A few days ago, 11-year-old Canadian Khawlah Noman was walking to school with her younger brother Mohammed Zakariyya when she felt someone pull the hood of her winter jacket down. Her blue hijab was exposed, and standing menacingly over her, she said, was a smiling, mustachioed, suspiciously dressed Asian man holding a pair of scissors in his hand.
She recounts that the man proceeded to cut her hijab from the bottom up, and once she screamed, the attacker took to his heels. But that would not be the end. Noman says she ran to a group of children walking nearby so the attacker could not isolate them again but became separated once again at a crossing. The reported Islamophobic suspect then approached her again, and by the time she got to school, her hijab had been cut short by 30 centimeters.
Noman's story soon caught the nation's attention and was condemned by leaders from all three levels of government as 'unrepresentative of Canadian values.' Even prime minister Justin Trudeau would weigh in on the situation, tweeting that his 'heart goes out to Khawlah Noman' and that 'incidents like this cannot be tolerated.' Other prominent politicians who condemned the incident were premier Kathleen Wynne and mayor John Tory.
Police began investigating the incident as a hate crime and less than four hours after the initial police report, the Toronto District School Board let a teary-eyed Noman, along with her mother, grandmother, 10-year-old brother and Shari Schwartz-Maltz, TDSB manager for media relations and issues management, face television cameras and throes of reporters who broadcasted the incident to an international audience. It was a statement that the country would not stand for such discrimination and a show of supreme solidarity.
Except now, in a spectacular twist of events, it has come to light that the entire incident was fabricated and given rise to the suspicion that Noman cut the hijab herself; for what reason, it's still not known. This past Monday, Toronto Police issued a brief statement which read: "After a detailed investigation, police have determined that the events described did not happen. Our investigation is concluded and we do not expect anything further."
Commenting on the latest developments, Ryan Bird, the manager of corporate and social media relations at TDSB, told The Star: "We are very thankful that this assault did not in fact happen. Our motivation for commenting on the issue at the time was only out of compassion, care, concern, and support — as did many elected leaders nationally, provincially and locally via interviews or social media."
Toronto Police director of communications, Mark Pugash, had a similar opinion, saying: "These were extremely serious allegations. Investigators worked on Friday and over the weekend gathering evidence, including video and interviews, when they had it all they sat down, looked at what they had, analyzed it, tested it, and the only conclusion that they could come to was that the events as described on Friday did not happen."
He did not speculate why Noman made the allegations but added: "This received quite rightly, given the nature of the allegations, international coverage. And we wanted to make sure, having reached the conclusion that we did, that we got that information out as soon as possible to try and allay as many of the concerns that we could."
Titus Gho, a parent who has a child studying at the same school as Noman, expressed relief, but also a concern that this incident may lead to future hate crimes being labeled 'fake.' He said: "I’m kind of glad that it’s not actually something that actually happened, but then on the other side, I mean, we all really wanted to know why she reported this."
"When you are speaking about allegations like this, you’re talking about Islamophobia and you’re talking about racism and things like that, there are a lot of emotions that are attached to it," he added.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, who had previously denounced the attack, said in a statement: "I’d like to thank the Toronto Police Service for their work in this matter, and I join all Ontarians in being thankful and relieved that this assault did not take place," with mayor John Tory similarly tweeting: "It is good to know that this event didn't happen."
Now, the question arises as to how such a gaffe happened in the first place. It can be argued that the media was responsible because they took the story and made it huge, but John Miller, a professor at Ryerson University's journalism program, disagrees. He said: "If the police reported it, the media should report it. It implies that they’ve done a certain amount of investigation. Obviously, the follow-up by both the police and the media was not as successful."
He said that the girl's story had gone viral on social media and that there was a pressure to report, adding: "An 11-year-old girl is believed when she says something happened to her. Obviously, there’s some perils in that. We don’t know why she claimed that happened, or somebody claimed it on her behalf."
The timeline of the attack tweeted out by the Toronto Police which sparked the media frenzy:
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