Canada 2017·Opinion

I'm not an alarmist — but as a Muslim woman I am genuinely alarmed

Arij Elmi says she'll no longer downplay her encounters with hate in hopes of being believed.

Arij Elmi on why she'll no longer downplay her encounters with hate in hopes of being believed

Arij Elmi is a social worker, graduate student at the University of Toronto and Wen-Do Women's Self-Defence instructor. (Fatin Chowdhury)

I can't stop crying.

I spent the day following the Quebec mosque shooting reading news coverage and poring over the profiles of the victims slowly being shared in reports. 

One congregant was a butcher, described as being a father to all who knew him. Another was a professor observing prayer close to his own home. Most were parents, taken from children as young as toddlers.

How many times have I watched the fathers and mothers in my family go to the mosque for prayer? I never had a reason to doubt when they promised to be home soon.

Quebec mosque victims, clockwise from left: Azzeddine Soufiane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Ibrahima Barry and Abdelkrim Hassane (CBC)

Throughout the day the same thought repeatedly entered my head: "we are being hunted down." The thought was not a new one.

What was new is that I was now the person expressing it.

Safe country for whom?

As a women's self-defence instructor, I teach Muslim and immigrant women to fight back and yell when faced with anti-Muslim and xenophobic violence.

I'm often invited to pass on the stories of the Muslim women who have been harassed on public transit, assaulted in the streets and discriminated against in their workplaces. These stories have been entrusted to me in the communal spaces we cultivate as Muslims; spaces we need in order to acknowledge the realities we face on a daily basis.

Arij Elmi teaches self-defence classes in Toronto. She herself has been targeted in public spaces. (CBC)

Many of these women have stopped taking the subway. Others have quit their jobs or don hats instead of hijabs. These were all choices they have had to make to remain safe in a country that is touted as being one of the safest in the world.

As a black woman who wears the hijab I too have faced Islamophobia and racism while shopping, driving and in my work as a social worker.

Many [Muslim] women have stopped taking the subway. Others have quit their jobs or don hats instead of hijabs. - Arij Elmi 

I will never forget the day I went to interview a client in our emergency department only to be informed that she would not work with a Muslim. It hurt even more to watch my colleague, a nurse, ask our client if she would prefer to be seen by someone else. My colleague never stopped to acknowledge the hatred that was on display moments before.

I left silently, wondering why I was hated for my faith and why no one seemed to find anything wrong with that.

We have to call it out

When recalling these stories, I've learned to preface them with a statement downplaying their significance.

I would always begin: "I don't want to overstate it," believing that if I made our hurt smaller, that if I softened our pain, our stories would be believed.

Hundreds gather for a multi-faith vigil at the University of Toronto, where Arij Elmi goes to school, to honour those killed and injured in Quebec City Sunday. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

I know that we as Canadians struggle to reconcile the reality of this violence with the multicultural and tolerant Canada we've imagined for ourselves. I'm guilty of this too.

It is not normal to be told to go home. It is not normal to be called a terrorist. The stares are not normal. The comments online are not normal.- Arij Elmi

I soften and downplay the verbal and physical abuse we face as Muslims in the hopes of normalizing these experiences.

But it is not normal.

It is not normal to be told to go home. It is not normal to be called a terrorist. The stares are not normal. The comments online are not normal.

And more importantly it is not okay. It is not okay to vilify another person's faith. It is not acceptable to alienate and make us feel othered. And it was not okay for my colleague to not call this out.

I used to fear being called an alarmist. I knew that such a label would delegitimize the importance of what I had to say. I no longer have this fear. After six lives ended while they were praying, there is no room left to apologize for naming oppression for what it is. 

Today, the alarm bell is ringing loudly. This is what Islamophobia leads to. This is what racism leads to. This is what white supremacy leads to.

Arij Elmi is a social worker, graduate student at the University of Toronto and Wen-Do Women's Self-Defence instructor.

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