Srosh Hassan stood in the House of Commons on Wednesday to explain to her fellow Canadians what it’s like to be a 21-year-old Muslim woman of colour “in a time of overwhelming stigma.”

“Islamophobia is a heavy word in today’s discourse, but it is heaviest for those who are on the receiving end of it,” she said, shaking with emotion.

“In a country I call my own, my identity is challenged and my actions are heavily scrutinized. I am simultaneously silenced into shame while being expected to apologize for the actions of a small group of people that do not represent me.”

Ms. Hassan, who lives in the riding of Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta, said Canadians have a responsibility “to challenge a growing culture of ignorance rather than justifying xenophobia and prejudice under the veil of free speech.”

Choking back tears, she said: “This is my Canada, and there is no seat for hate here.”

Ms. Hassan was one of 338 young women who, for the first time in history, filled every seat in the House of Commons in honour of International Women’s Day. It was part of an initiative called Daughters of the Vote, organized by Equal Voice, which advocates to elect more women in politics. Women currently make up a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, despite representing half the population.

“It doesn’t add up and it needs to change,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who appointed a gender-balanced cabinet in 2015, told the women as he addressed them in the Commons.

Another woman, Khadija Waseem, 23, from Don Valley North in Toronto, asked Mr. Trudeau, “How long will it take for Islamophobia to be condemned in this house of leaders?”

A Liberal private member’s motion, M-103, which condemns Islamophobia and all forms of systemic and religious discrimination and asks the heritage committee to study the issue, has created a fissure in Parliament, with many Conservatives saying they won’t support it because it isn’t well defined and could affect free speech.

“If everyone had just agreed and we’d moved on, maybe we wouldn’t be addressing the very scary and real spike in hate speech. Maybe we wouldn’t be challenging each other as politicians in the things that we’re saying, in the choices we make as leaders to play up divisions and fears,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Without naming the Conservatives, he said the motion proves there are still people “uncomfortable” with condemning Islamophobia, or discrimination against Muslims.

“Do we have a problem with Islamophobia in this country? Yes, we do,” he said.

“Do we have a problem with anti-Semitism in this country? Yes, we do. Do we have a problem in this country with discrimination and hatred? Yes, we do. And we need to talk about this.”

Mr. Trudeau also thanked his wife, Sophie, who caused a stir this week by urging women to celebrate the “boys and men in our lives who encourage us to be who we truly are.” She said in a follow-up Instagram post that gender equality requires men and women working together. “Being with Sophie makes me a better leader, makes me a better Prime Minister,” Mr. Trudeau said.

All four party leaders spoke to the women in Parliament on Wednesday. The women, aged 18 to 23, represented each riding in Canada and took the seat of their respective MP. They also heard from Kim Campbell, the country’s first, and so far only, female prime minister.

“We get our sense of how the world works from the landscape in which we function. And if our landscape doesn’t include women parliamentarians, if our landscape doesn’t include women leaders, women managers, women directors … then when we see a woman doing that job, we will feel uncomfortable,” Ms. Campbell said.

“And so, what we need to do is change the landscape.”

Some of the women also had a chance to address the Commons on topics of their choice, which included indigenous rights, electoral reform and mental health.

Lianna Rice, a 23-year-old Inuk woman from Labrador, talked about her suicide attempt three years ago. “One of the only things I remember about that day is how my brother was there to love and support me,” she said. This past Monday marked “the seven-month anniversary of my brother’s death by suicide,” Ms. Rice told the Commons.

“This is just my story. The stories of Inuit affected by suicide are just as valuable as the statistics, and our voices need to be heard.”

Another participant, Michaela Glasgo, 20, of Medicine Hat, Alta., told the Commons she could be considered an anomaly: a Conservative, and a feminist.

“It is imperative that conservative parties break this stereotype as an old boys’ club. As Conservatives, we must demonstrate open hearts and tenacity on women’s issues,” she said.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who received applause for her private member’s bill that would make sexual assault training mandatory for lawyers who want to be federal judges, encouraged the women to enter politics. “When I talk to young women they say to me, ‘You know, why me?’ And I have to kind of convince them why they are so awesome. And then they say to me, ‘You know what, first I think I want to get my law degree, and then I think I need to get my MBA, and then I want to work for 15 years.’”

“Really what they’re saying is, that is when they’ll feel worthy. And that is wrong.”

NDP leader Tom Mulcair talked about the importance of affordable child care. “In our society today, we know that it is almost always women who make sacrifices in their career when it comes to raising children. That’s still true today.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May told the Commons that “women helping women and mentoring is key to our success as women.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 08, 2017 8:16PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 09, 2017 7:06AM EST

Video:Women often have to do more and settle for less in terms of cold, hard cash’ (The Globe and Mail)