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Being Invisible While Being Hyper-visible in Quebec: The Experience of a Hijabi Student

By December 23, 2023No Comments

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” 

―R. Ellison, Invisible Man (1952, p. xxvi) 

I attended a prestigious university in Quebec for my undergraduate degree, which hosted students and professors from all over the world. Yet, they belonged more than I did, despite being brought up in Canada. 

Strayhorn et al. (2012) describe the sense of belonging as “students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty and peers)” (p. 3). This was overwhelmingly not my experience, as for the four years I grappled with feeling excluded, different, invisible, and disliked because of my hijab.

The silent exclusion began mainly in the form of social events I could not attend as a result of my faith. Firstly, the vast majority of events that the university, faculties and programs officially held were centered around alcohol. To name a few: wine and cheese, club crawls, pub nights, start/end of the year get together, and midterm relaxation events all centered alcohol or took place in spaces that were mainly for the consumption of alcohol.  To keep it short, the dominant social campus culture was drinking culture. As research shows, (Chavous 2000) dominant norms, practices, and implicit and explicit ideologies of universities can materialize classism, racism and patriarchy on campus and in classrooms. I would argue from my own experience, it can also materialize islamophobia, by excluding practicing Muslims from spaces of advancement and wider connection.

People around me made connections and friend groups through these events, something which I could not be a part of. This was a time, now I see was short, but then felt very long and lonely, where I felt like everyone had friends, and I didn’t. It hurt my self-esteem and made me feel like there was something wrong with me, and that is why people did not want to be friends. 

Exclusion from big university events impacted more than just my social circles. It impacted my university extracurricular aspirations and hence my post-graduate resume.First year students often found mentors in older students during these social events. Without getting into student politics too much, I saw first hand how new students were able to take executive positions in student run organizations through the support of these mentors. My access to these supports was limited because of the social events felt inaccessible to me.  

The expectation was to assimilate and attend to the dominant environment I entered if I wanted to reap the same opportunities and advantages as my peers. “Universal dominant norms and culture define—and in some cases easily distort—what (and who) is considered normative” (Jackson et al., p. 256) which made me feel like I am too different, and therefore do not belong in this space and should stop trying. 

This was exacerbated by my slow realization that I would be the only hijabi and visible Muslim in most of the spaces I entered. Whether that be in a seminar room of 10 people, lecture room of 100 or a residence hall of 700. I became socially isolated as I felt like I needed to always try harder and was hyper-aware of myself and everyone around me. I felt I should bury my differences in opinions, to shield myself from more attention. I did not even feel like I was Canadian.  At times I thought about how easy and comfortable my life would be if I just did not wear the hijab—a thought I have never had before I began or after finishing my undergrad.  It was mentally exhausting always trying to find ways to fit in, which normally meant, blending in—something I physically could not do because of my hijab. 

As my hijab made me stand out, it became the only thing people saw. They reduced me, as a person, to just the hijab— erasing my individuality and instead perceiving me as their essentialized and orientalist understanding of hijab.  As a result of modern-day Orientalism, Muslim women who wear the hijab are objectified and otherized as oppressed, weak, passive, voiceless victims but also potentially dangerous (Afshar 2008). They are depicted to lack the intellectual caliber to fight or speak for themselves and are in desperate need to be guided, saved and civilized from their barbaric religion from the enlightened west (Afshar 2008). Hence, on numerous occasions I felt disliked and stereotyped, immediately, before I said or did anything, both on and off campus. I, as a person, became the symbol of my religion and my thoughts, opinions and behaviour were all automatically assumed based on people’s preconceived beliefs. 

 One instance from my third year, that still moves me, simply because it was in a gender studies class, and the professor was a Women of Colour. She would hurryingly brush me off when I asked questions and made me feel like what I asked was simple and unintelligent. Whenever I spoke, she would rudely tell me to speak louder. I thought maybe she’s just having a bad day. However, I noticed she was not like that with others. I told my classmate jokingly that “I think she hates me” and my classmate immediately agreed, and said she noticed her rudeness. This was the first time someone else noticed what I felt. 

I ended up getting the best grades in class multiple times, when the rest of the class was severely struggling and frustrated with their marks. After that—after she saw my work, saw that I could critically think about patriarchy and express myself, and I wasn’t some passive, intellectually subservient or anything else she associated with a hijabi, her behaviour towards me completely changed. My voice, tone and types of questions never did. It was as if she cared about what I was going to say and had the patience to try to listen. 

Such microaggressions where I felt immediately disliked were not uncommon. Whether it be getting the cold shoulder or being completely ignored by students or café owners, while they were being extremely warm towards my white friend. On many occasions, even if I spoke, they would reply and mainly engage with just her. My presence made them uncomfortable, and hence they made me invisible. Perhaps that is why a policy like Bill-21 can exist in the province; to shut out Muslim women from the public— to erase us.

