Recent stats showing nearly 50 percent of Quebecers are "bothered" by the hijab offers but just a glimpse of a bigger problem, according to a women's rights group.
A yet-to-be-published survey, ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Commission and reported by the Montreal Gazette, shows that nearly half of Quebecers have an "unfavorable" view of religion. But not all religious intolerance is created equal: while a mere 5.5 percent of Quebecers expressed their dislike for the Christian cross, a whopping 48.9 percent said they bristled at the sight of Muslim veils.
"I wasn't surprised," said Hanadi Saad, president of the women's support group Justice Femme. "It confirms what we see out on the field." What's not illustrated, she said, is the fact that real-life manifestations of this disdain are becoming increasingly violent.
"There's this whole political and media climate that has brought people to have this fear," Saad told VICE. "And some people let loose and go directly to verbal and physical aggressions, which is inadmissible in this era, in 2015, in a society like ours."
The report comes on the heels of two years of increasingly Islamophobic political discourse: a federal election campaign that saw Muslims used as pawns and a 2014 provincial campaign that became overshadowed by the controversial Charter of Values debate.
While the Commission hasn't revealed when its full report will be published, president Jacques Frémont presented the findings at a Montreal symposium on Islamophobia last weekend. But according to Saad, the fact that instances of Islamophobia are seldom reported and poorly tabulated means the numbers paint an incomplete picture.
"Of the 200 calls [Justice Femme] received about assaults of any kind—hate crimes like verbal or physical assault, discrimination at work, attacks on the street—only ten complained to police," she explained. Of these ten cases, most were considered assaults, which Saad deems an insufficient charge. "Only one case was recognized as a hate crime," she said. "But this is Islamophobia, let's say it clearly."
"Unfortunately, it's the only type of discrimination that's still not condemned in our society."
Of the calls fielded by Justice Femme, a grand total of zero complaints were officially reported to the Quebec Human Rights Commission. "There are several reasons for this," she said. "They call the organization for moral support and to get information, but when they're asked to file complaints, they back down."
She attributes this in part to a lack of knowledge of human rights, but says women often fear that escalating their reports could do more harm than good. "Some say they've been looking for work for too long, or they're in precarious situations, or their husbands don't work," she said. "When you're a new immigrant, there are many priorities and [reporting abuse] isn't always part of that. It becomes a vicious circle."
There is also a sense that police lack the proper tools to deal with this type of crime. Saad describes one particularly vicious attack during which a victim suffered facial lacerations after another woman tried to rip off her hijab. "What's really surprising is that most of these women who are attacked on the street, the majority are attacked by women," she said.
In this instance, Saad said police didn't seem to take the assault seriously, asking the victim three times whether she'd prefer to simply file an incident report. "After several interventions on our behalf, the file was finally re-opened and recognized as criminal."
A long-time human rights advocate, Saad started Justice Femme in the midst of the proposed "secular charter" debate, a contentious Parti Québecois effort to ban religious symbols that was heavily criticized for singling out Muslim women.
"When the debate launched, I was out on the field, and I was a victim, people tried to assault me on the street," Saad recalls. "I got calls, I got a death threat." She was also contacted by a number of Muslim women who didn't know how to deal with the onslaught of harassment. "I found myself giving workshops on human rights, and so I decided to create this organization for women."
Since then, she's worked on several initiatives meant to empower Muslim women, including self-defense courses specially designed for Islamophobic attacks. "The first victims of Islamophobic acts, and aggressions, and discrimination are women, unfortunately, because they wear a visible sign."
Saad hopes to collaborate with the Quebec Human Rights Commission to improve the status quo. "What we really need to work on is bringing women to fully live their citizenship and reclaim their rights," she said.
A spokesperson for Human Rights Commission president Jacques Frémont declined an interview with VICE, stating no comment would be given until the report's official publication.
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