Despite famous Canadian 'tolerance,' growing up Muslim in Canada isn't easy
// Leanne Kriz

In the classic 1992 Disney film Aladdin, the opening credits appear over a foreboding scene of a vast desert expanse and a small turbaned man riding a camel. A voice with a vaguely Middle-Eastern accent sings, “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where it's flat and immense, and the heat is intense/It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.” This clip was shown as part of an event at Rhizome Café on Sept. 15 called “Pencils, Books, and Prayer: Experiences of Muslim Youth in Public Schools.” It was chosen to illustrate the way in which Muslims and Middle-Easterners are often stereotyped in Western media (especially post 9/11), and to begin a dialogue on how such media portrayals affect the way Muslims are viewed and treated in the Western world.

At the event, Shiva Manavipour, a third-year student at Simon Fraser University, screened her short documentary entitled Me and the Media: Growing up Muslim in Canada. Dr. Özlem Sensoy, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at SFU also spoke at the event about how Muslim students and the Islamic community as a whole are affected by portrayals of Muslims in the media.

Shiva made her film because she wanted to raise awareness about prejudice in Canada, and also to explore how it affected her growing up, especially as a young girl who wore the traditional Islamic headdress known as the ‘hijab’: “I remember when I used to go to the mall with my mom,” Shiva says in her documentary, “and we walked into the store and the clerk immediately looked at us and started following us around...So what I did was I started speaking English very loudly...and I would pronounce all my words, and I would try to be very clear because I wanted her to feel comfortable and I wanted her to see me as somebody who was not threatening; see me as someone she can relate to.”

Dr. Sensoy has previously facilitated studies involving students, in which they describe that images come to mind when they think of the Middle East. “[They usually describe] things like cows, deserts, barren landscapes, minarets and mosques, people praying, and veiled women. When I talk about things like bank machines or telephones in Istanbul, it’s surprising to them because it’s so different from the mainstream representations of the Middle East…[as] a backward, Stone Ages kind of place.”

It is difficult for Dr. Sensoy to come up with examples of movies and media that portray Muslims in a positive light, but she mentions a satirical blog called “Muslims Wearing Things” as an example of people trying to portray Muslim people in a more positive light by poking fun at the idea that Muslims all have a certain look or style of dressing.

Tahia Ahmed, a student at Capilano University and a practicing Muslim, remembers her years wearing a hijab and attending school in Canada as a difficult time. “There were points at school where people would make a lot of comments... a lot of terrorism comments or a lot of jokes,” describes Tahia. “It had an emotional effect on me, because I was so young. Especially at the age of 14, when I was already so self-conscious because I was a teenager, and on top of it I had this thing that made me stick out like a sore thumb.”

Many women who practice Islam in Canada choose to wear the hijab, which has the effect of immediately singling them out as something different. Tahia decided to remove her hijab at the age of 14, a decision that was not easy for her, but was something she thought would leave her with more positive experiences of faith. Tahia has taken on roles of leadership within the community and started her own not-for-profit organization. “I can say with 100 per cent confidence that if I were wearing a hijab, and if I had accomplished all the things that I have, it would have been a lot harder, just because of the society that we live in.”

It’s not just Muslims who encounter prejudice in Canadian society. Racial discrimination is a long-standing problem, with approximately one-third of Black Canadians reporting in a 2002 Statistics Canada study that they have faced discrimination in the past five years. This type of treatment is unacceptable. As Tahia puts it, “Whether it is discrimination against Muslims, black people, people of low income or women, I see all of those things on the same level, and at the end of the day, it is discrimination.”
Although Canadian society may have some ongoing issues with discrimination and prejudice, Capilano University is attempting to take some steps forward. Plans are underway to create a new “Meditation and Silent Prayer Space” on campus. The prayer space that was available on the bottom floor of the Arbutus Building has been closed, due to the relocation of the President’s office in that area. Unfortunately, no dates or deadlines for the prayer space have been announced, but “the wheels are in motion,” according to Eleni Papavasiliou, co-chair of the Diversity and Equity Committee of Capilano.

The ideas behind this space reflect the open-minded, inclusive philosophy of Capilano, in that it is open to students of all different religions and spiritual beliefs. However, Tahia raises an important concern: “I have up to three prayer times that I am missing,” she acknowledges, “but just by having a room doesn’t actually mean that I can use it. I may be in class during those three times, and not only that, but when you pray you’re also supposed to cleanse and wash yourself. You wash your face, your hands and your feet; that is part of the ritual, and if that facility is not there, then providing a room is not something that is realistic.” Despite this, Tahia agrees that it is a positive step towards accommodating people with different needs, and creating a connection between people of different backgrounds

“We all have a limited amount of information… and have assumptions about people who are not like us, and what kinds of lives they have,” says Dr. Sensoy when asked what people can do to move past old prejudices. “The most powerful thing any person can do is try to seek out as many personal connections and diversity of connections and relationships in their lives with people that are different from them.”

// Leanne Kris

// Photo by Karen Picketts

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