In the last four months, I have become a full-time mom again. My daughter, who is two and a half, had been going to daycare for a year and a few months while I plugged away at University doing my masters and at home, growing my own business. We never had any issues in all this time, with my daughter regularly bounding into the daycare space, waving good-bye to me, and trotting off to hang out with her friends. There were never any tears from me or from her (though my mom shed a few).

My daughter loved her time at daycare, and so did I. I would go to class at the University or sit in a nearby coffeeshop cranking out blog articles for clients and papers for classes. I got to have “me” time and so did she, in a safe, caring environment where discipline means a time-out, playtime means make-believe and crafting sessions, and adventure means going to the park every day in the mammoth stroller used by the daycare owner and primary caregiver. I appreciated that she would be able to put all the kids into one big stroller with others strapped to her front and back, or (if things were busier) being pushed in a second stroller by the secondary caregiver. This second woman looks like and has the same gentle manner as my mother-in-law so I always felt comfortable bringing my daughter there and both women have become part of our family.

All of this came to a crashing halt in December when the daycare owner informed me that she had been visited by the regulatory office for childcare spaces and she would have to limit the number of kids cared for each day because she lacked an attached playground. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with this fact, and neither have any of the other parents. In fact, my daughter would often remark about how great it was that they got to go to the big park to play. Knowing how stir-crazy kids can get, I could imagine that it was also a welcome change in the routine daily to get them bundled up and outside in the fresh air. In other words, it has never been a problem.

But I suppose there are rules for these situations and a few bad experiences have ruined things for everyone. At first, we all thought it was a parent among us who had issued the complaint which meant that more than half of us suddenly found ourselves without childcare. As time has gone on though, the regulatory board has been regularly called to keep an eye on the location and the number of children being supervised. In the latest development, the daycare owner’s car was keyed and vandalized. I can’t say whether those two incidences are related, nor can I understand what kind of prejudice someone has against this woman who spends her days watching our children. There are rumours that it is someone who shares the office building and doesn’t like the noise, or wants to expand her office space. If this is the case, I have penned the following open letter to make it abundantly clear why attacking a childcare space unnecessarily is an attack on society…and by extension, I hope to show just how revolutionary these spaces and the people who run them are.

To the person who is targeting my childcare space,

I want to begin by saying that I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that your heart is in the right place and you wouldn’t unknowingly complicate the lives of half a dozen families on purpose. I want to believe that you are genuinely concerned about how many children are being watched in our childcare space and that, for some reason unbeknownst to me, you feel that these children really need an attached playground even though the previous arrangement of a daily park visit was more than optimal for all children in attendance – not to mention the satisfaction of their parents.

Since I am choosing to trust that you know what you are doing, I want to make a few things abundantly clear to you. By prioritizing the arbitrary playground space over the number of children that can be watched in the daycare (the regulatory board itself said the rule is ludicrous and would have turned a blind eye), you have unknowingly set off a negative chain reaction that affects the health of us parents, our relationships, our studies, our businesses, our ability to participate in society and the economy and much more.

My daughter attended this daycare only part time, for a few hours a day. In those few hours, what was possible for me to accomplish is nearly limitless. I could complete vast amounts of work for my home business, could complete research for school projects, could exercise, could have quiet social time with a friend (which is very rare in my neck of the woods) could do necessary readings, could plan crucial community events and social justice work, and could do interviews with newspapers or television channels to raise awareness about key causes. Yes, in just a few hours (out of 24), I could do all of this and much, much more.

This is nothing compared to what my daughter could do in that time. She can play with her friends, eat a nutritious meal, pretend to be a superhero, engineer an epic train loop, paint a mural, read books, twirl in circles, go for an outing to the park or take a nap. She could be social, stimulated, excited and independent. And for my kid, that’s important because no matter what I plan for us to do together, she is a social butterfly and thrives in the company of other children.

But that was taken away from us and it can’t be replaced. As a grad student and small business owner with two employees, I can’t afford to pay full-time for traditional daycare spaces when I only need part-time hours. And no, I don’t want her there for 8 hours a day anyway. The fact that I could pay for what I needed in 15 minute increments was incredibly liberating for me, and was lucrative for the daycare owner too. She had enough change-over in the day that the kids always had someone fresh to play with and she could accommodate moms and dads who just wanted to go to yoga for an hour or get their shopping done in peace.

