For days after the deadly attack, Fatemeh Anvari felt numb, unable even to cry. In early June last year, at an intersection in London, Ont., a pickup truck struck down a Muslim Canadian family, killing four and wounding another. Police said they believed the act was intentional, and motivated by hate. For the first time in her chosen country, Ms. Anvari felt afraid in public, her hijab making her a target. Maybe she should stop wearing it, to be safe? But fear, she decided, was not a good reason.
Six months later, she was called into the principal’s office of the elementary school in Chelsea, Que., where she taught English. A recent court decision meant that Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, would be enforced at English schools in the province. Ms. Anvari would have to remove her head scarf, or lose the job she loved.
The decision was once again clear. Before even being asked, she told her apologetic principal, “I am not willing to take it off.” A law that ordered her not to wear the hijab felt as wrong as one that forced women to put it on. And what message would that send to her students?
“I am always about encouraging kids to find their own identity, and grow on their own terms, and that nobody should dictate who they are,” said Ms. Anvari, 28, in an interview. “I wouldn’t have been me in my class.”
When asked if she would call herself a political person, she says she’s “just a person going about life.” But last December, she became a prominent symbol of the consequences of Quebec’s controversial law and renewed a conversation about tolerance and multiculturalism in Canada – a place where, Ms. Anvari, an Iranian-Canadian, had once believed she could wear what she wanted and not be judged.
The removal of a well-loved teacher from the classroom led to protests by parents and students, who demonstrated outside the constituency office of a provincial politician and tied green ribbons – Ms. Anvari’s favourite colour – on the school fence.
At the same time, Ms. Anvari was getting nasty tweets and messages, some from people who had found her profile at the University of Ottawa where she was working on a master of education and volunteered as a mentor to graduate students. The profile said she had been born in Iran, and spoke Persian, details some used to make their attacks more personal.
It was, she says, a “terrifying” time. “I kept reminding myself the reaction was more positive than negative.”
One positive: Ms. Anvari’s principal quickly created a solution. She reassigned Ms. Anvari to teach monthly classes on diversity and inclusion to students from Kindergarten to Gr. 6. Working as a professional at the school – and not a teacher responsible for evaluating students – Ms. Anvari fell outside Bill 21.
Five months later, sitting in an Ottawa coffee shop, Ms. Anvari is warm and eloquent, reflecting on that difficult time. A cream scarf, one of her favourites, flows loosely around her face; she has a silver ring in her nose. She had only started the part-time teaching job in late October. It was her first full-year contract in Canada; until then, she worked as a supply teacher, popping in and out of classrooms. By the time the edict came down from the school board, her presence was already well-known: The school had sent home class photos weeks earlier, and she had met the parents of her students at teacher interviews.
Driving home the day of the principal’s meeting, she says, “I cried so much that I couldn’t see the road clearly. At that time I felt very alone. People didn’t know yet.”
The mother of a student eventually spread word about what had happened, and she became the topic of dinner conversations, with parents forced to explain to their kids why Ms. Fatemeh was no longer their teacher. She becomes emotional when she talks about the support she received, including a stack of cards from students – many of them on green paper – declaring her “marviles,” and “the best teacher ever,” or that “Bill 21 should not exist.”
She is reluctant to wade too deeply into the politics behind the law, or Quebec’s more recent Bill 96, which imposes new rules to reinforce the use of French in public services and small businesses. “I just don’t see how it can bring people together,” she says.
In her new teaching role, Ms. Anvari runs classroom workshops on subjects such as Indigenous rights and Black History Month. The students, she says, are curious and unfiltered, and often surprised by the racism they learn about. “I find myself wondering: At which point in our lives does that change, the way we see people?” Or, as she has also wondered, what happens to create so much hate that someone would allegedly drive a truck into a family just standing on the sidewalk?
In May, for a class on Asian stereotypes, she asked students to pretend they didn’t know her, and anonymously write down characteristics people might assume about a Muslim woman in a hijab. Some of the younger students, she says, were confused by the assignment. “I don’t assume anything,” they told her. Or, “Isn’t it mean to do that?” In the higher grades, some students wrote, “You are from a different country.” (True for her, Ms. Anvari said, but not everyone.) “You don’t speak English.” (Maybe, she said, but how can anyone know just from a look?) She wanted them to learn how stereotypes seep into the way we see people, robbing them of their unique stories.
Ms. Anvari has travelled her own complicated and unique journey with the hijab. In Grade 1 in Iran, she wore the chador – the black, full-body cloak that leaves only the face visible – for the required school uniform, and felt proud to be dressing like the grown-up women she admired. After her family moved to Canada when she was 10 years old, and wearing it made her different in school and a target for bullies, she took off the chador, and kept the hijab, the head scarf.
Her family returned to Iran to live when she was 16. By then, the chador was no longer something she wanted to wear; she compromised by donning it for larger family gatherings out of respect, but not in class at university, or her first teaching jobs. She longed to return to Canada, where, “I could wear what I wanted, where I could be me.” At 23, she moved back with her husband, who is now a PhD candidate in human kinetics at the University of Ottawa. They live in an apartment in Gatineau.
She continued to explore her connection to the hijab. She asked herself: Was this truly what God required – despite what she had been taught all her life? Did she want to wear it for herself? She knew women who were forced to wear it, others who described the empowering moment when they took it off for good, and teenagers choosing the hijab even over the objections of their parents. What were her reasons? She experimented, preferring the scarf loose, letting her hair show.
She acknowledges that many Canadians may see the hijab as a symbol of oppression. But beyond any religious observation, she says, the head scarf is part of her identity. (And if she feels differently some day, she says, she will take it off.) There have been times when she didn’t want “Muslim woman” to be the first thing people saw when she walked into a room. But then she thinks: Why not? Should I not be that example? A Muslim woman who is a teacher, a student, a wife, a friend, a person. “I am marginalized already anyway,” she says. “Why would I further push myself to the margins?”
The weekend after the June 6th tragedy in London, Ont., last year, while participating in an online course, she had an epiphany of sorts, one that would resonate months later: She would not be cowed into policing her own appearance. During a Zoom session, she was asked to share a personal insight about leadership. She found herself weeping for the first time since learning of the deaths, and reflecting on the many ways that everyone can lead.
Ms. Anvari tells this story in the coffee shop, circling back to the students and parents who rallied to her defence in December, who made certain she didn’t stand alone.
“Fights for freedom and justice should not just be the fights of people who are directly affected,” she says. “Don’t we all have a voice? Can’t we all educate each other, just by being a good person in our world?”
The Globe and Mail, June 6, 2022