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.

freestyling-feminism

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.

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 this episode, Emily explores her evolution in understanding about why Muslim women wear the hijab – what it means, how they feel when they wear it and how it stands in opposition to consumer capitalist culture. She also talks about her own personal expression of womanhood in light of these realizations and how these have changed from caring about the male-gaze to feeling confident and body-positive with herself, irrespective of what everyone else is thinking or doing.

Last week, I spoke about Reconciliation to a room full of white people. I was invited by a local holistic health clinic to come speak before their keynote lecturer because a friend of mine that works there had let them know I am raising money in support of the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership Cree cultural camp at the University of Alberta. I have done many talks for a variety of different audiences before, but this was the first time, in a very long time, that I was only one of four people in the room who belong to a visible minority. And I was certainly the only apparent Muslim in the room.

You can imagine my trepidation at suddenly realizing what I was about to do: I was about to stand in front of these people from a dominant socio-economic and racial strata of society, and I was going to talk to them about being on Treaty 6 territory, about our responsibility as settlers and refugees on Indigenous and First Nations land, about why adopting the language of reconciliation is important but why putting that language into action is even more critical to moving forward. About why this was their responsibility. About why someone like me –an ally – should not be ignored. This is difficult enough for anyone to do, never mind me as a Muslim.

I think the latter point is where my nerves kicked in: would this group of people see me – a veiled, Muslim woman – as an ally of the process of reconciliation and Indigenous peoples? Would I be harming the cause by appearing in front of such a group when so many view me and my Islam as a social adversary already?

Of course, I am not speaking to anxieties about this group of people in particular, but systemic uncertainties that made me think twice before talking to them – anxieties I hadn’t really had in over a year as a public speaker. The actual people in the room were friendly and inviting, and when I started speaking, I could see heads nodding as I acknowledged Treaty 6 and touched on points about our duties as people sharing this space with regards to how we could support the creation of safe spaces for young Cree women “to just be free to be Cree.”

After I spoke, the keynote was introduced and the main lecture began. I had to take off but I left an envelope on the side that people could put donations in, reminding myself not to be too disappointed if it came back empty. Yes, heads had been nodding, but no one clapped when I was done talking. And maybe my veil was just too much of a barrier for people to get past, even if they agreed with the words coming out of my mouth.

In the end, people did donate – enough, in fact, to cover all of the costs of food and crafting supplies for one young girl attending the camp for its two-week duration. But even if they hadn’t, I came to realize how powerful the whole experience was socially, if not monetarily. Rather than being anxious about talking to white people about reconciliation as a Muslim woman, I should have viewed it as an incredible opportunity to challenge what it means to stand in solidarity with one another.

I stood there as a Muslim woman calling for sisterhood, regardless of where our sisters come from, how they look and the culture they practice – a sisterhood that celebrates those origins and appearances and cultural elements. I stood there as a Muslim woman, enjoining people to what is just and compassionate behaviour – to contemplate their social position and what responsibilities it entails to others around them. I stood there as a Muslim woman imploring people to learn about one another and help create spaces for Indigenous people to learn about themselves. I didn’t do this in spite of my Islam, as I belatedly realized: I did this because of my Islam. Because respect, protecting the freedom to worship, enjoining what is just and kind, and seeking knowledge are all cornerstones of my way of life. In standing before a group of white people, talking to them about reconciliation, I was unintentionally dispelling misconceptions about my own people. And any chance we have to share with one another and explore intersections of knowledge to come to greater mutual understanding should never be taken lightly.

For some, what happened last week may have only been a ten minute fundraising speech to garner funds for social change. To me, it was the change itself that we are all looking for.

In solidarity,

Nakita

To donate to my campaign in support of the YIWCL’s Cree Women’s Cultural Camp, please visit: www.gofundme.com/creewomenscamp. Our next group run is on December 4th – pledge a runner today.

Image Credit: “Over Time We Come Together 2015″ by Cassie Leatham”


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

 

This one is going to be uncomfortable, folks. Cultural appropriation is an ever-present hot topic these days and nowhere is this truer than on The Drawing Board blog where our posts on the subject have continuously garnered more traffic than most others in the archive. It is especially something to be talking about with Halloween being yesterday as brutally offensive costumes will have been worn all over North America (and they were). Something happened on social media recently that gave me some time and space to think about this still-emerging phenomenon (particularly among yogi New Age communities in the West) and even though it has raised hell on my emotions about the subject (there is still bitterness in my words that I cannot expunge), I want to take you through my thought process so we can all work it out together. At this point, I am inviting conversation about this issue. So here’s what happened:

A white girl started posting pictures of herself in religious head-gear* on her social media accounts.

*This is me being purposefully cryptic.

