I was approached by The Green Room (IFSSA) to share stories of my life at an event called OUTSPOKEN on March 29th. The event was an intimate gathering in a carpeted room of vivid colours, sparkling lights and star decorations hanging from the ceiling. There were four women, including me, gathered on cushions on the floor, sitting and facing a small audience of several dozen. The atmosphere was friendly and informal. It was a safe space – a “container” one woman called it- where words that are said are not be repeated, but are to be felt nonetheless: the residue of our affect being what we carry away with us. The beauty of just listening to stories lived by those among us, our sisters, immediately resonated with me, and the impermanence of it struck me. We just had right now to connect before we were swept into our lives again. The room became a liminal space, equalized and perfumed with communitas where we spoke and were heard: a lost art forged anew.

What follows is the story I told, for the first time, in a public space.


When I was first asked to speak about my story in womanhood, my first thought was “what does that even mean?” I was worried I would be participating in a discussion about normative femininity in which the dictates of some so-called essential female characteristic traits were expected to be invoked when I really only believe that gender is culturally prescribed and performed.

As a Muslim, I have a prescription and I engage with my performance of what “being a woman means” (for me) daily, but I don’t think this has any essential tenets beyond:

-being equal to men (which is an equally performative category)

-and having prescribed roles, but not necessarily traits or ways of being within those roles.

As Muslims, all of us are implored to swallow our anger or pride, to act justly, to seek knowledge and to be examples of peace and kindness for everyone.

So I won’t be talking about softness or intuitive motherhood, or the kinder, more nurturing sex. I will be talking about what happens when universalizing narratives suffocate individual stories of what “womanhood” really means, on an individual level – stories which are the reason we are gathered today.

Naturally, I thought of the moment that most people would associate with womanhood, (if we are to talk of such a thing) – so today, I am going to tell the story of my child’s birth in a series of vignettes and I hope, that in doing so, we see how damaging normative, essentializing womanhood characteristics can be, because for every trauma I experienced in that birth, each event making up the whole event, we can trace it back to what someone else thought my womanhood ought to be.


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

The bags were heavy, cutting through my fingers as they spun around and around. The sunshine exploded across the dusty street as I carried my groceries down the block to the front of my apartment building. Humidity fogged my glasses, perched over reddened cheeks, and wisps of hair poked out from my hijab, plastered to my temples.

My steps were slow and careful as my floor-length djelleba skirted the street at my ankles and my body lumbered and swayed under the girth of my swollen belly and two armloads of groceries.

Astafirghallah, God forgive me, I muttered under my breath as I stared at the staircase to my apartment building. Five storeys up. I’d have to carry these bags five storeys up, choked by my hijab, trying not trip on my djelleba, trying not to curse my husband’s name too loud for fear my neighbours might hear me.

I had had what some might call a perfect pregnancy, without complications and with plenty of sunny days spent writing in Moroccan cafes on the Mohammedia beach or evenings spent teaching my students at the English Center. My husband had left for Europe at the opening of my third trimester to finalize his permanent residency there.

As I lumbered up the stairs with my groceries, I could hear our earlier conversation replaying in my head, spiraling up those stairs with me.

It shouldn’t be much longer, he’d said.

You said that last week, I replied.

Why can’t you just adapt without me? he shouted.

The question cut through my laboured breathing as I took a break in front of my neighbour’s landing. I rubbed my purple creased fingers while my bags rested on the floor, touching the place where my wedding ring had been before I had taken it off from the swelling.

What did it mean to adapt? Especially to a place not your own, a land of your adopted grace where the language reached your ears in a garbled euphonious mess, the tea was always frothy and nothing ever made any sense. What did it mean to adapt? Especially alone, spending silent days chopping vegetables in the kitchen or singing You Are My Sunshine to the growing stranger in your womb. What did it mean to adapt when you went to doctor’s appointments alone, feigning understanding in three different languages, while this wholly mysterious process you were now tied to (a train you could not get off) would just continue beyond your control in a place where everything else is beyond your control too.

