Why are Muslim women living ‘in fear’ in this Canadian city?

Recent verbal and physical attacks on primarily Black Muslim women in Edmonton, Alberta draw urgent call for action.

Members of the Muslim community and supporters gather for a vigil at the London Muslim Mosque on June 8, 2021 after a driver ran over a Muslim family, killing four people [File: Ian Willms/Getty Images via AFP]
Members of the Muslim community and supporters gather for a vigil at the London Muslim Mosque on June 8, 2021 after a driver ran over a Muslim family, killing four people [File: Ian Willms/Getty Images via AFP]

Canada – Dunia Nur was out buying paint when it happened. The community organiser in Edmonton, Alberta was speaking Somali to her aunt on the phone when a man at the shop aggressively told her to “speak English”. When she tried to get out of the situation, he blocked her path.

“He was offended at the fact that I was speaking my language,” Nur, a Somali Canadian and the president and co-founder of the African Canadian Civil Engagement Council, told Al Jazeera. “I tried to move and then he blocked me.”

While the recent incident did not escalate further, Nur said it left her feeling unsafe, especially as it took place shortly after a Muslim family was run down by a driver in London, Ontario in a deadly attack that police said was spurred by anti-Muslim hate.

It also came amid a string of verbal and physical attacks against predominantly Black Muslim women in and around Edmonton since late last year – a reality that Nur said has left many members of the community feeling afraid to leave their homes.

In late June, two sisters, Muslim women who wear hijabs, were attacked by a knife-wielding man who hurled racial slurs at them on a path just outside the city. In other instances, Muslim women have been knocked to the ground while out on a walk or threatened while waiting for public transit.

The city says Edmonton police have received reports of five incidents involving Black women wearing hijabs since December 8, 2020, and the police force’s hate crime unit arrested and laid charges against a suspect in each case.

But Muslim community advocates say incidents often go unreported. “We had a town hall meeting where many women came out and actually stated that they have previously been attacked with knives, they have been told to go back to their homes, they have experienced a lot of gender-based violence and hate-motivated crimes – it just went unreported,” Nur said.

“Muslim Black women are being attacked and they are being attacked because of anti-Black racism and they’re being attacked because of Islamophobi[c] rhetoric and they are being attacked because they are women… I feel like right now we’re at a point that we’re not sure what’s going to happen to us when we go outside.”

City measures

The capital of the western Canadian province of Alberta, Edmonton was home to just more than 972,000 residents in 2019, according to a municipal household survey.

In an email to Al Jazeera, Mayor Don Iveson’s office said some Edmontonians “have not gotten the message that racist and bigoted behavior is not welcomed in our city”.

“There are systemic and long-term contributing factors to that, there are also issues of specific prejudice in the hearts and minds of [Edmontonians] who ought to know better – and there are far too many of those people that have been given license, in a variety of different ways, to spew their hatred in this community. And I, like most Edmontonians, want it to stop. Now,” the statement said.

Community organiser Dunia Nur says many Muslim women in Edmonton feel afraid to leave their homes amid string of attacks [Courtesy Dunia Nur]

Iveson said Edmonton city council supports calls to strengthen hate laws in Canada and has provided financial assistance to bolster initiatives to address hate and violence, including a task force to provide advice on how to make the community feel safe.

“The City, the Edmonton Police Service, and the Edmonton Police Commission have responded with a work plan outlining 70 different actions that are responding to the issues identified. A more comprehensive strategy will be coming forward in early 2022,” the statement said.

The city council also passed a motion earlier this month directing Edmonton to further engage with Black, Indigenous and other communities of colour to address harassment and violence.

The motion also orders the mayor to write to the federal government “requesting a review and potentially update the current definition of hate crime” for any racial, gender or cultural gaps or biases, the city said.

Women ‘in fear’

But despite these measures, activist Wati Rahmat told Al Jazeera that “Muslim women are in fear” in Edmonton.

“I have had friends who have conversations about whether they should be changing the way they wear the hijab, or take off the hijab, or go out with a friend, or not go out,” said Rahmat, who founded Sisters Dialogue, a Muslim women-led initiative, in response to the attacks. The group is currently working on a safe-walk service to offer accompaniment to Muslim women who do not feel safe going out by themselves.

The demands for more support in Edmonton come amid growing, Canada-wide calls for the federal government to implement an action plan to stem Islamophobia, as advocates say systemic racism and far-right bigotry increase the risks of violence.

For many, the June attack in London, Ontario – as well as a deadly 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque and a fatal stabbing last year outside a mosque in Toronto’s west end – show just how deadly the problem can be.

Members of the Muslim community and supporters gather for a vigil after a deadly attack in London, Ontario, killed four members of a Muslim family in June [File: Ian Willms/Getty Images via AFP]

“I don’t think it’s right for women to have to fear going out,” Rahmat said.

Some Muslim advocacy groups, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), have also called for street harassment laws to be bolstered, as most of the recent attacks on Muslim women in Alberta have taken place in public.

Fatema Abdalla, NCCM’s communications coordinator, said at least 15 attacks on Muslim women were reported in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary over the past six months.

“These women were either on their daily walks or they were at a park or an LRT [light-rail transit] station or some form of a transit station,” Abdalla told Al Jazeera, adding that NCCM receives calls nearly every week about verbal abuse targeting Muslim community members across the country.

“It’s instances like these that we need to prevent from happening so that they no longer lead to such devastating attacks as the one that we have seen in London, Ontario,” she said.

Community action

In the meantime, Muslim community leaders are taking steps to try to stem the violence on their own. Noor al-Henedy is director of communications at Edmonton’s Al Rashid Mosque, which organised self-defence courses for Muslim women this year.

While the community felt it was necessary to provide women with concrete tools to get out of a bad situation – and the courses drew overwhelming interest – al-Henedy said they also reflect an upsetting reality.

“It’s very sad and disappointing to be honest with you and I think it makes some people a little bit angry that we do have to do this, that we have to resort to these measures,” al-Henedy told Al Jazeera in an interview in March.

“We worry about the future generation; we worry about our daughters,” she added. “When a 15-year-old comes and tells you that she’s too afraid to cross the street, walking from school to home, that’s extremely concerning. It’s heartbreaking.”

Nur at the African Canadian Civil Engagement Council said the organisation is also working on offering psychological support, as well as information for Muslim women to know what to do if they are attacked, including how and to whom to report an incident of violence.

She called for international organisations such as the United Nations to push Canada to take action to urgently respond to the situation in Edmonton.

“We need international attention and solidarity because we can’t do this on our own and our public officials are failing us. We need international help and intervention,” Nur said. “We’re not okay. We really are not okay.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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