British Columbia

Vancouver woman says hijab invites racial abuse, harassment

Nada Elmasry chose to start wearing the hijab at age 16 year. Since then she's encountered direct and indirect racism in Vancouver.

Nada Elmasry has encountered racism on transit, at work and in fast food lineups

Nada Elmasry started wearing the hijab at age 16. The word hijab means barrier in Arabic but it also refers to a broad practice of modest behaviour and dress for men and women. (Jason D'Souza)

Some people make assumptions about 26-year-old Nada Elmasry.

They assume she is a submissive woman but she regularly stands up for herself in the face of discrimination.

They assume her father makes decisions for her, but it was her own decision to start wearing the hijab, a headscarf, at age 16.

They assume she doesn't speak English, when in fact she speaks it well.

"It gets worse when you're not just a Muslim; you're a woman, you're visibly Muslim, possibly you're an immigrant," she told CBC's Jason D'Souza.

When all those identities intersect, she said, "it just makes it a lot worse."

They assume all of these things, she said, in part because of her heritage and her headscarf.

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Major misconceptions

Elmasry was born in Libya to Palestinian parents. She moved to Vancouver 10 years ago and says she loves Canada, except for one thing: the racism she has encountered.

She works at Simon Fraser University providing services for international students.

Elmasry has experienced blatant Islamophobia in the classroom, on the soccer pitch, on public transit and in fast food lineups. 

In one memorable incident she said a woman approached her and a non-Muslim friend in a McDonald's restaurant, screaming "go back to your country."

It was so upsetting that her friend cried. Though Elmasry knew it wasn't her fault, she still felt the need to shoulder some of the guilt and apologized to her friend.

Once, while studying education at SFU, Elmasry's long term lab partner asked her if she planned to kill her, telling Elmasry that that she believed the Qur'an instructed Muslims to kill non-Muslims.

"I just couldn't believe she was my lab partner for almost an entire semester and she was thinking that about me most of the time, right?"

Systemic disadvantages

For Elmasry, the most threatening aspect of racism isn't always the in-your-face insults or cruel comments. Rather, it's the micro-aggressions that she and people of colour experience behind the scenes.

The type of racism she is referring to occurs when people accept unfounded stereotypes about minorities such as being uneducated or not being able to speak English.

"It affects our education, it affects our chances of employment, our chances of finding housing, the way we get treated when we go seeking services; whether it's health care or hospitals or regular documents," she said.

Since the election of President Donald Trump in the United States last November, Elmasry said she has felt like people have been looking at her differently.

Researchers and law enforcement authorities in the U.S. reported an increase in anti-Islamic hate crime since Trump's presidential campaign and eventual election.

Room for understanding

"It's just gotten worse," she said.

It gets worse when you're not just a Muslim; you're a woman, you're visibly Muslim, possibly you're an immigrant- Nada Elmasry

She said she feels too uncomfortable to take public transit because people stare at her and make racist comments.

Elmasry said she still tries to understand why people think it's okay to treat her that way.

"I understand that they come from a place of ignorance and a place of fear," said Elmasry. 

Elmasry said she consciously seeks out people who are different than her so she can learn from them what they are like and overcome stereotypes perpetuated in media and society.

"Once you know a person — once you actually know them face-to-face — you know them at a personal level. It becomes harder for us to believe those negative stories that we hear all the time on TV."