Mothering in a time of terror

Globe and Mail, Canada

SHIREEN AHMED

Early this week, my only daughter turned 15. She came downstairs excitedly, reading dozens of birthday messages on her phone. I hugged her tight. As I made her a smoothie, I retold her birth story for the umpteenth time.

She likes to hear that she was born so quickly that I had no chance of an epidural. She was really strong and exploded into the world with a force that was telling, then grew into a feisty toddler and precocious child.

We talked about her plans for the day: lunch at a Chinese restaurant with her favourite cousins, chai and cake in the afternoon with her grandparents, followed by soccer practice. It’s exam time, and I was so proud of her for being so committed to her training during her semester finals.

Then, after sharing those precious memories, I made my voice gentle. I reminded her that if she was ever confronted by gunfire at our mosque or in a crowd, she should hit the ground and cover her head.

Her eyes darkened, but she nodded. I handed her the strawberry-banana drink.

The night before, as my daughter crammed for her English finals by reviewing The Merchant of Venice, news of the shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City flooded social media. Sainte-Foy’s mosque was ravaged as Muslims stood shoulder-to-shoulder, engaged in soulful and peaceful worship. It was a gross violation of a sacred space.

I was horrified, scared and heartbroken. And I immediately wondered how I would explain it to my kids.

We are Muslim. All four of my children used to attend a full-time Islamic school. It was adjacent to a mosque that they walked to for prayers, skipping across the parking lot with their friends to stand in line, giggling in hushed whispers. They were innocent and unaware of any potential danger, especially in Canada.

For years, it never occurred to me that they might not be safe. My husband and I have been frustrated and, truthfully, very concerned these past weeks, observing what can only be described as a political gong show in the United States. But never did I expect that a horrific terrorist attack against Canadian Muslims would take place so soon after a misogynistic xenophobe took over the White House.

It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with my children about the six men, loving fathers, kind business owners, committed community members, who were brutally killed in the act of worship, allegedly by a man whose social media espoused disturbing far-right and anti-immigrant views. I asked them to offer a prayer for the deceased and to pray for patience for the families who must endure these tragedies.

They were solemn and confused. How, they asked, could this have happened in a place that is supposed to be a safe house for spiritual practice? Beyond a jumble of phrases that included the words “racist, violent, gun, ignorance,” I had no idea what I could say that wouldn’t crush their little hearts.

Their school board sent kind e-mails advising parents that all the flags would be at half-mast and there would be staff available if any children needed extra support. That reduced me to a mess, sobbing into my hijab. I heard rumours that local police were promising a stronger presence at centres and mosques for the next few weeks. I appreciated that tremendously.

But how could I assure my Muslim children that their father and grandfather, who attend prayers daily, would be safe? I simply could not.

We have spoken to our children about bullying, racism and misogyny. I have reiterated that as a Muslim, being just is crucial and have corrected them bluntly for comments that are simply unacceptable.

Their Baba always emphasizes that helping others is critical, that we must protect and support all groups or individuals that are being targeted, physically or otherwise. We assured our eldest, a 6-foot, 3-inch volleyball player, that if he sees anyone getting harassed or abused, he should step in.

Islamophobia is not new to Canada. It is rooted in xenophobia and racism and has festered for a long time. It bubbled over during the last federal election, when the incidence of attacks against Muslims was reported to be at an all-time high.

But this is the first time – and I ask forgiveness from black and indigenous parents who have already done this for so long – I’ve felt such an urgent need to teach my children how to protect themselves.

A few months ago, my daughter decided to wear a headscarf, a decision she made without consulting me or her father. She only discussed it with her basketball team. I am vocal about my support for women choosing to wear what they wish, be it a hijab, niqab or miniskirt.

Obviously, she expected and relied on my support of her decision. Admittedly, I worried about her safety. I took her to a self-defence class, because Muslim women are often the easiest targets for Islamophobes.

I wonder whether I have taught her to be too strong in her convictions and whether that might endanger her. Her confidence is a blessing and I should have faith.

But after the events in Quebec City, my concern is not the actions of my child, who is agile, intelligent and considerate. My concern is the actions of others, who might aim their hatred and fear at her.

There are often children in mosques. When mine were little, my husband used to take them with him for the evening prayers to give me a break. They enjoyed the open space and played peek-a-boo through the legs of the uncles and aunties or climbed onto the backs of their prostrating parents. They squealed and enjoyed the time – their parents were focused on something other than correcting their behaviour.

Some children stood respectfully during prayers. Mine always ran around, full of joy. And now, instead of unity and tolerance, our conversations must focus on survival.

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