But that was taken away from us. And what it was replaced with is far less optimal. She doesn’t get her much-needed routine anymore as she is zipping to and from appointments with me. She doesn’t get the important social contact that she needs and craves (I recognize every child is different). She doesn’t get her independent time away from Mommy. She doesn’t get to tell me all the things she did while I was away, accomplishments she was proud of and excited to recite to me in a list every day.

But that was taken away from us. I can nearly hear my hair turning grey as I struggle to figure out who can watch my child so I can peck away at a computer for an hour, or devise insanely complex schemes of child sitting just so I can get my picture taken by a reporter for ten minutes. I have been staying up until the wee hours of the morning and rising earlier than before in an effort to cram more and more into the times when she is sleeping so I’m not constantly multi-tasking during her waking hours – because that’s not fair to her or me. I am exhausted. And have a lingering cold because of sleep deprivation. I can feel that I’m operating at half my brain capacity most of the time.

And a lot of people would say: “but you do too much. You should slow down.” To which I respond: says who? I love everything I do, whether it is spending time with my child, being an advocate for women, being an academic or writing for other businesses in the city. I love it all, except maybe my dishes. At an appointment with my counsellor recently, I told her I felt guilty about having so many things I love doing in my life that are outside of my family time. She responded abruptly and sharply, stating that it is rare enough in this world for people to love their work, their school and their community initiatives so when you are someone who loves all three, you have to make the world adapt to you, not the other way around. You have to hold onto that happiness and make it work. Because it can work: it just takes more time management than you would think.

But it can’t work for me, or for my daughter’s needs if her childcare space is forced to reduce capacity leaving me and a whole lot of other parents scrambling. It means we participate less in our communities and our society. It means we participate less in the economy. We have less money to spend and we might be forced to pay more for other spaces.

This is not even to mention the fact that the owner of this space can now barely keep her head above the red line financially, where she is locked into a lease in this building but can barely make subsistence wages because of low attendance. Or that she had to lay off secondary caregiver during an economic recession – a woman who is a mother of five children herself. It also says nothing about the people in our families and friend circles who we now lean on to help pick up the slack.

Shutting down the capabilities of a childcare center for arbitrary reasons is not the same as targeting an office space or a retail business. Childcare spaces have deep roots in a society and even if our children only play and learn there for a couple hours a day, that time is essential for their growth and ours too.

The next time you are looking to complicate things for whatever reasons and motivations you may have, I suggest you think about how many people you will have a negative impact on, particularly when it comes to childcare spaces. These spaces are essential for feminism because they offer guardians (regardless of their gender) a choice that they might otherwise not have.

Sincerely,

One Tired Mama

This article was written by Nakita Valerio and originally published here.

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD), and many Canadians are celebrating what we believe to be achievements made by women, and the gains made for gender equality, in our country.

It is also a moment for us to remember heroines like the Famous Five Alberta women, whose petition to the Supreme Court of Canada led to women being legally considered “persons.” However, in the midst of our celebration, it is easy to forget that a notion of “inclusive” gender equality, embracing many different demographics of women in our communities including veiled Muslim women, indigenous women, women of colour, and others on the margins, remains an important and necessary goal.

It is easy to forget that it was one of the Famous Five, Emily Murphy, who remarked about Chinese Canadians: “We do not understand these people from the Orient, nor what ideas are hid behind their dark inscrutable faces.”

Divisive debate still triggered by what Muslim women wear

IWD is marked differently around the world. However, as we are celebrating, it shows how much further we have to go. It calls attention to the fact that the question of what a Muslim woman wears (whether the hijab, niqab or burka) still generates such furious, divisive debate among Canadians.

Nakita Valerio

Just last month, a woman wearing a burka was refused service at a North Edmonton business, rallying support and condemnation from both sides of the public debate. It was only recently that the federal government launched an official inquiry into the status of missing and murdered indigenous women.

IWD accentuates the fact that equality for women in this country is still heavily tied to the individual’s background, religious, racial, or otherwise.

Additionally, this inequity is highlighted this year as Women’s Day coincides with celebrations of Alberta’s 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, when Alberta joined Manitoba and Saskatchewan as the first provinces to allow women the right to vote in provincial elections.

