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What it’s actually like to be a Muslim girl in Canada

A basketball point guard, a guidance office volunteer and a politics-loving curler: just three of the young Muslim Canadians you’ll meet here.

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Canadian Muslim girls

Photography, Sian Richards.

In response to the deadly shooting at a Quebec mosque last month and U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban targeting citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid put forward a motion this week designed to send a clear message that hatred and discrimination won’t be tolerated in this country. It calls on the government to condemn Islamophobia and “all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination” — but some Conservatives opposed the use of the word “Islamophobia” in the motion (which is neither a law nor a bill), saying it could be a threat to freedom of speech. The debate once again exposed the fault lines in our multicultural foundation — ones that were also painfully clear in 2015, when a woman’s right to wear the niqab became a wedge issue in the federal election, and when there was an uptick in hate crimes, including a mosque set ablaze in Peterborough, Ont., following the Paris attacks that killed 130 people. 

At the end of that year, after Canadians voted in a new majority Liberal government and when Trump was campaigning to be president, Chatelaine met with seven teenage Muslim girls from various places and different sects to talk about their lives and their feelings about Canada. “There’s a constant tension for young Muslims — and particularly young Muslim girls — in trying to forge their own identities against the way they’re often represented,” says Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who studies Muslim youth in Canada. They may not remember 9/11, but they’ve spent their lives in its spectre, she says, aware that a simple decision to go play paintball could track as terrorism-in-training. Those tensions are everywhere: Wear a hijab or don’t wear a hijab? Pray in the hallways of school or skip it to hang out with friends? Respond to an Islamophobic comment online or remain silent? 

Here’s what the teenage girls told us then: 

Ola Mobarak, Milton, Ontario

Photo, Sian Richards.

Ola Mobarak, 17

Hometown: Milton, Ont.; parents are from Egypt.
Loves: Languages, politics, writing for Lanterns, her community newspaper.
Next up: Graduating from high school, where she’s logged more than 800 volunteer hours with the guidance office.

When [the attacks in] Paris happened, the backlash against Muslims started pretty much right away, and it was overwhelming. I immediately worried about my aunt, uncle and cousins who live there; luckily, they were safe. But it was like, since I was a Muslim, I wasn’t allowed to have my own space to be affected by an international tragedy. I was also expected to denounce the attacks and show why ISIS is un-Islamic. I saw one post that resonated with me. It said,“I refuse to condemn things that are so obviously wrong, because it presumes that my basic moral code is in question just because I’m Muslim.”

Paris was almost like déjà vu of the [federal] election. The niqab debate was one of the only times I ever saw the possibility that my home could turn against me or that I would be unsafe in my own country. Then it actually started happening closer and closer: When that mosque in Peterborough was set on fire, it was like, “That’s not too far away.” Within the community, they were drawing parallels to post-9/11, [in terms of] the sentiment that’s popping up. The way politicians react can make a difference. In the U.S., Islamophobia is gaining more and more traction because you see hate being supported by [Republican presidential candidates] Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Here, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced the Peterborough mosque arson and said that Muslim Canadians contribute enormously to the country. That creates a different example of what’s acceptable.


Related: All I want as a Muslim is the freedom to feel ordinary


Fajar Khan, Fort McMurray, Alta

Photo, Sian Richards.

Fajar Khan, 15

Hometown: Fort McMurray, Alta.; born in Pakistan.
Loves: Decorating her room in pink and purple, Pretty Little Liars, sports.
Next up: Competing this year in a national women’s cricket tournament in Alberta.

The first sport I tried was badminton and I guess I had a passion for it. I like how you can smash it. My brothers are better at it than me, but I want to be better than them. I do track and field and run 800 and 1,600 metres. I’m also the point guard on my school basketball team. I’m the only one on my team wearing a hijab. Once, my pin fell off my hijab while I was dribbling and I was like, “Uh-oh,” but I kept going and it stayed on.

When we have only girls around us, we are allowed to take off our hijabs, and I’ve done that in the locker room many times. I’ve been told, “Wow, you have amazing long hair. Why don’t you take off that scarf?” I explain to them what the hijab means to me — it is my honour and my modesty — and how beautiful I feel with it on. I try to encourage my hijabi friends to play sports; I tell them it’s an amazing experience. It is harder to play with a hijab on, but it’s not that hard.

Marium Vahed, Mississauga, Ont

Photo, Sian Richards.

