This talk was given by Nakita Valerio at the University of Alberta for a panel discussion on Islamophobia: Intersections & Cross Currents in honour of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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Peace be upon all of you

First of all, a huge thank you to Professor Janice Williamson for making the time and necessary efforts to create space for this kind of dialogue here at the University. I am honoured to speak among so many talented colleagues and recognize that there are many brilliant thinkers who could be up here instead of myself, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Islamophobia and its intersections based on my community work and personal experiences.

We have to be brief so I want only to touch on a few points about Islamophobia as it relates to feminism. Before I do that though, since we primarily have well-intentioned allies in the room and since the theme for today is the intersectionality of Islamophobia, I need scarcely point out that literally anyone on earth can be a Muslim – regardless of gender, orientation, origin, race, ability, economic status or any other social variable. Islamophobia is therefore related to and can permeate all other forms of discrimination. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim that didn’t have some kind of compounded discrimination by virtue of their intersectionality. Even a rich, white, heterosexual cis-male convert to Islam, experiences marginality from the greater non-Muslim global community due to Islamophobia, and also endures the hardship of being a largely ignored or even resented minority within a minority of the Muslim community, not to mention being highly socially isolated. While the discrimination he faces is (undeniably) significantly different than, say a veiled indigenous female convert to Islam or African, African-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean Muslims, it still holds that intersectionality and Islamophobia have to be understood as always going hand-in-hand. And that these will take different forms for different people.

We have to remember that human beings are complex and particular in their social groupings, and that they must not be rigidly compartmentalized according to one discriminatory signifier over another, nor does one necessarily have primacy over the other (particularly visible ones). We know that both oppression and privilege compound through race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability and economy, and that if people are to be understood in their entirety, we have to actually take the time to know them. There is too much shoot-from-the-hip activism these days based on a rigid understanding of an oppressed/privileged dichotomy and, the disturbing part to me, is that even with the best of intentions, people are regularly  being dehumanized in the process.  So some subtlety and patience is in order when dealing with these delicate intersections.

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So that’s the first thing to note. The second thing, following from this, is that Islamophobia is therefore a feminist issue. What do I mean by this?

At the superficial level, Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobic words, actions and rhetoric. Part of the reason for this can be our visibility and this is, in large part, due to the veil if it is worn. Veiled Muslim women are verbally and physically harassed and assaulted with increasing regularity and are also the targets of racial hatred, and I want to stress, regardless of their ethnicity. Even for “white” converts, the veil acts as a second skin which automatically signifies “colour” to prejudiced people uninterested in the nuances of what constitutes complex Muslim identities. And this is important to note this because within the Muslim discourse and within groups speaking about racial justice there is a tendency to dismiss the racialization that the veil automatically entails, whatever intra-community privilege we hold.

But Muslim women are not only disproportionately targeted by Islamophobia because they might veil. No, non-veiled Muslim women are also the excessive subject of xenophobic words, actions and rhetoric for a much deeper reason.

The Muslim woman represents the vehicle by which the people who hate us, call for the eradication of Islam. The Muslim woman who is pious and stubborn in her piety is declared subconsciously oppressed regardless of how loud she declares her piety to be her choice. The Muslim woman is seen as indoctrinated in Islam, a barbaric way of life that exists only to exact patriarchy in its highest form.

Muslim women, who practice the Deen, are regularly accused by those outside of Islam, of being in need of liberation not recognizing that we view Islam as our liberator. That the antidote to patriarchy for us, is a deeper understanding of Islamic philosophy and law, and not anything less than that. In fact, these accusations are not even limited to non-Muslims. There are countless “scholars” within the Muslim purview who reiterate these bunk theories that the more a woman practices Islam, the less liberated she is.

At this very university, I met with a prominent scholar of Islamic law and was shocked when he stated to other unveiled women in the room that I might be oppressed or duped because I choose to cover my hair for the sake of God, or I say Insha Allah, or I unapologetically leave the room to pray on time. And this stuff was said right in front of me, as though I was not even in the room. Muslims can be as colonized by Islamophobia as anyone and we have to view that, at least in part, as the trace of a colonial project that has spanned centuries.

