This talk was originally delivered at the University of Alberta for World Hijab Day on February 1, 2017 on behalf of Islamic Relief Canada.

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Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah

I want to thank you all for coming and would like to begin by acknowledging that we are situated on Treaty 6 territory. In doing this, I intend to convey my respect for the dignified history, languages and cultures of all First peoples of Canada.

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to read the names of the victims of the horrific terrorist act in Quebec and ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer, honouring their memory.

Azzeddine Soufiane, 57
Abdelkrim Hassane, 41
Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42
Ibrahima Barry, 39
Professor Khaled Belkacemi, 60
Aboubaker Thabti, 44

Thank you. I pray that they rest in peace and that their families are granted infinite patience in this deeply painful time. Ameen.

Today I will be talking about some of the lessons I have learned while working in women’s advocacy to combat Islamophobia and all forms of discrimination and I will be doing this by presenting you with a series of vignettes, snapshots in my life and journey as a public intellectual, writer, and activist. 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 knew 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.

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Another time, when I was teaching at a non-profit school in a coastal city outside Casablanca I took a small group of motivated teenaged 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 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.”

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Uncomfortable conversations are part of what I do best. In fact, one of the last times I did something for International Women’s Day, 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.

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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, literacy and entrepeneurship.

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 felt that I was finally able to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context (as opposed to here, where I would have to secretly pray, laying down in bed, or tell my family I was going to the bar when I was really going to the masjid to attend a halaqah), but what I came to find was that what I had the freedom to practice and enact as my rights as a Muslim woman in Morocco 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 could 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, and

-had no reproductive or birthing rights

And of course, this wasn’t everyone. Another set of opportunities to other people was also 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, and who were highly educated and financially independent. For me, all or nothing scenarios serve no one but those who thrive on division so it is important to have a holistic picture of this.

Interestingly, during this time, I also 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. SLIDE

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 just mean truly listening to someone else.

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This is a theme that has continued through my work as I returned to Canada, started my graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish studies at the University and became Vice President of External Affairs for Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

With this group, I have been fortunate to initiate a number of community programs that are centred around some of the lessons I have outlined above, and in initiating them, I have been fortunate to learn even more from the communities I serve  – lessons which haves carried forward into everything I am doing today.

During the federal election of 2015, the divisive political rhetoric being espoused from the conservative propaganda machine, particularly centered around the niqab and the barbaric cultural practices hotline, leading to a spike in public acts of Islamophobia in my family and communities I belong to. This shocking normalization of hateful speech aimed at Muslims like myself shook me to my core. I had just spent three years in a Muslim country, married to a Muslim man, as a Muslim woman and mother to a Muslim child. I had been accepted by my family and friends upon announcing my conversion. How could it be that some of these very same people were now turning on me under the guise of free speech and political partisanship to claim that that Islam is inherently violent and oppressive to women?

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The power of legitimated political rhetoric at the highest level of government to embolden latent prejudices in a disenfranchised populous was a slap in the face. Even though I had seen these trends before as a historian of the Jewish Holocaust, watching them in action, where I was suddenly the target, was wake up call for me. In October 2015, I joined AMPAC and as my first action I took in my new position, I wrote an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal about the niqab. I had never really done something like this before, but I came to realize that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional action to be taken by those who have been endowed with skills and privileges necessary to take them.

I wrote about how the veil had not divided the nation; rather the nation had divided itself — symptomatic of a lack of understanding. While some argued these women are in need of liberation or that their veiling presents a security issue for fraudulent citizenships, what I saw was a nation of the same people neither talking to those who wear niqab about this issue, nor having a nuanced understanding of the complicated legal procedures that go into obtaining citizenship. The niqab was a veil no longer, but a megaphone that amplified the claims of a fearful public made to fear by a leader abusing his position of power.

As a Canadian convert to Islam of an Italian-Canadian family who wears the hijab, I knew both sides of this story all too well. I have been fortunate enough that the vast majority of my family has been brilliantly accepting and accommodating of my cultural choices, but I know it took time to get there and this is not the case for everyone. And, increasingly, since the election was called, the air was rife with hostility and uncertainty. People didn’t know how to be around each other anymore.

