Gender, Race, Social Justice, Interviews

How to survive the invisible parts of Islamophobia as a woman, according to this Muslim researcher and activist

Her concerns are true.

When she was in seventh grade, Sidrah Ahmad experienced her very first Islamophobic attack. 

She was alone in the classroom with a boy, and he said she would look “prettier” if she didn’t “have that thing on [her] head.” He was referring to her headscarf.

But it wasn’t violent, so she never registered it as an “attack.”

Now, more than two decades later, she realizes the many layers in that one comment: not only was it a commentary on her religion, but also on her body.

“And this intersection between Islamophobia and gender is often overlooked amid greater narratives of Islamophobia,” she says. While the issue of Islamophobia has been getting increasing attention, how it affects women more often than not remains untold. On top of that, past research has shown that women are often easier targets when they wear headscarves.

To address this intersection, Ahmad launched a toolkit earlier this month. The toolkit, called Rivers of Hope, captures the stories of Muslim women who’ve lived through Islamophobic violence in the greater Toronto area.

“The city often has a reputation of being very diverse,” Ahmad says. “Sometimes people think there’s no racism here but there have been a lot of incidents of Islamophobic violence.”

Her concerns are valid. 

In January, on the anniversary of an Islamophobic attack on a Quebec city mosque that killed six people last year, the Toronto city councilor received hate messages for proclaiming the day as one for action against Islamophobia.  

Ahmad started her project about one year ago. It was part of her master’s thesis at the University of Toronto. With this project, she aimed to make the intersection of gender and Islamophobia visible to not just the Muslim community, but the world at large.

When it comes to Violence Against Women (VAW) services, “there’s a standard list of types of violence that are in people’s imagination that VAW looks like,” says Ahmad. “These are the types and categories, and Islamophobic violence against Muslim women is not on that list yet.”

The toolkit is a collection of poems and personal accounts of Islamophobic attacks. It also has lists of things a woman can do when in the middle of an Islamophobic attack, along with what someone can do if they’re witnessing an Islamophobic attack.

“I wanted to create something that’d be very practical – something they could have in their hand,” says Ahmad.

It’s a step in the right direction and one that fills us with hope for a more peaceful future.