Unequal women’s rights

While an important move in the history of the province, such an anniversary further reminds us of the unequal distribution of women’s rights because suffrage was applied unevenly at the provincial and federal levels.

The suffrage provisions of 1916 did not include Japanese and Chinese women who weren’t legally franchised until 1948, nor did it include indigenous peoples, whose suffrage also came unevenly across the country and who weren’t fully franchised until 1960.

I argue that some of the rhetoric surrounding IWD, and other events that are not necessarily promoting a brand of “intersectional” or inclusive feminism, depends on a particular vision of liberation that does not recognize a woman’s own voice.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent that in debates around whether or not head coverings are intrinsically oppressive or liberating, which continue to plague Canadian women of all backgrounds including Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians.

New feminism is based on the understanding that there is nothing inherently liberating about one expression over another. Rather, the liberation is in a woman’s choice and part of modern gender equality rests on the acceptance of diverse womanhood on her own terms, regardless of one’s background.

Edmonton hosts ongoing women’s interfaith discussions

Edmonton, thankfully, is a host to ongoing women’s interfaith conversation groups, Muslim-indigenous education workshops, and public school lectures on the status of women and veiling in Islam.

We are also lucky to have Metro Cinema’s three-night film festival titled, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, starting March 8, hosted here in Edmonton and supportive of dozens of local female artists and women’s social justice organizations in the city.

Indeed, local advocacy groups have taken to creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for women of all backgrounds. One such group, the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, views the day as an opportunity to engage in critical dialogue with women across the province.

Ultimately, the critique of International Women’s Day serves to unify the mandate of groups who attempt to celebrate the diversity of women on their own terms and to continue to sound the call for a new, inclusive feminism to take hold everywhere.

Nakita Valerio is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish-Islamic studies (history) at the University of Alberta. She was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s 2015 Top 30 Under 30 and was awarded the QEII scholarship for graduate students. She is also director of public policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

On March 3rd, 2016 I was asked to give a talk to high school students in Alberta, British Columbia, Egypt and Bangladesh on the general subject of women’s advocacy and International Women’s Day. What follows below is an edited transcript of my talk.

The last time I did something for International Women’s Day was an interview I did with the Mohammedia Presse in Morocco in 2014. The interview was a poignant contrast to how women’s day is popularly marked in Morocco – which is to say, with flowers and chocolates handed to women in the street all across the country. My interview, however, was about not letting one day obscure the reality of the street for woman every day – which is, a haven for street harassers to relentlessly hound women of all shapes and sizes, all ages, all stages of life, all styles of clothing. Regardless of demographic, whether she’s urban or rural, educated or illiterate, veiled or not, it simply does not matter. The reality for women in the street in Morocco on every day other than International Women’s Day is that she will be intrusively approached by men, asked for all kinds of obscenities, or she will be followed for blocks and blocks, or she will be molested without remorse.

This happened to me countless times in Morocco while I was living there over a period of three years. It didn’t matter that I was 8 months pregnant and clad in a floor-length djelleba with a hijab – there would still be men asking if my baby had a daddy. It didn’t matter if I was walking, a professional director of a primary school in the village, there would still be a man on a motorcycle trying to corner me. On more than a few occasions I uttered profanities and threw rocks to protect myself.

And this sad reality has become so common there that two things have happened: Firstly, women have been unable to fight the tidal wave of harassment and often face physically violent repercussions if they defend themselves. A friend of mine stood up for herself and promptly received a black eye. Secondly, the prevalence of street harassment has caused a psychological trauma that is systemic culturally. It has gotten to the point that if rape culture is not reinforced (ie. if a woman is not sexually harassed by men in the street) in a gruesome manner, she will begin to find herself unattractive, thereby perpetuating and internalizing the oppressive mechanisms of patriarchy, permitting them to continue.