I repeatedly posed the question to my family and friends: Can you imagine the uncertain reality that I and many of Muslims now face in public? If I don’t fit the vision of what the majority has decided are Canadian values, does that mean I can’t contribute any longer? Is my head scarf an island — isolating me from a society I thought I participated in, that I loved, that I live for? I wanted to believe that the vast majority of Canadians wouldn’t stand for this and I refused to fall into despair.

At the end of the article, I concluded with a promise that: Even if people casted their votes in such a way that doesn’t support the dignity of another person engaging in non-harmful cultural practices, I wanted them all to know: that if the day should ever come that the same hate and violence were laid before them by a government, I would stand with them.

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I learned the power of that pledge, and being an exemplar of it, shortly thereafter when I received an email from the wife of a local synagogue’s Rabbi, asking me to start a Muslim-Jewish women’s conversation circle in order to combat Islamophobia within the Jewish community. In my view, it would also be a unique opportunity to combat Judeophobia in the Muslim community and change the global narrative that Jews and Muslims are destined to hate one another – something that is simply not historically corroborated and not directly relevant to intercommunity relations on Canadian soil.

That women’s group has met every month for an entire year, sharing faith traditions, reading scripture together from the Hebrew Bible and the Quran in the synagogue and the mosque, enjoying iftar during Ramadan, and most recently, we have opened up the group to allies in the wake of the rampant Islamo and Judeophobia coming out of the American political machine.

In launching the group over the course of the year, I didn’t understand how it would make a difference to anything really. We were just women getting together, eating snacks and talking about our traditions but I didn’t yet understand that it would have a very profound impact. In fact, I learned that face-to-face, emotive conversation is one of the powerful tools for social change available to any of us.

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If we understand its power, we also understand that there is no secret to activism or striving for social justice. Any of us can take the initiative to bring people together, to educate and make change. During the past year, I have had both Muslim and Jewish women tell me that they were profoundly changed by our group. That they had never expected to sit across the table from the other person, had vowed even to never do it, but when they did, they not only learned about the other group, they had to face their own prejudices and be honest with themselves about them.

The feeling of fear or anger that they came to the table with was quickly replaced with love and sisterhood. Together, we now share in our joys, we celebrate our successes and we do charity work to better the status of other women in our broader communities. Just last month, we raised over $4000 worth of toiletries and gift cards for groceries and coffeeshops for at-risk indigenous mothers who will also join our circle of sisters in the coming months. Last meeting, we spent our time laughing and eating food prepared by an entrepreneurial Syrian refugee woman who has a home-base catering business, while writing love letters to include in the care packages for our new incoming sisters.  Taking care of one another in a broad community sense has become a part of our sisterhood, but the group itself also recently helped one of our members out of a very dangerous personal crisis – something that could not have happened if our community group didn’t exist.  It made me realize that the difference between poverty, homelessness, despair, and suicide, and a healthy, self-actualized joyful life is having a strong network of people you can rely on, who are genuinely there for you, without judgement, celebrating your differences and wanting you to succeed.

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Additionally, that woman happened to be non-Muslim and in taking care of her, we all came to recognize that the nourishment and power of sisterhood should never know religious, ethnic or geographic boundaries.

This Muslim-Jewish group has recently come to include individuals who openly support Donald Trump. It might surprise some of you to hear that, but we do not turn away women based on their political views, as long as they come to the group with an open heart and an intention to learn and love. One woman, in particular, has expressed that, despite supporting Trump politics, her participation in our Muslim-Jewish women’s collective has opened her eyes to how deeply harmful those politics are for people who do not occupy positions of privilege. She has repeatedly requested that we establish a separate conversation circle, at which she can bring other people like her, to come into contact with Muslims and Jews, and women of colour who are marginalized by the hate speech of the one that they support. After the horrific shooting in Quebec, this same woman messaged me in tears, terrified for her Muslim sisters in the community and recognizing the weight of harmful rhetoric in radicalizing the terrorist who stole innocent Muslim lives on Sunday night. She has since made the commitment to do everything in her power

This is not the first time I have seen an incredible turnaround in people with Islamophobic attitudes. We also cannot underestimate the power of these people to become allies themselves, speaking to others about Islamophobia when we are not present or on our behalf. Since they have experienced a turn-around through proximal interaction with upstanding Muslims, they can then speak to others about how their own views shifted.

