Zineb Benrochd was standing at a bus stop in broad daylight last week, wearing her niqab, when a bus whizzed right past her.
The 23-year-old Montrealer wondered why. So she looked the driver up online and discovered a trail of Islamophobic social media posts.
In 2010, for instance, the bus driver posted: “I’m so happy and in a good mood today, that I love everybody, except the [expletive] who wear the hijab or the veil. Sorry, but I can’t stand them.”
But when Benrochd took to Facebook in an attempt to call out the bus driver’s behaviour, she was soon bombarded with dozens of messages — some angry, some hateful — from other Montreal transit employees defending their colleague.
The Société de transport de Montréal has opened an investigation into the incident. Benrochd has also filed complaints with the Montreal police hate crimes unit and Quebec’s human rights commission.
While the driver’s motivations are unclear (attempts by CBC News to contact her were unsuccessful), the incident occurred as Quebec politicians are set to vote on a proposed law that restricts where religious symbols can be worn in the province.
Among other things, the law will require Quebecers to uncover their face in order to receive public services where their identity is in question. The details are still being worked out, but that could include taking the bus.
The bill has sparked heated debate, and many Muslim women in the province have reported being the target of an increasing number of Islamophobic incidents since it was tabled in March.
“I’m used to people telling me, ‘Go back to you country,'” said Benrochd, who grew up in Montreal.
“But [the bus] is a public service. You do not have a right to discriminate against me. You do not have a right to choose not to give me my right to service.”
‘Impossible for her not to have seen me’
On Thursday morning, Benrochd was waiting for the 128 bus at the corner of Muir and Tassé streets in Montreal’s Saint-Laurent borough. The two streets are wide, relatively quiet and residential.
“It’s impossible for her not to have seen me,” Benrochd told CBC News a day after the incident.
The bus stop is next to a stop sign, across the street from an elementary school. As the bus approached, Benrochd noticed the driver was ignoring her.
She started waving her hands to get the driver’s attention. Benrochd said the driver glanced at her, then turned away and continued on her route without opening the bus doors.
Benrochd said she felt contempt in the bus driver’s actions and decided to try to confront her.
She called a friend, who quickly picked her up in a car and the pair drove to Du Collège Metro station, where they knew the bus would have to make a longer stop.
Benrochd walked up to the driver and, with her cellphone filming, asked why she had not stopped.
“Well, I didn’t see you,” the driver replied.
“You looked at me,” Benrochd said.
“No, no, I didn’t see you. I saw that you were there after,” the driver said, becoming agitated.
In another video, Benrochd filmed the bus driver flagging down police and complaining to the officers about being filmed.
Benrochd posted the videos on Facebook around noon on Thursday. Soon, several people identifying themselves as STM employees were commenting in the driver’s defence.
CBC News was able to identify some as union representatives for STM bus drivers. One of these representative said in a post directed at Benrochd: “A normal Quebecer would have waited for another bus.”
Benrochd found the bus driver’s profile by searching through the friend lists of the accounts commenting on her videos.
On the bus driver’s profile, she says she found at least 10 posts insulting Muslim women for wearing the veil or criticizing Islam as a whole.
In one post from January 2016, the woman shares an article about the STM’s effort to hire more immigrants and calls it “discrimination.”
Benrochd shared screengrabs of the posts, which CBC News could not independently verify. They appear to have since been deleted or made private on the bus driver’s Facebook profile.
The bus driver changed her profile picture the day after the incident, but other pictures on her profile identify her as the same person in Benrochd’s video.
On Sunday evening, the bus driver wrote several messages to Benrochd on Facebook, saying she was on leave, though it’s unclear if it is voluntary. She acknowledged the posts Benrochd found were hers, but said she is not racist.
Benrochd shared screengrabs of the exchange with CBC News.
“I am trying to understand your customs and beliefs,” the driver said.
“It really was not in bad faith. Even if I looked at you, sometimes we’re in our bubble. I’m sorry and if we had a respectful encounter instead of you filming me, I would have been able to give you my version.”
She demanded to meet in person, but Benrochd said she preferred dealing through official channels.
The woman also tried to call Benrochd through Facebook Messenger several times and said, “make a woman of yourself and answer.”
In a statement, the STM said, “At all times, even on social media, STM employees are required to respect the values inscribed in our code of ethics.”
The transit agency also said that, though regrettable, it does occasionally happen that a bus driver accidentally misses a stop.
“The appropriate measures will be taken based on the conclusions of our inquiry,” the agency said.
Troublesome social climate
Hanadi Saad, founder of Justice Femme, an organization that provides moral and legal support to Muslim women who have been harassed, caught wind of the incident after Benrochd posted it on social media.
To Saad, the driver’s actions appeared Islamophobic.
“She did it deliberately because she did not like what Zineb was wearing,” Saad said. “She was the only one at the bus stop.”
Saad’s organization responded to more than 40 cases of Islamophobia directed at Muslim women between March, when the religious symbols bill was tabled, and May.
The bus driver may have held racist beliefs against Muslims for years, Saad said, but she believes Bill 21 has emboldened public displays of intolerance.
“The message people receive from the CAQ [government] now is you can discriminate against people. ‘We are normalizing the discrimination,’ that’s the message,” she said.
Saad called Benrochd’s move to confront the driver and file the complaints “courageous.”
Benrochd says she was motivated by concerns that the Bill 21 debate has created a sense of impunity for those with distorted views of Muslims and other minorities.
“They feel like they’re never going to get punished,” she said. “It’s just going to get worse.”