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Sara Abdul Latif, 18, in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, on June 10, 2021.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

As news of violent attacks against Black Muslim women in Edmonton spread across the city last winter, fear seized the city’s Muslim population. Some women stayed away from busy parking lots and transit stations, or even stopped wearing their hijab so as to avoid calling attention to their faith.

Sara Abdul Latif, an 18-year-old University of Alberta student, spent a day in March with a group of two dozen other local Muslim women learning how to throw a punch: to place her thumb over her forefingers when making a fist and aiming for the nose, throat, chest or groin. She hoped to never encounter any kind of violent altercation, but she felt the threat of an anti-Muslim attack was real enough that she signed up for the self-defence class – one of eight sessions her mosque organized.

In recent years, bolder and more violent attacks on Muslims – including this past week’s in London, Ont., where a white man allegedly drove into a Muslim family out for an evening stroll, killing four – have prompted both fear and resolve from Canadian Muslim women, particularly those who are most visibly Muslim through their wearing of religious head and face coverings.

Amid ways Canadian Muslim women have been feeling excluded – including Quebec’s Bill 21 banning public workers such as teachers and lawyers from wearing the hijab on the job; concerns over how most Conservative and all Bloc Québécois MPs voted against M-103, the anti-Islamophobia motion passed in the House of Commons in 2017; and that police-reported hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise but still vastly underreported – many are wondering which institutions can protect them, and how they might instead protect themselves.

Unsettled by the London incident, this week in WhatsApp chats, at vigils and in Facebook groups, Muslim women shared their worries: Some no longer felt safe walking with their families in their own neighbourhoods, while others sought advice on whether they should allow their daughters to wear the hijab or other religious dress that might mark them as targets. But others resolved to be “unapologetically Muslim” in the face of Islamophobia – that the simple act of claiming public space might be the most effective way to combat hatred.

Jasmin Zine, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who has studied the “9/11 generation” (Canadian Muslims who grew up during the “war on terror”) says Muslim women already deal with a heightened form of Islamophobia that is gendered, which escalates after “catalytic moments” such as major attacks on Muslims or acts of violence committed by or blamed on Muslims.

Prof. Zine said her research shows some Muslim women who weren’t particularly tied to their religious identity prior to such events became more invested in it afterward.

“But then you also saw in some cases estrangement, where maybe they would not wear the hijab or they would anglicize their name,” she said.

Sana Chaudhry, a 31-year-old psychotherapist from Oakville, Ont., followed the second path.

In 2016, Ms. Chaudhry performed Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and spent a month wearing hijab for the first time in her life. When she returned to Sarnia, Ont., where she was living at the time with her husband, she decided to keep it on.

Once, at a supermarket, another customer called Ms. Chaudhry a terrorist and tried to rip off her hijab. Another time, while she was loading groceries into her trunk, a man drove by, yelling the same comment while adding, “Go back home!” He then exited his car and tried to slam the door of Ms. Chaudhry’s car trunk on her hands.

Shaken, Ms. Chaudhry told her family what happened, but her parents talked her out of going to police. “Everyone’s going to know who you are if you report it,” they warned her. “What if more people come after you?” When she spoke informally to a police officer she knew, the officer told her she didn’t have enough evidence to report the incident: no video, no witness testimony, no licence plate.

So instead, Ms. Chaudhry made the difficult decision to remove her hijab – the only way she felt she could reclaim a sense of safety.

“I felt defeated,” she said. “I questioned if I was a good enough Muslim or not.”

Nuzhat Jafri, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, has heard countless reports from Canadian Muslim women about being verbally harassed, attacked on the street, having eggs thrown at their cars and other abuse. She’s noticed a new sense of assertiveness among young Muslim women who don’t want to change the way they dress even in the face of hate, but “when they go home, they have debates with their families about whether they should take [their hijab] off or not.”

That these conversations are happening at all is evidence of a failure of public policy, she said.

“We have not really evolved in Canadian legislation to deal with what’s happening in Canada in terms of hate-based crime.”

Researchers who study white nationalism have raised the alarm about growing online radicalization, which has manifested in many violent attacks against Muslims, including the 2017 massacre in Quebec City when six men were killed and five were seriously injured by a white man with extremist views. In its most recent hate crimes report, Statistics Canada reported a 9-per-cent rise in hate crimes committed against Muslims from 2018 to 2019, but note that the vast majority of hate crimes are not reported to police.

The summer after the Quebec attack, Aruba Mahmud, 36, learned of a rally in London organized by PEGIDA, a far-right anti-Islam group. She attended a counter-protest at the same location, a decision that made her family uneasy.

“I knew by wearing the hijab, I was provoking them,” she said. “But I was so sick of being expected to apologize whenever Muslims do anything in the world. I decided I was going to be unapologetically Muslim.”

Ms. Abdul Latif, the student who attended the Edmonton self-defence class, agrees. Recent attacks against Muslims, including the most recent one in London, have only made her feel more assured in her decision to wear hijab – the act, she said, helps her feel like she’s showing solidarity with the victims.

“I don’t want to show fear by taking it off, because then it’s going to feel like the people attacking us are winning.”

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