RECLAIMING
PUBLIC SPACE

Photographer Faisa Omer juxtaposes the fear and joy of being a Black Muslim woman in Edmonton

VIDEO: NATHAN GROSS/CBC; DESIGN: ANDREW MCMANUS/CBC

Reclaiming public space

Reclaiming public space

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Photographer Faisa Omer gathered six Black Muslim women and girls for a photo shoot in a south Edmonton studio on an early December afternoon.

One-by-one her subjects, all first- or second-generation Somali-Canadians, sat on a stool, their faces lit by projected images of Edmonton public spaces: The Century Park LRT, the parking lot of the Southgate mall, the University Transit Centre, a Whyte Avenue intersection.

Almost a year to the day before the photo shoot, a string of hate crimes against Black Muslim women started happening in these seemingly mundane spaces. Six attacks in as many months, most of them on Somali and hijabi women. Some of the women sitting for portraits knew victims of the attacks.

“Everyone just carried on, but for us it’s like ‘OK I can’t take the train anymore. I need to get a car. I need to do this. I need to do that. I can’t take nightly walks anymore,’ ” said Omer, a high school mental health professional by day. “That doesn’t even add all the anxiety and what it does to your mental health as well, to have these spaces taken away from you.”

Faisa Omer, left, takes a photo of one of the six Somali-Canadian women and girls she gathered for a portrait series that addresses the recent wave of attacks against Black Muslim women in Edmonton. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

At nearly 10,000 people, Somalis make up the largest Black population in Edmonton, according to the 2016 census. In some local neighbourhoods, being a Black hijabi can be unremarkable. But the possibility of another traumatizing attack forever haunts many Black Muslim women in the Albertan capital.

“It’s been a year, but it’s still very raw,” said Hannan Mohamud, an Edmonton community organizer, advocate and University of Ottawa law student. “It’s like a circle of multiple systems that failed us, whether it be law and policy, health, psychology — it all comes together.”

To Mohamud, the uptick in violence can be directly linked to white supremacist rhetoric spewed — or complacently ignored — by politicians.

“When you hear things such as, ‘They’re taking our jobs,’ or the leader of the Conservative Party when he ran for his leadership nomination [saying], ‘Take Canada Back,’ phrases like that, I think, can seep their way deep into communities where folks that don’t even see themselves as being quote-unquote racists can start lashing out in really terrifying ways,” she said.

Safia ‘Sofie’ Ibrahim and her 10-year-old daughter Neeyah pose together for Omer’s portrait series. (Nathan Gross/CBC)