Marwa Khanafer weighs each word carefully when she speaks publicly. Dressed in her hijab, she knows that she has no leeway to make mistakes. She has learned the hard way that a lightly chosen word can backfire on not just her but her entire community.
“When I make a mistake, it’s as if I represent all Muslim women,” the young activist lamented. “But if I do something right, then they just associate that with me as a person.”
On the eve of her 26th birthday, the Quebecer of Lebanese origin — who was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo — already has several causes to her credit. As soon as she arrived in Canada in August 2016, she became involved with UNICEF and Amnesty International at the University of Montreal, where she was completing a master’s degree in international studies. She also served as secretary and then president of the student association.
Listening to her talk, you quickly come to realize that she doesn’t tolerate injustice, no matter what form it takes. By her own admission, she’s concerned by “all causes that affect human rights.” But really, it was in 2019, while the mobilization against the Law on State Secularism was raging, that she found her very own cause.
“Bill 21 is really something that came looking for me,” she says. “Because now you’re attacking a whole visible minority. And you can say that you’re targeting all people who wear religious symbols, but let’s be clear, you’re targeting Muslim women specifically.”
She’s outraged that Quebec, where she constantly hears about women’s rights and gender equality, “prohibits a category of people, especially women, from developing and pursuing their dreams.” She takes every opportunity to oppose this “discriminatory and racist” law. She thinks, for example, of those young women who have always dreamed of teaching and who will only be able to do so if they agree to remove their veils.
From demonstration to demonstration, the young woman doubles down on her speeches. She always reiterates that she’s only speaking for herself. She’s always careful to use words that she describes as “less harsh” so that those who listen to her aren’t able to accuse her of insulting Quebecers.
But even though she wants to protect the sensitivities of some of her counterparts, there is nevertheless one expression that she does not intend to censor: systemic racism.
“Systemic racism is a fact, it’s a reality,” she says. “If we want to solve the problem, we’ve got to first address it and recognize it.” And there is no doubt in her mind that Bill 21 perpetuates this systemic racism, even if François Legault still refuses to admit its existence.
That’s why, even though the law was passed on June 16, 2019 — the day she describes as the biggest disappointment of her activism career — she doesn’t intend to stop voicing her discontent.
“Armour” against hatred
Marwa’s activism often allows her to see the most beautiful side of humans. “At demonstrations, there are people who aren’t even affected by this law, but who are there just to show you their solidarity and to say that ‘even native Quebecers are against this law,’” she says.
“That’s the kind of support that makes you tell yourself that you’re not alone in this fight. There are lots of other people who are with you, even if they don’t show it every day,” she says. “It’s just ... all of us in this together.”
But daring to say what she thinks, as a veiled woman, has also made Marwa see an ugly corner of Quebec society. When she’s asked what those close to her think of her activism, whether they’re worried about her sometimes, she ends up answering timidly: “The only thing that worries those around me is hateful comments.”
“You always know that there are people who are going to disagree with your opinion, people who are going to insult you and send you messages via Messenger just to threaten you.”
As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that these are not isolated incidents. She receives dozens, if not hundreds, of these hateful and racist messages every time she shares videos of her speeches on social media.
“You know there are people who are going to disagree with your opinion, who are going to insult you, people who are going to send you messages on Messenger just to threaten you,” she says — as if it was just a matter of course to be subjected to racist insults for speaking out against a law in a democratic society. As if it wasn’t a sad irony that those who attack her for expressing her opinion often invoke freedom of expression to give themselves the right to insult her online.
Some of her videos went viral, she says, because malicious people shared them in Islamophobic groups. The members of these groups then disseminate them just so that they can pour their venom out on Marwa, veiled women, and Muslims in general.
“When you post a video and you get 50 or 100 hateful comments ... the first, second, third, it’s okay, you reply with a laughing emoji, you smile, you respond nicely,” she says. “And after a week you get some positive comments but then it’s just the negative comments that go around and around and around in your mind....”
If Quebecers struggle to recognize the extent of racism in the province, it’s because it’s often insidious — almost invisible to those who belong to the majority. The racism Marwa experiences on a daily basis is made up of microaggressions — glances and innuendos — which feeds into the feeling of rejection that has become even more palpable, she says, since the advent of Bill 21.
In the eyes of many, this veil - which she chose to wear as a teenager “without pressure, obligation; without anything” — places her in a subcategory of the population.
“A veiled woman is a submissive woman. A veiled woman is an uncultured woman. A veiled woman is an inferior woman. And a veiled woman is a terrorist,” she said in a 2018 speech in the National Assembly’s Blue Room, when she participated in a Quebec Youth Parliament simulation.
It was out of the question, then, for Marwa to keep quiet. She will continue to stand up and denounce racism and discrimination, as she did twice at the National Assembly. Being given the opportunity to denounce Bill 21 in this hot spot of political power — even by implication, since she wasn’t allowed to mention the law during the exercise — represents her greatest victory to date as an activist.
“Just the fact that I was standing in the Quebec National Assembly wearing my hijab and talking about the law indirectly, even if you’re shaking because you’re speaking in front of all these people you don’t know ... those are the moments that are going to remain engraved in my mind.”
This story is a part of “Whose Street Is It?” an ongoing HuffPost Quebec series that gives voice to Quebecois activists and examines how far they are willing to go to create change.
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