We need to talk about the connection between anti-Muslim hate crimes and rape culture.
“You would be pretty if only you didn’t have that thing on your head,” he said.
I remember being confused: was he complimenting me? Was he insulting me? I dared not speak back to this Grade 8 boy a whole year older than me, a Kurt Cobain lookalike complete with the red plaid shirt, sitting next to me in music class. I smiled grimly at the uncomfortable combination of sexualization and insult, and went back to playing my violin.
That was 20 years ago. I’ve been through hundreds of similar incidents since, when men verbally or physically harass me because I am female-identified and Muslim.
There has been a spike in hate crimes against Muslims in Toronto and across Canada over the past few years. Vigilante racists have been verbally or physically assaulting Muslims—or people they mistake for Muslims—on the streets, on public transit, and in places of worship. The Canadian political and media environment has provided fertile ground for this kind of violence to blossom, with the legacy of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and legislation—such as Bill S-7 to combat “barbaric cultural practices”—leading the way.
But little attention has been paid to the gendered aspect of Islamophobic hate crimes.
Often, anti-Muslim hate crimes are targeted toward Muslim women, who are harassed and assaulted for what they are wearing. It’s not a new phenomenon: a long-standing ideology in Western thought is the fantasy of liberating the Muslim woman. She is the “other”; Westerners are free and noble.
The de-veiling of Muslim women goes hand in hand with this ideology. Indeed, hate crimes in this city and throughout the country have focused on women’s choice to express their culture through dress. It’s what sparked my own experience with my grade-school perpetrator. In London, Ontario, a Muslim woman had her hijab pulled while she shopped at the supermarket. In Flemingdon Park last winter, two men assaulted a woman while she picked her child up from school; during the attack, one man ripped off her hijab. And we are still trying to forget the fact that our last prime minister took on a lengthy legal battle against a Muslim mother so she would take off her niqab during her citizenship ceremony.
Imagine another piece of clothing being forcibly taken off of a woman. That would unquestionably be called sexual assault. But the hijab and the niqab have been deemed “fair targets.” Somehow it’s different.
Any set of ideas that normalizes sexual violence against a group of women needs to be called what it is: rape culture. Verbal and physical assaults against Muslim women stem from Islamophobia as well as misogyny. They are both hate crimes and sexual assault or harassment.
Earlier this month, a Muslim mother was laughed at and kicked out from a public pool in Mississauga because she would not go swimming for religious reasons. When Muslim women refuse to disrobe, it’s not respected—it is used as grounds for harassment. In a hate crime against a Muslim woman on a TTC bus last year, not only did bystanders on the bus fail to intervene, but the woman targeted for the hate crime was told she “should be raped.”
Islamophobia and misogyny are a poisonous combination: it is hearing “go back to where you came from” and “take it off” all in the same breath. The connection between anti-Muslim hate crimes and rape culture is real. It’s time to name it.
But there is hope. Muslim communities have been organizing events to fight stigma, take up space, heal, and express themselves. Just last week, an art exhibit called Respect by South Riverdale Community Health Centre was featured at the Gardiner Museum, shedding light on the everyday discrimination Muslim women face. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Toronto has recently launched #MobileMuslims, and is travelling to 40 cities across Canada to remove misconceptions and share their message of “Love for All, Hatred for None.” Young Muslim women in Toronto have been creating movements to define themselves and express themselves through art and poetry, through the Outburst! movement.
It’s been 20 years since my grunge-inspired classmate informed me about the wardrobe changes he thought I should make to be more attractive to him. My guess is he’s never had anyone tell him he’d be cute, if only he would take off his plaid shirt—because society sees him as a full human being, worth more than that.
So am I.