Like many, 25-year-old Farah Yameen returned to work after the winter holiday last January feeling more deeply connected to her faith.
But what she wore to work to show that faith-an Islamic headscarf, or hijab-led a co-worker to tell Yameen in front of other employees that she was “scaring people.”
Yameen and the co-worker, Judy Finlay, both worked at the financial aid office of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, a faculty that prides itself on the courses it offers on Islamic law and the fact that 30 per cent of its students are visible minorities. It is yet another case of offensive, ethnically-charged statements occurring on U of T’s usually tolerant campus.
Yameen, a U of T graduate who worked part-time as an assistant in the office, was getting ready to leave after work on January 11 when Finlay, the faculty’s assistant registrar, in her late fifties, made the remarks.
“She said I look scary and am scaring people,” said Yameen. “She said that you should leave your religion behind when you come to Canada. I told her wearing the hijab was a symbol of my faith. She said she hoped it was a phase I was going through.
“She initially thought I was just having a bad hair day,” added Yameen.
The faculty’s administration conducted an investigation “immediately,” according to Assistant Dean of Students Bonnie Goldberg. But Yameen, who resigned from her job last month due to the incident, says she never received the support she needed.
“I waited for days for a response” from administration, during which time “I was an emotional wreck,” said Yameen in an open letter to Goldberg written after her resignation.
Goldberg admits things didn’t move very quickly, but it was because the situation was complex and sensitive.
“The allegation was substantiated and [Finlay] was advised of that” within the next week, said Goldberg. “These were inappropriate, unacceptable comments.” Goldberg wouldn’t share details of whether Finlay was disciplined, but said that both parties were encouraged to meet with Nouman Ashraf, U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity officer. Yameen declined to do so, saying she wasn’t the one who needed counseling.
Yameen became “bewildered” when Finlay said a few days after the incident that she would apologize to Yameen, but then she changed her mind days later, citing legal concerns. When Finlay eventually read Yameen a written apology about a month after the incident, Yameen said it felt meaningless and “fake.”
“It’s so childish. [She] should be accountable,” said Yameen.
When asked how such an incident could happen at a faculty that prizes diversity, the director of admissions and financial aid and Yameen’s supervisor, Mai-Anh Giap, said she’s “stumped.”
“Farah cried for a week when this happened,” she said.
Yameen is less upset with Finlay than with the faculty’s administration for failing to support her and protect her. Their mismanagement became clear, she said, when Finlay again made offensive comments to Yameen, this time on her last day at work in March.
“I told her the incident was the main reason for me leaving, and she said, ‘Why are you still continuing this?’ and ‘Why are you causing havoc?’ She complained that I almost got her fired,” said Yameen, who left distraught.
In a statement sent to The Varsity, Finlay emphasized that her comments came out of a wish to have “free discussion” and debate on issues in the office, but that “[i]t is clear now that I should have never had the [initial] conversation with Farah. It is a new world we live in nowadays.”
An investigation into the March incident by the manager of human resources, Susan Anderson, is ongoing. Meanwhile, Goldberg said that the staff is scheduled to have development and sensitivity training with Ashraf’s office next week.
“I believe that the matter had resolution and closure,” said Goldberg, who said that she nevertheless wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. “I regret that Farah chose to resign.” Dean of Law Mayo Moran said she’s concerned with how the incident reflected on the faculty. “When you look back…there’s always room for improvement.”
For Yameen, any action taken was too little, too late.
“This administration has failed to do what it was supposed to do,” she said. “They drove me to leave.”