The declared solution to the issue of Islam for both Islamophobic non-Muslims and Muslims with internalized hatred of Islam is to either eliminate it from the face of the earth or to temper it and secularize it so it is palatable enough to so-called Western sensibilities, as though Islam does not and cannot have similar desires, goals and expressions as other cultural systems around the world, particularly in Western Europe and North America where we have a rich shared history.

If a pious Muslim woman seeks to resist through submission, her intelligence is insulted and her agency is called into question. Islamophobia, in this sense, is merely one strong arm of patriarchy (even its synonym) crushing the right of a woman to choose how she lives her life. And going forward, that needs to change.

Thank you.


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

 

Intersectionality is a critical concept that has grown out of individuals’ lived experiences of how complex privilege and discrimination can be and how different strains of discrimination and oppression interact and compound each other. Intersectionality is often cited as a necessary tool to combat racism (overt and implicit) in feminism, or transphobia/exclusion in LGBTQ activism, for example. But it is not just about improving and bringing justice (or ideological purity) within activist and progressive circles, it’s more importantly about gaining a clearer understanding of how power operates in real life – which is at the intersections of misogyny, white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism etc –  in order to more effectively dismantle oppression and inequality. No person’s identity is just their gender, or just their race – so it makes sense that social activism cannot be so single-minded either.

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Black Muslim women in North America and Europe provide an example of how intersected, plural identities are impacted by intersected, compounded discrimination. Black Muslim women report experiencing anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and misogyny both in society at large and within their own communities, whether Black or Muslim. Although one third of American Muslims are Black, anti-Black racism and erasure of Black Muslims exists within Muslim communities. Similarly, Islamophobia and failure to recognize Islam as a presence in African American history, culture, and communities occurs among Black folks.

Within White and mainstream discourse about Islam and Muslims in the West (including progressive conversations), Muslims are often imagined mainly as Middle Eastern, and often as relatively recent immigrants – not as African American, or as African or Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Mainstream discourse on Black issues and anti-racism similarly gets grouped under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter or anti-racism. This isn’t to criticize activism which focuses on Islamophobia or on racism so much as it is to point out that Black Muslims make up a large population who are simultaneously affected by both anti-Black and Islamophobic violence and discrimination. It makes sense to look at how the two forces interact and how resistance to one can and should be united with resistance to the other. It is in fact, a powerful opportunity for unity against multiple oppressions.

Misogynoir is the term coined by Moya Bailey to describe the specific strain of racist-sexism/sexist-racism experienced by Black women as the result of various racist constructions of Black womanhood, such as hypersexualization, exoticism, and the “Angry Black Woman” trope. It is also no surprise that misogyny and Islamophobia have a complex relationship. Spontaneous Islamophobic attacks in the West frequently seem to victimize hijabi women, probably because of their visibility as Muslims. Sikh men have been victim to similar attacks by Islamophobes who equate “bearded man with turban” with “Muslim.” Muslim women who veil are thus vulnerable as women and as Muslims, and the two vulnerabilities are brought together by their outward expression of these joined identities with the hijab. While Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic harassment, of course, they are also the subject of liberal-Islamophobic trolling about how Muslims treat “their women”…. No wonder Muslim women are growing as voices against both Islamophobia and patriarchy!


liz

Liz Hill came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Liz received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Liz works at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Believe it or not: there is a major Human Rights violation occurring in Canada right now. Since 1980, at least 1,182 Aboriginal women are missing or have been murdered.  The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, however, admits that, despite these statistics, this number is likely substantially higher. How does something like this happen?

Twelve hundred mothers, sisters, and daughters have disappeared or are dead.   Breaking down the issue, the statistics surrounding this are staggering. Aboriginal women report violence 3.5 times higher than other Canadian women, and are 5 times more likely to die of this violence. Furthermore, the level of violence reported by Canadian First Nations women is more severe than that reported of other Canadian women.  The province of Alberta has the lowest “clearance” rates in the country – which means that the majority of the cases are not resolved. Why is this happening?

An inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, (MMIWC) is taking place to investigate the underlying mechanisms that make Aboriginal women more susceptible to violence, and the corresponding response of government and other institutions. The inquiry is set to be completed in 2018 – after 2 years of data collected. However, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Report card on the inquiry so far has it falling short of some expectations.

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Why Should You Care?

  • This issue has lasting impact. The majority of the missing and murdered are mothers. In 2010, an estimated more than 440 children were impacted by the loss of their mother. What becomes of these children in this intergenerational issue?
  • While the violence inflicted on aboriginal women is often done by their partner, Aboriginal women are 3 times more likely to be victims of violence from a stranger. This means that the crime has a lot to do with the vulnerability of the victim – and is far from simply an inter-familial or inter-cultural issue. This means that there are perpetrators among us who are actively seeking the most vulnerable members of our population.
  • Although MMIWC are receiving attention lately, this has not always been the case. There is a societal bias that this human rights violation has much to do with the risky lifestyle “chosen” by the victim. Victim blaming has no place in our society – a crime committed is the fault of the criminal, not the victim. As human beings, we are much more than what field we choose to earn money in. We all have multiple roles – and these women are daughters, mothers, friends, and “stolen sisters”.
  • If your set of personal ethics doesn’t lead you to be concerned, the very fact that there is a large inquiry being undertaken into this matter, that MMIWC is a well-known acronym, and the fact that Amnesty International has found this to be a significant human rights violation should stir you into concern.

What Can I Do?

Educate Yourself:

  • Gain knowledge in Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and how these historical events, in particular, the Residential Schools, are impacting Indigenous peoples today.
  • Take a look around at the women in your life. Try to imagine what it must be like to physically search for them, maybe never hearing from them again after they disappear one night, or finding their remains after weeks or months of searching. Thousands of families and communities are directly affected by missing or murdered women. Make it real to yourself. Meet people who are searching. Hear their stories and recognize their humanity as well. Then lend a hand.

Create Awareness:

  • Help out with The Red Dress Project, where red dresses are displayed annually to symbolize each of the 1, 182 missing or murdered.
  • Partake in the Annual Women’s Memorial March that occurs in and around February 14 in various cities.

Influence Change:

  • Do not allow racist dialogue of any kind to occur around you.
  • Spread the word: do not be afraid to tell people that this issue matters to you, in-person and on social media.
  • Expressions of Reconcilliation – become involved in the truth and reconciliation process with suggestions found here.
  • Support feminism – which seeks to find equality for both genders and all races.
  • Reach out to groups doing work around these stolen sisters and at-risk Indigenous women, and lend your time, money and support to keep them safe.

erin

Erin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

There’s a lot of talk about gender and gender identity these days that is even reaching mainstream conversation. Sometimes it can be difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with all the terminology so I’ve compiled a starting list of gender-related vocab with basic definitions. Keep in mind that words and categories have histories and undergo change. The vocabulary of gender in particular is extremely dynamic and contested. Even defining “gender” alone was quite a challenge… Use these definitions just as a starting point for understanding some of the issues and conversations around sex, gender and identity!

Biological Sex

Biological sex refers to how a body is medically/scientifically classified according various physical traits. Traits used to classify bodies as male or female include sex chromosomes (XX, XY), sex hormone systems (estrogen/progesterone, testosterone, androgen sensitivity), gonads (ovaries and testes: the organs that produce reproductive material), internal and external genitalia (penis, vagina, uterus), and secondary sex characteristics (body hair, breasts, Adam’s apple, fat distribution, etc). It’s pretty easy to assume that science can reliably and tidily organize bodies into male and female – this binary is so ingrained in our culture that it can seem like a natural fact – but the reality is that variation and combinations that transgress the two categories of male and female can be found in all the trait systems I mentioned!