My mother has become one of the strongest allies to Muslims that I know. As a hairstylist, she encounters a lot of people from all different walks of life. One of her clients, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman, was also a client of mine back when I worked retail. Seeing me wearing the headscarf upon returning to Canada, she asked my mother why I was doing that. My mother explained that I had found philosophical and ethical expression in Islam and that I was now a Muslim. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “But I hate Muslims.” My mom stopped cutting her hair, put her hands on the woman’s shoulders and looked into her eyes in the mirror. She simply stated, “You are going to have to do some research to understand why your hatred is wrong.” Unbeknownst to me, the same woman came to see me at my store a few days later. I answered her questions about the products we sold with due diligence and even went the extra mile to print her off some more information for home study. Over the next two months, she would spend her free time learning more about Islam on her own. By the spring, she would present me with a cheque for $1000 for my Muslim school in a Muslim country.

From this, I also learned that we can never give up on people.  I don’t believe that a human being’s default position is hatred.

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Someone very, very close to me has also gone from being openly fearful about Muslims and the so-called spread of Islam, to visiting a Muslim country and now, openly defending Muslims against Islamophobia at every possible opportunity. As someone close to me, she has seen me embody the principles of our Deen and put them into ethical action while still respecting her and her differences. This generous spirit which is at the heart of Islam has been recognized by her as a shared value. As such, we cannot underestimate the power of our own actions to change the hearts of those around us. It can seem like a heavy burden to always feel like an ambassador of our Deen – and I wouldn’t want that to put anyone in an unsafe situation – but at the same time,  we have to remember that Allah does not task us with more than we can bear and we, indeed, have been entrusted with the message of His Truth through Muhammad, sallahu alayhi wa salam.

Thank you.

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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

 

 

 

 

The ease by which we can get sucked into pessimism about humanity and the state of the world these days is startling. Not only do we have more and more continuing oppressions coming to light through the voice of the internet (see: growing vocalizations of white supremacists all over the world, violence against people of color, increased terrorism etc), but we also have pretty unique moments in history arising because of these circumstances – one example being the absolute freak show that is the American election where, frankly, there hasn’t been much hope since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic candidate race. (Although I heard just yesterday that his name is still going to be on the ballot at the Democratic National Convention – do I dare to dream?)

Part of the problem is how we receive our information: particularly through Facebook. A lot of people don’t realize that this particular social media platform operates based on complex algorithms designed to show you what you are most likely to click on. The more doom and gloom you are engaging with, the more you will find in your newsfeed. There isn’t really a way to get around this and stay informed, unless you want to take the time to outsmart your Facebook account. This is my first tip for shifting over to optimism. A lot of people will simply disconnect or disengage from their social media accounts and that’s great if that’s what they really want to do – but for people like me, whose livelihood is connected to being a netizen and whose clients are managed under my general account, that’s not really an option. Every time I have tried to delete the Facebook app off my phone (even without deactivating my account), it takes less than half an hour for a client to message me asking me to post something. Contrary to appearances, I’m not sitting in front of my computer all day and even if I was, I can’t just connect to the internet through magical computer data, so I’m stuck with my phone and with Facebook burning an ever-growing hole of pessimism in my literal pocket.

hope and dreams

What to do then? You can start by liking positive stories or commenting on them. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a content developer and I want you to engage more with the barrage of things people post on the internet. This is not shameless self-advertising (even though it takes place on my business blog haha). Rather, liking positive stories is simply the quickest way to get more of them in your newsfeed – and, by extension, more positive people as well. Surrounding yourself with positive stories and positive people will start to shift the messages that are filtering into your brain every day.