Now, I’m not naïve to think that these women need my perspective at all for their liberation. That’s neo-imperialist, anti-feminist and a reinforcement of the patriarchy I am trying so hard to undermine, as far as I’m concerned. Moroccan women (and men!) are fully aware of the social ills that street harassment represents and they will often excuse the harassers as simply being “bored” or “out of work”. Or they’ll even go so far as to blame the monarchy for the economic ills of the country which have led so many young men to feel that way.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored or out of work, the last thing I would think to do is go whisper hideous aggressions as unsuspecting women in the street. I can, however, see it as a way for a hopeless young man to improperly regain some of his power at the expense of the dignity of another. And when I say hopeless, I mean hopeless – Morocco has one of the fastest growing economies in the Arab world and is definitely one of the most stable countries in the MENA region as well. In fact, in my experience, very few people even remotely wanted to protest the current King Mohammed VI’s authority during the Arab Spring and after a few hundred thousand did, the King relinquished much of his power constitutionally. At the best, we can say he had good intentions. At the worst, it was a ceremonial gesture. And yet despite the stability, the growth of the economy and infrastructure is consistently outpaced by the growth of the population, among a myriad of complicating factors, including widespread corruption.

For me, the heart of Morocco’s social ills has a lot to do with disenfranchisement of women and the lack of gender equality – of which, street harassment and 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 Italy before I could write my LSAT, I read a book by Nicholas Kristoff called Half the Sky which was about the socio-politico-economic consequences of female oppression worldwide. As a recent convert to Islam and a well-read one at that, I had a hard time understanding the disconnect between the gender equality and rights of women preached in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad (PBUH) an 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 the scriptural sources of Islam clued me into a disconnect that, at its core, was educational.

As a Muslim, I believe that the information exists in our scriptural sources about how to promote gender equality and respect the dignity of women, and if this not is not something I am seeing practiced on the ground, there are only 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 so long, 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 two weeks after I finished reading Kristoff’s book and had made the vow to myself to work in women’s advocacy in the Islamic world instead of going into law, I met the man who would be my husband in Florence. He happened to be building a school in his rural Moroccan town. 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 open it as a primary school and center for women’s rights.

During this period, I lived the first year of my Muslim life. I did so in secrecy from my family and most of my friends so I am quite up-front 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 because I was finally free to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context; however what I quickly came to realize 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. In fact my suspicions had been correct: education was a key 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 talking about reading the Qur’an or legal texts by which they would know their rights. I’m talking about medication bottles or formula recipes for their babies – things that you and I take for granted in a literate, word-saturated society.

So, as we built the school over three years, including a 6 month stint for me in Canada where I fundraised the money for our school bus and third level by holding an arts gala at the AGA, I came to know more and more about women in the community and the obstacles they encountered to self-actualization.

I met women who:

  • had literally never left their homes since their marriage day
  • couldn’t read
  • were forbidden to attend Salat-ul-Eid (Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was famous for encouraging their attendance on this day, of all days, in particular)
  • were physically and verbally abused
  • were kept in servitude
  • had no way to earn their own income
  • had no reproductive rights

Now, of course, the opposite was also true. I found plenty of women who had jobs and careers, were free to come and go as they pleased, dressed how they liked and generally did whatever they wanted. For a large majority of women though, this was not the case.

Additionally, I became a woman who:

  • was a visible minority in Morocco (as a Western convert) and in Canada (as a hijabi convert)
  • was harassed in the street
  • almost died in child birth because my reproductive rights were violating again and again during labour
  • would go on to organize a student-led country-wide campaign to end street harassment called Letters to Our Brothers

These stories could really go on and on but I want to conclude by talking a little bit about what I have learned from this experience.

  1. Corruption can kill any dream but you have to keep on fighting. Despite our greatest aspirations for the school and women’s center, we still have yet to obtain proper authorization for teaching older children and have been told point-blank by the provincial authorities that they will never give us the paper without “compensation” (meaning a bribe)
  2. The education of women is great. The reasons for this are innumerable. I am not one to uphold the gender binary, but particularly in Morocco, where Islam dictates certain binary-like gender performances based on biological sex, some things hold fast to those performances. This includes the fact that if you teach a woman, you are teaching a community. Information is passed through women at a much greater rate than through men and this is especially true in the education of children. Additionally, educating women doubles the economic participation of community members, but more often than not, women tend to participate in the economy in socially oriented ways that benefit the whole.
  3. The rights of women are a moot point if the duties incumbent upon men to provide them are not known. A married woman may have the right to an education and work and a roof over her head, but if her husband is unaware of his duty in providing those things for her.
  4. Similarly, we need men for feminism to work. I neglected to mention that the literacy rate of men in the same rural village is only 55%. We need men to be as educated as women, not in order to get permission for liberation but to join forces against oppression. This is predicated on the notion that patriarchy works systemically but not always consciously and it only has power if we let it. Additionally, this is to say nothing of the damaging effects of patriarchy on men, including creating an oppressive culture of hyper-masculinity.

