In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Thank you so much for having me today. And thank you everyone for being here. I would like to reiterate that we are situated on Treaty 6 territory and that these are the traditional lands of Indigenous people who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. They are still here and it is on you to insure that that is forever the case.

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I also want to acknowledge that I am a white, cis woman, the child of Italian immigrants to this land, and the mother of a beautiful, Arab girl, a convert to Islam and all those things are combined, I am afforded certain privileges and I pray that I am using these to the advantage of every person, people of every gender, orientation, religion, ethnicity, ability and anything else we use to identify ourselves.

I came here today to inform you that the day you were born was not the day you came out of your mother’s womb. The day you were born was the first time you witnessed injustice and you decided to take a stand. Deep down inside you, alarms bells started ringing and a call resounded through the center of your being. A call to take action, a call to stand up and use your voice to say, “No, hatred will not live here, Oppression will not be tolerated, injustice will not be served today.”

The day you heard that call may have been November 8th, when the one who shall remain unnamed was legitimized in his hatred and misogyny, and propelled to the highest institution of the most powerful nation in the world. And we will oppose him. And all echoes of him at home.

That day might have been before. It might have been after. The day you hear that call might be today, right now.

For it is a call I am issuing. This is not a call to silent prayer but a call to submission of the ego in the service of others, even if those others are a future self in need of your present compassion. It is a call of recognizing that any of us could be oppressor or oppressed and that many of us are both, and we’re standing on a fine line and you are choosing dignity, respect and compassion that every single one of us has earned by virtue of our existence.

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It is a call to make space for one another, to take space when it is not yielded, to recognize that we create the worlds we live in, and that hatred and love take effort of an equal measure. The day you were born was the first time you saw hatred in action and you chose Love.

Fierce love. Love that dismantles and is disobedient. Enraged love. Disappointed love. Grieving Love. Love that refuses to accept anything less than solidarity, anything less than taking care of one another.

Taking care of one another does not only mean fixing dinners and giving shoulders to cry on – though those things are important. No, taking care means a commitment to the idea that, even if I have never met you, I love you and I respect your right to a life of dignity and hope, a life of self-actualized growth and I will fight for you.

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I do not accept that black, brown, Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish people with varying orientations and degrees of ability are made the collateral damage in the bulldozing path of a historical lie spun incessantly about racial and social superiority, while those who spin it hold our planet, our children, our wealth, our future, our collective soul hostage. I do not accept how they divide us. I do not accept that our trauma and violence are painted as intrinsic to who we are, while they cover their colonization in the fog of words, in a war of semantics, in imperial programming. I refuse to normalize their hatred.

The day you were born was the first moment you witnessed power in action and you said no to it. Where you traced its institutions, its circulatory system, feeding life into those who designed it and relegating the rest of us to despondency and despair. You deserve better than a life of despair.

Answering the call is a commitment to replacing despair with kindness, even when kindness means blocking roads and lobbying governments. Especially when it means that.

So I want to ask all of you and please let me hear a beautiful Yes:

Do you hear the call?

Do you hear the call today?

We are not here to feel good about ourselves. We celebrate who we are and we resist in our joy but we are not here to joke around about what is happening south of the border, around the world, in our own backyard, in our families. We are here to make a public declaration to do better and to stop those who won’t.

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The work does not end here, it starts right now.

I want you to turn to the person next to you, put your hand over your heart, look them straight in the eye and face their humanity. Thank them for being here today. Thank them for taking a stand and answering the call of Justice.

Repeat after me:

I am here for you.

I will always be here for you.

I will defend you.

I will use my voice

In the face of your oppression.

I will work for justice.

I hear the call.

And I answer it.

Very good.

Hear this call today, everyone, I am holding you accountable Let it echo every day in every action you take.

It is history calling, wondering what side you will be on.

It is our duty to memory, wondering how selective you will be.

And it is the scales of justice calling, wondering what your balance look like.

All our lives hang in the fold.

Thank you.


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.

Photography: Lindsey Catherine Photos & Media

Video: Radical Citizen Media

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, there has been a major backlash online and in the US Congress against prayers being uttered for the dead and their grieving families. Expressed as frustration for a lack of action, individuals have taken to calling out the “thoughts and prayers” syndrome that keeps the United States in a perpetual state of inaction on gun control and have further argued that the question is particularly being ignored in the case of Orlando because the victims were Latino, members of the LGBTQ community and killed by a so-called “Islamic” “terrorist”.

As a result, individuals who do feel compelled to pray for a variety of reasons have had to confront themselves and their intentions with regards to their status as allies of the LGBTQ movement. Is it possible to pray for the dead and their families to find peace and safety while still remaining active and vigilant in the struggle for the right to life of those in the community? Of course.