Of course, I am not advocated shutting off completely. At. All. People absolutely have an ethical obligation to stay informed and educated about the issues we face in the world today and they absolutely must keep informed about political movements that will dramatically affect the countries in which they take place, and (in the case of America especially) every other damn country on the face of the earth. I am simply advocating for a little softness in the harshness that is the world, and to remember (or learn) that there really is more good than bad, or at the very least some good and a whole lot of neutral or irrelevant.

hopeful hearts

The other place that I have been finding solace lately will not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me is having faith. I was sitting in a grassy field with a new friend of mine the other night and she was talking about horrible atrocities against Muslim women who have come under the enslavement of various oppressors like ISIS. She was talking about how they had asked sheikhs for dispensation to commit suicide in the event that they will certainly face unspeakable and unending torture until they die. And she also mentioned how a sheikh she knew had gone from a hard-lined answer on this ruling to being unsure and simply stating that “he doesn’t know” if suicide is still forbidden to these unfortunate souls.

Regardless, when she was telling this story to me, she mentioned how this particular sheikh was different than other people – that he had a real kind of faith which, even if the face of hideous and cruel oppression, violence and death, still holds hope about the idea that justice will eventually be served by a Merciful God.

When she said that, I thought of my past self when I first converted to Islam, right up until the time I nearly died in a traumatic child birth in which I was repeatedly assaulted and had my rights violated. Until that time, I held out hope for justice no matter what the world was faced with – constant and persistent hope. Perhaps when I had faced true oppression from another still-unpunished person (and the profound disappointment in humanity that comes with that) and when the veil started lifting on just how much of it is out there, is when I started to operate in a pessimistic framework, I’m not sure. It certainly feels like I am always waffling between the two and some days are better than others.

My friend’s words in that field, however, reminded me what faith can do for people in terms of hope. Militant atheists are probably going to jump all over me for pushing my hope onto a transcendental entity, to which I would reply that hope for future justice need not be in a different metaphysical realm. It can mean hope for justice right here, right now, wrought by over hands – and, as a believing Muslim, that still comes from Allah for me even if it doesn’t for people who don’t believe. The type of justice that can be brought in this life, however, is often not enough and this is where I take comfort in my belief in a Merciful and Just God. One sheikh was talking about how, if Hitler hadn’t gotten away with suicide, and the court had had their way with him regarding the Holocaust, there is still no way to achieve a certain level of justice necessary to account for the six to eight million lives he extinguished (never mind those lost in the war he instigated). Only with Allah can we be certain that, for such an individual, it is possible to be awoken and killed six million times throughout the rest of eternity.

But having faith is not only about hoping that criminals get their due punishments (while, very often in this life, they go free). It is also about having faith that we can garner the strength and energy needed to bring mercy and justice to this life as well. At the Black Lives Matter rally downtown a few weeks ago, I met an amazing couple of sisters who I instantly connected with. In talking with one of them, I was discussing the prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) about the end of time and how many people claim (and have also claimed at other unstable times in history) that that time is now because some of the signs appear to be upon us. How, then, can we be certain that all of this is not in vain and that things just won’t get irrevocably worse as we move towards the Last Day? All of that (I should note) fits into warped terroristic worldviews as they seek to bring about the apocalypse with their apocalyptic atrocities.

One of the sisters, however, was quick to state that even though that prophecy will inevitably be true, it does not have to be now. Doom and total destruction is not necessarily on the horizon for us because we can simply choose to live justly, seeking justice and doing good deeds together. We don’t have to give in to the rhetoric of fear, division and pessimism and, as a result, we can work towards a more optimistic future. Sounds pretty damn hopeful to me and something simple enough to be empowering and therefore doable.

hopefulness

The other inspiring thing I have been up to is working on my thesis. And while, for many disenchanted grad students (I’ve been there!), that can seem like a pretty weird place to find hope for the future (aren’t we all supposed to be procrastinating and eating cheerios while watching Netflix in bed?), it’s actually not that surprising. When you follow your passions, you will certainly find hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people right there with you. And that kind of unspoken community is enough alone to give you hope. After writing a thesis outline the other day, I went through a list of authors whose works I need to compile to inform my theoretical framework. Somehow, writing this book list to get from the library made me positively giddy. I started to literally swoon at my desk just thinking about all of the brilliant ideas that I would find between the covers of these books – all the information and careful thought put into assembling it, all the delightful analysis and discussion that would take place, all the changes in my own patterns of thinking that would take place, and that I would be bearing witness to all the time people had spent developing discourse on philosophical or historical ideas instead of time spent killing and oppressing each other. It was a sober reminder that there are libraries full of books, full of information, full of art, full of poetry, full of life and when we choose to engage with it, we come alive again too.

