Aisha Ahmad says she was settling in to watch the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) perform Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” when an older man “chopped” her neck and ruined her night.
“I was clearly treated in a way that was shockingly different than any other patron has been treated in this space,” Ahmad told Global News.
Ahmad, a professor of international security at the University of Toronto and director of the Islamic Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School, had sat down with a friend for the show at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, for which her ticket cost $116.
WATCH: U of T professor upset after she says she was verbally abused, assaulted by patron at Toronto symphony. Catherine McDonald reports.
Aware that flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the venue, she turned off her phone’s flash and took one photo before the show began.
At that point, Ahmad said a man chopped her in the neck and told her to “put that away.”
“It was neither a tap, nor a notification. He hit me,” Ahmad told Global News. “I was stunned and he said to me, ‘Put that away. You’re acting like a child.’ To which I turned around and said, ‘You cannot hit me. That is assault. If you hit me again, I will charge you.’”
Ahmad said the man then called her a “b****” while others sitting in the area supported him.
“I hadn’t raised my voice. I hadn’t spoken outside of a hush tone. But they noticed this man had become angry with me. And very much to my dismay, the conclusion that they drew was that I must have been to blame,” she said.
Ahmad, who took to Twitter to recount the entire incident, said the people seated in the area turned against her with hostility.
“As the people around centred their aggression on me, I felt too uncomfortable to stay, so I got up and left,” she tweeted.
After she went to report the incident to staff at the concert hall, Ahmad said the man approached her a second time during the intermission at which point he lunged at her when she brought out her cellphone to record the encounter.
“I took out my phone in an attempt to film the interaction in case it escalated. He then lunged at me, physically in front of everyone,” she said. “I’m quick on my feet. So I evaded that and physically escaped from that interaction.”
Ahmad said staff with the Toronto Symphony needed other people to confirm what happened before they could do anything.
And they did, after other people came forward and said that the man had hit her.
Ahmad said that although she did call Toronto police, she decided not to pursue the matter further after the man was escorted out of the building.
“While I was on the phone with Toronto police, the people at Roy Thomson Hall became deeply concerned that this would become more problematic for them. So at that point when I was on the phone with Toronto police, they escorted the gentleman out of the building.”
Ahmad claims she was singled out and treated differently after people in the audience saw her as a woman of colour.
“So he called me a child and he called me a b****. But there were other women there who were not treated as such. I was the only woman of colour in that space,” she said.
“As a woman of colour, you know when you’re being treated differently because you live in it every single day.”
“It was interesting, surprising and disappointing to see how the patrons around me assumed automatically, even after this man had struck me, that I must have been to blame. I must not have belonged there.”
In a statement to Global News, TSO public relations director Francine Labelle said the orchestra has “zero tolerance for violent/disrespectful behaviour.”
She said the offender was “removed from the hall” and regretted that the incident happened at a TSO concert, “where everyone is welcome.”
“We are looking into this, and will contact Prof. Ahmad directly to resolve the issue,” Labelle said.
Admad said she was contacted by the TSO and offered an apology and free tickets to another concert this week but is unsure if she’ll attend following her recent experience.
“I wonder what a person with less power would have been dealt with in this situation. Nobody says those things about you when you’re in a darkened concert hall and I think therein lies the reality of bias,” she said.
“There’s a reason why places like the Toronto Symphony Orchestra don’t recruit wealth from the diversity that we live in. And I think this is a moment in which they need to think about who they’re inviting, how they’re inviting them and how to make sure that the incredible place we live in, the city that is a shining example of the world, doesn’t have toxic pockets of exclusivity.”