Community & Current Events

What it's like to be Muslim in Canada

What it's like to be Muslim in Canada

Photography by Jacklyn Atlas

Community & Current Events

What it's like to be Muslim in Canada

We asked three women from different provinces to shed light on their individual experiences, offering unique glimpses into their own culture. 

As we approach our country's 150th birthday, would it surprise you to hear that Muslim-Canadians are among our population's most patriotic? A 2016 study revealed that eight in 10 reported they were, indeed, very proud to be Canadian, citing reasons ranging from freedom and democracy to diversity of both landscape and cultures. But it doesn't come without difficulty. As the world becomes more isolationist, Canada still tries to live up to its reputation as a cultural mosaic. Witness Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mantra: "We will love you and we will stand with you."  While we can't ignore the cultural tensions that still reverberate through the post-9/11 world, we also can't undervalue Islam's long and rich history in Canada: The first family arrived in 1850 in what was then Province of Canada, and recent census numbers demonstrate that Muslims are one of the country's fastest-growing religious groups. Representing varied cultural backgrounds, practising in different ways, engaging with their own local communities, the Muslim population here in Canada is as diverse as any. That's why we asked three women from different provinces to shed light on their individual experiences, offering unique glimpses into their own culture. 

Tendisai Cromwell, 32


Photography by Reza Dahya

Each day, before leaving my home, I conceal my hair under a thick colourful scarf that I tie into a turban. It makes me an object of curiosity almost everywhere I go. One warm afternoon, I'm seated on a bus. Every possible kind of person is sharing this space, yet I draw the attention of a middle-aged man who gestures at my paisley head wrap. He tells me he finds it beautiful and wonders if I come from elsewhere. "Africa?" he asks. He's polite. I'm polite. He smiles. I smile. "Yes, I was born in Zimbabwe," I say. He continues this gentle interrogation before we part ways at the final stop.

There are many ways of knowing the world. And I understand, with uncomfortable intimacy, that this interaction was perhaps his way of arriving at knowledge, his way of getting close to my particular kind of blackness. And yet, what he didn't know was that the cultural expression he imagined he was acquainting himself with was, in fact, an expression of faith. I didn't tell him that my head scarf is a hijab, worn not just for cultural reasons but also for religious ones. Variations of this encounter happen often. And so, even as I wear the veil, a visible sign of my beliefs, I'm an invisible Muslim.

Most days, I'm not bothered by this. I'm confident in the belief that faith is something you carry, above all, in the heart. But there are moments when I feel estranged from my own community—especially when it's fellow Muslims who fail to recognize me as part of it. A veiled Muslim woman is usually depicted as South Asian or Middle Eastern, both in the media and by those dominant groups that tend to shape the religion in their own image. More and more, I wish to bridge the gap between how others might see me and how I see myself—a woman who is deeply committed to her faith's traditions.

With the rise of new media platforms, Muslims have begun to challenge common portrayals of Muslim women, from ordinary people like myself, who share our unique experiences, to fashionistas popularizing diverse hijab style.

I hope that, one day soon, my veil will be seen for what it is: not a cultural custom nor a simple fashion accessory but one of many expressions of Muslim womanhood.

Fariha Róisín, 27


Photography by George Grant

I was born in Waterloo, Ont., and have always worn my Canadian nationality like a badge. But I grew up in Australia, where four years after moving there—at age eight—I became a naturalized Australian citizen. Still, at the ceremony, when the governor of Queensland was handing me my citizenship certificate in a wide yellow-and-gold envelope, I told him I was Canadian. It was like I thought he needed to know that my national loyalty belonged elsewhere. My parents have often laughed about my brash candidness, wondering how their wild little girl could be so audacious. In some way, though, I know they admire it.  

After all, my parents, immigrants from Bangladesh, had chosen Canada first. Initially, my dad came here for school. Though he wasn't totally comfortable with leaving his birthplace, Canada quickly endeared itself to him. He felt that Canadians believed in equality for all as a standard, not just a motto.

After living abroad for four years, I chose Canada, too. But rather than Waterloo, I moved to Montreal for the opportunity to practise my French and experience the European atmosphere, the fine wines and the café culture. There was something liberating about returning to the country that birthed me, housed me and felt like mine—the country I had remained so loyal to. But Canada slowly proved that it wasn't the utopia I'd imagined as a child. As I settled into my old-new home, Bill 60, or the Quebec Charter of Values, which would prohibit religious symbols at work, was being discussed as if it were a viable option. I was astounded to read the news and see how hostility toward Muslims was inherent in Canada in a way I hadn't expected. I saw the racism first and began to feel myself question this place I had been drawn to, a place I thought was home. I felt the heavy attack of Islamophobia second. Living in Montreal has made me feel defensive of my Muslim heritage—especially when my own city is discussing infringing upon the rights of my community. Racism in Canada is latent, quiet, like a spring that squeaks intermittently but rarely bursts through the surface of your old sofa cushion. In some ways, it's more nefarious because Canadians impose boundaries on their understanding of their own prejudice, never quite believing its existence. And the first step in fixing this is starting the discussion.

