09 June 2009
We are your sisters
By: Janice Manchee
OTTAWA — Nafisa Ally doesn't go for walks at lunchtime anymore. She smiles shyly and adjusts her head scarf while she explains why.
"One of our friends was taking her baby for a walk on Laurier Avenue," she says simply, "and someone spit on her."
Ally is one of the over 600,000 Muslims living in Canada. Since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Muslims throughout North America have been the targets of more than 600 incidents, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Many of these incidents have involved women.
Frightened by their visibility
Shano Bejkosalaj arrived in Canada 50 years ago from Albania. She's a petite, blond woman who could be from any number of European countries, but, she points out, many Muslim women stand out because of their dress. As a symbol of spirituality, she says, some Muslim women wear a hijab, or head scarf.
Nazira Tareen, who came from India is one of Bejkosalaj's good friends. She says this visibility is now very frightening for many Muslim women.
"The women who cover their heads are terrified to go out. On Friday after the prayers, there was an elderly lady, she couldn't speak English, she only spoke Arabic. She was saying some people beat her up. She showed us her foot. It was hurt. Imagine! An elderly lady!"
There's a reason to feel vulnerable, says a Muslim woman, who asks to be called Nahid because she's afraid for her safety. "The person at the counter of the store is usually friendly and smiling," she says, "but not yesterday. I'm aware of things as mild as this, to a friend who had her hijab pulled off. Another friend's mother was chased on (Highway) 417 by someone in a truck, who came up next to her, said a few expletives and gave her the finger."
Nahid, who is an African-American Muslim, adds that women are also worried about their young children. "There were two little boys and there's a Muslim family with three children that lives next to me. The boys were taunting them because their little girl wears a head scarf. They were yelling at her and screaming at the little boy 'Why don't you speak English?' 'Do you know what you are?'"
Nahid worried at first that the community was being unduly concerned, but now she thinks otherwise. "I have two small children," she says. "I just have to be very concerned. Things are happening. At first I thought we were being paranoid, but now I've seen things with my own eyes and I'm a little skittish."
Carleton University law student Ola Madi is being cautious too. "It's been a big constraint on my lifestyle," she says. "My parents are really concerned about me going out in public, going to the mall. It's basically just to school and back."
"Hang in there!"
But there are positive things happening as well.
Miriam Bhabha represents the Federation of Muslim Women. She says it's essential to remember there is support out there too. She tells the story of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab who walked past a construction site; a worker called out "Hang in there!"
Nazira Tareen says her neighbours have been very supportive.Tareen has lived in the same neighbourhood for 33 years. She has experienced some minor problems, but not at home.
"People who have a rapport with their non-Muslim neighbours have received tremendous support," she says. "I have not felt any violence in my neighbourhood."
Nafisa Ally has found similar support at work. "I'm working with Treasury Board and they're very, very supportive.," she says. "The Director-General came to me and asked me if I had any problems. He said if I had the slightest of problems to come to him and he would settle it — that there's no place for that in Ottawa, in our country."
Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, says organizations are also getting involved. "At our website we've been getting individuals and groups giving us support," she says. "The Congregation of Unitarian Congregations wrote to us. Sisterhood is Global in Montreal wrote to us. At this stage there's a feeling that the media are trying very hard to be balanced."
"Treat me like a Canadian"
Fadia Khalil hopes for a peaceful solution to the current crisis. No matter where they are, Canadian Muslim women share a similar sentiment. In the mosque, Fadia Khalil speaks softly and thoughtfully as she sits on the carpeted floor. She has lived in Canada for 35 years, arriving in Canada from Jordan in her teens. Her feelings about Sept. 11, like those of many Canadians, are those of sadness and hope.
"It hurt me quite a bit," she says. "Whatever happened is not for the good of the Arab or Islam. We do not stand by it. I could have been on the airplane. You could have been on the airplane. I could have been in my office. My kids. Your kids. We know what it is to lose a child. And nobody should suffer like that. I hope it will never happen again. But also I hope I will never contribute to send bombs or guns to kill innocent people."
Nazira Tareen from India has a house with two large Canadian flags prominently displayed in the front. She has a message for Canadian women. "If women can say to Muslim women 'we are your sisters'," she says, "that would do a lot to help morale. And if they can say 'if you ever feel threatened, if you feel scared, you can count on us'.”
Ola Madi smiles affectionately at her mother across their living room. Then she turns and, after a brief hesitation, delivers her message.
"I'd like people to realize that we are Canadian. What does it take to be Canadian? I was born here. I was taught here. I was raised here. I hate the killing of innocent people. Treat me like a Canadian."
This is an estimate by the Canadian Islamic Congress, a national organization dedicated to the promotion of Islam. It is based on the 1991 census data, which is the most recent information until the 2001 census becomes available, birth rates and immigration. In 1991, there were just over 250,000 Muslims in Canada, 115,000 of whom were women.