The Post-September 11th Experiences of Bangladeshi Muslim Women in St. John's, NL

By Nasrin Akter, MA Student, Department of Women's Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland

September 11th 2001 is often remembered as a tragic event in which thousands of civilian lives were lost. Because they shared a common religious background with the alleged conspirators of this event, following 9/11 Muslims around the world suffered discrimination. Indeed, it is now almost cliché to report that 11 September 2001 had a negative impact upon Muslims in a number of countries where many Muslims, along with a number of non-Muslims mistaken as Muslims, began reporting prejudice.

This short article reflects research I have undertaken as part of a Master's thesis in the Department of Women's Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In this qualitative study, I conducted in-depth interviews with six Bangladeshi immigrant Muslim women in St. John's. Interestingly, the women who participated in this study expressed that they did not feel ostracized because of their religious choices in St. John's after 11September 2001. Contrary to numerous reports of discrimination in other countries and across Canada, these women reported that in the context of St. John's, a sense of ecumenism and a greater understanding of Islam were fostered following 9/11. These participants claimed that local people did not count their religious identities to form an opinion of them. One of these informants explained how local people viewed her:

After 9/11, it was confirmed [to me] that the people of St. John's accepted me as one of them and a friend… Immediately after September 11, I was afraid of how local people might react towards me. You know, I did not notice any changes in their behaviour. I feel that they do not think about which religion I follow, and instead they are concerned about how I behave with other people (Personal Interview, October 2008).

A mother of two explained further:

I… never felt scared due to 9/11. My husband was working, he also never felt coercion or intimidated in his work or anywhere else. We were the only Muslim family in the area; however, my neighbours did not look at us with contempt (Personal Interview, October 2008).

Another participant, who has family in mainland Canada explained that her relatives

warned us to be careful because Muslims were assaulted and despised in different places. Because of this I tended to stay home, but surprisingly, I noticed that when I went out, no one really stared at me weirdly… [M]y neighbours knew my religious affiliation; despite their awareness of this, I did not notice any changes in their attitudes (Personal Interview, October 2008)

In short, these women suggest that the 9/11 tragedy did not negatively affect their lives despite their visibility as members of a religion that was often portrayed post-9/11 as violent. Of note, participants who resided in St. John's before and immediately after the September 11 did not emphasize the physical aspects of purdah (wearing the headscarf or hijab). Presumably, not wearing religiously-understood dress made these women "invisible Muslims," and allowed them to blend in more easily with immigrants of other religious backgrounds. However, participants claimed that those people who knew them to be Muslim were also not hostile or unfriendly toward them. Furthermore, those participants who arrived in St. John's after September 11th 2001 claimed that they did not encounter discrimination because of their religious affiliation. The general consensus amongst local people (whom these women regularly encounter) seems to be that religion does not teach violence, but that some people use religion in reference to their activities to justify their violent acts.

Moreover, these women believed that 9/11 made the existence of Islam more public in St. John's and made local people more familiar with it. One of the participants who resided in the city before and after the tragedy stated:

Prior to 9/11, local people were less aware of Islam. 9/11 introduced us to the local people, you could say. Prior to 9/11, I rarely discussed my religion with colleagues… But since September 11, we (me and my colleagues) sometimes have discussions on some issues relating to Islam and about Muslim women, and they understand me quickly (Personal Interview, October 2008)

Furthermore, this participant added that prior to 9/11 she usually did not take the day off on Eid.1 Typically, Muslims in St. John's celebrate Eid festivals during the weekend if Eid occurs during the week. The post-September 11th period allowed her to celebrate Eid with her colleagues because of increased curiosity and interest in the tradition. This participant elaborated:

They (local people) know that our Ramadan is a full month of fasting. They count how many days are left to Eid. Two or three days before Eid they start saying to me ‘Eid is coming,' similar to Christmas greetings they say to each other. This makes me so happy I cannot express it (Personal Interview, October 2008).

September 11th led this participant to celebrate her religious rituals in a public workplace setting. Furthermore, it provided her with an opportunity to communicate her faith and, explain her faith to her non-Muslim friends. Another participant described her post-9/11 working experiences as follows:

Since I have been working, I have never felt like an outsider because of my different religion, culture, and color. Coworkers support me a lot. If they feel that I could be in trouble, they come ahead and handle things. They know that I am Muslim, so in meetings where they order food, they order vegetarian for me. I do not even need to remind them. They are very sensitive. They do not invite me to places where I could feel uncomfortable. They never create pressure for me. Above all, during Ramadan, they let me come home early so that I can prepare foods for the breaking of the fast (Personal Interview, October 2008).

This description reemphasizes her co-workers' collaboration with, and awareness of, Islam. Thus, rather than seeing themselves as outsiders, participants claimed to feel like local people's neighbours, classmates, co-workers, and friends. In Bangladesh, where the basics of the Islamic faith are well-known by the majority, individuals rarely question one another on their knowledge of Islam. Therefore women tend not to concern themselves with deciphering and analyzing issues in their faith. However, in the context of St. John's, Muslim women of Bangladeshi origin are surrounded by non-Muslims who often have limited knowledge about non-Christian religions. This context often led locals to ask questions, particularly because some of Islam's practices received vast attention post-9/11, and many were overstated and exaggerated by the media. In short, the context after 9/11 had the effect of making local people more knowledgeable about Islamic practices and Islam in general. This interest further encouraged participants in my study to become more educated about their own religious background and feel more a part of the larger community.


  1. Eid is a Muslim religious festival. It is celebrated after a month-long fasting period following Ramadan. Fasting is one of the five compulsory practices of Islam, compulsory for men and women who are able to fast.