This speech was delivered by Nakita Valerio at the You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down film festival at Metro Cinema in Edmonton on March 22, 2016.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem
Today, I would like to present you with a series of vignettes, snapshots taken in my life and journey as a women’s advocate. I hope that as I weave together this story, we can share in important lessons I have learned and continue to learn along the way.
One of my favourite memories from my time living in a rural village in Morocco is the expression of astonishment and then excitement on my mother-in-law’s face when I took her to her first communal Eid prayer at the end of Ramadan. Scripturally, in the historical records of the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, women were implored to attend the prayer even if, for whatever reason, they might be unable to participate in it.
Imagine my surprise then, when my 55 year old Mother in Law told me she had never attended, assuming and being told that it was forbidden for women. I opened the book of hadith where it was written and had her daughter read the Arabic to both her and her father.
“But who will make the bread for the day’s celebrations?” I was asked.
“Bread can wait! Today Allah takes precedence and so do mama’s rights!” I shouted while skipping with Mama out the front door, arm in arm, our floor-length djellebas skirting along the dusty road to the communal prayer space.
That day, when she turned to me with the widest of grins and said “I never realized how many women would be here,” I learned that making a difference in someone’s life didn’t mean having to upend mountains. Revolutions occur by making small changes that have meaning for someone within their own cultural systems and value sets. And often, it is simply a matter of presenting someone with a choice they didn’t know they had.
Another time, when I was teaching at a non-profit school in a coastal city outside Casablanca I took a small group of motivated teenage students outside to film a short Public Service Announcement on street harassment. As a class, we had launched a nation-wide campaign called Letters to Our Brothers which had us traveling to classrooms in major cities across the country, having young women write letters to their literal or figurative siblings about how catcalling and molestation in public made them feel and taking pledges from young men to never perpetuate such atrocities in the future.
We collected hundreds of letters and pledges and had decided to film a PSA in the hopes that it might go viral and join the countless other activists around the world, educating people on the harm that street harassment causes.
During the filming my female students, Dalal, Tassnime, Majda, Manal and others, set the stage as women walking in the street and my lone male student, Marwane, was to play the part of the catcalling predator. He never got the chance to enact his role because two legitimate predators – standing right next to him- beat him to it by whistling for the “little cats” to come play with them. The girls started laughing, pointing to my camera and letting these middle-aged men know that I, their teacher and a foreigner, had just caught their perversions on tape, noting the irony that it was during the filming of an ad condemning this very action.
Marwane didn’t step in and neither did I as the girls proceeded to ask the men why they had treated them like objects when they were young enough to be their daughters. Watching the embarrassed looks on the faces of the men, their eyes nervously shifting back to me and my camera, I swelled with pride as my students expressed how the harassment made them feel. In this moment, I learned: not only are small, meaningful changes revolutionary but so too are learned voices, being heard, not asking to be heard, but resounding all the same, standing strong and sure of themselves, saying “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere and you will hear how you make me feel no matter how uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable conversations are what I do best – and not just because I’m a socially awkward academic. In fact, the last time I did something for International Women’s Day (besides the speech for this very festival in honour of it), it was an interview with the Mohammedia Presse about this very issue. The interview was a poignant contrast to how the Women’s Day is popularly marked in Morocco, which is to say, with flowers and chocolates handed to women in the street all over the country. My interview, however, was about not letting one day obscure the reality of the street for women daily, which is, as a haven for said harassers to hound women of all shapes and sizes, all ages, regardless of her demographic whether she is urban or rural, educated or illiterate, veiled or not… it simply doesn’t matter.
Now I’m not so naïve to think that this phenomenon is unique to Morocco nor that these women need my perspective for their liberation – that would be anti-feminist and neo-colonial as far as I’m concerned. Rather, Moroccan women (and men) are fully aware of the social ills that street harassment is a symptom of, often (unfortunately) excusing the harassers as simply being bored or out of work.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored and out of work, the last thing I would think to do is go whisper hideous aggressions at unsuspecting women in the street. I can however, see it as a gruesome way for a hopeless young man to regain some of his power at the expense of another’s dignity.
For me, as a historian, the heart of Morocco’s social ills, and this can easily be extended to most geographical and historical contexts, has a lot to do with the disenfranchisement of women and the lack of gender equality, of which street harassment and even economic ills are but social symptoms. And at the very heart of this disenfranchisement is a lack of education.
Which brings me to the reason I moved to Morocco in the first place.
In 2010, shortly after I converted to Islam, I was planning to go to law school, but on a trip to the country of my family’s origins, Italy, before I would write the LSAT, I read a book about the socio-politico-economic consequences of female oppression worldwide that changed my perspective. This book placed a particular emphasis on the plight of women in dominantly Muslim countries.
