Muslim women in Canada: faith and the hijab

Being a minority in today’s Western society may not be as tough as it was in the past. However, radicalized voices against minorities are as prominent than ever. Being an immigrant Muslim woman in today’s world is even more nerve-racking – especially if you wear a hijab. 


Not only are Muslim women in the minority due to their assigned gender, but also their faith. On top of being a person of colour, wearing a hijab is a clear indicator of one’s faith.


Lubna Alli, Anosha Alam, and Eman Zahid are three Muslim women who live in Toronto. Though they all are Muslim-born, immigrants, and post-secondary students, they have taken completely different paths in their faith. Their experiences with wearing the hijab gives some insight into the everyday lives of Muslim women in Canada. 


These are their stories of how they began wearing the hijab, or why they stopped. 


Lubna Alli

Lubna Alli, 19, studies politics at University of Toronto (St. George). She grew up in a Muslim household. When she was seven, she immigrated to Canada from Guyana with her family.


Currently, Lubna doesn’t wear the hijab. She wore the hijab for as long as she could remember, until she stopped near the end of Grade 11. “I always knew deep down that I didn’t want to wear it,” Lubna says. “I even considered taking it off in Grade 9 or 10, but it’s such a big thing to do or broadcast to the world.”


Lubna’s original plan was to take it off in university, but she ended up doing it one year earlier.


"I don't know if it was society pressuring me [to stop wearing the hijab]. Like, 'oh, it's not cool to wear a hijab.' Or I can't wear a hijab and dress cute or whatever. On my end, it was a connection thing where I wasn't wearing the hijab for what it's supposed to be, truthfully.”


Lubna was bullied for wearing a hijab when she first immigrated to Canada. In elementary school, she was in line in to go in from recess, when two girls approached her. "They were like 'what's that thing on your head?' Then they ripped it off of my head in front of everybody. My hair was showing in front of everybody. I was so taken aback. I was embarrassed in the moment and didn’t know what to do.” She was so shocked she didn't know how to respond. Another girl tried to do the same thing the a second time, but this time around, she stopped her. "I told her off. I was like, 'hello, what do you think you're doing?’”


As Lubna grew older, she noticed that people were nicer to her about wearing the hijab. “They didn’t mind as much. I think it’s cause they were used to me at that point too.”


Lubna has come a long ways from her elementary school days. She says she doesn’t uphold Muslim standards as much as she used to, but still considers herself Muslim. “Truthfully, I think [my faith] is not as important as it once were. It’s still important as I base a lot of my morals around my faith, and how I live and conduct my life…but not an everyday thing. I can’t see myself identifying as anything else, you know? Like Christian or Buddhist.”


Anosha Alam

Anosha, 20, is an Architecture Technology student at George Brown College. She was born into a Muslim family in Pakistan, and moved to Canada when she was around five years old. 


“I basically grew up in Toronto, but most of my family is Pakistani. Pakistan was made because the Muslims wanted their own country, so they separated from India. Islam is a really big part of Pakistani culture.” 


Anosha currently wears the hijab in a traditional style, covering her head to her neck. Her facial features – eyes, nose, mouth – are still visible.


Growing up in Canada, Anosha was more aware of her Muslim heritage than my Pakistani one. “It’s cause when you’re in a different place, you have to hold onto something from your home,” she says. 


In high school, she started studying and researching about Islam to expand her knowledge on it. “I just found out a lot of misconceptions I had about females in the religion. I feel like it’s a really feminist religion. When you find out the reason behind things, and the historical context, it just makes more sense.”


Anosha says it helped her separate her religion from her culture. “Growing up in a brown community, it’s so intermixed together that it’s hard to separate the two. It was really eye-opening because a lot of things in my culture that I was like ‘why do we do this’ or ‘this doesn’t make sense’ – I realized it was just culture, and not actually religion. Educating myself on it made me closer to my religion than I was before. That’s when I started wearing the headscarf.”


She started wearing the hijab during the summer leading up to Grade 12. She recalls specifically starting on the first day of Ramadan. “On the first day of wearing the hijab, it was interesting. I stepped out of the house and thought I would feel different, but I felt so at ease. I felt so comfortable. Usually when I go out, like when I’m taking the TTC or whatever, I’m like ‘people are looking at me.’ Like ‘I don’t want people to stare at me’. On that day, I did not care. I was like ‘I don’t care if you look at me.’ It was a really freeing feeling.”


When Anosha told her family she wanted to start wearing the hijab, her parents were divided. "My mom told me I shouldn't wear it. My dad was supportive. He's always been supportive of what my sister and I choose to do.” Her mom was concerned about Anosha's safety. She knew wearing a hijab would make her a visible target for hate, especially with the heightened vocalization of Islamophobia. "Eventually she came around to it. Everyone I knew personally was really nice about it. They were really accepting of me deciding to wear it.”


Eman Zahid

Eman, 19, is completing a double major in English and Gender & Women Studies at University of Toronto (St. George). Eman was born in Kuwait, a small country situated near Iraq and the Persian Gulf. She was born into a Muslim family. She is half-Pakistani and half-Arab.


Currently, Eman wears the hijab but in a non-traditional style. The way she wears her hijab is so that only her hair is covered, exposing her neck.


When Eman began wearing the hijab, she experimented with different hijab styles to fit her personality. Some of her the styles she portrayed didn’t fit conventional hijab standards, or showed a bit more skin. “I noticed that there’s a double-standard for women who wear hijabs. They’re kind of expected to be at a higher level of faith. You are not allowed to make mistakes. They take the fact that we wear it as wearing it for men, or we wear it to represent the Muslim community…and all our other actions have to line up with that. But it’s a completely separate identity. There’s a lot of pressure with acting a certain way when you wear it.”


The idea around the hijab is modesty, according to Eman. She says that contrary to what most people think, the hijab is a symbol to uplift women. When wearing the hijab, others notice what kind of person the wearer is first – not their appearance. In Muslim culture, the hijab is celebrated for treating everybody equally. Eman notes that another big aspect of the hijab is modesty. “A huge part of that is that women are objectified so so much,” Eman says. “It’s making the choice that your body is for yourself and not other people.”


The first time Eman started wearing the hijab consistently was when she was in Grade 9. “I wore it on and off before then, but it never felt like something I was choosing to do. It felt like I was doing it because everybody else was. My mom – she told me not to start until I wanted to.” Eman says she started wearing the hijab when she began doing it for herself. She stopped seeing it as “the thing I could wear to fit in with the rest of the Muslim girls.” 


“I felt like I was developing a sense of identity at the time. I just started high school so, you know, it’s all about finding yourself.”


When she attended her Islamic middle school, she was required to wear a hijab throughout the day. After school, Eman kept her hijab on because her classmates did so as well. There would be periods when she would wear it on and off. "It didn't have any meaning to me. It was just a piece of cloth – a tradition. I started wearing it seriously when I stopped seeing it as the thing I could wear to fit in with the rest of the Muslim girls, and more for myself.”

Published by Eunice Lee

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