Late one night at Calgary’s Peters’ Drive-In, Lubna Akl and her three young children found themselves in a terrifying situation. While most Calgarians have special memories connected with the iconic burger and shake restaurant, Akl’s heart raced as she teetered between indignation and horror as a stranger verbally assaulted her with a string of Islamophobic remarks.

The warm temperature from the day had lowered with the sun and the chugging of the surrounding idling cars could be heard. Vehicle headlights and the exterior lighting of the restaurant dimly lit her surroundings, but the attacker, who was who was now pressing her two middle fingers against Akl’s passenger window and yelling, was in full view.

Lubna Akl was verbally attacked by another patron for wearing a hijab at the popular burger joint, Peters’ Drive-In on Aug. 17, 2016. She gained the courage to stand up for her rights as a Canadian and confronted her attacker.  Photo by Amy Tucker

Akl, 31, wears a hijab, which is a type of headscarf worn by some Muslim women and to her, it’s a symbol of modesty and worship to God. She chose to wear it at 16 after hearing a Muslim lecturer speak. Neither of her younger sisters wears the hijab and her mother had only started wearing it two months prior to her.

When it comes to these types of attacks, Akl isn’t alone and, it’s in fact part of a growing trend of racism and Islamophobia settling into the hearts of some Canadians. Although reported hate crimes are down in Canada, the number of hate crimes against Muslims has nearly doubled over the last three years. In 2015, when the federal election featured religious issues at the centre of debates, animosity towards Muslims rose and the number of reported incidents jumped to 59 incidents when in 2014 it was only 25. As of October 2016, there have been 53 reported incidents of abuse towards Muslims.

“Mom,” she recalls her oldest daughter, 6, asking, “why are so many people taking pictures of you?” — Lubna Akl’s oldest daugter

Who was the woman at centre of the Peters’ Drive In attack? A native Calgarian it turns out. “I mean Canada isn’t foreign to me, I’m from here, this is my country,” Akl said in Sept. 2016, a month after the incident. She shared her story with me in her parents’ varnished wood sitting room amongst straight back sofas and her curious mother, Rima Akl, 51, and two of her sisters. They give expectant looks at Akl from time to time, signaling her leadership role in the family. Her father, Izzat Akl, 60, garbed in traditional Lebanese-wear enters briefly. He addresses Akl first, ensuring she has offered tea or coffee to her guest.

Akl’s hair is swept back loosely in a high bun. She doesn’t wear her hijab at home, nor do most Muslim women.

There is a growing number of Muslims in Canada— 3.2 per cent as of 2011. 

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) — a human rights and civil liberties organization has been tracking attacks against Muslims.

“We know that when it comes to hate crimes and these incidences, they’re not just a crime charging an individual — which of course is problematic — but they also send a signal to the wider community,” said Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the NCCM. “They do spread fear, they make people feel they are not included and they are damaging to the social fabric of our communities.”

The night of confrontation

For Akl, the confrontation started just after 9 p.m. at Peters’ Drive-In located off the TransCanada Highway on Aug. 17, 2016.

“What could be more Canadian than me going for a milkshake and a burger at 9 o’clock at night?” she said.

She and her family including her two sisters and their children in one car, her parents and grandparents in another, had decided to grab a burger and milkshake for a late dinner. The drive-thru splits off into two lanes — one lane wraps around to the other side of the building, while the other loops back to remain on the south side of the building. Both her sister’s car and her parents’ car by chance ended up on the other side of the building, leaving Akl alone.

According to Akl, her assaulter shouted insults at her and waved her middle fingers from a white Ford truck. Akl said she had pretended to take the woman’s picture so that maybe the woman would back off.

Akl’s family then witnessed the woman exiting her truck and approaching Akl’s car.

“I had thought it was one of her friends,” said Rima, Akl’s mother. Then the trees lining either side of the building cut off their view and the family had no clue what was about to happen next.

The woman then got out of the truck and was now pressing her fingers against the passenger window; Akl thought she must have pushed the woman too far.

“You’re effing taking a picture of me? Who do you think you are? Go back to your country,” Akl recalls her saying.

There was brief hesitation. Akl raced through the options in her head. She intuitively knew what to do next, thanks to the wisdom from her father.

Stand up and speak out — a father’s support

Within the family of eight, Akl is closest to her father and was influenced by him and his love for discussing politics at a young age. Now a grown woman, the influence is reciprocated.