As a recent convert and researcher, I had a hard time understanding the disconnect between the gender equality and rights of women preached in the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and what kind of oppressive, misogynistic practices I was seeing played out in real life cases. Of course, this oppression is not limited to Islamic contexts but the fact that I was finding the cures for such oppression in scriptural sources of Islam clued me into a disconnect that, at its core, was educational. As a Muslim, I believe the information exists in our scriptural sources about how to promote gender equality and respect the dignity and rights of women… and if this is not something I am not seeing practiced on the ground, there are two possible explanations: either people don’t know, or they don’t care.
As an eternal optimist, I have to believe that the former is true, that the majority of people just don’t know what is the prescribed status of women in Islam and in my experience living in a Muslim country such as Morocco for 3 years, I found this to be the case, thankfully, as I’m not sure how I’d deal with people knowing and simply not caring.
On that same trip to Italy, a mere 2 weeks after I finished reading that book and had made the vow to myself to work in women’s advocacy in the Muslim world, I met the man who would be my husband in Florence, who happened to be building a school in his rural Moroccan village. Within 6 months of meeting him, I visited the foundations of the school, then only one storey high, and within a year, I had moved to Morocco to finish building it and with the intention to open it as a primary school and center for women’s rights.
During this period, I lived the first year of my life as a Muslim. I did so in secrecy and so I am quite upfront about the fact that I hadn’t yet experienced life as a religious minority or as an underprivileged woman in Canada and I most certainly had not yet experienced life as a hijabi. I did, however, begin to feel the first pangs of what life is like on the margins.
When I moved to the village, my life as a hijabi began and I was finally able to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context, but what I came to find was that what I had the freedom to practice and enact as my rights as a Muslim woman was not the same for every woman in the village and my suspicions had been correct: education was a serious issue.
The literacy rate of women in the village was only 27% – that means that anywhere from 2 to 3 women out of 10 can read. And I’m not even talking about the Qur’an or legal texts by which they would know their rights in Islam, I’m talking about medication bottle instructions and formula recipes for their babies – things that you and I take for granted in a literate, word-saturated world.
So, as we built the school over three years, I came to know more and more about women in the community we were serving and the obstacles they encountered to self-actualization.
I would attend literacy classes for the mothers of our students, warmly welcomed by all participants, consistently invited over for tea or couscous, showered with gifts of hijab, or jewelry or whatever else people had on hand. I met women who:
-had literally never left their homes since their wedding day
-couldn’t read or write
-were physically, verbally or sexually abused
-were kept in servitude
-had no way to earn their own income
-had no reproductive or birthing rights
And of course, this wasn’t everyone. The opposite type of person was also consistently present, especially when I moved to the coastal city where I met educated, working women who were free to come and go as they pleased. All or nothing scenarios serve no one but those who thrive on division.
Interestingly, during this time, I became a woman who:
-was a visible minority: abroad (as a foreign convert) and at home (as a veiled Muslim woman)
-was harassed in the street for very different reasons both abroad and at home.
And I came to understand what it was like for women be robbed of their reproductive birthing rights after I almost died during a horrific birth trauma.
Here, I learned that sometimes, we have to experience what others go through, literally or empathetically, to know the best ways to make change and that might mean just truly listening to someone else.
The same way my male surgeon, Abdul Aziz, who saved my life after my obstetrician nearly ended it, was the first person to listen to me when my body woke up after being frozen in surgery.
The same way my father in law heard my desire to paint a mural on the side of our now five-storey school and suspended his objections when he found I provided him with the correct information, that there was, in fact, no reason why I couldn’t do it.
The same way Muslim and Jewish participants in a women’s circle I launched here in Edmonton exclaimed surprise and even joy at how comfortable it was to share a table with one another for the first time.
The same way women in the mosque voiced the stories of their assaults to a room full of their unknowing sisters during a Women’s Safety class I held just last December.
The same way my community will listen to history from an Indigenous perspective and the harrowing stories of life in Residential Schools in my lecture series next fall.
The same way male and female colleagues at the Moroccan non-profit school sat drinking tea and listening to the life stories of women at the local shelter where they had sought refuge from abusive partners.
The same way I sat, just last week, listening to the trials of women here in Edmonton, at a second stage shelter, recognizing that nothing separated them from me, not my Islam, not my background, that I could be in the same position as them and because of this, and because of their intrinsic dignity, I am obligated to stand with them in their time of need.
I learned that the education of women is great because to teach a woman is to teach an entire community and from there will be a variety of growth factors including increased economic participation, usually in a socially-oriented way. I learned that the education of women is great but that it requires the simultaneous education and participation of men – only 55% of whom could read in that very same village and many who, even here, fail to recognize the ways in which patriarchy damages them too.
I learned that feminism is not misandry and that the oppressive mechanisms of patriarchy can be unconsciously internalized by individuals all along the gender spectrum, thereby permitting it to continue.
I learned that only by making small, meaningful changes, by raising our voices to be heard together, by allowing ourselves to be made uncomfortable when another person humanizes themselves to us, by listening to one another and recognizing that the heart of all social ills is a lack of information no matter which cultural context you come from — that in knowing all of this, we might finally be able to move towards equality together, insha Allah.