Out in the Open

Reaction to false hijab attack jeopardizes real work being done to end violence against Muslim women

Sidrah Ahmad wrote her master's thesis about violence against Muslim women in Toronto. When news broke that an 11-year-old girl had her hijab cut with scissors, she shared the story widely. Then police announced the attack did not, in fact, happen.
Sidrah Ahmad (Courtesy of Sidrah Ahmad)

Sidrah Ahmad wrote her master's thesis on different types of violence Muslim women face in their everyday lives. She hoped to legitimize their experiences and make them visible for people in the broader population.

"I've been sort of screaming at the sky with this conversation ... trying to bring attention to it, that these things are happening, it's really seriousness, people are frightened."

So when a news broke in January that a man had cut an 11-year-old Toronto girl's hijab with scissors while she was walking to school, Ahmad was shocked and shared the story with her entire office.

There's gas in the atmosphere and someone just needs to light a match and violence will happen.- Sidrah  Ahmad

"It felt like this is the next level that everything is being taken to and it felt like this is yet another example of how twisted Islamophobic violence against Muslim women and girls is getting," said Ahamd. "It felt similar to what I had been researching, but also like a new step had been taken."

There was just one difference between the stories she heard during her research and the story about the girl having her hijab cut. The latter was completely untrue.

A few days after the story was reported, Toronto police said they investigated it and determined the attack did not, in fact, happen.

"I found it hard to believe that it was completely made up, so there might have been a bit of denial there. And then when it sunk in a bit more, my initial reaction was fear," Ahmad said. 

Ahmad was nervous that all the work she had done would be discredited. She says many cases of violence against Muslim women are not reported to police (only 3 of the 40 cases described to Ahmad in her research involved police), so people are going to forget the ones they know because of this one false story. 

"A lot of the time, when we're doing this work, there's pressure to be perfect because if there's one chink in the armour, it means that everything you've ever said is completely disqualified forever. So there's this very high standard.

"Our community doesn't have to be perfect to deserve respect ...But we can have kids telling lies and still get respect for the documented things that are happening to kids and adults. We can hold both of those things in our mind."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Untruth Be Told".