As of late, I have also been going back to nature to get recharged and renewed. That is not to say that we are somehow separate from nature, nor are we actually going back to it just by sitting in a forest instead of a city somewhere. Nature is not only all around us, it is us. “Going back to nature” is as simply as eating mindfully: chewing your food slowly and really seeing, smelling and tasting it. “Going back to nature” can happen in a concrete jungle simply by watching the ants move, or watching the wind whisper through the grass of your suburban lawn. Constructed nature tamed by humans is still nature and frankly, if you are always waiting for that trip to the mountains to slow down, recharge and marvel in the incredible and insane miracle of life, you’re probably going to fall into despair a lot faster than you need to.

Don’t lose hold of the mundane and sublime absurdity that is this life – the fact that we are water-based beings in hairy sacks of skin, occupying a blue and green planet in space and when we put the stuff that grows on this planet into our mouths, we somehow extract energy contained in it from a burning star to continue living for years. This place is pure magic and totally insane. In the relentless agony that is human politics, it can be very easy to forget that fact which is too bad because it certainly makes all that nasty human crap melt away pretty fast, doesn’t it?

What are your strategies for remaining hopeful?

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

With the launch of Dolce and Gabbana’s haute couture hijabi line in January, many people are questioning the motivations behind such a move. This wouldn’t be the first western fashion group to launch a line aimed at garnering a chunk of some of the $266 billion spent by Muslims annually (a number expected to rise to $488 billion within 3 years). H&M also launched a campaign that was aimed at supplying hijab-wearing shoppers with modest and fashionable apparel. Dolce and Gabbana represent a much different market than H&M and are looking to tap into the haute-couture market of the gulf countries, where approximately 33% of the world’s haute couture purchases originate from.

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Hijab fashion is nothing new. Take five seconds to plug that into Youtube or a search engine and you will be inundated with videos of hijabi women from around the world saying “Salam Alaikum everyone! Today I have an amazing hijab fashion tutorial for you.” Usually these videos and blogs offer fashion tips and tricks for looking good while staying modest, ranging on the modesty scale from jeans and boyfriend sweaters, to all-out maxi dresses or fashion abayas.

Dolce and Gabbana are at the more modest end of the spectrum, coming up with a range of long flowing abayas and complementary head scarves with eye-popping accessories to boot. So if the hijab fashion market has always been around? What’s different? Why are some people questioning the motivations of the Sicilian designers? Is what they are doing an example of the now-infamous “cultural appropriation” or patriarchy or neo-colonialism (or all of the above) simply because they are non-Muslim, Western men?

I don’t think that such accusations are very productive or make a whole lot of sense. For me, what they are doing depends on their research. I’ll admit that so far they don’t have a great track record for research, especially considering that last summer, the designer duo scheduled an ultra-exclusive fashion show during Ramadan, meaning that many of their Middle Eastern/Muslim clients could not or would not attend. The faux-pas has stimulated the pair to learn more about Islamic religious practices though, and with such prominent names doing this research, especially while Islam is continually and perpetually under siege (that’s not up for discussion folks), I can’t argue with that kind of publicity.

