This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal on December 20, 2015 and can be read in full here.
Muslim women in Edmonton are under a new kind of scrutiny. Nakita Valerio is trying to give them a new kind of power.
The Liberals’ decision to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February has caused a swell of charity among many Canadians, but it’s also sparked an increase in Islamophobic discourse. In addition, in some cities there was a spike of anti-Muslim violence against women wearing the hijab after the Paris attacks.
But the new climate of unease really dates back to the federal election, says Valerio, when the niqab debate was getting more media coverage than most major election issues.
“Prior to the election, this was something I had dealt with because I take public transit, and I’m often in public,” says Valerio, who was born and raised in Edmonton and chooses to wear the hijab. But she adds that not many Muslim women she knew had experienced the same issues. Until this past summer.
“I noticed the shift in other women, who started echoing things I had already been saying. The dramatic shift since that device of rhetoric has been so pronounced,” says Valerio, referring to the niqab debate, a topic she covered in an October op-ed for this newspaper. “Now I have women all the time, especially veiled women – but not only them, women of colour – (being afraid of) appearing in public, definitely not going out after dark, and just feeling uncomfortable.”
Valerio, who is doing graduate studies in history and Islamic-Jewish studies at the University of Alberta, wanted to help. So she asked her close friend, Rachael Heffernan, who has a black belt in karate, if she’d teach a safety class. “We were both laughing about why it took us so long to figure out we could easily do something like this,” says Valerio.
Before she made the Eventbrite page that advertised the mid-December event, Valerio put out feelers on social media. She got a deluge of messages – 200 – in one day. “The massive amount of interest that this has generated is a testament to the fact that the public needs something like this.”
They called it a Women’s Safety Class as opposed to a self-defence class, as the free, one-time session was mostly verbal and focused on the de-escalation of violence. It taught non-violet techniques such as surveying one’s surroundings, and approaches to defence that are specific to Muslim women, such as what to do if someone tries to rip off your hijab. That said, the event, which was held at Al Rashid Mosque, was open to all women.
Valerio is a convert to Islam, and says that although Muslim women are increasingly the targets of these attacks, women in general can benefit from learning to de-escalate violence.
“I just want to give women – Muslim and non-Muslim – the opportunity to be empowered and to not shy away from participating in society…There’s an empowerment aspect – to not feel like you have to shrivel up and (stay in) your house.” – Valerio
The class was just the latest community-strengthening endeavour for Valerio, who, at 29, already has a long history of advocacy and philanthropy.
With the university’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, for example, she works with an outreach program that speaks with Edmonton public school students about politics in the Middle East and Islamophobia. She’s also done community-bridging work with the Department of Native Studies, speaking with undergrads about Islam and finding commonalities between indigenous communities and the Muslim minority.
She’s working with Beth Shalom Synoaguge alongside the rabbi’s wife, Dorit Kosmin, on a Jewish-Muslim women’s dialogue circle that will meet for the first time on Jan. 3. There’s work to do on both sides, she says, but she’s “all about having extremely awkward, painful conversations in order to move forward together.”
Valerio volunteers as director of marketing with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, and outside of her work in Edmonton, she co-founded the Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco.
That’s an awful lot for a mother of a two-year-old girl. She also owns the Drawing Board, a corporate content management system.
Education is one of her passions. “I’m not only interested in dispelling Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but I’m also interested in promoting knowledge. It’s also about, let’s educate people. Everything I do is based on that, and bridging different communities that don’t have bridges.”
On Dec. 13, she spoke at an interfaith conference at City Hall. The topic of her speech? Hope. That might seem hard considering the tense current climate, but Valerio stresses that the picture isn’t totally bleak.
“There are the people who exceptionally go out of their way (to be kind). There’s that side of it too, which is interesting. I have people go out of their way to say, ‘I feel bad; it’s such a tragedy.’
“It’s pretty hard when you wear a headscarf to imagine that you’re not going to be appear as an ambassador. For me, I expect to stand out, and I welcome that.”