When I was at my best friend’s place last week for dinner, she told me about a frightening incident that had recently happened to her on the Toronto subway. On her commute home from work, a man on the train had yelled something violent about Jews.
My friend told me that she’d been torn between an urge to look up and more clearly see who he was and an impulse to look away in hopes that he wouldn’t then somehow be able to tell that she was Jewish.
She decided to look away.
“I thought he might start shooting,” she told me, stirring the pan of chicken she was cooking for us. She threw a handful of raisins into the mixture of ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric. My friend refers to the flavours created by using ingredients from different countries as “Jewish cooking.”
Two years ago today, a man entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City and shot six Muslims — a mass murder motivated by hatred and Islamophobia. Sadly, not much has changed since then: in fact, things seem to be getting worse. People from targeted racial and religious groups live with the very real threat of hate-motivated violence. Indeed, a Statistics Canada report released last November revealed that, in 2017, hate crimes shot up by nearly 50 per cent — an upsurge due largely to hate crimes against Black people, Jews, Muslims, and people who live at the intersections of those categories. Hate crimes targeting Muslims nearly tripled in Quebec, peaking in February, the month after the shooting in the Quebec City mosque.
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This data comes as no surprise to me: in the summer of 2017, I interviewed 21 Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence in the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding regions for a master’s research project at the University of Toronto. I was looking to gain insight into the types and level of severity of hate crimes and specifically chose to speak to Muslim women because studies from both Europe and the United States have shown that they are often the targets of such crimes (the topic is under-researched in Canada). Indeed, in my own life, I have been the target of violence because I’m Muslim and identify as female. Harmful stereotypes about Muslim women — that we are weak, oppressed, exotic, subhuman — can sometimes lead perpetrators to believe that we are easy targets for abuse.
I found the research participants through social media and notices posted at local community centres. I was expecting that most of the women I interviewed would be youth and young adults, but most of the women who came forward with stories of Islamophobic abuse were older — the average age of the participants was 39; the eldest participant was 58 years old. Many were newcomers to Canada and spoke English as a second, third, or fourth language. These were women I would view as “aunties” — respected women who play a pivotal role in holding the community together — and they had been verbally and physically assaulted in the streets of the city I call home.
The range of Islamophobic violence reported by these women was staggering: they told me about attempted murder, physical assault, sexual assault, and verbal threats and harassment. One participant disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted by a man while he used Islamophobic slurs; another told me that someone had tried to run her over with his truck; still another told me about having been physically and sexually abused by an Islamophobic boyfriend.
Almost half of the women who came forward were Black Muslims. One told me that a man had tried to punch her in broad daylight in downtown Toronto; another told me that she is verbally harassed so often that it feels “chronic.” The five women who wore a niqab also reported very frequent threats and harassment, including being spit at by strangers.
Such incidents can tarnish our experience of the communities we live in and rob us of the feeling that we are home, that we are safe, that we are valued.
The women I interviewed told me about more than 30 incidents of hate-motivated violence; however, only three of them had reported incidents to the police. There are many barriers to reporting gendered Islamophobic violence: some participants said they felt that no one would care, that it wouldn’t make a difference. It was in response to such sentiments that I created a resource that would amplify these women’s voices and begin to meet their needs.
I co-developed the Rivers of Hope Toolkit in partnership with Azza Abbaro, a Muslim woman graphic artist. Designed for Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence, it contains real-life stories, support resources, reporting options, poetry, and self-care suggestions.
When we launched it in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood in March 2018, more than 100 people showed up, and we distributed about 500 copies of the toolkit. The overwhelming response inspired me to form the Rivers of Hope Collective along with other young Muslim activists. Last year, our collective obtained a grant from Inspirit Foundation to bring workshops on Islamophobia into high schools.
As we mourn on the two-year anniversary of the Quebec mosque massacre, we should also focus on building a hate-free future. There is much to be hopeful about. We are coming together, circling mosques in rings of peace. Social movements are growing and responding to interconnected issues of oppression — anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. The voices of bigotry are loud right now. But so are the voices of hope.
Everyone can play a role in creating a healthy society — whether by educating ourselves about how hate groups work, unlearning patterns of discrimination, intervening during an incident on the subway, attending protest rallies and vigils, or supporting a friend.
By the end of that dinner I shared with my friend last week, I had discovered that I love the taste of raisins in curry. My best friend’s “Jewish cooking” felt like comfort food. Something about a meal cooked with love gives me the feeling that I am home.
Sidrah Ahmad is a writer, community-based researcher, and activist whose work focuses on gender-based violence and Islamophobia. She is a grantee of the Inspirit Foundation, a national foundation promoting inclusion and pluralism through media and the arts.