At 5 p.m. on a normal weekday, we were already past the rush hour of schools’ dismissal time when my 10-year-old daughter and I stood alone at the bus stop. I had just picked her up from an after-school activity as we waited for the bus in our quiet Toronto neighborhood, bundled up in full winter clothing but still feeling the Canadian winter’s chill.
After we chatted for around half an hour, trying to kill the time, my daughters’ brown eyes sparkled in happiness as she yelled that the bus has arrived. I don’t know how many seconds it took her afterwards to realize that the bus did not stop for us. All what I remember is that at some point we both started jumping up and down like crazy and waving to the bus driver, who finally made an abrupt stop and waited for us as we ran and hopped in.
For an Arab-looking mother wearing a headscarf, this was no passing incident. Yes, it is possible that the bus driver had no bad intentions and he just failed to see us (although I can’t see how given that we were right at the bus stop), but it is also possible he did see us – albeit only from the lens of our being a veiled Arab/Muslim woman and her daughter who were not welcome in his Canada. During the ride home I wondered if it was about my being Arab or my being Muslim or my being veiled or my being an immigrant – or even none of the above. Maybe the bus driver was completely innocent and he never thought about any of this. Maybe my mind weaved all of this because I was negatively influenced by what I see in the news coming from Trump’s America, Canada’s neighbor, and the anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant discourse currently on the rise in several countries. I never knew and I probably never will.
I decided not to mention the incident (which is possibly no incident at all) to my girl. She is a child and still innocent; and the negative thoughts and worries that bothered me probably never occurred to her, or so I wanted to believe. I wanted to forget about the issue. After all, we are in Canada, one of the world’s few beacons of freedom and human rights, and we have been truly overwhelmed by warmth and love, and by amazingly welcoming Canadians, since our arrival.
The bus incident came back to me today with the unexpected news of the European Court of Justice ruling that permits employers to ban workers from wearing the headscarf. In addition to Canada and a number of European countries, the European Union represents a remaining hope for those who still believe in human rights and freedom. In fact, one of the main reasons I moved with family from Egypt to Canada is that I wanted my children to live in a country that respects rights for all. Luckily, the ruling was issued in Europe and not in Canada. But make no mistake, a ruling like this will serve to shake the faith of many in human rights as universal values; it will prompt many to stop and ask themselves whether there is a single Western country that is true to the principles it promotes.
They already do in the country where I come from, Egypt. Hypernationalist supporters of the ruling regime, which has committed a series of striking human rights violations against its own people, defend their rulers on the grounds that human rights do not matter – more so when the state is fighting terrorism and when ISIS is wreaking havoc in one of Egypt’s provinces, Northern Sinai.
The attack on rights and freedom also comes from a segment of fellow Muslims who say that no Western power has ever fully respected the values it claims to export to the Muslim world – and that there will always be discrimination against Muslims.
Hypernationalist Egyptians say that when Western politicians officially condemn a non-Western government’s human rights record, they are only paying lip service and are actually conspiring against the Egyptian state. Anti-West Muslims say that the West inherently rejects everything Muslim and hates Islam, and therefore there is no such thing as non-discriminatory respect for human rights.
I often argue with both camps in defense of human rights, citing the European Union and Canada as role models and living proof that my view is not merely theoretical or expressed from an ivory tower. But with the ECJ ruling, and with every step taken in the same direction in Western countries, my voice is weakened and their voices are strengthened.
Sooner or later, and even though I wish that my children could remain children forever and never have to face the reality of our hypocritical world, I will start discussing with my daughter the merits of values like equality and non-discrimination. I will tell her that she should cherish freedom, including freedom of belief and expression. But on the other hand, I do not know what the world will tell her and whether she will be able to have faith in my words in the face of whatever she will see in cruel real life.