It is with great disappointment that I write on the continued attack on Muslim women’s autonomy. I choose every day to wear the hijab as an expression of my faith. I am also a medical student in one of the most diverse cities in the world and am grateful to have supportive faculty and classmates who respect my beliefs and expressions.
However, I am painfully aware that my experience in Toronto is not universally shared by my peers across the country, and more importantly, by our patients. I have lived in Canada for my entire life; while I once saw this country through rose-colored glasses, they have long-since shattered.
As Canadians, we pride ourselves on ensuring our fundamental freedoms, as defined by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom: freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association. We believe in respect and tolerance of others, and celebrate the differences among us. At least, I thought we did.
According to Angus Reid Institute, Islam is the most unfavourably viewed religion by Canadians (46 per cent). And the fear of harassment, or even murder, is especially significant for those who outwardly express their faith, particularly Muslim women who wear hijab. A Statistics Canada report shows that from 2010 to 2018, police-reported violent hate crime against Muslim and Indigenous populations was more likely to involve female victims than other populations.
We obviously need to do a better job in protecting and humanizing our Muslim peers within influential mediums, including our media, institutions, and laws.
Yet, somehow, for Muslims the opposite continues to happen. Quebec’s Bill 21 forces women to uncover their hair if they wish to continue working as public servants, which means those of us who are teachers, police officers and lawyers, among other things, have to sacrifice either parts of our faith or means of financial support. Can you imagine that choice as a physician?
While some will point to the religious obligations of wearing a hijab as the problem to be fixed, I ask you to broaden your perspective, and specifically to engage in some introspection.
Bill 21 demands that Muslim women uncover their hair or be removed from their workplaces. It restricts their rights to freedom of expression and religion to align with the beliefs of the Quebec government. What difference exists between the demands of this bill and those who impose religious obligations on women to cover their hair? These are two sides of the same coin, a long-standing tradition in our society of policing women’s choices. Are the choices of religious and ethnic minorities only good choices if they adhere to a certain ideal?
Muslim women cannot be erased from society, even if these laws try to make us disappear. I encourage others to consider how the vilification of the hijab affects a Muslim woman’s choice to wear it.
For me, it is a battle to wake up and choose the hijab each day. I truly believe in this aspect of my faith, but the fear and experience of harassment and discrimination is the form of oppression that I endure, and I know this is a feeling shared by my peers in medicine.
I encourage others to consider how the vilification of the hijab affects a Muslim woman’s choice to wear it.
Recently, a prominent medical journal published, and later retracted, a letter that mischaracterizes the hijab as a form of oppression. The letter assumes that young girls who wear hijabs are often excluded from childhood activities such as riding bikes and swimming. As a Muslim woman who had a full childhood – as shared by many others in the Muslim community, and whose trauma stemmed from actual social determinants of health, such as poor housing conditions, poverty and food insecurity – I am deeply disappointed. The author denounces the hijab and those who force others to wear it without realizing that the letter contributes to the toxic environment that supports laws that police women’s clothing like Bill 21.
If we, as Canadians, aspire to be a society where the fundamental freedoms are universal, then there must be no exceptions. The movement to support a woman’s choice to dress as she wishes should not exclude Muslim women who wish to cover their hair or bodies, otherwise it’s not actually about women. It’s not actually about choice. It’s still about forcing people to adhere to other’s ideals and beliefs. If that’s the case, then we really haven’t made the progress we’d like to believe.