The story of an 11-year-old Toronto girl who claimed that her hijab was cut as she was walking to school last January caused quite a stir, first when it broke and then when police concluded that it was made up. While this particular case turned out to be a false alarm, Islamophobia regularly rears its ugly head in and around educational institutions, the very spaces that are supposed to be at the forefront of dismantling ignorance in Canadian society.
Islamophobia is prevalent in many forms at the elementary and secondary school levels. In the mid-1990s, one school board official remarked that the interactions of non-Muslim students, teachers, and administrators with Muslim students are based on stereotypes that are “reminiscent of the long-gone colonial era.” More recently, research indicates that teachers’ low expectations of minority youth can lead to negative evaluation and biased assessments. Muslims and other minority youth, for example, are often placed in ESL (English as Second Language) programs, even in cases where they are Canadian-born and English is their first (if not the only) language.
The hijab is a particular target. One student reported not having her educational aspirations taken seriously by her school’s guidance counsellors, based on the assumption that education is not valued by Muslim women. Other hijab-wearing students have been asked questions such as “Do you have some kind of head injury?” or “Are you bald?” by their teachers. In September 2015, a teacher at Richmond Green High School in Ontario was fired after students found his Twitter account, on which he regularly tweeted Islamophobic remarks such as, “I get sad when girls I teach decide to wear the hijab. I feel like a failure.”
Nor is Islamophobia limited to incidents between teachers and students. In recent years, both the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) and Peel District School Board (PDSB) — both of which cater to more Muslims than almost any other school boards in Canada — have found themselves in tense situations due to this issue. In 2016, the YRDSB elected a new chair following a human rights complaint about a principal’s Islamophobic posts on Facebook. In a March 2017 school board meeting, protestors opposed to the PDSB’s accommodation of Muslim students’ Friday prayer caused a ruckus and tore up a copy of the Qur’an.
To make matters worse, the curriculum materials used in classrooms have been shown to reinforce Islamophobic attitudes. Children’s books that are used in classrooms, such as The Breadwinner (2000), Reading Lolita in Tehran (2004), and Three Cups of Tea (2006), negatively stereotype Muslims. In the same vein, two studies published in 2011 in the Journal of Educational Media, Memory and Society examined the information about Islam and Muslims in social studies textbooks that have been widely used since the 1990s. Despite steady improvement over time, the researchers found that the reviewed textbooks still represent Muslims as “irrational aggressors, in both the past and present.” There is also “a very conspicuous absence of the treatment of cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity of Muslim societies,” and Muslims’ contributions to different fields are disregarded.
One might expect the situation to improve at the postsecondary level — since students are supposedly more mature and instructors can be expected to speak even more authoritatively — but Islamophobia is even more pronounced in many of Canada’s colleges and universities.
A poignant example is that of McGill University in Montréal, home to the renowned Institute for Islamic Studies (est. 1952) that has drawn many Muslim immigrants to Canada. In 2013, a McGill professor was found guilty of issuing death threats and engaging in “religious, cultural, and personal offences” toward a Muslim graduate student. Two years later, a survey of Muslim students at McGill and Concordia University found that 36.6% of respondents felt that they may have been, and 12.2% were sure they had been, discriminated against in their university because of their religion.
Further east, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, there have been enough incidents of Muslim students having their hijab yanked off or otherwise ruined that in November 2017 the Dalhousie Student Union arranged for “emergency hijab kits” to be placed around campus for anyone needing a replacement. Far to the west, in early-2017 a Muslim woman at Simon Fraser University was told to take off her hijab and “go back to where she came from,” echoing a similar verbal assault at nearby University of British Columbia in late-2015.
In Toronto, a city with one of the largest Muslim populations in North America, Islamophobic incidents occur regularly on campuses. Bet-ween 2015 and 2017, multiple candidates running for positions in the Ryerson Students’ Union had their campaign posters vandalized with comments such as “no Muslims allowed in this country,” “ISIS for life,” and “Muslims are terrorists.” At York University, a campus food service worker who wears the hijab was told by her managers to shorten her prayers and also that she could not be promoted because she is not “presentable.” The University of Toronto’s anti-racism and cultural diversity officer herself has stated (also in 2017) that “Islamophobia impacts the university as a whole.”
At McMaster University, the Challenging Islamophobia on Campus Initiative was established in late-2015 by Muslim staff in the Equity and Inclusion Office, and organized drop-in sessions, a roundtable discussion, and workshops. This model was apparently so successful that it even fetched the attention of Harvard University, which aimed to replicate it. But this success was arguably more in exposing the prevalence of Islamophobia on campus rather than addressing it.
Muslim students at McMaster reported offensive “jokes”; Islamophobic discussions about the Arabian Nights that the instructor did nothing to stop; expectations from non-Muslim peers to denounce terrorist attacks (“I’m sure you have something to say”); and pressure on the MSA to create “good news” stories to counteract the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media — stories that received little to no attention. During a workshop, two of McMaster’s professors emeriti said that “Islamophobia is an oxymoron” and that people should be fearful of Muslims because “Islam is a violent ideology.” The organizers and university administration also re-ceived many e-mails questioning the need for the initiative, the concept of Islamophobia, and the Muslims’ integration into Canadian society.
This list of examples could go on, but there have also been some promising developments. Groups such as the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the TDSB Islamic Heritage Month Committee have recently developed resources for teachers to dismantle Islamophobia in classrooms. The growing number of Muslim teachers and social workers in the Toronto-area public schools is also helping their non-Muslim colleagues understand the particular needs of Muslim students.
Furthermore, the Islamophobic experiences of Canadian Muslim students are increasingly the subject of academic research, such Naved Bakali’s (2015) and Hassina Alizai’s (2017) theses on Islamophobia in Quebec secondary schools and Onta-rio universities, respectively. And at the postsecondary level, many universities and colleges have demonstrated their readiness to condemn and respond to Islamophobia on campus.
But there is a long way to go. One only needs to reflect on why the 11-year-old Toronto girl’s story was so believable in the first place, as if such an incident is something to be expected in Canada, to realize the depth of this problem.