Adapting meant being quiet: accepting exile in stride. It meant exodus, like Mariam (May Allah be pleased with her), reminding yourself not fear but feeling it all the same. It meant swallowing that fear and putting a smile on your face so you mother can hear it on her end of the phone in Canada. It’s telling everyone you’re fine, when you’re not.

It is the triumph of reaching your door after five storeys in oppressive heat, the triumph of making it home again, that you did do it alone, but wishing you didn’t have to.

***

My doula arrived a few days after my husband returned from Italy. We met her at the airport and drove back to our place to unpack her bags and get her settled in. She’s a bubbly person who wears only black and has developed an anxiety about how many rolls of toilet paper you have in the house. She took our bedroom while my husband and I crammed into the spare, sleeping on two twin beds, only a few feet apart but separated by oceans.

We spent two weeks writing birth plans and going over the process so I could know what to expect. We spent our days watching marathons of our favourite shows, getting her to try the latest tajine at a local restaurant of experimenting with making couscous in my kitchen – a room where the cupboards held the moisture of the ocean and always smelled musty, and where an open window was an invitation for songbirds to snag your bread off the counter.

One afternoon, we went to the beach and she floated me in the ocean, wearing a long blue dress that disappeared beneath the lazy waves, my rounded belly bobbing up over the water line – a growing vessel. Layers of water within water pulling you the center and pushing you out again. The sky was clear that day and the sound of laughter carried over the waves from the beach, where kids (out of classes) played soccer with a broken Coke bottle and you could hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves in the sand as a police officer made his rounds, checking the marriage licenses of necking couples along the shore. I had put my head below the surface, my hijab protecting my ears from the cold bite of the water, and a bubble formed. A time of quiet and calm where I could feel the baby move in time to the sea’s rhythm and I wondered when I would meet her.

***

How could you?  I moaned as each contraction brought me up, way up and then crashing down again. I was vocal while labouring, my doula fighting back both laughter and sometimes tears at what came out of my mouth. It ranged from a long hellllooooooooo to proposing marriage to my husband again. Will you marry me? was interspersed with how could you leave me here?

In a chair with impossibly high arms in the spare bedroom, I laboured like a queen on a throne, feeling the shuddering and opening of my body while my husband read a newspaper in the next room. Opppppeeeeennnnnnn, I groaned to myself, wind rushing from depths I didn’t know I had and whistling through my teeth.

Outside the window, we were in a cloud as a fog rolled off the ocean and took over our block, the haze of the streetlights barely strong enough to cut through. The fog covered everything and the walls dripped as my body wrenched itself open in ways I had never imagined. In moments of rest, I thought, “Who has control over this?” And another contraction would hit as I called out to Allah.

I didn’t wish for death or oblivion then, as I knew Mariam (may Allah be pleased with her) had beneath the palm tree. That would not come until later.

***

The doctor was looking at me and screaming for me to push. I did not know how long I had been there, how long she had been screaming at me, her hands making a slicing motion as she threatened me with a C-section.

My legs were locked into table stirrups. The left one kept falling down and a nurse kept strapping it back in. The same nurse who had kicked my doula out of the room and injected me with Pitocin against my will to speed up the contractions. Everything was in and out after that until this moment of pushing. At some point, I had been cut, a vacuum used on my child’s head, the stomach I had been so careful not to bump into anything – jumped on by the nurse. Snapshots amidst blackness.

And suddenly, my husband’s hand in mine and his voice from somewhere far away: “She’s telling you to push.”

“Oh, I see,” I replied calmly, not realizing I was screaming.

I set aside the images of this doctor telling me to shut up and let her do her job. I put aside her rage when I had ventured to ask what she was doing to me, as if my baby was coming from her body and not mine. I put aside my own tears while her slices silenced me.

