Anyone who calls themselves a feminist has their own reasons and path to claiming this label. I don’t intend this to be a confessional blog – there are enough over-educated, middle class, white millennial feminists talking about their lives on the internet and everywhere else, some with more wit, skill, and thoughtfulness than I could offer, and some with less…. But I thought it would be appropriate to begin this column with an introduction to who I am, why I’m here, and where I hope to go.

freestyling-feminism

Regrettably I did not discover feminism in high school. I am convinced that my adolescence would have been greatly improved if I had listened to Bikini Kill alongside the Clash, but that came later. I mostly discovered feminism through blogs towards the end of high school and the first year of university – the Bust blog and magazine, Feministing, and of course, Jezebel at its high point. Body image and body positivity seemed to be a hot topic at the time, and was an ideal entry point for me. Like many (most?) girls, coming of age meant a sudden, negative awareness of my own body’s existence, from which followed constant comparison with other girls. Negative body talk became a primary topic of conversation with friends.

By the end of high school, I’d largely decided that fat/ugly talk was boring and reconciled myself with preferring food and sitting around to being “hot”, but the newfound concept of body positivity and body image as a political and cultural issue put my thoughts and feelings about my body in a new light with far reaching implications. My new understanding of beauty standards and girls’ body image issues led to real and long lasting changes in my own body image on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It also empowered me to eat the amazing carrot cake at UVic library coffee shop twice a week for all of first year and gain a good fifteen pounds with no qualms… Let’s just say that it took a couple years for my approach to body positivity to evolve past the many negative attitudes and associations that the weight loss imperative attaches to healthy eating and exercise.

More importantly, body positivity also kicked off an interest in, and awareness of, feminism in general. Through articles and discussions that I read online, as well as an introductory women’s studies course and other university courses that dealt with critical perspectives, I was exposed to concepts like privilege that changed how I understood the world and my place in it. Having grown up white, middle class, straight, etc in a predominantly white, middle class, complacently left wing environment, I was certainly opposed to racism, homophobia, and other kinds of bigotry on principle, but I had little understanding of how those things really worked or manifested. Reading about feminism that pertained to my concerns, led me to reading about feminist issues less directly recognizable in my own life. Themes such as feminism and race, queer feminism, and issues faced by transwomen, sex workers, or poor women, for example.

I was exposed to a multitude of perspectives, ideas, and issues, because I was mostly reading about intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism takes feminism (“women’s/gender issues”) as a starting point, but recognizes the other factors that impact individual women’s lives and the concerns of diverse groups of women. Intersectional feminism recognizes a plurality of feminisms and the diversity, even contradiction, among “women’s experiences” and gender issues. Intersectional feminism not only led me to a better, and empowering, understanding of myself and my own circumstances, but to greater social awareness and critical sensitivity to issues and perspectives outside my own direct experience.

In my last post, I discussed the urgent need to embrace intersectionality whole-heartedly and for white people in particular to throw their weight into anti-racism efforts in the coming years. (And into efforts against the misogyny, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia, Judeo- and Islamophobia that are enmeshed with white supremacy.) It would be disingenuous to say that intersectionality matters now, as if it did not matter so much before. In some ways, this election doesn’t signal a change in American culture and society, so much as it should serve as a wakeup call to those of us who perhaps did not realize the extent and severity of racism and fear and anger in America in the twenty-first century. It is a privileged position to be unaware of that reality and perhaps if the greater mass of liberals and progressives had been more conscious, had really felt on the behalf of their marginalized, vulnerable, and even angry friends and neighbours who were telling them about this reality, the new reality of a Trump presidency could have been defended against.

Although I do not live or vote in the United States, I admit to experiencing guilt in the wake of the election because I was as disbelieving of the result as anyone else who didn’t think such overt bigotry could be so widely socially acceptable. I am taking the American election as a wake-up call that intersectionality needs to be more than awareness, it has to be felt and acted upon – it has to be more than a politically correct intellectual performance. As I did in my last post, I urge Canadians to start doing this work now and to reject complacency.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I mostly want to avoid confessional-style blogging, but I want to hold myself accountable by expressing these intentions. So I apologize if my first two posts seem to be speaking to an assumed-white audience, but I also hope I can help motivate others like myself to avoid sliding back into privileged complacency as we all adjust to a post-Trump world. The general intention of this column is to discuss a diversity of feminism-related topics while maintaining an intersectional perspective and mandate. I hope to strike a balance between serious topics and more upbeat, and between positive news and critical perspectives. I am obviously limited in my ability, or entitlement, to give personal insight into many intersectional topics, but I hope to at least facilitate introductions to a range of issues, ideas, and critical perspectives.


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 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.

film fest pic

 

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

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.