The first time 18-year-old Zeynep Durna felt the sting of Islamophobia was in her high school hallway, when rumours spread that a student was kicked off a school bus for saying “No one should ever argue with a Muslim because they’ll blow up the bus!”
Durna, who moved from Turkey to Canada less than two years ago, was confused. But she convinced herself it was just one student who was uneducated about her religion.
It was the incident that followed that surprised her. She said she felt some teachers were acting like watchdogs during her school’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) meetings at her high school in Peel Region — even though the association already had a Muslim teacher supervising and conducting the meeting. She said it felt as if they were “suspicious," as if she had done something wrong.
Durna's experiences speak to the kinds of accounts contained in a new report by the National Council of Canadian Muslims looking at how Muslim students feel in high schools and what barriers they feel they face because of their religion.
Motivated in part by the kinds of conversations that came out of the Quebec Mosque shooting, the Liberal government’s anti-Islamophobia bill and the debate around religious accommodation and prayer in the Peel District School Board, the NCCM brought together high school students to “debrief” during a town hall in May 2017. A total of 31 students, ranging from grade five to 12, and representing 22 schools across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, took part and their responses form the backbone of the report, released last month.
The experiences varied, with students reporting hateful commentary or stereotypical jokes and those who said they felt supported, in part because so many students in their school are Muslim; some described their school as passive toward their faith, others said there was a campaign to educate students about Islamophobia.
"When anything bad happens in the world the first thing I think is ‘please God don’t let it be a Muslim.'"
"When anything bad happens in the world the first thing I think is ‘please God don’t let it be a Muslim,’” one grade 11 student said. “When it is a Muslim, I feel like I have to put on my armour as I leave my house and go to school."
According to the NCCM’s report, students felt there was an overall lack of knowledge about Islam amongst their classmates and staff, leading to “ignorant” questions. The report found that female students who were visibly Muslim and wore the hijab felt as if they were constantly answering questions about their faith from students and teachers.
“With so many negative things being said about Muslims I feel a lot of pressure to prove people wrong,” one grade 9 student in the Peel District School Board who wears the hijab said at the NCCM town hall. “I get treated differently, so I have to try really hard at being the best student, the most approachable, the funniest. I feel a lot of pressure to be exceptional. I can’t make mistakes.”
Surprisingly, the report also noticed that teachers were a big part of the negative experience Muslim students had at school.
Aasiyah Khan, NCCM’s education and outreach coordinator, told VICE News that because teachers are in a position of authority, they should be held accountable for what their students learn and how they treat others in the classroom.
“Students don’t want much,” Khan said. “They want teachers to know enough to provide a safe space for Muslim students, not to be experts in Islam.”
Durna, who wears the Islamic head covering, said that during a class debate on world issues, a male student confidently and publicly told her that “Muslim women who cover their hair are forced to.” The teacher apparently didn't hear the alleged comment.
Ibrahim Mohammad, co-president of McMaster Muslim for Peace and Justice, said he's seen this many times. According to him, Muslim students also tend to seek out religious groups and associations as soon as they graduate high school because they want to feel a sense of belonging they didn’t get from their earlier schooling.
In some cases, he said, students are so desperate to feel a part of a community they join postsecondary MSA’s while still attending high school. His club took in a high school student because of how “horrendous” things were at school.
The Peel District School Board, which oversees the school Durna attends, said there have been “isolated” incidents where a Muslim student was “the target of bias, discrimination and bullying behaviour.”
"I feel a lot of pressure to be exceptional. I can’t make mistakes."
A spokesperson said the board has been working closely with Muslim groups and community leaders over the past several years, conducting workshops for students and teachers, in order to help address concerns like those raised in the report.
One of the Peel board's strategies has been to develop a “comprehensive support system for students from marginalized communities," which they said includes work to support Muslim students and combat Islamophobia.
Michelle Coutinho, principal of equity and inclusive education at Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board, said approximately 8 percent of their students are of the Muslim faith.
She said they were aware of the concerns Muslim students raised at school.
Coutinho said the school board is also training staff and has delivered student workshops “which discuss the rise of Islamophobia in today’s world.”
The school board said it has regular and ongoing communication with administrators and staff to advise everyone on religious accommodations for students too.
"As a faith-based institution, we want to ensure and support the faith development and dignity of all our learners."
“As a faith-based institution, we want to ensure and support the faith development and dignity of all our learners,” Coutinho said.
Mohammad says that if teachers are getting sensitivity training, it’s not good enough. He stressed the need for such training to be mandatory, saying it can help ameliorate what some see as a “hostile high school environment.”
Mahmood Haddara, president of McMasters Muslim Student Association, notes that efforts to combat Islamophobia can go a step further by incorporating these lessons into the “civics and careers system” at least until “a curriculum change could potentially be made”
The Peel District School Board said it will be working with NCCM and local faith leaders to develop an “interactive e-module” on Islam to help staff develop a deeper understanding of the faith and provide practical tips to support Muslim students.
It plans to hold open conversations and workshops for students, including a screening of the CBC film ‘14 & Muslim’ during Islamic Heritage Month.
Wendy Rowland, the director behind the 2018 documentary, told VICE News that the audience should understand how wide-reaching Islamophobia really is and how this affects children, especially in the “era of Trump”.
“We’re overwhelmed right now,” Rowland said. “These are normal kids living their lives, they have futures.”
Rowland said it’s “disgraceful” how Islamophobic sentiments had become normalized for the teenagers she interviewed. She has seen it have real world implications, too. One of the grade 8 students in her doc, Malaieka, had hopes of going to Montreal to study until she got word of the ban on religious face coverings that the newly elected government wants to impose on civil servants. This devastated her because that was her dream. Rowland said Malaieka knew she couldn't live somewhere that didn't accept her religious freedom and identity.
Durna counts herself lucky — all things considered, she believes her experiences of Islamophobia could have been much worse. Still, it's the little things that break her heart. She wishes the microaggressions she felt from her peers and teachers were highlighted and then worked on. As for what's next for her, she’s expecting to graduate this summer to start university and join the student-led MSA on campus.
All photos by Sarah Hassanein, courtesy of NCCM.