The Women Resisting Islamophobia in Kitchener Waterloo

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The National Council of Canadian Muslims’ most recent statistics show that 90 per cent of current Islamophobic hate crimes and attacks on individuals have been against Muslim women. Local community leader Fauzia Mazhar explains that outcome with the term “triple jeopardy”: between the prejudices of gender, being a visible minority and also visibly Muslim, these women have become special targets.

Mazhar is chair of the Coalition of Muslim Women of K-W, and emphasizes to me that these events are occurring in Waterloo Region. I hear the same from Sarah Shafiq, who coordinated the CMW-KW’s Hate Crimes project in 2014, who adds that racist and Islamophobic incidents are rarely being reported to the police in Waterloo Region.

“We thought we should do something about it,” Shafiq says. “For advocacy, for bringing Muslim voices to the forefront.”

The CMW-KW was created in 2010, after Bill-94 – which proposed banning the wearing of the Niqab when receiving public services – was tabled and discussed in Quebec’s parliament. Since then the non-profit has encouraged a proactive approach towards, and community dialogue about gendered Islamophobia.

“The more opportunities people have to get to know Muslim women, we think the better it is in terms of eliminating stereotypes,” says Mazhar. “If you see women in action, if you can talk to them, if you know who they are, then this is the best response.”

Bardish Chagger, MP for Waterloo, affirmed that approach at a CMW-KW organized town-hall about Islamophobia in Kitchener on Apr. 22.

“We have to start being pro-active instead of reactive,” Chagger said. “And we’re not doing a good job it, but where we are doing a good job of it is having these conversations.”

Jobs and discrimination are the biggest issues according to Mazhar. Over the course of our conversation she shares about two unreported hate incidents that have occurred in the region recently.

The first involved a Muslim woman with a small child being attacked by another woman as she was walking down the street in Cambridge. The second occurred at a grocery store in Kitchener where security was called. The woman declined to report the abuse and quickly left the store.

“It’s a lot of hassle,” said Mazhar. “It’s a lot of shame.”

Many members of the CMW-KW possess at least one graduate degree from their country of origin or from Canada, yet still struggle to find reasonable employment.

“Imagine you’re a newcomer, you’re an immigrant, you speak English with an accent, you’re a woman, and on top of that you’re a covered woman,” said Mazhar.

The Coalition’s earliest funding came from the United Way and The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation, and their focus quickly became about promoting awareness, documenting hate crimes and incidents, learning how to respond and how to seek help. That initial funding has now been used up, leaving this important community community service – documenting incidents and supporting victims of Islamophobia – in limbo.

“We couldn’t really continue the program,” said Mazhar. “If we could get funding, we would really like to be able to provide this one-on-one support. “

More funding would enable counseling after a hate incident or hate crime. The CMW-KW would also like to create a unique job search tool, tailored for Muslim women.

In the meantime, the CMW-KW continues to spark community conversations, like that April town-hall.

“The main purpose is to have these opportunities for the larger community and Muslim women to come together,” says Mazhar. “And to make that work, we have to have women who are ready to do that and take that role.”

Many Muslim women’s triple-jeopardy situation is layered, and so the CMW-KW is promoting awareness and encouraging action.

First, they encourage anyone who witnesses an act of hate or discrimination to speak up and report it. Whether on the buses or in the streets, once documentation of an incident has been established, further action can be taken.

Second is community involvement. All 40 members of the CMW-KW and many more volunteers are out in the community taking a leadership role, engaging and talking with their neighbours, and breaking down barriers and stigmas associated with Islam.

“We work in the other direction,” said Mazhar. “We try to strengthen their voices.”