It was an incident that would change Farheen Khan’s life, and it happened in Mississauga, Ont., a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.
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Khan was going over to a friend’s apartment to learn how to knit. Just as she was buzzed into the building, she noticed a man walking in right behind her.
“He followed in shortly behind me and I assumed he was a resident of the building — but that wasn’t the case,” she recalled.
Khan said she waited for the elevator with the man standing beside her and when the elevator arrived, they both entered together.
Just as the doors shut, Khan said the man came very close to her and said, “Muslims are being bad in the world and I’m going to show you what that means.”
Wearing a traditional Jilbāb, Khan said the man began assaulting her, trying to tear the clothing off, but the elevator soon came to a stop and the doors opened.
“I ran out of the elevator. I fell on the ground and he was on top of me within a few moments,” she said.
“I pushed him off and I started to bang on and knock on the first door that I could.”
Khan said after she knocked on the first door she could get to, the man ran away.
Left shaken by the assault, Khan said the words “bad Muslim” now haunt her.
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“I was terrified. Only a few weeks earlier, 9/11 had just happened, and I had really think about whether I was going to remain a visible Muslim or not. Whether the hijab was something I continued to wear or not, because my family was like, ‘Look, from a safety perspective, your safety is more important,’” Khan said.
WATCH: Farheen Khan has started the blog ‘Muslims Actually’ to highlight the positive stories of everyday Muslims and change the narrative of fear and violence.
“That was the very first time when I started to realize that my physical safety could be at risk by being a Muslim, by being a visible Muslim in society. So when I finally decided to make that decision to keep it on and then this is happening, I was actually quite terrified. And I was in a lot of shock. I didn’t actually think somebody would want to physically harm me in the way that this man was going to.”
Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with Khan about this experience as part of #FirstTimeIwasCalled — a series of interviews with high-profile Canadians about the first time they experienced racism or discrimination and how that experience affected them.
Khan said the assault was one of the most significant incidents in her life and it pushed her to work for social justice causes.
“I started actively working in the women’s shelters and the sexual assault centres. I’ve been very vocal of my experience in the media for the last 15 years. I’ve been talking about the fact that Islamaphobia has a direct impact on the lives of women in particular and their safety,” she said.
“There’s such a deep connection between Islamaphobia and gender-based violence.”
In 2015, Khan ran as the federal NDP candidate for Mississauga Centre and during the campaign, she said she faced constant questions about her background.
“We really had to legitimize who I was. … We were explaining to people who I was as a candidate. I really had to show people that I was Canadian enough,” she said.
Khan would have to explain to people that she was born in Mississauga, Ont., and she would tell people her father worked as a police officer and her sister worked as a member of the Canadian army.
“That was something that was quite challenging for me, because I didn’t really understand why I had to do that. But that was very necessary,” she said.
While campaigning and knocking on voters’ doors, Khan said people would not answer when they saw her.
WATCH: Farheen Khan, writer and advocate, speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled
“We had to have individuals who would knock for me to advance the doors for me so that they would open the doors,” Khan said.
Khan lost the federal election to Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra and now she works as a writer and advocate on issues related to women and girls, such as violence against women and body image.
Despite all the work Khan does in advocacy, she said she still faces discrimination. That is in part why she continues to wear her hijab.
“There are two reasons why I wear it: one is that it’s very spiritually fulfilling for me as a woman of faith. But secondly, I think it’s important because I use it as a way of educating people,” she said.
“If I’m the only Muslim that anybody will ever meet in their lifetime, at least they should know that I’m just a normal human being and that I hope they’ll be able to actually come and ask me a question if they wanted to. That’s why I keep it on.”
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