After the shootings happened, I started to see these “Policy, not prayer” posts online but they weren’t emerging from the pages of my queer friends. Rather, they came from the pages of militant atheists – the kind who push for secular homogenization at every single inappropriate turn without really realizing its deeply historically Christian origins. In this case, I became outraged. How dare they take the opportunity to push an anti-prayer agenda? Was I beginning to sound like the “War on Christmas” people?!

Well, after some reflection: no, I don’t think that is the case. I wrote a rant about it on my Facebook and came to realize that it was more about accepting one another and how we grieve in the world:

“Can people stop with the passive aggressive posts telling people to stop praying and instead make policy changes for people in Orlando?

First of all, a lot of people who are praying are abroad and have zero capability to influence American domestic policy.

Secondly, who exactly are you speaking to? Politicians who only offer prayers but don’t change policies? That’s fair enough but then that message needs to actually get to them…not be posted on Facebook as yet another aggressive secular campaign on the uselessness of prayer. We get that you don’t think prayer does anything and that’s fine. Don’t tell believers how to grieve and help, especially when many of them are from within the LGBTQ community and this is how they mourn what happened yesterday.

Lastly, praying and public policy change are not mutually exclusive actions. And I think I am the living embodiment of that principle so it’s fair for me to put that on the line. If you want me to stop praying, you will definitely have me stop public policy work as well. And I’m doing a lot of it, alhamdulilah. Prayer gives me hope that the actions I engage in will be acceptable and successful.

Not everyone exists in this world in the same way you do. As I think Orlando fully exemplifies. If there is a lesson to take from the bloodbath of hatred, it’s that homogenizing narratives of how people should be and what they should do are always harmful and violent.

And I have to say, that given how much of the religious establishment has been cursing the LGBTQ community, well, forever… it is a little refreshing to see people praying for this long-oppressed community many of whose members consider themselves believers too or might have been if they hadn’t been so harshly outcast and demonized. And even if not, it’s still a necessary change in the dynamic between these 2 communities where many individuals live on the ambiguous faultlines between them.

Let’s all engage in some deep acceptance of one another. Division serves no one except those who thrive on hegemony and are served by it.

‪#‎prayersANDchange
‪#‎orjustprayers
‪#‎orjustchange
‪#‎orlandoshooting

I’m done now.”

Immediately after I posted this, a gay friend of mine shared a “Policy, not prayers” image. I felt sick to my stomach and realized that while I had been addressing the militant atheists, I had failed to think about it from the LGBTQ perspective. He later removed it after he saw my rant; however, the conversation that followed was very eye-opening for me and helped me remember that prayers, however well-meaning, may be uncalled for by individuals in the LGBTQ community and may even be received with revulsion as they conjure up remembrances of “pray the gay away” and other traumatic interactions between queers and especially Christian far-right groups. Ultimately, you do not need to make your prayers public.

What you do need to make public, however, is your action. And after Orlando, there is no longer action and inaction. There is only action and tacit acceptance of the systemic oppression and violence against minority groups. If you are against social injustice for some groups, you have to be against social injustice for all. Period. Full stop.

In checking in with my friends in the LGBTQ community, I learned some very important lessons about being an ally and how to make your action meaningful (however local it has to be):