And, in actually looking at their designs, I am floored by how stunning they are while being much more modest than most fashion hijab purports to be these days. They are obviously catering to the Gulf aesthetic taste for abayas and that’s great: they know their market and in the world of business, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. They aren’t forcing it down the throats of women and they aren’t necessarily dictating what those women should wear. In fact, hijabis around the world have been cobbling together modest outfits (let’s be honest about how many of you have about 5000 layers going on daily in an effort to make sure you’re just covered) from designer fashions and clothing labels not marketed towards them since…forever. And we’re all going to keep buying our scarves at the same store that hipsters do but instead of wrapping them around our necks ironically, they will be pinned to our heads. Suddenly, because someone decided to pitch something directly to us, it’s an issue? Frankly, I’d prefer if someone took us into consideration because I am getting really tired of wearing turtlenecks under everything because the sleeves are too short.

My first real concern comes from an Islamic perspective more than anything and centers on the ethics of the labour that went into making them. This, of course, is something that can be asked of everything Muslims wear. Are we dressing ourselves on the slave labour of others across the world? Are children being forced to make our clothes? As Muslims, believe it or not, these are important questions to be asking. We should not be supporting companies that partake in poor manufacturing processes or do not take care of their employees’ working conditions and pay. While the ethics behind a company’s manufacturing practices is not always clear, we should feel obligated to do the research necessary to make sure we are not unknowingly participating in the entrapment or forced servitude of other people. This is critical wherever manufacturing takes place and whoever is doing it. For Muslims who might not particularly care, it is important to note that clothing manufacturing dominates in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – all countries that have large Muslim populations which could be directly affected by poor work conditions. Of course, it is the duty of the Muslim to care for all people in positions of injustice, not just other Muslims; however, if it takes imagining your little brother or sister chained to a sewing machine for 15 hours a day to wake some people up, then so be it. Theoretically, Dolce and Gabbana manufacture most of their clothing in Italy, however, some of their eyewear and accessory lines are made in China, and knockoffs abound from all over the world.

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Other issues have been raised by Muslims about the new line and others that will follow suit, including the fact that it’s too little too late – that after a lifetime of suffering because of wearing the hijab, the slight joy of it becoming a fashion statement does little to ease the trauma. While I don’t doubt that some women have felt that their modest Islamic dress has caused them untold suffering, whether from limited opportunities to outright physical violence, it doesn’t follow for me that if an industry suddenly starts to catch up on that fact that, hey, we’re women too and we like to present ourselves well to the world (indeed, looking good is part of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him) it is negated by the fact that they have operated in ignorance for so many years prior. Bring on the knowledge and understanding!

The claim that the move reeks of Western double standards (because people in the West don’t want women to wear hijab?) is also a gross conflation of a) the opinions of Westerners and b) the entire concept of the West. There are plenty of people who have zero issue with hijabi women choosing to wear a headscarf and modest dress every day and to presume otherwise is unproductive and accusatory. I have little patience for binaries (in case, you hadn’t already noticed). Sure, D&G might be more interested in tapping into a lucrative market, but there is something to be said for the fact that they even have the gall to try. It might have something to do with the fact that they are Sicilian and the gorgeous Italian island was colonized by Arabs for 200 years, but I’m a Calabrese (neighbouring province to Sicily) convert to Islam so I’m a bit biased when it comes to residual cultural DNA cropping into my vocabulary.

The final criticism that I want to address is an important one: the whiteness of the model used to photograph the abaya collection. The issue of this woman’s skin colour has come up more than I can count and while I do agree that Dolce and Gabbana missed a huge opportunity for intersectional visibility here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing to have happened. In fact, it actually goes against presumptions found within the Arab world itself: that Arabs are the truest Muslim because they come from the same tribes of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) and they know the language of the Qur’an, despite the fact that they only represent about 15% of the worldwide Muslim population. Having a white (or Italian?) hijabi Muslim also flies in the face of stereotypes lobbed against paler converts to Islam who get accused of converting only for marriage or of being Orientalist – pretenders who will never actually grasp the weight of their conversion by virtue of having come from the land of the great colonizers. For me, embodying my own peripheral intersectionality as an Italian convert from the West, I didn’t mind such a model, but I wouldn’t, obviously. And I suppose that’s just my privilege talking because it just so happens that some of my people (even though I hate nationalism) decided to represent some of my other people (ie. Muslims) – an overlap I never expected to happen.

