How do we navigate solitude in a world that tells us we need other people around us in order to feel valuable, and, further, how do we manage this when our neurobiology screams at us that being alone is dangerous? The messages we get from society tell us that relationships, especially the intimate ones, are a large key to our lifelong happiness.  On top of that, brain research demonstrates that loneliness can trigger the brain’s fight/flight/freeze response (the nervous system’s way of telling us we are in a potentially dangerous situation) and need to be on alert in order to stay alive. It is no surprise then, that being alone can lead to strong feelings of loneliness.

All of us have felt lonely. It’s part of the human experience. Ironically, we can be surrounded by others and still feel alone.  Loneliness is fickle – one moment masquerading as depression, the next moment rushing in on a cloud of anxiety. It is a feeling that sinks into your whole being, down to your bones. It’s hollow, yet fills you completely with a vast emptiness. It may come in waves or always be present.  It is a whole-being experience, meaning it affects our emotions, our thoughts, our bodies, our unconscious, and of course, our relationships.

The way we form relationships stems from our attachment systems – these are the ways in which we can (or cannot) get close to others.  Our attachment systems are generally created in childhood, but have the ability to change. The way we attached to others can add to what is perhaps the greatest irony in human life: the fact that what takes away loneliness can also be the source of it. Human connection can be fleeting, unreliable, untrustworthy. And when it falls apart, it can leave us lonelier than before.  Being alone can be a choice or can happen outside our control.

“Loneliness is a sign that you are in desperate need of yourself.” Rupi Kaur

How can we survive this?

  • Perhaps we should start with addressing the stigma that surrounds being without a partner. Society tells us that we need to be in a relationships in order to be fulfilled, but this simply isn’t the case. Let’s start to reframe loneliness as solitude, so that when it occurs, it becomes a powerful and necessary experience leading to personal growth.
  • Acknowledge that you are sitting in solitude – and that you are human. When we validate our emotional experience, we are better able to move through those emotions.
  • We will never not have the experience of solitude when it is warranted. It’s wired within us to feel that kind of pain, and it’s all there for a reason. Accepting the grief, despair, pain, numbness, etc that comes with the feeling can often be the next step toward moving through these powerful emotions.

How do we move forward?

  • After facing solitude, we often level up and become better versions of ourselves. Reminding ourselves that this kind of growth may not have been able to occur while surrounded by others is important.
  • We become resilient – not in a way that makes us immune to solitude– but in a way that makes us better able to tolerate and perhaps even welcome the opportunity to become more intimate with ourselves.
  • We become woke – if we can figure out what we have just learned about ourselves through being alone. Reflecting, creating insight, and being creative are all ways we can find meaning in a situation.
  • We can use the opportunity to focus on the most important human connection and fall deeper into love and knowing with ourselves.

 If you find yourself alone, especially on a day like this one – full of hearts, cupids, chocolates, and materialistic love – it can be especially hard. Remember, though, that you are likely in a phase of intense personal growth, so remember to do the hard work of loving yourself each step of the way.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. Normally spoken about in the context of sexism and racism, one underexplored area that implicit bias manifests strongly in is interactions with and among Muslims.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity points out the following:

  • Implicit associations harboured in our subconscious develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messaging.
  • Biases associated with these subconscious associations are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even if we are dealing with individuals who have taken a vow of impartiality
  • Implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our consciously declared beliefs and can often contradict them
  • Our implicit biases favour our own group
  • Biases are malleable – associations we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of purposeful de-biasing techniques

So what kinds of associations are we talking about here?

There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

The following associations are quite common and actually have a historical lineage in terms of being connected with anti-Muslim propaganda all the way back to the Middle Ages:

Muslims are naturally inclined to violence. This one has been around since the beginning and goes hand in hand with lies that Islam was spread by the sword (ask any credible historian: it wasn’t.) and that Muslims are inclined to be terrorists. The idea of the terminology “moderate Muslims” plays into this stereotype because it implies that the deeper one goes into Islam, the more violent one becomes. This simply isn’t true. Violence is a practice adopted by people who are part of many different cultural systems around the world – it is an unfortunate political tool for some and a symptom of trauma for others. The choice to engage with violence is justified differently by all cultural systems around the world from Judaism to secularism, and is not unique to one system over another. If anything, violence is a universal human trait that is either used or resisted by interpreters of particular cultural groups, sometimes identifying as the same thing but understanding and using (or not using) violence differently. Since, contrary to what many bigots think, Muslims are humans too, it is no surprise that some of them are violent. However, to state that violence is intrinsic to Islam or even condoned by its laws is categorically false.