Gender

While sex refers to the biological make up of a person’s body, gender refers to a person’s personal and social identity. Gender is comprised of the social meanings, roles, expectations, and characteristics ascribed (by one’s self and by society) to sexed bodies (ei, bodies recognized as having a biological sex). Gender is a complex social and psychological component of identity. Someone’s gender identity is the gender that they identify with and recognize as their own. The relationship between personal gender identity (how someone feels) and social identity (how society labels them) is complex and mediated by individual performance of masculinity, femininity, and combinations of both.

Gender Binary

A social system that organizes sex, gender expression, and gender identity into two opposing categories: male/masculine/man and female/feminine/woman. Just as closer examination of biological sex reveals that individual bodies are not so easily sorted into clear male and female opposite categories, the gender binary tends to become blurrier under close examination. Non-binary understanding of gender is increasingly recognized and accepted, but many non-western societies have long included non-binary genders in their concepts of gender and sex. Even the history of gender in Europe and North America reveals that fluid gender expression has always been a part of western culture. For example, Byzantine eunuchs can be viewed as a third gender, and 19th century dandyism was a way for men to play with gender and sexual expression.

Cisgender

From “cis”, meaning “on the same side as”, cisgender refers to a person who’s binary gender identity maps onto their binary biological sex. For example, a cis man is a person who was assigned the gender “boy” or “male” at birth based on his biological sex traits, who continues to identify as a man throughout his life.

Transgender

From “trans”, meaning “across”, a transgender person is someone who was assigned a gender based on biological sex at birth, but identifies as another gender. A trans person may opt for gender reassignment/gender confirming surgery or hormone treatments to make their body match their gender identity, or simply live as their gender, expressing their identity without medical intervention – or some combination of al! “Transexual” is another term you may hear, which has the same basic meaning but is pretty dated. Transgender should not be confused with “transvestite”, which refers to the practice of dressing as the opposite sex for any number of reasons (sexual fetish, drag performance, you’re a member of Monty Python, etc), and falls under the umbrella of gender expression and play, but is not a matter of core gender identity.

Trans*

An umbrella term for people whose gender is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans* identities may include FTM or MTF, transwoman and transman, third genders, and non-binary genders.

Intersex

As I mentioned above, even the physical traits related to biological sex cannot always be tidily categorized into male and female. An intersexed person is someone who’s biological sex differs from the “normative” (expected, culturally recognized as the norm) patterns attributed to male and female. In other words, they have some combination of both male and female sex traits. This could relate to their chromosomes, hormones, internal sex organs, or genitals to varying degrees. An estimated 1 in 100 babies does not fit into the standard medical definitions of male or female, with approximately 1 in 1000 babies undergoing surgery to “normalize” their genitals as either male or female in appearance. Note that the term “hermaphrodite” is an old medical term for people with intersexed genitals and it is now usually found outdated and offensive.

FTM and MTF

Acronyms for Female-to-Male and Male-to-Female, used to describe transgender people who have transitioned from an assigned gender. Not all trans* people use these acronyms because not all view their gender as having undergone transition, or as being binary. Another set of acronyms you may see are AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) and AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth).

Two-spirit

Two-spirited is a term used by Indigenous North Americans to describe a person who embodies both masculinity and femininity, or one of the mixed gender roles that exist in Indigenous cultures. Two-spirited people traditionally play significant and respected roles and are viewed as spiritually powerful.

Agender

A person who does not have a strong, or any sense of personal gender identity.

Genderqueer, Non-binary, Gender Fluid…..

There are numerous terms in circulation for people whose gender identity is outside, in between, or unfixed from the gender binary or is otherwise non-normative/non-conforming. I’m sure I am missing many! Each has its own history and nuanced meaning. Often these terms emphasize challenge and resistance to the gender binary as oppressive, or refer to the fluidity (changeability) of gender identity much in the way someone’s sexuality can be fluid.


lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.

 

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

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Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah

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

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

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

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

Today I will be talking about some of the lessons I have learned while working in women’s advocacy to combat Islamophobia and all forms of discrimination and I will be doing this by presenting you with a series of vignettes, snapshots in my life and journey as a public intellectual, writer, and activist. I hope that as I weave together this story, we can share in important lessons I have learned and continue to learn along the way.