Marium Vahed, 16

Hometown: Mississauga, Ont.; parents are from Pakistan and South Africa. (Her father is Sunni and her mother is Shiite, so Vahed describes herself as “Sushi.”)
Loves: Debating, reading, practising karate.
Next up: She’s looking into the University of Toronto’s law summer camp.

I feel quite safe in real life, but it’s hard to feel safe when you’re on the internet. You don’t get the same protection, and that scares me. I like that the internet lets people express their view points, but the downside of that is people who very, very loudly express opinions that aren’t exactly informed — and can even be ignorant. You see a lot of Islamophobia out there. Sometimes, as a young Muslim girl who is still trying to understand my own religion, I think, “How should I refute that?” Often I find myself being a bystander, because I don’t know how to respond with something that will actually persuade them, or I know from experience that whatever I say won’t persuade them. And I don’t want to put myself out there in a way that’s so public, especially in this world where everything you say can come back to bite you in the bum.


Related: Canadian Muslim women fear for their safety


Ameera Khan, Surrey, B.C.

Photo, Sian Richards.

Ameera Khan, 12

Hometown: Surrey, B.C.; parents are from India by way of Fiji.
Loves: Drawing, ducks, macaroni and cheese.
Next up: Lifeguard training (with an eye toward swimming in the Olympics).

I used to go to an Islamic private school, but I go to a public school now. My friends at school are from all different backgrounds, but most of them celebrate Halloween and Christmas. Sometimes they look at me weird when I say I don’t do that. I try to tell all my friends about Eid and Ramadan, but you kind of have to repeat it a lot or they forget. Sometimes, it’s harder for me, because kids will say, “I’m Christian,” and everyone else is like, “Oh, you’re Christian! Cool!” But then I say, “I’m Muslim,” and some people are like, “Ohhh, you’re Muslim. Oh.” I don’t really like being judged by what I believe in. If you want to judge me at all, judge me by who I am as a person.

Photo courtesy of Alia Khaled, Burlington, Ontario

Alia Khaled, 18

Hometown: Burlington, Ont.; parents have Egyptian, Turkish and Bosnian heritage.
Loves: The Office, pizza, field hockey.
Next up: Finishing her first year of university in June.

When I tell people I’m Muslim, they’re really surprised. I sort of understand: I do have very fair skin. I think people don’t know where a lot of Muslims come from — there are a lot of Muslims in Europe, not just the Middle East. For people who aren’t aware of that, they don’t see a Muslim person as being a white, westernized teenage girl. But that doesn’t make me less of a Muslim. I always keep my heritage and my culture with me. My mom told me that we’re ambassadors for Islam, and that I have to show people what being a Muslim is really like. It’s about being a good person and loving your country.

Photo courtesy of Laiba Butt, Niagara Fall, Ontario

Laiba Butt, 14

Hometown: Niagara Falls, Ont.; parents are from South Africa and Pakistan.
Loves: Drawing, rowing, The Mindy Project.
Next up: Going with friends to her school’s semi-formal.

I started wearing the hijab in grade 5, and people put a lot of pressure on me to take it off. Sometimes the boys in class would kind of tug at it to see what my hair looks like. They’d ask if I actually was, like, bald. I didn’t like that, so the year after, I stopped wearing the hijab. Then I realized I shouldn’t really care about what other people say. Now, in high school, I’m on the rowing team with both girls and boys. My best friend started dating someone on the team, but they just broke up, so it’s getting really awkward. I don’t really have any crushes. Guys are just not mature enough.

Photo courtesy of Maryam Wajahat. Sasktatoon

Maryam Wajahat

Age: 16
Hometown: Saskatoon; born in Pakistan.
Loves: Politics, track, curling.
Next up: Visiting Parliament with leadership organization Forum for Young Canadians.

Living in Saskatoon, you don’t have that many Muslims around you, because it’s not that big of a population. I can guarantee every Muslim’s friends are more than 50 percent white. We don’t stick in little groups — over here, everyone’s spread out. I know there’s always going to be people who are ignorant or hard-headed and are not going to want to open their minds to new ideas. That’s totally understandable. But I know that the majority are welcoming and open, and that really helps reassure me that Canada is still diverse. I know that diversity is always going to be there.

Originally published December 2015. Updated February 2017.

Related:
All I want as a Muslim is the freedom to be ordinary
Canadian Muslim women fear for their safety
5 ways Canadians have stood up to Islamophobia