Muslim women are oppressed and have no rights. It seems that ever since Christian women started de-veiling and the secularists took over, the veil itself (which is often associated with the stereotype of the non-liberated, oppressed Muslim woman) has come to be the symbol of the perceived oppression of Muslim women. Even when Muslim women are not veiled, they can still be seen as cloistered away in their homes, at the behest of their man’s will, without rights and even weak. While it is true that in many countries, the rights of women are limited and that these sometimes happen to be Muslim countries, it is also true that they are often not Muslim countries. Misogyny has no religious or geographical boundaries and remains a global problem. Interestingly, those who hinge this stereotype on Muslim women are usually ignorant of the incredible rights afforded to them in Islam (even over and above the rights held by modern Western, non-Muslim women) and the fact that many, if not most, Muslim women choose to obey Islamic laws including around veiling. The right to choose and to practice one’s religious way of life as one chooses never seems to factor into the Western savior complex though.

Muslim men are sex-crazed. This stereotype goes all the way back to the insults hurled at Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself by his contemporaries and has continued to be associated with Muslim men to this day. While street harassment remains a pervasive issue in many Muslim countries, problems related to sexual assault and harassment are not limited to Muslims if global numbers are any indication. Additionally, even in the confines of a consensual sexual relationship, there is no indication that Muslim men are more aroused or arousable than any other demographic.

How do these associations manifest as behavioural outcomes of implicit bias?

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. For example, a doctor with implicit racial bias will be less likely to recommend black patients to specialists or may recommend surgery rather than a less invasive treatment. Managers will be less likely to invite a black candidate in for a job interview or to provide a positive performance evaluation. Judges have been found to grant darker-skinned defendants sentences up to 8 months longer for identical offenses.

Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people. They will sit further away, and their facial expressions will be cold and withdrawn. These same implicitly biased white people are also are more apt to view black people as angry or threatening and to predict that a black partner would perform poorly on a joint academic task. White people with stronger implicit bias against black people actually do perform poorly on a difficult task after interacting with a black person—suggesting that, without knowing it, they were challenged mentally by the effort of appearing non-biased. While the studies on implicit bias and Islamophobia are still an emerging research area, it should be noted that often the findings with implicit bias and racial associations overlaps with Islamophobia, particularly when Muslims subscribe to certain racial identities such as being black or Arab. Compounded biases have yet to be explored in any real depth.

So now that you know these unconscious cognitive processes are happening, the next question of any regular, concerned individual should be:

How can I de-bias myself?

This sounds a bit strange but there are processes and programs developed for people to consciously decouple certain associations in their mind. Such programs tend to be based on the principles of Behavioural Conditioning Therapy but not always.

In a booklet put out by the National Center for State Courts (American) and Race & Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Organization, the following steps can be taken by individuals and organizations to reduce implicit bias:

