Growing up in Canada, we are taught that we are a “better” version of America. We don’t typically have medical debt, we have better social safety nets like paid parental leave, our elections go on no longer than a month or so, and, most importantly — our racism is not as bad as America’s because people are nice here. Just listing these half truths is exhausting and embarrassing. Especially when Quebec, the second-most populous province in the country, is constantly at the center of a debate as to whether hijab-wearing women like me should be allowed to work in public service while veiled.
In 2019, a secularism law known as Bill 21 was passed in the province, which banned civil service employees (doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.) from wearing religious symbols. This law affects people of all religious backgrounds, making an already intolerant country and province even less tolerant and leaving already extremely vulnerable groups to become even bigger targets of harassment and hatred. You don’t have to live in Quebec or even Canada to see how laws like this ripple into everyday life, how they normalize seeing people like me as threats, unworthy of respect or basic human rights.
Quebec is the same province where in 2017 a young man went into a mosque at night and killed six Muslim men, injuring many others; the shooter later expressed that he wished he had shot more people. In 2020, the caretaker of a mosque outside Toronto was stabbed in the neck by a man who had links to neo-Nazi websites. And earlier this year, a man in London, Ontario killed four members of a Muslim family by running them over with his truck as they took their nightly walk. Only the youngest member survived.
I often forget that something I wear every day in public is one of the most politicized items of clothing a woman can have on her body. It’s only when a news cycle surrounding Quebec’s Bill 21 begins that it sets in just how little much of the world thinks of me and my other Muslim sisters who wear some form of a hijab — I certainly don’t spend my days sitting around thinking about what non-Muslims think of me the same way I assume non-Muslims don’t sit around thinking about what I’m wearing.
But I see the politicization happening whether laws support it or not. There have been summers where it felt like every news story I read was about a woman being kicked off a beach or out of a public pool because she chose to wear a “burkini” instead of a swimsuit; these are just instances that we see documented. It’s hard to not wonder what I’ve been privately denied based on my beliefs and appearance.
Recently, the debate over Bill 21 has reared its head again. Earlier this month, a Muslim woman teaching elementary school in Chelsea, Quebec was removed from her third-grade classroom for wearing a hijab after the school board determined she was in violation of the province’s law. (Many rallied against the decision, garnering a very tepid response from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said, “We have not ruled out the possibility of intervening as the federal government at some point in time.”) Just last week, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a letter that called the hijab an “instrument of oppression.” The CMAJ, including the letter’s author, later apologized, saying that the organization “will always respect and support the right of women to choose to dress as they wish” and will overhaul their editorial process.
The response to Bill 21 frequently devolves into a defense of us rooted in our productivity, typically highlighting that Muslim women are contributing members of society — just like everyone else. How we can do anything — we can be doctors or lawyers or teachers or even CEOs. This used to be my line of thinking and, to some extent, still is. Laws like Bill 21 exist to make our world smaller. The world around us becomes so limited we are faced with a choice to either participate in society or lose our autonomy. This is the reality in a country like France, where laws are so severe Muslim women have told me they have no future there if they choose to cover.
I understand that countering the “hijab is a tool of oppression” narrative often means showing how employable and fun and not oppressed we are. I have no judgement towards those who need to use examples of what Muslim women can achieve as a means to survive. But it brings me a very deep sadness that our rights have to hinge on how good we are at assimilating, how they’re always lined with the hope that if non-Muslims see us as normal enough and how if we can be really good at getting jobs we can have the same rights too. That maybe all a violent racist needs is to have a conversation with someone like me to understand maybe they’re wrong.
When you’re a Muslim woman, a certain level of discrimination is to be expected if not endured. I have worn a hijab for over half my life; the amount of harassment I’ve received and experienced could make up this entire essay. A friend once asked me how I “dealt” with it, and I didn’t have an answer for her. There’s nothing anyone can say to me at this point that I haven’t already heard.
This used to frustrate me much more than it does now, but instead I understand the reality of these debates in a new and perhaps more cynical way. There’s nothing I can do to make people see me the way I want to be seen, and there’s no way to make anyone care about Muslim women. In some ways, it’s depressing if I think about it too hard, but in other ways it gives me a sense of freedom — I am only in control of myself. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, so why let it dictate anything about how I choose to live.