No one person is ever going to have all the answers, but collectively, we can and have to change our behaviour—and laws—to better reflect the values this country so proudly declares that it espouses. I hope one day this Canada can become the country I for so long believed it really was.

Pacinthe Mattar, 32


Photography by Jacklyn Atlas

Some of my earliest memories are of going to the mosque with my dad. "Mosque," perhaps, is an imaginative word to describe the one-floor brown building in an industrial North York plaza where we'd go for Friday prayers. I was barely five years old, newly arrived in Canada from Egypt and too young to know how to pray properly. I'd mirror my dad as he bent, hands on his knees, then kneeled and touched his forehead to the carpet, hearing only the soft hiss of his esses as he prayed in hushed tones just above a whisper. I remember very clearly the calm I felt as the long, drawn-out "ameens" of 100 men, my dad among them, reverberated in the makeshift mosque. Even now, as a grown woman almost my dad's age at that time, the safest place in the world to me is next to him. To pray beside him as a young girl was an otherworldly, almost magical, feeling of safety.

My Islam is one I learned only because my dad invested himself so deeply in teaching it to us. He taught my brother and me how to read and memorize the Qur'an in the basement of our childhood home, and we'd stumble our way through our memorizations on snowy drives to school, swimming lessons and Scouts. He also taught us to read and write in our mother tongue, knowing we'd need it to better understand our faith. Back then, I resented the time I spent staying in on sunny Sundays, tracing the curved lines of Arabic letters on lined paper; today, I've lost track of how many times I've thanked my dad for insisting I did.

You wouldn't know I'm Muslim by looking at me. My appearance contains no outward display or signs of Islam—like millions of other Muslims in the world. But every day, I wear a silver ring inscribed with two verses of the Qur'an. My insistence on wearing it no matter where I'm going is linked to a morbid scenario where I don't make it home one day. I imagine the silver band on my left hand marking me as Muslim, even in the smallest way, to those who would try to piece together who I am.

I don't talk about my faith much, but anyone who knows me knows my Islam is a deep, complicated, intimate part of me. My life is one that mainstream coverage of Islam will say doesn't exist for Muslim people, especially women: I live joyfully alone, unmarried, in downtown Toronto, my days and nights bursting at the seams with live shows, parties, ball games, lectures and readings, and a beautiful tribe of people who understand me. I'm not defying stereotypes. I just exist. I don't pray or go to mosque as much as I did when I lived with my parents, but in times of extreme gratitude, joy, pain or loss, I'll say "Alhamdulillah" to myself, out loud, still thanking God for all of it—another lesson from my dad.

So in January, when news of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec surfaced, I immediately thought of him. I thought of how easily it could've been my dad, had we lived in Sainte-Foy. I thought of the victims, some of them fathers, and the children who would now grow up without them. I dwelled on the creeping knowledge that these men were surely facing away from the entrance when the shooter came in—perhaps they were deep in prayer, with their foreheads pressed to the carpet. Then, the pictures of the victims came out: all immigrants from Africa. Their smiles reminded me of my dad. I scrolled through the news and cried, scrolled and cried, for days.

I work in journalism, where I wade through grim headlines all day, every single day. I've grown strangely, almost uncomfortably, accustomed to grief, but the Quebec City mosque shooting cut through it. I mourned 
the victims, and the end of a time where a mosque in Canada could be the safest place in the world for a girl like me and her father.

How to connect
How can we make Canada feel more inclusive for all? We asked the Muslim Association of Canada—an organization that focuses on community engagement—for ideas that anyone can execute. From sharing to learning to speaking out, here are ways to take action and be a powerful conduit for impacting change. 

1. Be part of the dialogue
When there are petitions and motions pertaining to issues of human rights and justice, take time to read through the issue, be informed and attend discussions. This will empower you to be a neutral voice of reason when you spot bias around you.

2. Visit a community centre
Every major city in Canada boasts mosques, Muslim community centres and Islamic schools, many of which host regular open houses where anyone can drop in. If not, simply call and ask for a convenient time to stop by and start a conversation.

3. Send out an invitation
Invite a member of your local Muslim community to a gathering, be it your own place of worship or a neighbourhood event. Here's a chance to connect and strengthen the sense of camaraderie.

4. Don't be afraid to ask
If there's something you're curious about pertaining to Islam, respectfully ask Muslims around you—strike up a water-cooler conversation. Even if they cannot address your questions, ask them if they might know where to direct you.

5. Volunteer with the community
Build relations through action. Your local Muslim community is bound to have soup kitchens, park cleanups and other regular events that give back to the neighbourhood. See what piques your interest and simply show up.




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Community & Current Events

What it's like to be Muslim in Canada