  • Raise awareness of it: Individuals can only work to correct for sources of bias that they are aware exist (Wilson & Brekke, 1994). Simply knowing about implicit bias and its potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior may prompt individuals to pursue corrective action (cf. Green, Carney, Pallin, Ngo, Raymond, Iezzoni, & Banaji, 2007). Although awareness of implicit bias in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that effective debiasing efforts take place (Kim, 2003), it is a crucial starting point that may prompt individuals to seek out and implement the types of strategies listed throughout this document.
  • Identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences (and know that that is OK!): The popular “color blind” approach to egalitarianism (i.e., avoiding or ignoring race; lack of awareness of and sensitivity to differences between social groups) fails as an implicit bias intervention strategy. “Color blindness” actually produces greater implicit bias than strategies that acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). Cultivating greater awareness of and sensitivity to group and individual differences appears to be a more effective tactic: Training seminars that acknowledge and promote an appreciation of group differences and multi-cultural viewpoints can help reduce implicit bias (Rudman, Ashmore, & Gary, 2001; Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004). In addition to considering and acknowledging group differences, individuals should purposely compare and individuate stigmatized group members. By defining individuals in multiple ways other than in terms of race, implicit bias may be reduced (e.g., Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lebrecht, Pierce, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009; Corcoran, Hundhammer, & Mussweiler, 2009).
  • Routinely check thought processes and decisions for possible bias: Individuals interested in minimizing the impact of implicit bias on their own judgment and behaviors should actively engage in more thoughtful, deliberative information processing. When sufficient effort is exerted to limit the effects of implicit biases on judgment, attempts to consciously control implicit bias can be successful (Payne, 2005; Stewart & Payne, 2008). To do this, however, individuals must possess a certain degree of self-awareness. They must be mindful of their decision-making processes rather than just the results of decision making (Seamone, 2006) to eliminate distractions, to minimize emotional decision making, and to objectively and deliberatively consider the facts at hand instead of relying on schemas, stereotypes, and/or intuition. Instructions on how to correct for implicit bias may be effective at mitigating the influence of implicit bias on judgment if the instructions implement research-based techniques. Instructions should detail a clear, specific, concrete strategy that individuals can use to debias judgment or action instead of, for example, simply warning individuals to protect their decisions from implicit bias (e.g., Mendoza, Gollwitzer, & Amodio, 2010; Kim, 2003). It should be noted (as it was above) that some seemingly intuitive strategies for counteracting bias can, in actuality, produce some unintended negative consequences. Instructions to simply suppress existing stereotypes (e.g., adopt the “color blindness” approach) have been known to produce a “rebound effect” that may increase implicit bias (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994). Others also perceive individuals instructed to implement the “color blindness” approach as more biased (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). For these reasons, decision makers should apply tested intervention techniques that are supported by empirical research rather than relying on intuitive guesses about how to mitigate implicit bias.
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment and remove or reduce them: If one is distracted or particularly stressed in one’s environment when interacting with people from different groups, including Muslims, their tendency is to revert back to typical associations and therefore behavioural tendencies. The reduction of both distractions and stress can contribute to clarity and consciousness of one’s thoughts and rationale process in governing your own behaviour.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms: Actively seeking feedback from others and articulating one’s reasoning process with regards to behavioural decisions made with and among Muslims is crucial. This involves a willingness to improve and be vulnerable to others – something that will likely be much appreciated. Pick people you feel safe with but who will also provide you with honest feedback.

Finally, if you are interested in kick-starting your journey in eliminating implicit racial or gender bias or Islamophobia, you might want to consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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 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.

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As writers, we can often get stuck in a routine with our writing that can feel a bit dusty after a while. At its worst, this can cause us to stagnate and falter with our writing, or even set it aside for other pursuits. Writing takes persistent and consistent effort to produce worthwhile results, but that doesn’t mean the process by which you get there has to be boring.

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Many writers have different methods for keeping things fresh, regardless of the genre. Some writers like to use prompting exercises. These are usually one sentence assignments like “Write about the smell of your childhood neighbour’s house” or “Write about the first time you were disappointed in your parents” and from something fairly straightforward and simple, entire short stories or even books can evolve. These exercises get the creative juices flowing and nowhere is this truer than when prompts are combined with free writing. Free writing means that you aren’t thinking of things as a project or an essay. You’re just writing for the sake of writing without pressure to produce something even of quality or value at the end. This sense of freedom often gives writers the confidence they need to get started, and once they do, great things happen!

That being said, it’s not a trick of the mind, necessarily. It’s not a matter of making yourself think that there’s no pressure to accomplish something with your writing, but in the end you still have a lingering hope that something tangible will come  from it. Rather, this exercise is purely for the joy of writing as a transformative process, in and of itself.

I often link free writing (which I, sadly, have very little time for these days!) and meditation because I see the outcomes of both processes to be very similar, and below are few of the reasons why.

They are both good for you. Meditation has been medically linked to lowered stress and anxiety levels as well as decreased risks of major illnesses like depression and heart disease. Free writing allows you the freedom to express yourself and let go of things that are holding you back emotionally. In fact, therapists will often recommend free writing simply for the release it allows you and the mental health benefits that can come from that.

They both focus the mind and keep you present. When you are meditating on something, or even meditating on the clearing of the mind to bring it to the present moment, you are focused. Focus takes concentration and discipline, especially these days in the world of fast-paced technology and split-second attention spans. Free writing can offer a similar kind of focus, particularly if you set a time limit for the free writing. Set yourself a ten minute alarm for writing on a particular subject or whatever comes to mind and stay committed to the writing and only the writing until that alarm goes off. More times than not, you’ll get so invested in your work, the alarm will likely come as a forgotten surprise.

