Seated on the subway with headphones on, Mariam Nouser rides the rocket toward Ryerson.
“Why are you wearing that? You’re in Canada,” she hears a voice say.
It doesn’t register at first that the middle-aged Caucasian woman is actually talking to her.
“Why don’t you go home? That’s where you belong.” “Well, I’m from here,” she replies honestly.
“No you’re not; you’re wearing those clothes and that hijab. I don’t get why you have to wear it. Why is your religion oppressing women?”
“We’re not being oppressed,” Nouser responds.
As Nouser stands up to get off at Bloor-Yonge station, the woman begins tugging at her hijab. Nouser escapes her grip and approaches the doors, when suddenly she feels a glob of spit land on her head.
“The sad thing is that no one really stood up for me,” Nouser says, her voice shaking as she recalls the events of that day, about a year ago. “I was born and raised in Toronto, so telling me to go home is like telling me to go to Etobicoke. It’s the only home I’ve ever known.”
Nouser has fair skin, purple dip-dyed hair and a tragus piercing. Her mother is fifth-generation Irish and her father is Egyptian. She explains that she doesn’t necessarily fit the “typical Muslim image,” although she doesn’t believe that religion or culture should have a prescribed look.
She’s not alone in her experiences. Abdul Malik Mohammad, the vice-president of the Muslim Students’ Association, says that in light of recent events, open displays of Islamophobia have become increasingly frequent.
The past couple of weeks have proven difficult for the Muslim community after one soldier was run down in Quebec and another shot in Ottawa. In the past two weeks alone he knows girls who have had their hijabs pulled off and one who had coffee thrown at her.
Although Islam is the largest minority religion in Ontario, Islamophobia remains the fastest growing prejudice in Canada, according to a poll done by Angus Reid Global in 2013.
“We need to make a clear distinction between what Islam teaches, and what a very small fraction of Muslims have chosen to do,” Mohammad says.
Becky Choma, a professor at Ryerson who teaches the psychology of prejudice course, explains that seeing a hijab can trigger people to act on the animosity they might harbour.
“Any kind of prejudice we have is associated with emotional responses,” she says. “The greater fear people have of Muslims, the more negative feelings they will have towards them.”
Nouser regularly wore her hijab for about a year and a half before she decided to take it off. “I had to evaluate for quite some time before deciding it wasn’t the right time (to keep wearing it).” Her decision was a direct result of the prejudice she’d been experiencing.
“What you’re seeing on TV, what’s happening in the Middle East – that is not our religion whatsoever,” Nouser explains. She maintains that peace is in fact the core of Islam.
Joyce Smith, who teaches the reporting religion course at Ryerson, says the problem is that the majority of coverage on Islam is of conflicts. She addresses the need for Muslim voices to be heard in everyday news, like those in schools, public health and government.
“A lot of what you think of Islam is going to be what you see on TV,” Smith says. “If all you see is conflict, war, and killing, then of course that’s going to colour your idea of what Islam is.”
Choma says that any outlet or avenue that we learn from, such as parents, friends, peers, teachers and media, play a key role in shaping our ideas. “(In the media) it’s more exciting to talk about the dangers of terrorists than discussing the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists,” she says.
According to Choma, another contributing factor to Islamophobia is the consumer’s role in obtaining information. “We tend to latch onto ideas that confirm our beliefs and discredit or discard things that disconfirm the ideas we hold,” she says. “We like to think that what we know or what we believe is accurate and when other people agree with us we feel a sense of belonging.”
She says some possible solutions are to counter stereotypes by showing positive images of Muslims in the media and encouraging inter-group relations. In other words, getting to know more Muslims in order to change preconceived notions of them.
“Muslims are people who sit in your same classes, your professors, your neighbors. Muslims are all around you – we are not all crazies,” Mohammad says.
Both Mohammad and Nouser seem to agree that the best way to combat Islamophobia is to educate people on what real Islam is.
“We can’t be silent,” Nouser says. “If we overpower those negative voices then I’m sure we’ll be heard.”
As for the hijab, Nouser has no doubt in her mind that she will wear it again. “It is a beautiful thing and I wish I could go back to (wearing) it sooner, rather than later,” she says. “Maybe when I’m stronger and can deal with the negativity from people.”