Islamically speaking, the price tag is the real issue for me when it comes to buying modest, hijabi clothing from designers like Dolce and Gabbana, simply because it is the only part of the equation that is not modest. The collection has yet to be priced, but if it is anything like the rest of their designs, it is going to be substantial. To put this in perspective, the only floor-length maxi dress in the D&G 2016 collection is priced at $7070 US and a standard headscarf from the same collection is approximately $484 US. That’s a lot of dollars being spent on “modesty”. Money that could be better spent on charitable ventures, one’s own family or the general betterment of society.

For modest, fashionable hijab options, I recommend Modern Hejab and Afflatus Hijab.

 

For the past 5 months, I have been studying the Arabic language at the University of Alberta. This is not my first foray into the Arabic language: I have been enamoured with it for years, even before I converted to Islam. I have taken some online self-study classes, bought books at the local bookstore to teach myself, took a few private tutoring lessons and the like. I even lived in Morocco for three years where I picked up a significant and usable amount of Moroccan Arabic to survive taxi rides and trips to the enchanting Moroccan souk (market). Even though Moroccan Arabic stuck with me and is really the first language I can safely say I speak besides English (my strengths in French are reading and writing), darija as it is called, is quite far from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha, as it is known).

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Since I began my Master’s degree in History at the University of Alberta, I have had to focus on learning the Arabic language to further my research in Islamic-Jewish studies, particularly if I want to continue on and do a doctorate degree in a similar study area (which I do). As such, I enrolled in a couple of courses to learn Modern Standard Arabic and it has been an incredible experience, but for reasons that might surprise you, as they most certainly surprised me.

The Camaraderie: The last thing someone would expect when I tell them I am taking an Arabic class is that the class would be full of Arabs. Well, it is. I weaseled my way into the “heritage” class which is full of students who have grown up speaking the dialects of their parents but have little to no knowledge of formal Arabic or how to read and write it. There are three other non-heritage students in my class, each of whom I love dearly for various reasons, most significantly a kind of solidarity in the face of the madness of learning this language. Mainly the class is full of amazing, jovial people who are enjoying learning the language together. The class takes place at night, for two and a half hours, twice a week. Since the class is so long and at a weird time of day, we tend to get a bit delirious together especially when you add the complexities of Arabic grammar concepts to the mix. I have rarely had as much fun in a class as I do in this one, and I have to say that I actually miss the class when there are days between meetings. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am a convert to Islam and I don’t have much of a strong connection to the actual Muslim community even though I do a lot of activist work on behalf of that community. Most of my time, however, is spent with academics or family and both of those groups don’t necessarily overlap with Muslimness at all. The Arabic class, however, is full of Muslims and even though we don’t always mention much about our way of life (deen), just being in close proximity to people who have a similar religio-cultural context as you is more of a relief than I expected it to be. To not have to explain ever micro-action of your behaviour or character is refreshing, even though I normally relish in the opportunity to do so with people who may lack knowledge about Islam.

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Pages of Arabic: I regularly have moments of looking down at my homework or an exam I have just written, or even some extra writing I have done for my professor, and I have to marvel in awe at the fact that the entire page (in fact, pages upon pages) is written in Arabic. How is this even possible? How can I possibly understand what I have just written? And time does not cure the awe either. It just keeps getting more and more pronounced as my writing improves and expands. This used to happen to me when I was studying Greek and I think it is for no other reason than the alphabet is different. I genuinely feel like my brain is being rewired (and it is) because I am introducing an entire new set of meaningful symbols into my linguistic repertoire. And more than that, I can express myself with these symbols in ways that are affective for people who know and understand Arabic. I’m living part of my life in another language; I’m saturated by it. When you choose to express yourself in another language, it is not merely an act of translation. You are adopting and carrying the depths of meaning from that language into your self-expression, and with a rich language such as Arabic, where oceans of meaning are contained in one word or phrase, the expressions are almost limitless – especially when combined with those I have in English and French and Italian as well.

