayez were out for a late spring walk in their London, Ontario, neighbourhood when the lives of four members of that beautiful family came to a crashing halt. Nine-year-old Fayez survived after sustaining serious injuries and is now an orphan. This mass murder and the heinous attack was the work of a white supremacist who was filled with hate against Muslims.
Three of the four individuals who were murdered in the London Islamophobic terrorist attack were women. With a spate of hate-motivated attacks on Black Muslim women in hijab in Calgary and Edmonton, and most recently in Hamilton, with ongoing harassment and abuse of visibly Muslim women (e.g., women who dress in clothing culturally identified as “Muslim,” like hijab), murder as the ultimate result of this violent hatred is not a surprise. While we don’t know what Talat, Madiha and Yumna were wearing, they were definitely in the perpetrator’s sight. We know of several families that live steps away from where this attack occurred.
Our members are telling us that they are afraid of leaving their homes, that when going to the grocery store or the bank, they are constantly looking over their shoulders to see if a black pickup truck is following them. That fear is palpable among Canadian Muslim women and girls who can be identified easily by their clothing.
As part of CCMW’s Digital Anti-Racism Education (DARE) project, we recently invited Canadian Muslim women, girls, trans and non-binary individuals to share their experiences of Islamophobia with us.
Here are a few examples of what they shared with us: “I was assaulted stepping onto the bus as a stranger tried to pull off my hijab;” “The day after Donald Trump got elected, a white middle-aged man in a blue pickup truck that was driving behind me switched lanes, pulled up beside me, motioned for me to roll down my window, and when I did, he yelled ‘Go home, b….!'”; “After complaining to the Equity and Diversity Office having experienced discriminatory comments from my coworkers, I was fired under suspicious circumstances;” “I was sexually, physically and verbally assaulted on the Sky Train for wearing the hijab.”
We also held a Young People’s Roundtable on Islamophobia where we heard from young Muslim women with disabilities, Black, queer, visible and non-visible Canadian Muslim women. Their messages to governments and to us were clear; they are speaking truth to power:
“[The thing] that has really been bothering me, especially with these discussions on Islamophobia is that when these things happen, it is our community that deals with the aftermath and it’s our community who does the action. I’m enrolling my sister who is nine years old in the anti-Islamophobia program at our local Islamic Center. Meanwhile, our policymakers and those who are supposed to be our protectors are arguing over whether certain symbols are racist or not whether certain groups should be racist or not.”
According to data from Statistics Canada 2013 General Social Survey on Social Identity, across different types of discrimination (including any discrimination, as well as sex-based, ethnicity or culture, race or skin colour, physical appearance, religion, and language), Black Canadian Muslim women report the highest percentage of discriminatory experience.
More Black Muslim women report experiencing sex-based discrimination (32 per cent) compared to non-Muslim Black women (26 per cent), non-Black non-Muslim women (15 per cent), and non-Black Muslim women (6 per cent). Black Muslim women experience almost six times as much sex-based discrimination compared to non-Black Muslim women (32 per cent versus 6 per cent). Another way to understand this: one in three Black Muslim women experience sex-based discrimination, while less than one in 10 non-Black Muslim women do.
One of the major concerns raised by Canadian Muslim women is discrimination in finding employment and once they are employed, advancing in their careers. Some 16.7 per cent of Muslim women 15 years of age and older were unemployed in 2011, a figure more than double the national average of 7.4 per cent for all Canadian women. They fared poorly compared with other faith communities. Only the women practising traditional spirituality (Aboriginal) faced higher unemployment than Muslim women and girls. This is in spite of the fact that proportionately twice as many Muslim women as all Canadian women specialize in STEM and twice as many use both official languages at work.
The Quebec government has institutionalized discrimination in employment for Muslim women in certain occupations in the public sector.
Canadian Muslim women and girls experience discrimination in education in various ways. Our members have shared with us their concerns in complaining to the police when they have experienced an Islamophobic, sexist or racist incident. Several shared that they reported the incident to the police, only for the complaints to be ignored or dismissed. In one incident, a woman in hijab was being harassed in a store. She had language challenges but still chose to go to the local police station to file a complaint. The officer on duty said, “That’s nothing, you must be used to this sort of thing. Don’t your men treat women this way all the time.”
We know that the Afzaal family were out for an evening walk when they were attacked. Now many visibly Muslim women and girls are telling us that they are constantly afraid that they might be next.