Lubna Akl (left), Izzat Akl —father (centre), and Laila Akl — sister (right) in 1986. Lubna Akl is the second child from a family of eight. Photo courtesy of Lubna Akl

“If ever he needs anything, she’s always the first person to go to. She has a decision over the house. My dad can’t do anything without consulting Lubna about it. For some reason, he just trusts her decision and trusts her judgements about everything,” said Akl’s sister, Lamia Akl, 26. “My dad relies on Lubna more than my mom.”

Akl says she’s his top supporter and always the first to listen to his political standpoints.

“I’d always be like ‘Yeah, dad, you’re right’,” said Akl. “I’m telling you, anyone who knows my dad would tell you he loves talking politics. He’s a politics man.”

Her father, Izzat, was 18 when he came to Canada from Lebanon. He went to SAIT to become an electrician. Rima, her mother, also born in Lebanon and has always been a stay-at-home mom. She was still a child when her family immigrated to Canada. Though the two met in Canada, they married in 1980 in Lebanon, after which they followed her dad’s work to Saudi Arabia where Laila Akl, her oldest sister, 32, was born. After a few years, the family returned to Lebanon where Akl was born. They stayed for only a few months, then came back to Canada in 1986. They had about an eight-year stint in Calgary and within that time, Akl’s sister Lamia and brother Mohammed were born.

In 1994 her father proposed to the family that they move back to Lebanon so the children could learn the Arabic language and culture of their roots.

With four children in tow, the couple drove across the country to Montreal from where where they planned to depart for Lebanon. Akl recalls her father asking her and her eldest sister, Laila, whether they’d rather “spend all their money” to go to Lebanon or Disneyland. She remembers not wanting to go to Lebanon because it sounded foreign and she balked at the decision she was being asked to make. Her 9-year-old self picked Disneyland — at least it sounded more familiar. Yet in the end, with promises to meet their grandparents and uncles, and a desire to please their father, the girls agreed to Lebanon.

“We saw how happy my dad was at the time to take us there,” she said. In hindsight, going to Disneyland was never actually an option, Akl acknowledges, but rather her father’s attempt at making them feel they chose to go to Lebanon.

They moved to a town called Marj, located in Bekaa Valley.

“I didn’t know Arabic or the culture so everything felt backwards.”

Her father tried to start several electrical businesses including fridge repairing and TV repairing while she and her siblings attended school and learned Arabic.

Akl recalls being placed in the kindergarten class when Arabic lessons came around because she had to learn from scratch.

“I remember kids laughing at me because I was of course the tallest in the class and everybody else was four and five years old. It got easier the more comfortable I was [with the language],” said Akl.

During their time in Lebanon, her youngest sister Lamis and brother Mazen were born.

Though the plan was to stay permanently, her father’s attempts at creating a business was unsuccessful. So in 2000, the family sold everything they had including acres of land and moved yet again back to Canada.

Replanting roots in Canada

“Moving back was pretty easy because I already knew what Canada was all about,” said Akl.

School was much easier too in Canada, she said. The math she learned back in Lebanon in Grade 8 was equivalent to what she was learning in her Grade 12 class at Forest Lawn High School in Northeast Calgary. And when she used to have to stand up for sometimes half an hour to recite full passages from history textbooks without looking at the page in Lebanon, in Canada, she sighed in relief where she would need to do no more than study for multiple choice and a few short answer tests.

When she graduated from Forest Lawn High School in 2003, she took a gap year to work various jobs including Canadian Tire, The Shoe Company, and Superstore.

Her father’s ultimate dream however was to see Akl as a journalist expressing the “voice of truth” so the “media doesn’t trash us [Muslims].”

She enrolled in the journalism certificate program at Mount Royal University in 2004 but after one semester she decided it wasn’t for her. It never extinguished the flame in her heart to do well and to right wrongs.

“She’s one of the people in our family that’s always looking out for us or to stick up for herself. She’s one of the people that always notices when there’s something wrong and she’s one of the first people ever to say, ‘This is wrong, let’s sort it out,’” said Lamia Akl.

Clip, zip, and slam

So with a decisive move on the evening of the verbal attack at Peters’ Drive-In, there was a click, zip, and slam as Akl — dressed in a maxi dress, jean jacket and hijab — unbuckled her seatbelt, stepped out of her Acura MDX and walked around to the passenger side where the woman was standing.

“Excuse me,” Akl recalls asking, “Do you have a problem with me?”

