After attacks, Edmonton blogger asks: Why is my hijab still a threat?

Wati Rahmat, an Edmonton activist and blogger, wanted to speak out after two more Muslim women were attacked in the city last week.

'People might not realize it, but this is something that Muslim women experience quite often'

A woman wearing a hijab.
Hijab-wearing Muslim women have been attacked in Edmonton over the past three months. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Wati Rahmat, an Edmonton activist and blogger, wanted to speak out after two more Muslim women were attacked in the city last week.

The Hate Crimes and Violent Extremism Unit is investigating the assaults, which are the latest in a series of high-profile, daytime attacks against Edmonton women wearing religious headscarves. 

In the midst of a brutal cold snap in Edmonton where many have bundled up and a pandemic where most people wear face coverings, she asked: Why is my hijab still a threat?

Rahmat wrote an essay on the subject and joined Radio Active host Adrienne Pan to talk about her experiences in Edmonton. She said leaders and others haven't been doing enough to condemn recent violence against Muslim women.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you want to write this piece?

A: Like any other Muslim woman, I was very disturbed when I read about the attacks earlier in the year in and around Southgate, and I had a few conversations with friends and one of them [is] a non-Muslim. She was talking about how, on a morning walk, it was a very cold morning and she was all bundled up with a mask and toque and scarf. And then she realized that she looked no different than a Muslim woman, but she didn't feel threatened and she was not treated any differently.

And then when I heard about the other two additional attacks last Friday, I just thought about that reflection that my friend made. And I just thought: why? In a global pandemic, we're having a cold snap, everyone's covered up but why are Muslim women still attacked? So I thought: why is my hijab still a threat?

Q: Do you feel like the hijab or niqab has been politicized and that's contributing to this lashing out against Muslim women? 

A: I lived in Montreal for nine years and I moved here six years ago and both periods of time when … people harassed me on the streets telling me to take off my hijab has [aligned] with the [Quebec] provincial election and in Edmonton also the last provincial election, I was walking down Jasper Avenue and then somebody just shouted at me, 'Take that thing off your head, you don't need it here, we're a free country,' kind of thing.

People might not realize it, but this is something that Muslim women experience quite often. And I just want to add that, for my black Muslim sisters, the experience and harassment [are] much more compounded because of anti-Blackness. 

It is just unbelievable.

Q: Can you describe what it feels like to be in that situation?

A: Sometimes I can be eloquent, but when you get confronted with that, sometimes you're just lost for words and the immediate thing is fear. What if this person is coming, grabbing your hijab or pushing you down, which happened four times just this year, right? So the fear is there.

The better part of me, the activist part of me, would try to reach out and say, 'What's your issue?' Or try to have a conversation, trying to dispel the ignorance. But really, when I'm confronted with that, the first thing is fear. And I just want to get out of the area as soon as possible.

Q: I understand that you left Montreal to escape that. Do you find that things are better in Edmonton in regards to Islamophobia or is it quite the same? 

A: My experiences in Montreal, people were more vocal.

But in Alberta, in Edmonton so far, it's been more subdued, which I'm happy [about]. But I think it's maybe just under the radar where people are not as vocal. But when it comes out, it seems to come up more violently as can be seen with the four incidents. So it's a toss-up.

To be honest, these last four attacks [are] perplexing to me and some of my friends have discussed it. What is the instigating factor? It's usually like there's an election or some world event. I don't know, is it the pandemic? It's something that's very perplexing.

With files from CBC Radio's Radio Active