The first time I saw her picture, I thought: that is a nice colour. But I was unsettled by the whole thing so I tried to process how I was feeling for myself. What bothered me about this picture of a white woman wearing what can be described as a turban? Do I have a right to be bothered by this picture as a veiled convert to Islam myself? Maybe this person became a Sikh as their style of turban would suggest. Do I have a right to ask? Do I really just want to know her story or do I want to know if her head wrapping is “authentic”? Does the authenticity of her conviction behind the turban make a difference to her right to wear it? Do I have a right, as a feminist, to question what this woman is choosing to wear?

Then, I forgot about it. Or, more aptly, I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t properly process the answers to those questions and didn’t know how to venture a few questions of my own to ask.

But these things never go away for long. And soon enough, she had posted another picture of herself in a turban with friends “Oohing and Awwing” over it (something I am sure POC who wear them are not accustomed to, especially during their formative years when they get bullied for being alive, never mind wearing something on their heads). One person, however, decided to take a courageous step that I hadn’t and asked this woman’s thoughts on recent articles about the turban and cultural appropriations by white women by simply asking if she had thought about it before donning the turbans. It was a way of starting a conversation by asking a pretty straightforward question.

I added my two cents that I wanted to know if she had had a “conversion” experience – knowing full well that conversion is a very complicated topic and usually involves acculturation rather than solely the adoption of inner beliefs. The idea that accepting “inner beliefs” of a “religion” hinges on an orthodox Christiano-form secular definition of religion about private beliefs being more important than outward practices – a definition that doesn’t apply to most of the rest of the world’s so-called religions, or as I call them cultural systems/ways of life. It’s complicated. If she had converted, I would be very much interested to hear that story as a convert myself, even though – at the end of the day – I could live without hearing it.

I felt alright about my follow-up question. I thought this person would be open to conversation, to sharing their experiences for the rest of us who were curious about the new-found knowledge that led to such a drastic change in appearances. (As I have been open upon being asked about my conversion to Islam and donning of the hijab countless times).

Instead, we were met with a defensive response that was so quintessentially typical of the white, colonial, privileged mentality, I found that I could barely articulate a response and kept writing and deleting again and again.

At first, she started by mentioning that she had just finished a Kundalini yoga teacher training in the Sikh community and mentioned that you don’t need to be Sikh to wear a turban. Fair enough. This is actually true: Sikhs do not own the turban, and –for that matter- neither does the Indian subcontinent, where most people think of it as originating. That we didn’t know that at the time isn’t great, but it also goes to show what happens when you reverse the typical white-POC positions: normally turbaned people are being asked by ignorant white people about stuff they wear on their heads. This time it was a white person….and boy, did she not *like* being asked.

She could have acknowledged that some people have an issue with white women wearing it, but that is not true in the circles she had adopted it from. She could have disagreed with them. In that sense, she could have left it at that, having educated us that this was, indeed, an appropriate expression, and moved on. The turban, after all, doesn’t have the same connotations as the hijab does (being a commandment from Allah), nor is it made into a caricature as often as the hijab is (see: Halloween costume niqabis that crop up every October).

But then the response turned into something quite different: she actually tried to shut down the conversation by stopping us from either judging or “questioning” her. She asked why everything has to turn into a socially appropriate question. She asked “What if I follow my own religion called the (HER NAME) religion?” like an island unto herself?

*ahem*

I have had to let this sit for a number of weeks before responding via blog and I have had to cut out a hell of a lot of profanities at this point because: Come. tf. on.

I recently read an article on how toxic Call Out culture has become with activists shitting on people left and right in an effort to just be right. They do this publicly and in humiliating ways that shut down conversation, instead of opening it up**, but sometimes (like in this situation) calling-in is not possible and it is usually because white people are shutting down the conversation. Or trying to. Enter: the internet.

So, here is my contribution to the above-described discussion. I am keeping it broader than this single incident in an effort to not be a total, calling-out douche-bag and because this is the kind of distorted logic many people who engage in cultural appropriation use. And I think a broader discussion provides some serious food for thought for any white person choosing to wear things that have been typically, culturally, and religiously worn by POC:

Dear White People (even with the best of intentions and even when you are right),

Here is the thing about listening to people of colour about their religio-cultural traditions more than one listens to other white people: you just might learn something. I know I have and that’s why I am being an ally and talking to you about it today. You don’t exist as an island and you never will. Social meaning is shared at the most basic level of language and spatial orientation. Society not only flows through your memories and your reality, it shapes it. You might consider yourself part of an ascetic tradition that tries to negate the social to the point that some pure “human essence” remains (you might even call that “divine” as many New Agers have been wont to) but here’s the point that most modern New Age Yogis miss: that process is continuous, forever, until the grave. You don’t ever actually achieve a state of human essence-ness. Society cannot be negated away forever. It flows back into every moment. Or, more aptly, it never leaves just because we achieve “being present.” The concept of being present is, in itself, a deeply temporal, human and (therefore) social experience.

