Last week, Sundus A., a young 27-year old woman, was told by a woman on a Toronto city bus that she should “get raped” and go back to her country. “There was a bus full of people who did nothing, who said nothing. Not a word,” Sundus told CBC.
As we observe the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, remembering the horrific attack that killed fourteen women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, let’s remember that violence against women is not only a plague that haunts women in their homes, but that increasing numbers of women are falling prey to the heavy hands of our fellow Canadians. Whether it is the attacks on our missing and murdered Indigenous sisters or Muslimahs like Sundus, women’s work won’t be done until every single Canadian woman can live a life free from the fear of violence.
Because you see, violence against women is on the rise in Canadians streets, particularly in Toronto, that beacon of multiculturalism. What happened to Sundus is hardly unique, only the latest in a string of violent attacks on Muslimahs in Toronto in the wake of not only the niqab debate during the elections, but the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the downed Russian plane and bombings in Beirut.
Last month in Peterborough, a mosque was set ablaze, its walls sprayed with graffiti. A 31-yeard old mother, violently beaten and her hijab ripped from her head as she picked up her child from school and told, “You terrorist, you don’t belong here.” Two Muslimahs accosted, one pushed on a Toronto subway, perpetrators fleeing in cowardice when a witness pulled on the emergency alarm. Racist graffiti on the GO Train reading “Fuck Muslim girl.” Young Muslim girls warned not to walk alone at night.
Public violence against Canadian Muslims has recently focused on Muslimahs, particularly women wearing the hijab as a public show of faith. Perhaps because they are visible – much like Sikh men who bore the brunt of hate after September 11th – Muslimahs have borne the brunt of bigotry and ignorance. But beyond roots firmly anchored in Islamophobia, these attacks also tie into how our society views women, and women of colour in particular: as intruders and a danger to community.
As Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, told CBC, recent attacks have been both Islamophobic and sexist, with hijab-wearing women being the primary target of attacks.
Beyond the fists and the fury of domestic abuse, THIS – the public violence against our Muslimah sisters, coupled with other forms of violence like those inflicted on Indigenous women – is also part of the state of violence against women in Canada.
As I argued during the elections, Canadians *can* build a culture that is pro-woman by first confronting our fear of the hijab,
We achieve a pro-woman culture by recognizing that Muslimahs have a voice and that they are free to decide the fate of their bodies – that cornerstone of the feminist struggle. That this fate might – or might not – include donning the veil of their own volition. We will have achieved a pro-woman culture when we finally trust women to make their own free choices.
But to assist in building that pro-woman culture, we must also harness lessons learned from lifetimes of street harassment, is that bystander involvement is critical: that it is necessary to change the culture in which harassers feel they have impunity to operate, showing women they do not stand alone while also letting harassers know that his/her behaviour is socially unacceptable.
The same logic can and must be applied to racism. It’s why shows of solidarity like #IllRideWithYou and #StandWithMuslimsTO matter greatly, that digital bystander movement, which makes a show of our objection to racism and violence against women.
When she arrived at her destination, bystanders pat Sundus on the back, telling her she’d handled the situation well. But it did not change the fact that Sundus was forced to face down her harasser alone.
“”It’s just not fair to be in that situation on your own. No one should feel like they’re in it on their own while they’re being attacked and have people watching as if it’s some kind of show,” Sundus told CBC.
She’s right. We cannot stay silent, like those who stood by and tacitly accepted the violence inflicted on her. We must, like the witnesses in the Toronto subway incident, pull on the metaphorical emergency alarm. We must reject that violence against Muslimahs is rapidly becoming the norm on our streets, at our schools and even in mosques.
We must stand with Sundus, and other women just like her. The state of violence against women in Canada depends on it.
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Violent threats made against ‘lewd, disrespectful feminists and sluts’ at the University of Toronto
University of Waterloo Fraternity #BreakTheSilence on Campus Sexual Assaults with PSA
Remembering École Polytechnique and the state of violence against women in Canada