“Yeah effing rights I have a problem with you. Who the eff do you think you are. Take your effing jee-beeb and go back to your country,” Akl recalls the woman saying.

As her temper began to rise, Akl replies, “You need to get yourself an education; it’s called a hijab.”

“Oh is your husband with you?” the woman taunts.

“No. But you should probably go get yourself a man to cover your ass because you’re starting to get out of control.”

Akl says she had never been under control of a partner.

She married her husband in 2008 and by 2010 she had her first child with him and became a stay-at-home mom. Two more children came in 2012 and 2013. The evening Akl was verbally attacked her husband had been out with friends.

Akl’s children play in another room and at one point her youngest daughter, 3, interrupts the interview and mutters an indecipherable complaint. Akl consoles her quietly and the child obediently lays on her lap. Akl strokes her fingers through the girl’s hair, similar to her own.

When her only son, 4, enters the room, he’s chatty and tells me a story.

“Whenever we go to the pool, my mom teaches me to swim,” he says smiling, glancing at his mother for approval. She smiles and lets him chat longer but then dismisses him from the room as she continues her own story, delivered with the conviction of a confident woman.

No one helped

Akl reflects on what happened that summer evening at Peters’ Drive-In after both women had returned to their own vehicles. Akl was visibly upset and her children were distraught to see their mother crying.

“Mom,” she recalls her oldest daughter, 6, asking, “why are so many people taking pictures of you?”

Akl hadn’t even noticed.

“I know that there’s ignorant people out there. It’s just that I expected more support from the people around,” Akl said to me. “Taking my picture is probably not the best idea to do at the moment. Because how are you helping me?”

Not a single person rolled down the window to say something nor get out of their car. No one intervened.

The owner of Peters’ Drive-In, Gus Pieters immigrated from the Netherlands in 1954, opening the popular burger and shake joint only 10 years later. Photo by Nora Cruickshank

“I swear to you, I was yelling at her and hoping to God that somebody would just react,” Akl said.

“I didn’t want someone on my side, I just wanted someone to get her away from me or even tell me ‘you know what, get back in your car.’ Just to know that there was somebody there.”

In the frenzy of her heightened emotions and her tears, she decided to call the police.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if this is an emergency but this and this and this just happened and I don’t know what to do,’” said Akl. “And at that point, I guess I was crying, I was broken down. I honestly felt like my dignity had been shattered.”

As though fate was on her side, the abusive woman had followed the lane that ended on the other side of the building, behind Akl’s parents’ car. During the time it took the police to come, her parents’ car had stalled, unknowingly delaying the woman behind them.

Rima, Akl’s mother, nods. “Everything happens for a reason. You know this happens to a lot of women [wearing hijab] I know.”

Const. Craig Collins of the Calgary Police Service said such cases are hard to prove.

“If it’s a he-said-she-said situation, that creates problematic errors for the police. Our burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt,” said Collins.

This could explain why the numbers of incidents reported by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) may be low.

“Two-thirds of hate crime are not reported based on their [Statistics Canada] own survey of Canadians,” said communications director Elghawaby of the NCCM. “That tells us that unfortunately what we know may only be the tip of the iceberg so that’s quite troubling.”

Though Akl reported her situation, she says it was more about standing up for herself and for people who wear the hijab.

“It’s one thing to stay in your car and say ‘I’m just going to ignore her and take all that insult,’ and it’s another thing for someone to call you oppressed and you can’t defend yourself,” said Akl, adding that people mistakenly dub the hijab as being synonymous to oppression.

“In reality everything nowadays revolves around women’s bodies. By saying that we’re oppressed because we’re covered is almost like saying that the only way we can be appealing and sexy is if we’re naked or half-naked,” she said. “Being modest is almost like just being who we are. We can’t be any other way.”

“When she actually confronted that lady, I wasn’t surprised. I’m actually glad she did,” said her sister, Lamia Akl.

Akl says she has never regretted wearing the hijab other than at one point in her life; she admits that she was worried she had worn it too soon because she never had the chance to “show off her hair.”

“I never took it off because I was scared though,” she said. “I know one of my friends, she wore it and then after Sept. 11th, she had to take it off because she was scared. And you can’t say anything because I understand where she is coming from.”

As for what she would say to girls and women afraid to wear the hijab, Akl offers two words.

“Don’t be.”

atucker@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Cassie Riabko and can be reached at criabko@cjournal.ca