“Do you force her to wear that?” a waitress asked Stephanie Roy’s fiance one day, pointing at Roy’s hijab.
Roy, a convert to Islam just a few years ago, who always leaves tips at restaurants, didn’t leave one that particular day.
After years of questions like these, Roy, who is white, eventually stopped wearing the headscarf some Muslim women choose to wear.
“There was always the assumption that a brown guy forced me to convert (to Islam),” Roy said, adding that her South Asian partner isn’t even Muslim. “I took (the hijab) off because of Islamophobia worldwide and in Canada… it wasn’t worth the stress.”
When she went to work one day without it on, her former boss commented, “You look so much more civilized.”
Roy was taken back and didn’t know how to respond.
While she said these experiences stemmed from “ignorance” or “small-mindedness,” she joins more than 500,000 Muslim women in Canada—adherents of the second-largest faith group in the country after Christianity—living in a climate of increased right-wing extremism that deliberately targets Muslims.
From global atrocities like the Christchurch and Quebec mosque shootings, to proposed legislation like Quebec’s Bill 21, calling for public servants to be banned from wearing religious symbols, Muslim women across Canada are feeling the brunt of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and xenophobic sentiments.
“Islamophobia is gendered,” Siham Rayale, co-founder of the Black Muslim Initiative (BMI) in Toronto, said. “If you are a Muslim woman who wears hijab, you’ve upped your risk factor. You’re vulnerable, you’re easily identifiable.” Rayale explained that she and fellow co-founders Gilary Massa and Kofi Achampong founded Black Muslim Initiative to address Islamophobia as well as anti-Black racism within Muslim communities.
That’s why Ayaan Abdulle decided to join the group.
“Black Muslim women,” Abdulle said, “sometimes we’re too Black for Muslim spaces or too Muslim for Black spaces.”
For Rayale, events like the Christchurch shootings that left 50 people dead are a sobering reminder of the vulnerability all Muslim women face—vulnerability that is compounded if you’re marginalized in other ways.
“Terrorists aren’t going to attack an exclusively Black mosque, or an Arab mosque, or a South Asian mosque,” she said. “But (these attacks) make the vulnerable all that much more vulnerable.”
Abdulle added, “You can take off your hijab but at the end of the day you’re still Black.”
While the Christchurch, New Zealand attack took place continents away, the gunman in custody had covered his weapons with the names of several white supremacist killers, including Canadian mass shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, who was behind the Quebec City mosque attack. Last year, the gunman had also donated $2,000 to Generation Identity, a right-wing group that operates in Canada under the name ID Canada.
According to a report by Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims in 2017 increased by 151 percent. Meanwhile, the lead researcher of a new federally-funded study examining right-wing extremist groups in Canada, professor Barbara Perry, previously said that while around 150 such groups existed in 2015, there are close to 300 now.
The federal government has allocated $367,000 for the three-year study, with the aim of preventing violent incidents. That’s seemingly a pivot from recent years: in March 2016, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) stopped investigating right-wing extremism, saying it didn’t pose a “national security threat.” Just 10 months later, Bissonnette opened fire inside the Grande Mosquée de Québec, killing six Muslim men—which prompted CSIS to uptake their monitoring again.
Roy lived in Gatineau, Quebec when the mosque attack happened in the province. Soon after it, members of the white supremacist group Soldiers of Odin showed up to the mosque she attended in Gatineau during a community event.
“It’s terrifying that they even knew where (the mosque) was,” she said.
In the aftermath of the recent Christchurch attack, Roy was most shaken up by the comments she saw online in response to stories in French-Canadian media outlets. Roy is a Francophone from the small town of Miramichi, New Brunswick.
“French CBC is flooded with racist and Islamophobic comments, like, ‘If [Bill 21] doesn’t work, let’s do what Christchurch did,’” Roy explained. “It was shocking to see the sheer quantity of the vitriol.”
Quebec’s “secularism” bill
Bill 21 is a newly-tabled bill by the current provincial Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, which would see certain public employees banned from wearing religious symbols. The 16-page proposal titled, "An Act respecting the laicity of the State," has a section that says the bill "attaches importance to the equality of women and men,” a reference to the hijab and niqab and the lawmakers’ view that these garments imply the inferiority of women.
“The bill calls for the equal rights of men and women, but Muslim women will be the most disproportionately affected by the law,” said Idil Issa, a board member of Fondation Paroles de Femmes in Montreal.
“It’s against the human rights charters of both Quebec and Canada,” she added. “It creates a system where Quebecers of faith will be systematically discriminated against.”
Issa said the law is also unclear in definition.
“I’m of African origin,” she said. “If my headwrap constitutes as a religious headwrap—that’s not clear.”