With both, you have to be aware of all the senses. For anyone who has just started meditation practice formally or informally, one thing can be said for sure: meditating certainly has the uncanny ability to make you aware of all facets of your surroundings from your itchy nose to the ache in your back, from the smell of the room you’re sitting in to the sounds outside your window. You become acutely aware of the world around you and your body within that world. With free writing and any writing in general, an awareness of the senses is critical. The best kinds of writing don’t tell us what is happening, they show us what is happening by making us feel, touch, taste, smell, hear and see things through our written words. The best writers are those that are in touch with these senses and know how to express them on the page.

Sometimes, they are painful. Meditation isn’t all fun and oms. There are serious challenges in terms of physical and mental endurance that need to be overcome through careful, calculated practice of keeping the mind aware and still. Writing can be similar in that it forces a kind of discipline that can be uncomfortable at first but pays off in the end. Also, not all meditation or writing sessions will be considered “successful” by you – and they don’t have to be successful… Failing and trying again are both their own forms of success.

They both help you evolve. Whether you are meditating of free writing, both tasks help you to learn a lot about yourself, particularly how fluid you are as an individual. A lot of people think that writing is about crystallizing a moment or a character in time, but in actuality, it’s more of a snapshot of an ever-changing scene or individual. In a similar way, meditation helps you hone in on the present moment because this is where attachments fall away. It is only in past and future memories that we hold onto rigid conceptions of ourselves and our identities. By breaking through and being present with ourselves and our pens on the page, we can capture some of the sense of our own movement and can grow because of it, becoming gentler with ourselves as we pass through time in perpetual motion.

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During the 2015 Canadian federal election, the niqab came into central focus as a key election issue with Canadians dividing themselves among the camps of supporters and condemners. The issue reached such a ridiculous fervour that, on the advice of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, I opted to write an opinion-editorial on the issue about how it was dividing the country and we must stand together to move forward. After this article’s publication, I received an email from the Rabbanit (wife of the Rabbi), Dorit, at Beth Shalom Synagogue. She proposed that we start a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue circle to talk about some of the issues that plague both of our religious groups and would allow us to create a safe environment for women from both groups to ask questions, offer insights and generally get pushed out of their comfort zones in the interests of learning.

Our first meeting in January at the Synagogue was small but intimate. The few women from both sides shared their life stories and, by virtue of the fact that the meeting was taking place in the Synagogue, answered many questions about their brand of Judaism, Jewish dynamics in the city and their perspectives on some political aspects of both faiths. Some amazing connections were made, especially between myself, Nakita, and Michelle from the Jewish community. A philosopher, feminist, life coach and convert, Michelle is a tour de force who has gone on to launch Edmonton’s first women’s film festival in honour of International Women’s Day. Nakita was lucky enough to help in a small way with this effort with The Drawing Board being privileged enough to build the website and help with some public relations aspects.

Such relationships are not the only beautiful thing to come out of the group so far. In our second meeting at the MAC Rahma Mosque in February, the turnout was much higher and the Muslim and Jewish women were lucky enough to get a tour of the mosque from the brand new Imam, Dr. El Sayed Amin. The Imam is exceptionally gifted in public speaking, interreligious dialogue and intellectual pursuits so to have his full attention was a true honour for all of us. Additionally, most of the Muslim women had never had a tour of their own mosque before so it was an amazing learning opportunity for us as well. The mosque was unbelievably hospitable to us, offering us the space on a continuous basis (bi-monthly as we change on and off with the Synagogue) and having the Imam around to answer any of our more in-depth questions and read us excerpts of the Qur’an.

The second meeting’s conversation revolved around the subject of veiling and modesty in both the Muslim and Jewish traditions and the dialogue was amazing. For many participants, it was the first time for them to encounter a person of the other faith, let alone sit across from them, sharing food and life stories. Perhaps my favourite part of all was when the Jewish women joined the Muslim women in the Musalla for ‘Asr prayer, with some Jewish women actually participating in the prayer, shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim sisters. It was so beautiful, it actually brought a tear to my eye.

In the coming months, we will be discussing such important and controversial issues as conversion, terrorism, Palestine-Israel and much, much more. As our group grows and solidifies, we hope to have more public events aimed at creating a better understanding of both of our often misunderstood communities. And if we can do this together with mutual respect and kindness, we have already won the day.