‘My veil is a magnet for hate’: A young Muslim’s journey wearing hijab and facing Islamophobia

"As I write this, I am mourning the four Muslims killed for simply believing in Islam less than two hours from where I live in Ontario. This time, it hurts so much more."

Growing up, I had the privilege of passing as fully white when I did not wear the hijab. I navigated through Canadian spaces easily despite being Muslim and often used my appearance to hide my identity in case I came across people who were Islamophobic. 

As a biracial Muslim with a visibly racialized father, I don’t take that privilege lightly.

My dad came to Canada in 1990 as a visibly Brown man named Hussein. His appearance often made him a target, especially after 9/11. He was once mistaken as a suspect by B.C. police on a highway, beaten, and arrested without cause.

I carry his trauma with me everywhere I go. My dad does not have the ability I have to hide his identity.

I was six years old when 9/11 happened. I had no idea what Islamophobia was until then because so many of my neighbours were Muslim and it seemed normal to have our community around. Going to the mosque was normal and a near-daily occurrence for me. 

Now, I see Islamophobia all around me.

As I write this, I am mourning the four Muslims killed for simply believing in Islam less than two hours from where I live in Ontario. This time, it hurts so much more. I’m not sure if it’s the accumulation of grief I haven’t dealt with, the mental health struggles of the pandemic, or the mere fact that people who look like me were on a daily stroll when they were murdered.

This family could have been my husband, son and I on our walks. As a mom, knowing a young child is now parentless shakes me to my core. 

The tough conversations my own mom—a white Muslim convert—had with me when I was young still ring in my head. 

My mom chose Islam when she was 33 years old. Having a half-Egyptian daughter, she used her privilege to teach me about systemic discrimination.

Islam has always been a core part of my identity because I have Muslim parents, even though I didn’t always wear hijab. I made a pact to myself when I was 15 that I wanted to wear the hijab by the time I started university. I saw all my female relatives in Egypt proclaim their faith so beautifully and I wanted to do the same.

I thought university would be a good time to start wearing hijab since I would be interacting with people who never knew my “old life.” At that time, I was living in central Etobicoke, an area with fewer Muslims than where I grew up.

Like any new hijab-wearer, I was nervous. While I knew wearing the veil didn’t change me as a person, I suspected others wouldn’t have the same understanding. Slowly, I saw my high school friends drift away. I quickly realized that I became “too Muslim” for them.

After starting my first year of engineering at X University—the school in Toronto currently named after Egerton Ryerson—I found community almost instantly. In my first lab of the semester, I spotted another student wearing hijab and immediately went over to speak to her. We realized we had every class together that semester and instantly became great friends. 

To this day, I thank her—Not only did she become a person of trust, but she opened so many doors for me to find community with other Muslim students.

During my first year wearing the hijab, I got a lot of stares, but nothing more. I called myself lucky because all I had to deal with were microaggressions, not full-blown attacks. That blessing came to a halt in July of 2014.

I was on my way to X University for a student group meeting, sitting in my favourite seat beside the door on the Line 2 subway listening to music. For a brief moment, I noticed that a white woman was looking at me strangely. I didn’t make much of it at the time because I was so used to the stares.

When I got up to stretch before my stop, I felt something wet land on my hijab. My lightweight veil couldn’t hold the liquid so it touched my neck. 

That’s when I realized—she’d spat on me. 

I took one of my headphones off and all I could hear was her telling me to go back to where I came from, even though I was born and raised in Toronto. When the train entered Bloor-Yonge station, she started tugging at my hijab. The only thing I knew to do was to run as soon as the doors opened. I quickly got off the train and made sure she wasn’t following me.

For the first few hours, even days, after being targeted, I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. My body was in shock, not only from my experience but from remembering how the bystanders who saw what happened to me did nothing. 

It took me two weeks to finally confide in my mom. She was heartbroken. 

There was a 10 per cent increase in the number of police-reported hate crimes between 2018 and 2019, according to Stats Canada. These attacks mostly targeted Black, Arab, or West Asian people. During the same time frame, there was a nine per cent increase in hate crimes against Muslims.

This number only represents reported cases. People like me seldom report our experiences with Islamophobia. The first and only time I reported an Islamophobic incident, I received little support and initiative to find the person who assaulted me. It was heartbreaking.

After the incident occurred in July 2014, I took a few weeks to think about what my next steps should be. Did I need a more drastic change in my life to heal?

Because I can pass as white, I wanted to temporarily return to the comfort I had when I  practiced in private—praying and fasting while not having to worry about people judging me. I wanted to use this temporary phase of my life to strengthen my faith so when I returned to wearing the hijab, my conviction wouldn’t falter.

I took off the hijab for eight months. While I was able to practice in secret, I felt I was going against my conviction of wearing the hijab and being proud to be Muslim.

I put the hijab back on in May 2015 and have not looked back since. I would lie if I said I haven’t thought about taking it off, especially each time Islamophobic killings have rocked my community. The thought came back like an avalanche when three Muslims were killed in North Carolina in 2015, when six Muslims were killed in Quebec City in 2017 and when 51 Muslim worshippers were killed in New Zealand in 2019.

The word ‘exhausted’ doesn’t even cut it anymore. I am sick of trying to prove my humanity and humanness as a Muslim. I am tired of the lack of policy when it comes to protecting our communities and the disproportionate violence racialized people face at the hands of white supremacy and bigotry. 

Please do not tokenize us. Please do not assume that Muslims are monolithic. Check in on us, because I can guarantee you, most of us are not okay.

If you’d like to make a donation to the Afzaal family and London’s Muslim community, you can visit LaunchGood or GoFundMe. If you need someone to talk to, the Naheesa Helpline is available across Canada. Those seeking support can call 1-866-627-3342.

Mariam Nouser is a journalism student at X University and communities editor at The Eyeopener. She’s currently reporting on Orangeville as part of the Toronto Star’s summer student journalism program.

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