I know a lot of people will argue with me on the epistemology of that statement, but I am hard-pressed to find a convincing argument otherwise. Further, it makes my next point ever more crucial: if everything is socially shared, then everything is a socially appropriate question.

Yes, everything. Some things are less of an issue than others, but since this person is white and white people have been wearing people of colour as costumes for centuries without any regard for the deep social meanings found and shared in these items, then turban-wearing white yogis are just going to have to suck it up when people ask them about the authenticity of their conviction to wear them. Shutting down the conversation is what white people have done for centuries.

And if you are going to get all flustered and start telling me that I am judging you on the colour of your skin: my response is, quite simply – now you know how it feels. I had to feel that too and I felt it when a black friend of mine kindly reminded me that I can remove my hijab but she cannot remove her skin. That doesn’t negate my experience of daily Islamophobia, but it sure as hell made me think a lot about my privilege.

I am not judging you on the colour of your skin, by the way, but trying to help you see the historical privilege you have inherited by virtue of it. Part of becoming self-aware is recognizing these historical and genealogical inheritances and the socio-economic spheres we subsequently inhabit because of them. The road to self-actualization is a lot easier when you are at the top of the social food chain. Let that sink in for a second. You aren’t entitled to anything, except by virtue of the fact that you are part of a neo-colonial system of white supremacy that happens to privilege what you were born into.

As for the comment that turbans just look “pretty”- that’s fair, but one friend put it best when they said that that’s like coming across a white guy in an Indigenous headdress at Coachella who just “likes feathers”.

Well… to put it bluntly: who says we need to care about white preferences?

People of colour have been made to tiptoe around white preferences for centuries: preferences that orientalise their men, exoticise their women, make their style into child-labour-made-home-décor-shit you can buy at HomeSense and make their clothing choices into Halloween outfits. You might have every right to wear a turban or whatever you want on your head, as we have established, but the duty to question what unreflective white people are doing in the public sphere is – at this particular point in time – #stillrelevant.

**My argument against the claim that call-out culture is always toxic can be found here.

Image Credit: AZ Mag


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

Mona Ismaeil is the think-tank behind a brand new podcast to hit the airwaves called The Modern Hijabi. Recently, she joined The Drawing Board’s owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, to discuss this exciting new adventure and her plans for Muslimah activism and community-building in the future.

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Fast Facts:

Favourite Qur’anic Verse at the moment: A verse that governs my life and how I view life’s challenges and obstacles is: “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear” (Al Baqarah, 286). I’ve been through a number of obstacles from health related issues and doctors telling me I was infertile to having a spouse who’s work takes him away from our family for long periods of time.  I try to remind myself that this is all Allah’s plan for me and that I can handle it because he will never give me more than I can handle.

Woman from Islamic history you are “feeling” right now: I absolutely adore Khadija bint Khuwaylid (May Allah be pleased with her). She was the “Mother of the believers”. I admire that she was strong, confident, successful and devoted to her work, her community and most importantly her husband. She was the ideal Muslimah and an amazing example for all Muslimahs.

Women who professionally inspire you: I love to draw inspiration from my friends and sisters who I know very well. I feel that it is important to choose people to look up to and make our role models that are “real people”! I am not inspired by celebrities or generally high profile people because I feel that sometimes we end up chasing a dream or a life that is out of reach. When we look up to or draw inspiration from sisters around us we can help ourselves to have more realistic goals and judgments on our successes and accomplishments. So with that said, I have two friends and sisters in Islam whom inspire me professionally and they would be Nakita Valerio; Owner of The Drawing Board and Wedad Amiri; Owner of Afflatus Hijab.  They both are doing what they love, and not holding back. They are both taking their lives and careers by the horns and I respect that. Also, both sisters are taking what they love and finding a way to give back to the community and to be active in a humanitarian way. Furthermore, both sisters are striving to make the world better for women which excites me.  Each sister has her own direction, method and niche but in the end, the goal is the same.

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Can you tell us about yourself and your role with the podcast? What are you trying to accomplish by creating space for the modern hijabi’s voice?

I suppose it is important to tell you about Modern Hejab first as that is where The Modern Hijabi stemmed from. My husband and I opened Modern Hejab in 2010. My goal was not to sell millions of hijabs but it was more to make a connection with young Muslim girls. I just used Modern Hejab as a platform, a way in. I started to wear hijab at 23years old. I struggled with the decision for a long time and it really came from the fact that I could not find enough good role models to get me excited about wearing hijab.  The women I saw around me were too meek, reserved, frumpy, and just not who I wanted to be. At 23 I was somewhat vein and the idea of covering my big curly hair was just out of the question. And for what? Was it even worth it? I craved that connection with God and after some soul searching I realized, hijab would fill this hole in my spiritual heart. From the day I wore the hijab, I fell in love with it and everything about it. The way it looked and felt and everything, just made me sure I had made the right decision. I often wish I had worn it sooner but only Allah knows when the right time is.

