Islamophobic violence like the recent truck attack breaks off another part of your soul and forces your children to learn about the reality their identity carries - even in Canada.
My best friend has been coaxing me to go for walks with her for years. I have resisted for a long time. She gets up at ungodly hours to watch the sunrise and enjoy the tranquillity. She also enjoys a stroll when the sun is setting and the skies are golden. Not me.
I will play a 90-minute football match or work out intensely before agreeing to any kind of promenade. If she suggests walking to a location, I offer to drive us or take transit. It is not the case that I don't enjoy the outdoors—I do. But there was a discomfort about walking that I could never explain; a certain vulnerability or exposure I felt in public.
It wasn’t until a devastating Islamophobic attack in London, Ontario on Sunday killed an entire family, that I began to understand why that could be.
On a beautiful Sunday evening, as they walked in the warm evening, Salman Afzal, Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Afzal’s mother Talat were intentionally hit with a car driven by 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman. Nine-year-old Fayez survived the brutal attack. His entire family had been murdered in what both London Police and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “a terrorist attack”.
As a hijab-wearing Brown woman, I was certainly not shocked. I was heartbroken and devastated. This news is, sadly, never shocking for those of us identifiable as Muslims.
It makes me wonder, how many people have to die before these types of despicable acts lead to sustainable change? While Prime Minister Trudeau may have condemned this specific act, he also did not oppose Bill 21 in Quebec, which would prohibit public servants from wearing religious symbols or clothing such as hijabs, turbans or kippahs.
Hijab-wearing Muslims are often racialised and become easy targets for people whose hate is steeped in xenophobia, racism and misogyny. Gendered Islamophobia is not something new and I recognised this as soon as I heard the devastating news of the Azfal family. Both the mom and grandmother had chosen to wear Muslim headscarves, immediately identifying them as part of a community that has been targeted before. I felt immensely helpless, scared and angry.
But this has occurred before, many times and to many communities. Canada has a place on the world’s stage as a bastion of multiculturalism and safety, but Muslims can assure you this is not the case.
Islamophobic attacks are not new to Canada. A 2017 report confirmed that hate crimes against Muslims had risen by 253 percent. In fact, the number of crimes against Muslim women in the Greater Toronto Area mobilised a group of women to creates spaces in mosques and community centres where we could get self-defence training, which I took my then-13-year-old daughter for.
Protecting ourselves from a physical attack or someone ripping off our hijabs was a possibility, but I have no defence against an automobile. How do I train my hijab-clad daughter or mom to protect themselves on a sidewalk from a moving vehicle?
There is a palpable sense of anxiety and fear. I can’t recall how many friends of mine made the same phone calls to their elderly parents after hearing the news on Monday afternoon. “Please do not go out,” I begged my mother. She tried to calm me and I reduced my crying to muffled sobs. I was reluctant and did not even allow my 15-year-old son to play basketball at a local park.
I remember the stress and profound sadness I felt after the Sainte Foy, Quebec mosque shooting in 2017 when six Muslim men were gunned down as they prayed. It was a horrific crime. But we learned then that we cannot rest on the laurels of politicians when members of the Conservative and Bloc Quebecois party had voted against a proposed motion fighting Islamophobia.
Four years later, those same politicians came to a vigil outside the London Mosque offering meaningless condolences and vacuous “thoughts and prayers”.
The fear that resonated continues to this day. I had to explain to my children that there may be people who would harm them only because they are Muslim. It is a conversation that you do not want to have with your child, but it is essential. It is a conversation cemented, and a path that has been paved by Indigenous and Black parents who have had to carry this burden since time immemorial. It breaks off another part of your soul and forces your children to learn about the reality their identity carries - even in Canada. Especially in Canada.
Last week, the bodies of 215 Indigenous children were found outside of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The trauma forced upon Indigenous communities has been kept out of the education system so we would remain ignorant to brutality and genocide. It was an Indigenous-led initiative that recovered the graves of the children.
Indigenous communities, like Black communities who have suffered from police brutality and institutionalised and structural racism, have always been leaders in advocating for justice in their communities and for others. Muslims, too, carry this same mantle.
We barely had a moment to process this unspeakable grief and mourn for these families and communities, when the news of the London terror attack came out. The exhaustion is mixed with an intense feeling to support each other, fight against injustice and call for justice, amidst prayers for Fayez, who will never walk alongside his family again.
I tearfully confided in a friend that I was too scared to go for a walk. How can I stand on a sidewalk when I cannot feel assured of my physical safety?
She is a runner and told me that she felt the same way after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. She assured me that she would walk with me when I am ready. Perhaps, that is how we begin to heal from these traumas and continue to fight systemic oppression: one step at a time.
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