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World Hijab Day in YMM: Building Bridges One Headscarf at a Time

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How do you build bridges? How do you eliminate, or at least minimize the “Us vs Them” mentality? You invite conversations, and the opportunities to seek to understand. You give back to your community by building a platform that answers all of these questions, and more. World Hijab Day YMM has been doing this for Fort McMurray. And, on January 28, 2017, we hosted our fourth annual event at Peter Pond Mall where hundreds of women joined us to try on a hijab, the Islamic headscarf.

As the group’s President/Co-founder, and above all as a Hijab-wearing (Hijabi) practicing Muslim woman, keeping the doors of communication open has always been my priority. There’s a reason we keep the event’s premise light, we call it a perfect afternoon out with your girls. Come try on a hijab, take a picture if you like, and share on a video if you like. The brand new hijab is our gift to you. And, the ladies have loved it. They told us they look like a “princess,” “gorgeous,” “just amazing,” and many more accolades for which we’re grateful. We stand centre court to answer your questions about the hijab. And, if we’ve changed even one mind during an event when it comes to Islam, or Muslim women, then we’ve done our job.

Our motto is Modesty, Honour, Beauty. For Muslim women, our modesty is our honour, and our beauty lies in our modesty. It’s a full circle, and one that we embrace with pride. The hijab completes us. It’s not a cry for help. It’s not a subliminal message to emancipate us. Please don’t look for anything broken to fix here.

January 29, 2017, however, saw many people broken when the Quebec Mosque attack happened. A terrorist took six lives in Sainte-Foy. Alexandre Bissonnette destroyed six families. Women who went to pray with husbands returned as widows, children fatherless. A nation shocked.

Stunned, I had no idea how to function the next day. We knew the ban on the seven Muslim countries in the USA would trickle down to Canada, but nobody could’ve imagined the ramifications this fast? Amid a barrage of text messages, hugs, questions, flowers (thanks, Myrna), I remained stunned. How could this happen in our country? Why? I had no answers. I was already concerned for my family in the USA, and here it was – hate in its prime on our doorstep. It took all my might to assuage my parents’ fears, who were now concerned for my safety too. I said all the right things to them knowing Fort McMurray is an amazing, safe, respectful, and diverse community. But, a new heightened awareness of being a potential target gnawed at my heart. I hated having the “be proud Muslims, but be safe and aware,” conversation with my teenage boys. I felt numb until I checked Facebook that night.

And, that Facebook post was from Tarra Brenton Melanson, a local resident, who was asking her friends if they’d like to try on a Hijab with her? She isn’t Muslim, and will be the first to tell you, isn’t religious either. But, here she was embarking on a journey to walk in our footsteps, or in his case try on a Hijab, and not for a day, week, but a month! Little did she know, she’d find a whole sisterhood ready to stand with her. Vanessa McMahon, her friend joined in, and pretty soon the #Hijab30 group was formed with over 100 participants on Facebook.

Our World Hijab Day YMM committee stepped up with donations of over 70 new hijabs, and here we were supporting what Tarra originally thought to be two or three women to be hosted in Vanessa’s living room, snowballed to a huge group. Markaz ul Islam, the Islamic Centre of Fort McMurray stepped up to sponsor a venue to launch the #Hijab30 event, and on February 2, 2017, over 100 women came together at the Eagleridge YMCA.

“To say that I’m amazed at how one post on Facebook has turned into this movement, is an understatement. When I posted in our Mommy Network Facebook page I could never have imagined the sad events that would follow the next day in Quebec,” began Tarra to a standing room only crowd at the launch.

“Cowardly actions of hate that stole husbands from wives, fathers from children and good men from their communities. My family and I will keep them in our hearts and I hope that the many acts of solidarity across our country brings them some comfort.”

