Edmonton

Sisterhood of the hijab: Fort McMurray women show solidarity with local Muslim community

Seven Fort McMurray women are halfway through their month-long commitment to show solidarity with their new Muslim friends by wearing hijabs.

'It is so appreciated. It is sisterhood at its best'

After wearing hijabs for 30 days in Fort McMurray, Vanessa McMahon and Tarra Melanson learned about how women who wear them are treated. 0:57

Seven Fort McMurray women are halfway through their month-long commitment to show solidarity with their new Muslim friends by wearing hijabs.

When they asked the city's Muslim community for permission to wear the religious head scarves, a local Islamic organization that hosts World Hijab Day YMM welcomed the gesture.

Kiran Malik-Khan, whose group holds an annual public event that invites women to try on hijabs, sees the gesture as a sign of solidarity.

"To us, these are women choosing to walk in our shoes, or in this case our hijab," Malik-Khan said. "It is so appreciated. It is sisterhood at its best."

Vanessa McMahon said she was motivated to put on a hijab after the Quebec mosque shootings in January.

"[Six] Muslim men were killed praying in a mosque," McMahon said. "That is not OK in our country. That is not OK in any country. Everybody has the right to peacefully practice their religion. Period."

These are women choosing to walk in our shoes, or in this case our hijab. It is so appreciated. It is sisterhood at its best.- Kiran Malik-Khan

At the beginning of February, about 100 women, many from Fort McMurray's Islamic community, gathered for a ceremony to kick off the 30-day campaign.

The participants promised to cover their heads and other parts of their bodies whenever they left the house, or were in the presence of men who were not blood relatives. They also promised not to smoke or drink, as some branches of Islam prescribe.

Malik-Khan said the participants are learning more about the religion and are showing support for women who wear hijabs every day.

Tarra Melanson (left) and Vanessa McMahon are two Fort McMurray women who committed to wear hijabs for 30 days. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Confronting prejudices

While the Quebec mosque shootings have been at the forefront of many minds, the act of solidarity also comes in the midst of a United States ban that restricts travel by citizens from several Muslim-majority countries.

Tarra Melanson lived in New York City during the attacks there on Sept. 11, 2001, and had several friends who died.

She said she's disgusted that 15 years later, events like the attack on the World Trade Center towers are being used to justify discrimination against Muslims.

"The people that I lost were good people, and some of them were Muslim," Melanson said. "They would not want this to be their legacy — this hatred."

Wearing hijabs has allowed participants to build relationships and friendships with the Fort McMurray Muslim community in their homes and over dinners.

Members World Hijab Day YMM hold up signs and pose for a photo at an event at a Fort McMurray mall. (World Hijab Day YMM/ Submitted)

'Not a chore'

Out in public, the women say they've experienced a few awkward stares from people, but for the most part they say they haven't been treated differently because they're wearing Islamic head scarves.

McMahon and Melanson both say they felt wearing the hijab empowered them as women, because covering their bodies made them feel less like objects.

"I am more representative of feminism wearing this than I was when I wasn't wearing it," Melanson said.

"Because now when someone talks to me, they look at my face. They talk to me. What they get to know is the person that I am. My intelligence."

Malik-Khan said she wanted the women who participated to know that wearing the hijab is not a burden but a blessing Islamic women chose to wear.

"This is not a chore," Malik-Khan said. "Modesty doesn't mean I am oppressed. This is our life and it is a beautiful life."

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.