As It Happens

Professor says she was assaulted twice at the Toronto symphony and nobody stood up for her

Aisha Ahmad says she was assaulted twice at the Toronto symphony on Wednesday by a man who "chopped" her in the neck, lunged at her and hurled an expletive.
Aisha Ahmad, a University of Toronto-Scarborough professor, says she was assaulted at the Toronto symphony by a man who later called security on her. (Emily Agard)

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Aisha Ahmad says she was assaulted twice at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday by a man who "chopped" her in the neck, lunged at her and hurled an expletive.

"As I was taking the photograph before the show started, I was struck in the neck by the man seated behind me, who chopped me on the the right side of my neck and said, 'Put that away,'" the University of Toronto international security professor told As It Happens host Carol Off.

A longtime symphony fan, Ahmad knows the orchestra doesn't permit flash photography during its performances, so she turned her flash off to snap a shot before the show started.

"I was shocked," she said. "I just very calmly said to him, 'You cannot hit me. That's assault. If you hit me again, I will charge you.' At that point he called me a child and an expletive, and it was just very stunning. I won't repeat the word."

What was more shocking, she said, was the reaction of her fellow concert-goers. Some, she said, averted their eyes, while others came to the man's defence.

"There were other audience members who then turned around and told me, 'Just stop it already. Be quiet. Go away,'" she said. 

"I didn't raise my voice. I didn't use foul language, I conducted myself with the highest amount of dignity, and the surrounding patrons in that environment still assumed that I was culpable in that moment. How can that come to be?"

Ahmad, a Muslim-Canadian, said she was the only person of colour in the area. 

"How is it that somebody who can perpetrate violence against my body can be assumed to be in the right and I can conduct myself in a manner of perfect decorum and automatically be assumed to be in the wrong?" she said. 

She said she then left her seat and reported the incident to security, who asked her to wait in the lobby until intermission. 

"When he exited, he walked right past security and made an A-line for me and said, 'You're the woman who accosted me.' At that point, I stood up and stepped back and said, 'You hit me. I don't want to speak to you,'" Ahmad said.

"I reached for my phone because I wanted there to be some documented evidence in case it escalated, and at that point he lunged at me a second time, in front of everybody in the surrounding area."

Ahmad, a trained boxer, said she side-stepped his lunge. That's when she said the man called on the security guards to apprehend her.

"I thought it was a really fascinating moment, actually, that as a woman of colour, as a person of colour walking around in the world, I could be attacked twice and my attacker could make the assumption that the purpose of security would be to apprehend or harm my body," Ahmad said.

Security spoke with witnesses, who corroborated her story, she said.

They also spoke to the man separately and explained that Ahmad had not violated the orchestra's photography polices. A security officer asked her if she would accept the man's apology, she said. 

She refused, instead opting to call police, and security escorted the man from the premises.

Gary Hanson, interim CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, told As It Happens that security "determined that an individual had behaved in an aggressive and completely unacceptable fashion" on Wednesday night.

"His behaviour was a cause for him to be ejected from the building, and further the Toronto Symphony determined that he would not be welcomed at any future TSO concerts," Hanson said.

While Ahmad ultimately decided not to press charges, the TSO said it has filed its own police report.

A spokesperson from Roy Thomson Hall said in an email the venue has "zero tolerance for acts of a violent or hateful nature," and that it has submitted a statement to Toronto police. 

"Our staff are committed to ensuring that Roy Thomson Hall is a place where people from all cultures and communities can continue to feel welcome and come together in celebration."

Ahmad, meanwhile, is using the incident to spark a bigger conversation about race and violence in Toronto.

"I was sitting in the seat of my very dear friend David Welsh who does the exact same thing that I do at the symphony of taking a photograph in advance of the show, and no one has ever struck him, ever," Ahmad told As It Happens.

"And I wish I could tell you it's the first time that I've been struck by somebody in the city of Toronto. It's hardly the first time.

"It's exhausting for people of colour to constantly be having these conversations about why race structures our experiences of violence in our communities."