Written by Muntaha Aamir, a 17-year-old Canadian.
Prejudice in Canada isn’t a new thing, but your attitude towards it should be.
South Asian women in Canada have recently experienced a vast increase in targeted hate crimes, most likely attributed to prejudices linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, violence against women in Canada has stayed at a steady rate of approximately 67% since January. However, through my personal experience, and with more awareness of discrimination against South Asian women in my community and across the nation, the issue is becoming more obvious. Discrimination often seems to be fuelled by racist theories and ideas linked to this group.
On June 6, a family of five were hit by a vehicle in a premeditated attack in London, Ontario, leaving four dead and one survivor — a child — in critical condition.
Ontario police commented that the crime was believed to be targeted because the victims were Muslim. Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said in a statement that the suspect should be charged with terrorism and hate crimes. “A man allegedly got in his car, saw a Muslim family walking down the street, and made the decision that they do not deserve to live.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded to the attacks in a tweet, where he commented that “hate and islamophobia have NO place in Ontario. Justice must be served for the horrific act of hatred that took place in London, Ontario.”
Additionally, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that he was “horrified” by the news, and said, “To the loved ones of those who were terrorized by [this] act of hatred, we are here for you.”
These statements, along with many others from Canadian leaders such as Jagmeet Singh and Erin O’Toole, make it easy to take in apologies and prayers that aren’t necessarily the thoughts of the public. Meaning, it becomes easier to fall into a submissive mindset, and to think vicariously and often blindly through our leaders.
Additionally, it is important to note that, although raising the voice of important figures is a crucial step in making real change, words are ultimately empty without action. Grief and condolences are not the same as formative action that will set precedents for change in structural violence, not just surface level in the media.
Another notable hate crime in recent months were the attacks in Atlanta-area massage parlours, leaving eight people dead in March.
It is, however, imperative to consider that anti-Asian crimes are not limited to open acts of terrorism such as those mentioned above.
Prejudice against people of South Asian descent is observed in many subtle ways as well, such as in hate speech often brushed off by higher authority for the same reason assault and harassment against young women is often disregarded. Nevertheless, blatant racism against persons of the South Asian region has always been prominent in “innocent” countries like Canada, and the silencing and ignoring of young voices is one of the biggest contributors to structural violence and inequality.
As a 17-year-old Muslim youth who openly practices my religion by wearing a hijab in public, it is unquestionable that comments made about my clothing and pride are consistent and, unfortunately, not surprising.
Misconceptions regarding my religion, Islam, are often confused with statistics and half researched “facts” that are further used to argue harmful stereotypes about my religion and culture. Women are not oppressed by expressing modesty, nor do they have any obligation to accept abuse from their partners. These claims are often used to back up larger, more general stereotypes. It is important to understand the religious context behind the teachings that Muslim girls practice in order to separate propaganda from reality.
Wearing a hijab in Islam is, simply put, to show modesty. Islamic teachings emphasize the beauty and pureness of a young woman, and for their protection it is advised that they cover their head, shoulders, and chest with a loose cloth. In western culture, this is often questioned, as the freedom to dress how one chooses does not include the modesty that comes with hijab. Dressing modestly in Islam also includes wearing long and looser clothing to avoid as much exposure as possible, for the sake of retaining one’s beauty and self pride. Prejudice about the Islamic faith is based on assumptions which often are not true, as is the case here.
In more universal situations, seeing a hijab and immediately associating what is a symbol of pride and self worth for a Muslim with one of violence and terror is far too common, and, at its very least, takes away from the purpose of exercising our freedom of religion.
Islamophobia in Canada and around the world remains prevalent, and violence against Muslim women remains in high numbers. In 2019, two mosques were gunned down in New Zealand, during which a shooter killed 51 people. In December 2020, two Muslim women in hijab were attacked by a 41-year-old man in an Edmonton mall parking lot.
These experiences are far from unique to my own life, and they aren’t just happening in the Muslim community. Although I cannot speak for other young women from experience, it is still important to highlight and explore some of the recurring issues in Canada.
In 2020, statistics from the Vancouver Police Department showed a 717% rise in hate crimes against East Asians, according to a tweet by BC Premier John Horgan. A report released by multiple advocacy groups, such as the Chinese Canadian National Chapter Toronto Council and project 1907, highlights that around 11% of cases of abuse against Asian citizens include attacks such as being spat on, coughed on, and other forms of physical assault. The majority of these attacks occurred in public settings like parks, streetsides, and while walking along secluded sidewalks. Between March 10 and December 31, 2020, 643 complaints were submitted and analyzed in the report. This form of racism dates back centuries, yet it comes as a surprise to most.
Free speech often oversteps boundaries that brink on hate speech, thus making the spread and trending of negative racial stereotypes easily excused and ignored, and falsely proved with further misinformation. It is far easier to use a common and tragic example for an overarching stereotype than it is to counter it with lesser commonly accepted facts. Thus, it seems that identifying cases of bigotry require a very specific use of racial slurs, or even certain “levels” of hate speech. It becomes near impossible to differentiate between these types of prejudice, as if one type should overrule another.
Ideally, everyone is aware of these circumstances. These incidents are repeated over and over again, and cycle in the news constantly. But it seems that every time a new issue arises, it ends another’s 15 seconds of fame in the media. I don’t expect that these types of prejudices will disappear overnight, and I simply cannot play hero long enough to dissolve the stigma behind centuries of targeting races separate from those that are unfamiliar from a western standpoint. But what is important, and slightly obvious to the naked eye, is to make steps in the forward direction. What this may include, firstly, is self-reflection. How are your efforts, if any, making an impact? Do you often feel the sense of discomfort that comes with discussing racial issues?
In every situation, awareness precedes action. However, what’s important to remember is that the statistics presented in this article, and every other source of information, are not just numbers. Behind every case of assault is a person and a story. Dismissal of this will ultimately lead to broader denial.
In my own story, you may find aspects that apply to yourself, or to someone who is closer to you than you might think. In every case of prejudice and abuse, there is always a line of aggression. It is not my responsibility to make sure you are acting on the right side of that line, but I will leave you with a simple saying: “be one who does something, and at the very least, don’t look away.”