I found a tiny light inside myself, closed my eyes and pushed down on it. The first push was exploratory and the light got brighter. I found the place my strength comes from. I snapped my eyes open, locking them with this doctor, hearing her laughter in my face a few weeks back when I said I had a plan and a doula. I pushed down on that light and it got brighter. My eyes never left that doctor’s face.. She would not rob me of this.

I birthed in rage. And the light got brighter and more blinding. I felt the sway of my husband to my side as a nurse caught him and pulled him out of the room, on the verge of fainting. The light filled the room and a sound emerged from it that has no description: animalistic, but musical; the sound of being a part of creation, of ultimate hereness, of right now.

And before my husband’s feet passed the door’s threshold, my daughter let out a cry and the light dissipated across the room.

***

I don’t know when I laid my head down but the next thing I remember was the nurse massaging where a baby had been, a baby who was now crying across the room. There was a woosh and a splatter at the sound of my blood hitting the floor. It sounded like the ribbons of water on the pavement when the Berber women washed away the evening dust.

The sound of my blood hit the floor in time to my voice, soothing my whimpering child. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.

Someone asked my husband my blood type.

A negative, he replied.

Allah! was all that came back.

***

When I woke up, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t breathing. All I wanted to do was take a nice, deep breath. But I couldn’t. I started counting the seconds, trying to track how long it had been, trying to remember how long the human brain could be deprived of oxygen before it became a vegetable.

Sounds of the room flooded into my ears. My eyes would not open. Someone was between my legs, sewing me up.

I’m in surgery, I realized. I’m awake in surgery.

Why haven’t I taken a breath yet? I ask myself, forgetting the breathing tubes down my throat.

Is death coming? Oblivion?

I hear my heart racing on the monitor, impossible to find spaces between the beats.

And in this space, I remember Mariam, leaning against the palm tree, crying out.

I mourn the life my daughter will have without me and in my head, I say my shahadah.

La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammadur rasoul Allah

***

Someone is holding my hand. I can feel soft hair on the knuckles. It is a strong hand and it keeps trying to let go but I am grasping at it. I have to hold onto it.

What did you eat for breakfast?  he asks.

I don’t understand, I reply.

His tone gets more urgent. Just tell me what you ate for breakfast, sister.

Why are you asking me this? I reply in broken Arabic.

He starts firing questions to nurses and looking under my eyelids at my pupils. I realize he thinks I am Arab and can’t understand why I am barely making sense.

Brother, I’m Canadian. I’m not Arab. I’m alive. I squeeze his hand.

He chuckles, You’re alive, sister.

Allahu Akbar! What’s your name brother? Don’t let go of my hand.

Abdul Aziz, he replies as he wheels me to my room to see my daughter.

The slave of the Mighty One.

The One who provides, without discrimination,

The One, who when Mariams leans on the palm, rains dates upon her for sustenance.

As time moves on, each triumph comes to me like the sweet chewy flesh of a date, a hard-earned delight that fills your mouth with joy for a moment in an ever-changing and endless stream of a life that will never be the same.

Like the time I crawled up those same five storeys on my hands and knees, taking an hour to reach my apartment door, shaking. Still triumphant.

Or the time, six months later, I raced up them two by two, skidding through my front door with a bouncing baby on my hip.

***

What does it mean to adapt?

It means finding that light within you, that space where your strength comes from, and pressing on it, even in the face of those who try to dictate what you are made of, and then letting that light fill the room.

It means embracing the exodus and the resiliency you earn because of it.

In that moment, before the dates fell, when the doctor placed my daughter on my lap for the first time, I closed my eyes, heard the sound of Mariam’s bubbling stream below me, and slept.

