Islamophobia in the Classroom: Nada’s Story

Preamble

The piece below is the first in a series of stories based on the real cases that NCCM’s Education Department has worked or continues to work on.

They involve incidents of systemic Islamophobia and discrimination in Canada’s schooling system—incidents in which NCCM has intervened. They involve real people and real consequences. They involve issues of Islamophobia and racism that are brushed aside too often. We are here to shine a light on them.

It’s hard to capture just how tough and unprecedented these past two years have been for schools and students across Canada. Months of online learning dominated the lives of so many families. Then students were asked to step back into in-person classes as if the pandemic never happened. It has been a lot to take in for everyone involved, from students to teachers to administrators.

But here at NCCM, our Education Team has long noticed a growing and concerning pattern (that doesn’t make headlines). In addition to grappling with the pandemic’s unpredictable and uneven dynamics, many students have the added burden of dealing with growing Islamophobic and racist discrimination in the classroom. Moreover, our schooling system often fails to take Islamophobic incidents seriously.

The result? A loss of trust in our educational institutions.

This is unacceptable. We need consistent accountability. Part of this means noting down the truth of what happened. And we will do so one story at a time.

The following piece chronicles the story of a 10-year-old girl who, after several incidents, now worries about her physical safety while going to school.

Sadly, her story, though frustrating, is not a rarity.

Thank you for reading.

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Rayyan was surprised when her daughter started wearing the hijab.

Nada was seven-years-old and just beginning to feel at home in Canada when she made her decision.

Born in Saudi Arabia, she was a baby when her family decided to give up a very comfortable life (and salary) to start over on the other side of the planet.

Several years after bouncing around Mississauga and Toronto, the family settled in Oakville, Ontario and enrolled their young daughter, the third of four kids, into public school.

Rayyan is a teacher working on her certification, so she’s used to the ins and outs of schooling. But even she was a bit worried about her little daughter wearing the Islamic headscarf in public school.

Would it single her out? How would others react?

“You’re still too young, I said, just enjoy being a kid and dress as you like,” Rayyan recalled. “But she really wanted to. And finally we agreed.”

Things went well and the years flew by. The now 10-year-old Nada developed a special love for science and biology. She looked forward to class presentations whenever the subject came up.

Then the pandemic hit, classes moved online, and Nada’s routine changed like everything else’s. It wasn’t until last November when her school, Dr. David R. Williams Public School in Oakville, invited everyone back inside. Nada was excited for her fourth year. She was excited to be around other kids again.

David R. Williams is a very multicultural school in a diverse environment. Nada said a lot of her classmates are Muslim, though not many wear the hijab like she does. Most kids got along fine. There haven’t been any big problems.

But just a few months into in-person classes last school year, something happened that Nada never expected.

It was just after gym class and everyone headed back into homeroom. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Nada started hearing a conversation right behind her.

“Muslims look ugly, they look weird.”

Nada turned around and saw who said this. It was another student. Let’s call him John.

Surprised, Nada interjected. She felt the need to defend her religion, her identity, even if the comment wasn’t directed specifically at her. That was about to change.

“You look ugly,” John said, this time right at Nada. “You all cover your hair.”

“It’s part of our religion,” Nada replied.

“I don’t care about your religion.”

According to Nada, the short exchange — something she hadn’t experienced ever before at school or anywhere else — deeply upset her. She did the only thing she could and went to her homeroom teacher, Ms. L.

But according to both Nada and Rayyan, Ms. Linger brushed off the incident and said something like, “There’s not much I can do.” All Nada could do was bottle up her feelings and wait for the last bell.

Angry, she went home later to tell her mother all that happened. Distraught, Rayyan took the matter to Ms. Linger and the administration in an email that she shared with me.

She called Ms. L out for not attending to Nada’s concerns and for carelessly brushing off the issue.

Ms. L replied a day later, saying that she had since had a talk with Nada, and that the whole class would engage “throughout the remainder of the school year to ensure that everyone is feeling safe, comfortable and valued within our community.”

“We will be having a class-wide discussion today Period 3 about treating everyone equally and not using the things that are different about us against us. As a class, we will continue our learning on equity and respect and care for others and appreciating our differences,” Ms. L wrote.

A discussion happened on Islamophobia in Nada’s class and things carried on normally for the next few months. Then the end of the school year was just around the corner and the students were excited for another summer.

But in June, just a few weeks before the last day of school, John was at it again. This time, things got even worse.

“We were in English language class, and he asked me to switch spots with him,” Nada said.

The two switched spots, but after about 15 minutes, John walked over to Nada’s seat. He took her laptop, threw it onto the floor, and just stood there, blocking Nada’s way.

Shocked, Nada got into an argument with him.

“I wanted him to get out of my way so I could go tell someone,” she said. “So I grabbed his hat.”

But before she could even react, John grabbed her hijab and pulled it hard.

Then, according to Nada, he said, “I can kill you!”

Nada froze. By this time, one of the teachers in the room saw what was happening. But it was too late. Deeply distraught, with her headscarf out of place, Nada ran to the girl’s washroom, crying.

Then she ran into her brother’s classroom with tears in her eyes to tell him what happened. They decided the best thing would be to wait to get home to tell Rayyan.

Once she heard what happened, Rayyan thought, “not again.”

Having to deal with these incidents, to follow up with teachers and principals, was getting exhausting.

“We should not have to worry about our kids like this,” she says.

This time, she decided to call.

“I was incredibly disappointed,” she recalls, “the teacher, Ms. Linger, made it seem like nothing major happened, like the whole thing was not a big deal.”

But it was a big deal to Nada, who still remembers John’s remark: I can kill you!

Those words ring in her head often. She thinks all the time about someone like John accosting her in class or on the streets.

The administration suspended John for a day. But it was on that day without him when the class decided to have another talk about Islamophobia.

Rayyan and Nada don’t think all this is enough.

“I asked them, how can you protect my daughter, to make her feel safe and to make sure that John doesn’t hurt her again?”

I put this exact question in a pointed email to Ms. L and the school’s Vice-Principal, Ms. Ruby Sidhu.

“I want to assure your community that behaviour and racist language is not tolerated at Dr. David R. Williams Public School,” Sidhu replied. “Our school is continuously working very hard to eradicate inequities and dismantle racism in our school and in our community.”

She refused to go into any details about the case itself. It remains to be seen exactly how this kind of behaviour will be addressed going forward.

Right now, Nada still can’t attend class without the paranoia that comes after getting bullied.

She now wears a hoodie everywhere she goes to prevent anyone from ripping at her headscarf.

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National Council of Canadian Muslims

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization that protects Canadian human rights.