CBC-TV documentary examines life as a Muslim teenager

CBC-TV documentary examines life as a Muslim teenager

Toronto teenager Malaieka Khan says she loves meeting new people, even though it invariably means having to explain why she wears a hijab.

It's just part of life as a Muslim girl, she shrugs.

The bubbly 14-year-old notes she's outgoing by nature, but acknowledges there are some anxieties she's had to battle that non-Muslim kids likely don't have to think about. Making friends is generally not a problem, but fitting in and withstanding peer pressure is another challenge.

"I know that I have 'restrictions' or a different way of life than some people ... and I just put it in my head that what they do is not what I'm going to do all the time, or what they say or how they dress or whatever makes them comfortable may not make me comfortable," says Khan.

"I'm a very strong person when it comes to closing my mind off of things."

That includes coping with Islamophobia and harmful stereotypes about Muslim people, especially in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's election. 

Those challenges are detailed in the new CBC-TV documentary "14 & Muslim," which follows three teens as they leave the familiarity of their private Islamic school for separate, non-Muslim schools to start Grade 9.

Director Wendy Rowland says she hopes the film can combat misconceptions about what it means to be Muslim, but notes promotional material has already received harsh reaction online.

"People who hadn't even seen the film just started posting crazy things about Muslims and Islamophobic comments so the CBC just shut their comments down," says Rowland, noting that similar backlash emerged on Twitter and the "14 & Muslim" website.

"The crazy thing is that's why we made the film — because (intolerance) does exist. It's a reminder of how important it is to give these kids voices and let people hear what their experiences are."

The idea originated with producer Cornelia Principe, whose nephew is Muslim and was about to enter high school at around the time Trump was gearing up for his presidential bid, says Rowland, who is not Muslim and is of Scottish-Irish background.

"It's hard being in the world as a 14-year-old or as a teenager right now and what about these kids who are Muslim?" says Rowland, who has two teenagers, including a 13-year-old girl who just started Grade 9 this year.

"Not only are they struggling with being adolescents and entering this time in their life where it's a real coming-of-age ... but at the same time they've got this in the backdrop, this constant sort of barrage of horrible things being said about Muslims."

Also in the documentary is the relatively quiet Sahar, who worries on camera that her private Islamic school could be the target of an attack: "Most of the time I'm like, 'What if something happens? What if something happens?'"

For Grade 9, she enrols in the International Baccalaureate program at a Catholic high school, but then worries she'll have a hard time making friends.

Then there's the sports-inclined Ahmad Mohsin, now 15, who's confident in his identity but frets about how the world will treat his younger brothers: "The news is killing us, basically," he says in the doc.

He decides to go to a public school for Grade 9, believing that will help him make non-Muslim friends when he gets to university.

"You're not always going to find Muslim people everywhere you go," he says.

Khan, a natural leader who served as valedictorian for her Grade 8 graduating class and vice-president of the student council, says she hopes the film can help people be more accepting.

"Just because we follow a different belief doesn't mean we're not teenagers — we have social media, we love movies and friends and having fun with each other. We just follow a different way of life and we're still normal people and we grew up in Canada. We're perfectly Canadian."

"14 & Muslim" airs Sept. 21 on CBC-TV as the first episode of a new season of "CBC Docs POV," and can be seen online at cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/episodes/14-muslim.

A free screening with the filmmakers in honour of Islamic Heritage Month is set for Oct. 15 in Toronto.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press