“I’m not a deeply religious person, I can count on one hand how many times I go to church in a year. But I did grow up in a family where I was always taught kindness and compassion for everyone. And my commitment to being a voice for kindness and compassion seems to have only strengthened since becoming a mom. I had taken my 8-month-old to Mitchell’s to celebrate her second tooth and saw a poster for World Hijab Day YMM. It stuck out to me. Maybe more so than it normally would have. You see I lived in the US for 10 years. In New York City specifically. On September 12, 2001, I was scheduled for an interview at the World Trade Centre. But on September 11 those plans were changed and I lost good friends. One of them a beautiful friend who knew I was alone in New York and invited me for Moroccan food frequently. As much as I remember her, I also remember the hate and fear I heard all around me, in a city and country I was calling home. I moved back to Canada 11 years ago but when I started to hear the hate and lack of compassion coming from the US election start to spill over into comments in town and on Facebook it took me back to 2001. This time, though, I have a daughter. This time I’m older and I have a responsibility as a mother, a member of this community, this country and as a human being to stand up and say what needs to be said. Wearing a hijab for 30 days won’t change the world, but I hope it shows you, our community members, your children and my child, that you’re not alone and that as cliché as it might sound, ”all it really does take in this world for evil to prevail, is for good people to do nothing.”

While Vanessa was the first one to answer Tarra’s call for the Hijab, she also went a step further following the Quebec shooting.

“When I woke the next morning my head was spinning. I couldn’t shake the terrible grief. Then something happened. I thought back to Tarra’s post and realized this was the time for us to stand. But first and foremost, I had to show my condolences to the local Muslim community, which I knew had to be experiencing feelings that I simply cannot comprehend after an incident such as this. That’s when I left the flowers at the Mosque.”

Accompanying the flowers was a note that said “I am so sorry for the loss in your community. You are loved.” Thanks, Vanessa.

Samra Ilyas, a Hijabi Muslim, and manager for community and social services, is a well-known community leader, and advocate for inclusion. She appreciates what both World Hijab Day YMM and #Hijab30 are doing for the community.

“World Hijab Day YMM provides a great forum for people to come and ask questions directly from those that wear the hijab. It’s a great way to raise awareness and dispel myths that people may have about the hijab and more so about the women who wear it. People don’t know what they don’t know and if we want our community to understand then we need to do our part to educate and I think World Hijab Day YMM is a great way to do that and to start the conversation.”

“#Hijab30 sends a strong message of solidarity to me, and I believe that’s how it came about. A few amazing and kind hearted women who believe in inclusion and wanted to do their part to show solidarity after the unfortunate tragedy at the Quebec Mosque. They are building bridges and have touched us all with their support and kindness. I wear the hijab because I believe in it and believe in what it stands for. I am surrounded by so many wonderful, strong hijabi women and I want people to know that the hijab doesn’t limit us. It gives me strength and confidence to be myself and has made me a better person,” said Samra.

At the time of this writing, the ladies are on day 18 of the #Hijab30 “challenge” as they call it. I call it solidarity. It’s sisterhood at its best. It’s a pronounced step in seeking to understand. And, the ladies share a plethora of experiences – both good, and bad. However, it would be unfair to hold them responsible, and expect them to speak on behalf of Hijabis. The onus is not on them. Ask those who wear the Hijab as their identity, as their life. Wearing the Hijab doesn’t mean an invitation to be ignored, looked down upon, or assume we are being oppressed by men. Islam is a logical religion. Would it ask millions of its female followers to adhere to practices that are a detriment to our self-esteem, thereby our mental health? If everyone was avoiding or belittling us would anyone wear the Hijab? Ask those questions with respect, and to eliminate “the others” mindset. All it takes is a choice to build bridges.



Left to right: Sara Eweida, Markaz ul Islam, Tarra Brenton Melanson, Vanessa McMahon, and Bushra Irfan, Markaz ul Islam, at the #Hijab30 launch

The #Hijab30 participants. Many wore the hijab as a sign of solidarity at the event

WHDYMM: The World Hijab Day YMM committee at the fourth annual event


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.