Naima Rharouity was a 47-year-old mother who lived in Villeray with her two young boys, ages five and seven. “She really took care of her kids,” said her niece Soukaina Rharouity. “They were the centre of her life.” Rharouity lost her life in the most horrific way. Her scarf and hair somehow got caught between the moving steps in a metro escalator, strangling her. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Overnight, the incident has gone from tragic accident to an intense internet debate, and media misfire. Several news outlets were reporting that Rharouity had been strangled not by a scarf, but by a hijab.
“The lead of TVA and Journal de Montreal to allege that the woman was wearing a hijab fails on a basic level of journalistic discipline and that’s the level of verification,” said Alan Conter, a Concordia Journalism Law and Ethics Professor. “Obviously there was no verification done.”
“Maybe it was a hijab but why would you insist in telling us?” said Julien Day, a writer for Voir. “For me it’s a no news.” Day says he was shocked by the replies he got on an article he wrote criticizing the media’s coverage. “There were pretty violent reactions like she deserved it and maybe people will learn that you wear your hijab at home and no where else,” he said.
The incident has evolved into a bigger issue about ethics and responsible journalism. “I don’t think it’s responsible for any media to present it the way they did with the big titles ‘strangled by her hijab,’” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
One blogger, Mathieu Charlebois, created a page highlighting the hateful comments online. He told Global News that in less than 45 minutes he found over 50 comments. “One less terrorist in Montreal,” reads one comment. “This shows when you don’t know how to dress, you can die. The Charter would have saved her,” said another. Charlebois didn’t hide any of these people’s identities. He says it’s not his job to protect them.
In the context of the debate over Quebec’s Charter of Values, Sama Al-Obaidy says the province has fallen in a climate of hyper-Islamophobia. “My first reaction wasn’t ‘what was she wearing,’ it was ‘oh my God we all took the metro this morning and it could have been any one of us.’” she said. Al-Obaidy is hoping that people who read the hateful comments might re-evaluate how they judge others. “At the end of the day, we all have the same values and we all have the respect for human life,” she said.
At the end of the day, no matter what she was wearing, two children lost a mother and a family is left broken.
The Montreal Gazette quotes a friend of Naima Rharouity as saying: “It’s upsetting to me that there’s so much emphasis on the hijab and the fact that Rharouity was a Muslim. Her hijab would have been tucked neatly under her winter coat and a long scarf. I spoke to the person who was next to her when it happened and she says it was a scarf that got caught. I wear a hijab, too, and it just seems impossible that it could ever get caught in an escalator.”
Update: See Ethan Cox, “More Islamophobia in Quebec”, National Post, 3 February 2014