Trying to belong…

To combat the exclusion and invisibility I felt in university, I gravitated towards Muslim spaces as I knew my hijab was not a problem there. I ended up making some really great friends, who supported me and helped me navigate university life, and Montreal. I also moved away from the proximity of my university into a more diverse area of the city. Seeing students of colour, and hijabi’s, on a regular basis reduced my visibility and made me feel normal again. Walking to the subway and passing by the numerous POC owned businesses became therapeutic, while it was anxiety inducing living near campus. I became more engaged in the local community, by volunteering at schools and taking up more positions of education on campus to normalize my presence. This included leading workshops for mainly new students, where I always made it a point to describe my experience so people would be aware of the someone their cohort could be experiencing. I went to the festivals the city held, deeply engaged with its café culture and tried the many new things it had to offer with my friends.

 Finding Belonging Elsewhere:

This was enough to get through four years of university, but I knew there was no way I was staying here for post-graduate studies. I had good grades and connections with professors but I craved belonging, and I did not find it in Quebec or my university the way I knew people who had elsewhere. As I left, I noticed things were beginning to change, as there were more hijabis on campus and some organizations were discussing alternatives to drinking events. Nonetheless, I wanted to go somewhere where I could be myself, and not people’s perception of me.  Despite the university’s great reputation, I knew I could not work freely in Quebec as I want to be a lawyer. I saw no point staying in a province that did not want me. For some time I wanted to stay exactly for that reason, and help minorities like myself— after four years, I had no energy left in me to battle the multiple barriers I faced while trying to get an education. There was no university worth sacrificing my mental and physical well-being for. I hence chose a university for my master’s in the heart of downtown Toronto, whose diversity I was certain about.

My own struggles to find belonging made me reflect on the profound significance of representation, especially in educational spaces. As I grappled with my own quest for a sense of belonging, it compelled me to ponder the profound significance of representation. Now, as an increasing number of educators also contemplate the weight of representation,  I worry for the future of other children, teenagers, and youth from my communities who will never see representation in authority figures in their classroom because of Bill 21.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (2005: 18-20) defines representation as the ability to depict or imagine. Hall’s insight emphasizes the significance of representation because culture is fundamentally shaped by meaning and language. In schools, representation holds the power to not only inspire students’ motivation to learn but also to foster a sense of belonging and safety within them (TATP Teaching Toolkit). Representation also proves pivotal in tailoring personalized instruction based on a teacher’s understanding of students’ challenges outside of school, an advantage seen when teachers share the same social positionality as their students.Ultimately, children’s visions of their future are deeply influenced by their daily surroundings. In classrooms where students can see educators who resemble them and share similar backgrounds, they gain the ability to envision their own possibilities. This, in turn, can significantly enhance their educational outcomes as well as their own personal growth. 

However, a lack of representation, particularly in positions of authority or among individuals from diverse backgrounds, transforms authority into a passive process—one that occurs to individuals rather than with them (source: American University). Numerous studies emphasize the adverse effects of a lack of representation in positions of authority, whether within classrooms or the legal justice system. These consequences include feelings of alienation, reduced motivation, and isolation (sources: Justice Canada, Mount Royal University, Doughty Street Chambers, Diverse Education). 

Works Cited:

Afshar, H. (2008). Can I see your hair? choice, agency and attitudes: The dilemma of faith 

and feminism for Muslim women who cover. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31(2), 411–427. 

Chavous, T. M. (2000). The relationships among racial identity, perceived ethnic fit, and 

organizational  involvement for African American students at a predominantly white university. Journal of Black Psychology, 26(1), 79–100.

Ellison, R. (1995). Invisible man. Vintage International. 

Jackson, A., Colson-Fearon, B., & Versey, H. S. (2022). Managing intersectional invisibility and 

hypervisibility during the transition to college among first-generation women of color. 

Psychology of Women Quarterly, 46(3), 354–371. 

Strayhorn, T. L., Hurtado, S., & Harris, Q. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to 

educational success for all students (1st ed.). Routledge.

https://fotografiaeteoria.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/the_work_of_representation__stuart_hall.pdf Hall

https://tatp.utoronto.ca/teaching-toolkit/equity-diversity-and-inclusion/representation-matters/TATP Teaching Toolkit
https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/why-representation-matters-in-low-performing-schools/American University
https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/rg-rco/2019/nov01.htmlJustice Canada
https://www.mtroyal.ca/AboutMountRoyal/MediaRoom/Stories/2021/02/lack-of-representation-in-education-an-obstacle-for-bipoc-students.htmMount Royal University
https://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/Prakruti%20Rao.pdfDoughty Street Chambers
https://www.diverseeducation.com/opinion/article/15109575/diversity-in-the-classroom-why-representation-mattersDiverse Education