From there I decided that I needed to help other young women struggling with that decision. I wanted to show to Muslims and Non- Muslims that hijab is beautiful and that there is a way to make if fun, fashionable and still true to the Deen.

Now, The Modern Hijabi. I am a teacher by profession and once a teacher, always a teacher. I wanted to use the Modern Hijabi to start conversations with Muslim sisters and even Non-Muslims about women and hijab. I wanted to use it as a platform for showing the beauty of Islam. I want to break down barriers and diminish stereotypes about Women and Islam. Even Muslim women have misconceptions about Islam believe it or not!  I want to create a space where sisters can come to learn about Hijab, Islam, Tips and Tricks for being a hijabi and general girl talk.

What do you mean by “modern” and “Hijabi”?

Hijabi is a term used to describe a women who dons the hijab (Islamic head covering). Now the “Modern” aspect of it is about taking a traditional practice and bringing it into the modern world. This can be difficult sometimes but it is about balance. It’s about following the latest trends while still remaining modest. It’s about being outgoing and enjoying life while still remembering the values and guidelines that we live by.

What are some of the subjects covered in your podcast series thus far?

My first podcast was about the Burkini Ban. Although it had already been overturned, I wanted to share my thoughts on the idea as that whole issue just blew my mind.

Next, I started a series called the “Journey to Hijab”. This series will cover 8 steps to starting to wear hijab. I had little guidance when I started wearing hijab as I think many sisters go through the same thing. I mean what is there to guide? Just put it on, and presto an instant hijabi! No! There is a process as it is a life changing choice and if rushed into, can have negative consequences. I know I am making it seem like a big thing but really when you take that step on your “journey”, you are changing your life forever. Through this series I want to help make the journey more meaningful, seamless and more enjoyable.

Can you give us a sneak peek into some future topics you will be exploring?

I will be sharing all things hijab. For example, styling tips, storage tips, my story of when I started wearing hijab and so much more hijab related topics. Also, I want to extend my podcasts to speak about different issues with women in Islam. I want to address stereotypes and misconceptions. Finally, I am a mom and the world of mothers is never boring! I will also be talking about parenting Muslim children and teaching our children about different Islamic topics including how to be proud of who they are as Muslims.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of podcasting?

Well, I am new to the podcasting world but so far it is being able to put out information to help others. I love that we can reach so many people so easily.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of podcasting?

Getting people to listen. I’m still learning how to convince people I have something important to say.

What led you to adopting this technological medium to get your voice out there?

As much as I love blogging, I felt that podcasting and speaking to people unedited felt more raw and authentic. I want to have a conversation. When I blog, I can edit and re-edit what I want to say, while with podcasting it is more natural. It’s like we’re sitting down to have a cup of coffee or for me a latte together.

How do you plan what you are going to do shows about?

I really look at what moves me and I try to go from there. Honestly, I do not plan that much. I think about the different points I wish to cover but I don’t write anything down. I don’t read from cue cards or notes. Like I said, I want it to be raw and authentic and natural.

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What do you like to do in your personal time?

As a stay-at-home mom, I spend the majority of my time with my two children; Manessa (3.5 years) and Malik (8 months). I love to take them out to parks, playgrounds, anywhere I can help them learn about the world. I also enjoy surrounding myself with strong and like-minded women who can fuel the different parts of my life. My husband and I love being fit and active so I go to the gym often and really work towards a healthy lifestyle. My family always has the travel bug and we’ve been blessed to see many places in the world. I love writing, blogging and speaking to people about Islam. I also love to learn about other cultures and religions. Finally I love spending time with my family and friends. They bring me so much joy and just make life worth living.

What is something not a lot of people know about you?

I trained as an amateur boxer for 5 years. I trained at Panther Gym (the greatest gym in Edmonton). I turned to boxing to help me through some tough times. The sport itself as well as the family I gained from being at Panther gym really made the obstacles I was facing much easier. Boxing gave me and outlet for my anger and frustration and the people there gave me so much love.  Although I no longer box, Panther Gym will always have a special place in my heart.

If your podcast had one take-home message for listeners, what would it be?

I think the specific messages will change with each segment depending on the topic but the general idea is that Women in Islam are more than what people think we are. We are more than we think we are. I want to show that Islam is a faith of love, respect, acceptance, peace and so much more.

To sign up for The Modern Hijabi, click here.