Egyptians are hilarious: This is not news to many people, especially not me. One of my best friends is Egyptian and his wit simply cannot be matched, so this is one cultural stereotype I am happy to uphold. My professor, Mai, is Egyptian and the stereotype holds true and strong for her as well. Her sense of humour is impeccable and she puts up with all sorts of class antics with a smile on her face and a laugh on her tongue. I have come to know a bit more about how Egyptian people view themselves through her (passionate, temperamental, hilarious, lovers of love and beauty, impatient, generous, kind, caring etc) even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to universalizing narratives about cultural systems. I am interested, however, in how individuals within that system talk about themselves and what stories they tell, and especially when this is done in good humour. Frankly, there is a kind of rapport between the heritage students and Mai that you don’t find in other classes and it reminds me of how my students were with me in Morocco – always trying to get away with no homework or leaving early, being trolls in general but respecting their professor to death at the end of the day. Her presence has only fuelled my unnatural obsession with the Arab world in general and the Egyptian world in particular, so I look forward to the day when I can visit the homeland and see these gorgeous stereotypes firsthand. I only hope I can touch a fraction of the language before then to make that experience really come to life.

Using different parts of my brain: It should come as no surprise that learning a new language messes with your head in a good way. You are forced to think about things in a completely different way, especially when the alphabet is something different than what you are accustomed to. Sometimes I find this process painful, especially during vocabulary lessons in class where it feels like every heritage speaker in the class knows everything and I can’t even remember how to spell the first word on the list; however, that kind of hyperventilating suffocation that I feel when learning Arabic is pure bliss. It’s the feeling of being on a precipice, about to tumble over an edge, head-first into the world unknown. It is the feeling of pushing your own boundaries of knowledge and existence, of unlocking worlds within worlds and breaking down our assumptions. I love this kind of ego-slay, especially when it is as humbling as learning Arabic is for me. This is exactly the kind of work that academia should be for people: the kind that makes the boundaries of who you think you are, and what you think your world is, ambiguous and blurry.

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Thinking in Arabic: When I am particularly immersed in my studies, which is a lot these days, I find myself thinking in Arabic. I will pass street signs written in English and imagine how I would spell such a thing in the Arabic alphabet. Or I will try to translate simple conversations or sentences to Arabic in my head. Sometimes, especially because of my visceral understanding of Moroccan Arabic and the fact that I am Muslim, I feel compelled to respond to situations in Arabic, uttering a Yallah or an Alhamdulilah wherever it fits. In Arabic there are just so many key words and phrases that encapsulate so much meaning in a tiny package that sometimes I find I am at a loss for words in English. It just doesn’t sound the same when you see a particularly beautiful sunrise and you say to yourself “All praise, glory and thanks are due to God Alone” when you can just say Subhana Allah instead.

Reading the Qur’an: On that note, my connection to Arabic is not only cultural in the sense that I love Arabic cultures but it is also cultural in the sense of religion. For those who do not know, Arabic is the language in which the holy book of Islam (the Qur’an) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him for all eternity). One incredible outcome of learning to read and write Arabic fluently is that I can now read the Qur’an in Arabic at a pace that is a lot faster than before (let’s be realistic, I could barely read 6 words every 2 minutes before). Even though Qur’anic Arabic is quite different than Modern Standard Arabic, many principles are the same and the same basic letters and sounds apply, even though there is an entire science behind reading the Qur’an (tajweed). The fact that I can read what I and other Muslims consider to the exact and direct word of Allah (God) in the language it was revealed lessens the temporal and spatial gap between myself and the Prophet Muhammad and brings me closer to my spiritual practice, even if I am slow in learning the meaning(s) of such words in their own context.

My journey with the Arabic language will be life-long and this is only just the beginning. There have been moments of real agony already where I feel like I will never touch the depths of meaning that I want to with the language, where I lose myself in its music, tinged with melancholia and sorrow that it is not my mother tongue as I fail to remember terms or pronunciation again and again. But there are successes along the same path, big successes, things that I could never imagine were possible like those pages full of words I can understand and feelings I can describe. And for now, that will have to be enough until the day when  I will fully memorize the Qur’an while internalizing its meaning and when my own Arabic poetry will roll flawlessly off my tongue, insha Allah.