One of my favourite memories from my time living in a rural village in Morocco is the expression of astonishment and then excitement on my mother-in-law’s face when I took her to her first communal Eid prayer at the end of Ramadan. Scripturally, in the historical records of the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, women were implored to attend the prayer even if, for whatever reason, they might be unable to participate in it.

Imagine my surprise then, when my 55 year old Mother in Law told me she had never attended, assuming and being told that it was forbidden for women. I opened the book of hadith where it was written and had her daughter read the Arabic to both her and her father.

“But who will make the bread for the day’s celebrations?” I was asked.

“Bread can wait! Today Allah takes precedence and so do mama’s rights!” I shouted while skipping with Mama out the front door, arm in arm, our floor-length djellebas skirting along the dusty road to the communal prayer space.

That day, when she turned to me with the widest of grins and said “I never realized how many women would be here,” I knew that making a difference in someone’s life didn’t mean having to upend mountains. Revolutions occur by making small changes that have meaning for someone within their own cultural systems and value sets. And often, it is simply a matter of presenting someone with a choice they didn’t know they had.

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Another time, when I was teaching at a non-profit school in a coastal city outside Casablanca I took a small group of motivated teenaged students outside to film a short Public Service Announcement on street harassment. As a class, we had launched a nation-wide campaign called Letters to Our Brothers which had us traveling to classrooms in major cities across the country, having young women write letters to their literal or figurative siblings about how catcalling and molestation in public made them feel and taking pledges from young men to never perpetuate such atrocities in the future.

We collected hundreds of letters and pledges and had decided to film a PSA in the hopes that it might go viral and join the countless other activists around the world, educating people on the harm that street harassment causes.

During the filming my female students set the stage as women walking in the street and my lone male student, Marwane, was to play the part of the catcalling predator. He never got the chance to enact his role because two legitimate predators standing right next to him beat him to it by whistling for the “little cats” to come play with them. The girls started laughing, pointing to my camera and letting these middle-aged men know that I, their teacher and a foreigner, had just caught their perversions on tape, noting the irony that it was during the filming of an ad condemning this very action.

Marwane didn’t step in and neither did I as the girls proceeded to ask the men why they had treated them like objects when they were young enough to be their daughters. Watching the embarrassed looks on the faces of the men, their eyes nervously shifting back to me and my camera, I swelled with pride as my students expressed how the harassment made them feel.

In this moment, I learned: not only are small, meaningful changes revolutionary but so too are learned voices, being heard, not asking to be heard, but resounding all the same, standing strong and sure of themselves, saying “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere and you will hear how you make me feel no matter how uncomfortable.”

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Uncomfortable conversations are part of what I do best. In fact, one of the last times I did something for International Women’s Day, it was an interview with the Mohammedia Presse about this very issue. The interview was a poignant contrast to how the Women’s Day is popularly marked in Morocco, which is to say, with flowers and chocolates handed to women in the street all over the country. My interview, however, was about not letting one day obscure the reality of the street for women daily, which is, as a haven for said harassers to hound women of all shapes and sizes, all ages, regardless of her demographic whether she is urban or rural, educated or illiterate, veiled or not… it simply doesn’t matter.

Now I’m not so naïve to think that this phenomenon is unique to Morocco nor that these women need my perspective for their liberation – that would be anti-feminist and neo-colonial as far as I’m concerned. Rather, Moroccan women (and men) are fully aware of the social ills that street harassment is a symptom of, often (unfortunately) excusing the harassers as simply being bored or out of work.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored and out of work, the last thing I would think to do is go whisper hideous aggressions at unsuspecting women in the street. I can however, see it as a gruesome way for a hopeless young man to regain some of his power at the expense of another’s dignity.

For me, as a historian, the heart of Morocco’s social ills, and this can easily be extended to most geographical and historical contexts, has a lot to do with the disenfranchisement of women and the lack of gender equality, of which street harassment and even economic ills are but social symptoms. And at the very heart of this disenfranchisement is a lack of education.

