An Ontario university has condemned an incident on its campus during which a woman told a group of young Muslim Canadian women that their hijabs and long black clothing didn’t make them “look Canadian.”
In footage posted to Facebook, a white woman in a pink puffer jacket describes what she says is a standard look for young Canadian females: “the ripped jeans, the little jean jacket and the running shoes. And they don’t wear scarves and they don’t wear black.”
The group of six Muslim friends were standing outside the Wilfrid Laurier University library in Waterloo, Ont., when the woman in the video stopped to stare at them “like zoo animals,” wrote Shama Saleh in a Facebook post.
“This happened to us because being born and raised in Canada is not enough for people that look like us,” wrote Saleh.
The university released a statement Wednesday condemning the woman’s words and offering support for anyone in the school community affected. “This incident is incongruent with the values of equity, diversity and inclusion that we strive to foster at Laurier,” the statement read. The school added that no one involved appeared to be a staff member at the university, though one of the young women is an alumnus. The group was told a special constable is investigating the incident.
In one of the clips, the woman says her concerns are not with the colour of the women’s skin or enforcing a dress code. “I have a lot of friends that are from different countries that were born here. I’ve worked with them, they’re part of my family. I don’t put a colour to it,” the woman says. “We just want everybody to come here and love our country the way we love it and assimilate.”
In an interview with CTVNews.ca, one of the young women said that the group was uncomfortable but remained composed. They had just gotten out of a focus group session about empowering women through a Muslim fashion and lifestyle magazine called Muse Avenue.
“When people tell us to assimilate it’s like they’re telling us to eradicate our identity,” said Nasteexo Muse, whose sister Sagal started their namesake online publication. They decided to share the video on social media to show that these types of incidents do happen at home.
“She wanted to make sure we didn’t feel Canadian,” said Muse. “A lot of the time it’s brushed under the rug. We’re told we’re exaggerating. Having video evidence was really important for us to share.”
While she and her friends “get those stares all the time,” she said, they don’t always lead to this type of conversation. Still, Muse said the group was resilient.
“I don’t want to carry the hatred that someone else has in their heart with me all the time,” she said. “You build thick skin as a woman with our layered identities.”
On Friday, the Muslim chaplaincy of Laurier held a drop-in support session to discuss the “the recent incidents on campus regarding racism and Islamophobia.”
Selda Sezen, the Muslim chaplain for Laurier, told CTVNews.ca that she “had never experienced something like this” during her time at the University, but “that doesn’t mean it does not happen off campus or in daily life.”
She held the drop-in session to offer students a way to “process the incident,” and said that the feedback was positive.
“Laurier is a diverse, multi-faith community…we have been trying to promote safety and cultural inclusion, we want students and faculty to be secure in who they are.”
Sezen says other members of the multi-faith resource team came by the session and offered support to the Muslim students, including offers to walk them across campus.
“These are all teachable moments for all us,” Sezen says. “We learn through our life experiences, it lets us get ready for real life experiences and this is giving us opportunity to be able to respond to these kind of controversial comments in life in a healthy way and without taking them personally.”
Sezen says the special constable’s investigation has not confirmed the woman’s identity, but “she’s not believed to be a part of the Laurier community.”