Thank you.

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that Nakita Valerio has been asked to deliver a keynote speech for the You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down film festival on March 22nd, 2016. The speech will be delivered alongside veritable titans of women’s advocacy, Janis Irwin and Dr. Jodi Abbott.

good-woman-11You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is a three-evening curated film festival and more produced in honour of International Women’s Day in partnership with the Metro Garneau Theatre. It is an endeavour to promote women in the same spirit as the mandate of International Women’s Day itself, here through art and activism. This festival highlights creativity, resilience and advocacy. Films are about the challenges women have faced in the march toward equality. There will be an artistic component leading up to the screening of each film in the foyer of the theatre.

 

Nakita’s speech will fit with the theme of the third evening of the film festival, which is “Make a Change in Your World” – focusing on education and gender equal rights.

It should be noted that Nakita will be representing the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council as the Director of Public Policy at this event, and a portion of the proceeds from that evening will support AMPAC’s women’s advocacy initiatives.

We highly recommend you support this incredible film festival and show your endorsement of what it stands for by purchasing your festival pass today.

nakita036Bio: Nakita Valerio is a prominent Edmonton activist and advocate for gender equality. 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 State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies. Most recently, 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 owner of The Drawing Board, the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and a Director with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that Nakita Valerio has been invited by the University of Alberta’s Muslim Students’ Association to deliver an engaging talk in celebration of World Hijab Day on February 1st, 2016.

world hijab day poster

Nakita’s talk is entitled Islam, the Veil and Veiled Secularisms and will deal with such issues as the status of women in Islam, the role of the hijab, why it is at the center of discussions about women in Islam in the West, and commentary on Islam and Secularism.

All are welcome to attend with questions!

Details for the event can be found here.

This blog is an op-ed piece written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

Many brilliant people have given their two cents on this, and I don’t want to rehash the same old debate. So I’m going to keep this short, and I’m going to keep this sweet, because I have a little tiny theory as to why there is such outrage concerning public breastfeeding.

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Breastfeeding advocates have hit the nail on the head when they say that the problem stems from the fact that women are seen as sexual objects. But I think there’s a little more to story.

I think society has a problem with public breastfeeding because women are seen as sexual objects, AND people don’t want to see moms in a sexual way.

Horrible, no? But maybe a little bit true?

I mean, all the evidence is there. There are some pretty clear indicators that society thinks moms aren’t (or shouldn’t be) sexy. Take the term “mom jeans,” for example. While there’s all sorts of support for the dad bod, the mom bod trend fell flat. Where’s the rallying cry for the sexiness of mama boobs? Why isn’t there one?

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Moms get piled so deep with stuff in this society, it’s surprising that we can still see their eyeballs. Moms aren’t fun. Moms have to make the family a priority. Moms have to stay home. Moms have to have everything under the sun in their purses. Moms have to feed their kids grass-fed gluten-free lactose-free fat-free sugar-free lunches in reusable containers.

We need to work on all of that. We need to work on the image that society has of mothers to better reflect the realities of modern moms – people with the freedom to work, to wrestle with their kids, to order pizza with hot wings for dinner, and who are incredibly sexy.

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Now all of this may seem a bit confusing. I mean, yeah, moms are sexy, but aren’t we supposed to be destroying the idea that women are sexual objects? Well, my friend, don’t worry, because we can do both. It is possible to promote the sexualities of women without sacrificing the fact that ladies are complex, thinking, feeling, multi-dimensional human beings. Ultimately, moms should be appreciated for how sexy they are, AND people should be respectful of them.

So what can we do? In addition to promulgating the fact that women are people, you can show your support for mom bodies! If you love a mom, if you are a mom, or if you can, in any way, connect to the unrealistic beauty standards set for women: shout out. Take a picture, post a status – let’s celebrate how sexy the moms of the world are!

#sexymom and spread the word!