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Which brings me to the reason I moved to Morocco in the first place.

In 2010, shortly after I converted to Islam, I was planning to go to law school, but on a trip to the country of my family’s origins, Italy, before I would write the LSAT, I read a book about the socio-politico-economic consequences of female oppression worldwide that changed my perspective. This book placed a particular emphasis on the plight of women in dominantly Muslim countries.

As a recent convert and researcher, I had a hard time understanding the disconnect between the gender equality and rights of women preached in the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and what kind of oppressive, misogynistic practices I was seeing played out in real life cases. Of course, this oppression is not limited to Islamic contexts but the fact that I was finding the cures for such oppression in scriptural sources of Islam clued me into a disconnect that, at its core, was educational. As a Muslim, I believe the information exists in our scriptural sources about how to promote gender equality and respect the dignity and rights of women… and if this is not something I am not seeing practiced on the ground, there are two possible explanations: either people don’t know, or they don’t care.

As an eternal optimist, I have to believe that the former is true, that the majority of people just don’t know what is the prescribed status of women in Islam and in my experience living in a Muslim country such as Morocco for 3 years, I found this to be the case, thankfully, as I’m not sure how I’d deal with people knowing and simply not caring.

On that same trip to Italy, a mere 2 weeks after I finished reading that book and had made the vow to myself to work in women’s advocacy in the Muslim world, I met the man who would be my husband in Florence, who happened to be building a school in his rural Moroccan village. Within 6 months of meeting him, I visited the foundations of the school, then only one storey high, and within a year, I had moved to Morocco to finish building it and with the intention to open it as a primary school and center for women’s rights, literacy and entrepeneurship.

During this period, I lived the first year of my life as a Muslim. I did so in secrecy and so I am quite upfront about the fact that I hadn’t yet experienced life as a religious minority or as an underprivileged woman in Canada and I most certainly had not yet experienced life as a hijabi. I did, however, begin to feel the first pangs of what life is like on the margins.

When I moved to the village, my life as a hijabi began and I felt that I was finally able to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context (as opposed to here, where I would have to secretly pray, laying down in bed, or tell my family I was going to the bar when I was really going to the masjid to attend a halaqah), but what I came to find was that what I had the freedom to practice and enact as my rights as a Muslim woman in Morocco was not the same for every woman in the village and my suspicions had been correct: education was a serious issue.

The literacy rate of women in the village was only 27% – that means that anywhere from 2 to 3 women out of 10 could read. And I’m not even talking about the Qur’an or legal texts by which they would know their rights in Islam, I’m talking about medication bottle instructions and formula recipes for their babies – things that you and I take for granted in a literate, word-saturated world.

So, as we built the school over three years, I came to know more and more about women in the community we were serving and the obstacles they encountered to self-actualization.

I would attend literacy classes for the mothers of our students, warmly welcomed by all participants, consistently invited over for tea or couscous, showered with gifts of hijab, or jewelry or whatever else people had on hand. I met women who:

-had literally never left their homes since their wedding day

-couldn’t read or write

-were physically, verbally or sexually abused

-were kept in servitude

-had no way to earn their own income, and

-had no reproductive or birthing rights

And of course, this wasn’t everyone. Another set of opportunities to other people was also present, especially when I moved to the coastal city where I met educated, working women who were free to come and go as they pleased, and who were highly educated and financially independent. For me, all or nothing scenarios serve no one but those who thrive on division so it is important to have a holistic picture of this.

Interestingly, during this time, I also became a woman who:

-was a visible minority: abroad (as a foreign convert) and at home (as a veiled Muslim woman)

-was harassed in the street for very different reasons both abroad and at home.

And I came to understand what it was like for women be robbed of their reproductive birthing rights after I almost died during a horrific birth trauma. SLIDE

Here, I learned that sometimes, we have to experience what others go through, literally or empathetically, to know the best ways to make change and that might just mean truly listening to someone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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