  1. You need to be quiet and listen. This might be hard for you. I will admit it is hard for me because I’m used to talking a lot. But you have to do it. The best way to learn something about a group that you do not belong to is to listen to the people who do belong to it. You might be surprised to find that they actually belong to your group and to the other group – something you may not have conceived of before. Being quiet means quieting your mind too: don’t be waiting to respond. Don’t be editing what they say. Hear them out. Hear their perspective. You don’t have a right to tell them if their experience with oppression is genuine or not. If you haven’t changed by the end of the conversation(s), you aren’t doing it right.
  2. You need to recognize your privilege. That’s right. Have you felt like shutting off your Facebook and telling the evil world to go away? Must be nice to just shut it all off without having to live the reality of discrimination every day of your life. Yup, I said it. While I’m all for self-preservation and activists taking periodic breaks from action and social media to replenish themselves, you can’t totally tune out. People who are discriminated against do not have the luxury of just turning the violence in the media off – they live it. Also: if you are a religious person and you are thinking, “Well, I’m not gay and I don’t know anyone who is, so I’m really lucky I don’t even have to think about what I would do or how I would deal with this” then you seriously have an entitlement problem. Since when is the fact that something “doesn’t affect you” a justified reason for not giving af while people are suffering? Eat your privilege. Eat every last bite of it and get to work.
  3. You can share ways that you understand their pain, but know that you do not fully understand their struggle. In a conversation with a trans friend of mine, I was giving examples of ways that Islamophobia and Queerphobia are similar: people hate us so much they want to kill us, we never know when we will be the victims of verbal or physical assault, our oppression is compounded by factors like what socio-economic strata we live in, our declared gender, what we wear and the colour of our skin. While this relatability brings us closer together, these experiences do not dovetail perfectly. Recognize that their experience is unique. If you add the fact that a queer person is also a Muslim or Christian, you have an intersection of possible discrimination which makes them far more likely to be lashed out at.
  4. This is not about you (at least not right now). Similar to number 3, remember that it is not.about.you. Way too many Muslims I know were crying foul at the media trying to portray the Orlando shooter as an “Islamic” “terrorist.” This includes hundreds of prominent Islamic scholars who took the time to issue a formal statement on the shootings but spent more than half of it defending the fact that this lunatic idiot didn’t represent Islam. Why in the hell are we pandering to Islamophobes when anyone with half a brain in their heads knows that OF COURSE HE DOESN’T REPRESENT ISLAM. This happens every single time a shooter has an Arab-sounding name. Every. Single. Time. And while that sucks and is worthy of both future action in the form of education initiatives and some condemnation (especially when so-called “political hopefuls” stand to capitalize on it to the detriment of everyone else), recognize that your condolences for the lives lost should come first. Yes, even if you are Muslim. Especially if you are Muslim. As a colleague of mine put it: the life of a child is like a universe to its family and on that horrible Sunday in Orlando, 49 of those universes were extinguished. If the first thought in your mind is to be defensive about how the media portrays Islam, you are not doing this step correctly.
  5. You need to speak the hell up. This is the final step and the most important. To illustrate how important this is, I first need to tell an anecdotal and seemingly unrelated story. Back in December, just after the height of the Islamophobia of the Conservative Party federal election campaign died down with their total decimation at the polls, I organized a Women’s Safety Class at a local mosque to give Muslim women the tools they need to de-escalate violence and remain safe. Rachael Heffernan – a four stripe black belt – taught the class and among many memorable things everyone came away with was a very important point about what your job is as a victim of harassment and possible violence.

Someone in the crowd mentioned that when someone harasses them, they are worried about freaking out because they don’t want to portray Islam improperly and they don’t want to incite the other person to violence against them. Throughout the class, Rachael had been pointing out that more often than not, acting crazy (“like a cat in a pillowcase”) or being unafraid to scream GET AWAY FROM ME as loud as possible usually does the trick against perpetrators because they are looking for passive individuals to bully. Now, if you are concerned about doing that and then having that person extrapolate your self-preserving behaviour to mean that all 1.7 billion Muslims act like cats in a pillowcase…well, as Rachael put it: you can’t cure stupid.

A harasser is a harasser. They are going out of their way to make life difficult and uncomfortable and even hurt you. You owe them absolutely nothing. In this instance, your only job is to GET HOME SAFE. That might mean being the cat in the pillowcase or it might mean remaining silent. Whatever you have to do, do it guilt-free: Just get home. Throughout the rest of the safety class, Rachael shared inspirational stories with us (like the one about a woman who beat her attacker while shouting “I have three kids and I am going home!”) as we continued to chant I’M GOING HOME as our safety mantra.

The same idea can easily be applied to members of the LGBTQ community who face harassment, discrimination and violence with alarming frequency. Just get home. Lobby and be an activist when violence is not a very real possibility. But getting home? That’s your only job when facing an attacker.

But that’s not the job of the people around you, your allies. Their silence is not permissible in my view. Collectively, they have no right to just stand on by. It doesn’t even have to be a situation in which they witness violence against you. It can be (and should be) standing up to everyday micro-aggressions like calling someone a faggot or making gay jokes or using gay as an insult – whether or not an LGBTQ person is even in the room. If you aren’t doing this, you are not an ally. It doesn’t matter if conversations at work or at home become uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you lose friends. Who wants to be friends with someone who hates and condones aggression against oppressed minority groups anyway?

You don’t have to attend Pride to support your friends, just like they don’t have to come to the mosque or wear hijab to support you. You don’t even have to agree with each other on anything but you do have to respect each other’s dignity and right to safety. It says a lot about the ally-status LGBTQ community that my gay and trans friends have been the biggest supporters of Muslims as we continue to be scapegoated in Canadian and American elections and, most poignantly, that one of the first things to come out of the Orlando shootings was the “Queers against Islamophobia” campaign. They stood up for you. Will you stand up for them?

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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