A report released this month and co-authored by Issa and other members of the Federation of Quebec Women, titled, “Brief: Law on secularism of the State”, shares the testimonies of Muslim women in the province that will be impacted by the bill. Many of them schoolteachers, they cite everyday harassment in the streets and their workplaces, as well as worries about their professional futures.
“Yes, people's eyes have changed,” said one teacher identified as Messaadi. “In the subway, in the street, at school, people staring at me. I feel targeted, harassed by looks.”
“As soon as I arrived in Quebec, I became very well integrated. I made all the necessary steps to get my teaching license,” she continued. “I invested my time and money! It's inhumane, it's discriminatory to forbid me to teach because I wear a religious symbol.”
Another teacher by the name of Samia shared that her own coworkers have made disparaging remarks about her headscarf.
“I was indirectly bullied by colleagues saying that a teacher wearing a hijab is a bad example for young girls because it’s a symbol of the submission of women according to them,” she stated. “It is not easy to stay positive when a climate of hatred reigns. I sometimes worry about my safety and future.”
For Fatima, a student teacher, the proposed bill has made her take new precautions.
“I need to think twice before going outside,” she shared. “People look at me because of the way I dress. The bill makes people's reactions worst.”
In this climate, Issa and her group are taking a leadership role in fighting back against the law, and empowering other Muslim women to do the same.
“I am personally using this crisis to train Muslim women to speak on their behalf,” she said.
Her organization in recent months has trained several dozen Muslim women through workshops, preparing them to speak out against the bill. Upcoming rallies and actions have also been planned as human rights groups, unions, interfaith coalitions, and politicians join the growing chorus of public opposition.
Across the country in Vancouver, Masa Kateb, a newcomer from Syria who arrived to Canada a year ago, has found community and support in her new country of residence. Still, she can already recall an instance where she was harassed because of assumptions someone had about Muslims.
At a bookshop one day, a man walked up to Kateb, an activist and community organizer, and began questioning her aggressively, she explained, about gender minorities and religion, comparing Muslims to Nazis. She would only later come to realize that the man had a camouflage SUV that was permanently parked outside the store. That’s when she decided to disengage from his shouting match.
“It was a little bit scary,” she remembers. “But it could have gone much worse.”
Islamophobia and the Canadian elections
As the Canadian federal election fast approaches, there is growing concern that at least two party leaders are fuelling Islamophobic rhetoric.
In February, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer shared a stage with the “United We Roll” pro-pipelines brigade, who rolled into Ottawa from Alberta protesting carbon taxes. Anti-hate groups have detailed that many members of the contingent hold white supremacist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views. The rally also featured Faith Goldy as speaker, former Rebel Media personality and Toronto mayoral candidate who was banned from Facebook last month for violating its hate policies.
Scheer is no stranger to Goldy, having appeared on her now-defunct show “On the Hunt” in 2017 to voice his opposition to a non-binding motion proposed by a Liberal MP to denounce Islamophobia and other discrimination based on religion shortly after the Quebec mosque attack.
More recently, in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, Scheer was called out by Muslim and labour organizations for failing to release a statement condemning Islamophobia.
Meanwhile similar allegations have been levelled against People’s Party of Canada (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier, who quit the Conservative party late last year to create his new party.
In just a few short months, 33,000 people have become PPC members and the party now has electoral district associations in all 338 of Canada’s federal ridings. The Toronto Star reported that alt-right groups are calling on their members to infiltrate the party, while at least four PPC representatives “have made hateful comments about immigrants, Muslims and other visible minorities.”
Both Scheer and Bernier oppose the Global Compact on Immigration, a non-binding UN policy document that aims to support refugees, and which has been signed by Canada, alongside 163 other countries. The two leaders have issued alarm about the impact of the document, which was referenced by the Christchurch gunman suspect, who wrote, “Here’s your migration compact!” on his weapons.
Many of the Muslim women interviewed by VICE expressed concern about the upcoming elections and the leaders’ divisive tactics.
“I’m an elected representative and I choose not to represent you,” Rayale said, referring to how she reads the actions of the conservative prime ministerial candidates. “I will single you out and not keep you in mind. If violence happens to you, you deserve it.”
Roy, who currently lives in the country’s capital, also fears the consequences of a government under their leadership.
“Canadian Yellow Vests came here (to Ottawa),” she said. “I don’t want four years of that.”
As the pendulum swings towards right-wing populism throughout much of the world, Canada appears to be no exception. According to Rayale, the most vulnerable, once again, will bear the brunt of the negative consequences.
For Roy, the recent uptick in violence is still nothing new. She reflected on an incident that took place in Montreal, Quebec on December 6, 1989, known as the École Polytechnique massacre, where a gunman murdered 14 women in a mass shooting at an engineering school.
“I grew up with that shooting in Quebec in the 80s, that gun violence against women,” she said, making a comparison to events of today.
“As someone who’s at the intersection of being Muslim and a woman…that’s terrifying.”