 

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (SSHRC) and Walter H. Johns Graduate Fellowship. These awards are highly competitive, and are issued by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council based on excellent academic standing, research potential and contributions to society. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

nakita036The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

Nakita’s research topic can be read about below:

Prior to the Second World War, Morocco’s Jewish community numbered 240,000 and was one of the largest and oldest populations of Jews in the Arab world. Today, less than 3,000 Moroccan Jews remain and the memory of them is rapidly fading among the younger generations of Muslims. Historians focused on Moroccan Jewish-Muslim relations have been preoccupied with the internal politics of nationalism and Zionism. (Boum,2011; Baida,2011; Maddy-Weitzman & Ben-Layashi,2010) The historiographical silence on the role of the Holocaust in raising fear among Moroccan Jews, possibly stimulating their unprecedented exodus, is the result of current Holocaust “amnesia” among Muslims today – on whom these authors tend to rely for their ethnographic research.

Given my experience teaching in Morocco for three years, I found that Holocaust denial in private schools was a recurring phenomenon across the country – something corroborated by the Anne Frank House working towards tolerance and Holocaust education in Morocco. (Polak,2010) The current, widespread denial among Moroccan Muslim youth is at odds with growing Jewish-Muslim communication in online forums (Boum,2014), growing cultural representations of Jews (Kosansky, Boum,2012) and especially, the stance of the Moroccan State, which is vocal about distinguishing between the Holocaust and “the tragedy of the Middle East” – meaning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as stated by Jewish advisor to the King, Andre Azoulay (Daily Herald,2009).

The State is focused on reintegrating Jewishness into the national narrative, establishing festivals of Jewish-Muslim interaction and issuing a call for the Jewish diaspora to return home. (Boum,2010; Bruneau,2015) However, until private education programs which allow for Holocaust denial are assessed and addressed, the project of reviving Moroccan Jewishness will be unlikely to have the effect desired by the monarchy. For youth, the reasons to deny the Holocaust are influenced by their lack of direct experience with Jews: it is perceived as part of a Jewish world conspiracy, which they find in widely circulated translations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I found that my own students had acquired copies of this text from their private-school history teachers who had also taught the children that The Diary of Anne Frank was fabricated. One of Boum’s interviewees, Said, affirms that the number of Holocaust deaths and the event as a whole were openly questioned by his private school teachers. (Boum, 2013)

The Holocaust, for Moroccan youth, can be imagined as a false commodity employed by Jewish conspirers to gain geopolitical favours for Israel from Western powers. The degree to which denial-legitimizing narratives are coming out of Moroccan schools (especially private ones, which are growing in number, and where programs are unregulated) remains to be explored. Thus, I ask: How is the Holocaust remembered by Moroccan Muslims today? How is this memory affected by private education and politics? How does this memory affect the overall remembering of Jews and ongoing relations between the two groups?

This research will contribute to ongoing debates on the memory of the Holocaust in general, the memory of Jews among Muslims, the role of education in shaping social memory, and the continuous rewriting of Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco. Additionally, I anticipate that this will spark more scholarly debate regarding the representation of the Holocaust in the Islamic world and its use as a political-social tool in the era of conflict.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, the heart of Morocco’s social ills has a lot to do with disenfranchisement of women and the lack of gender equality – of which, street harassment and economic ills are but social symptoms. And at the very heart of this disenfranchisement is a lack of education.

Which brings me to the reason I moved to Morocco in the first place. In 2010, shortly after I converted to Islam, I was planning to go to law school but on a trip to Italy before I could write my LSAT, I read a book by Nicholas Kristoff called Half the Sky which was about the socio-politico-economic consequences of female oppression worldwide. As a recent convert to Islam and a well-read one at that, I had a hard time understanding the disconnect between the gender equality and rights of women preached in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad (PBUH) an what kind of oppressive, misogynistic practices I was seeing played out in real life cases. Of course, this oppression is not limited to Islamic contexts but the fact that I was finding the cures for such oppression in the scriptural sources of Islam clued me into a disconnect that, at its core, was educational.

As a Muslim, I believe that the information exists in our scriptural sources about how to promote gender equality and respect the dignity of women, and if this not is not something I am seeing practiced on the ground, there are only two possible explanations: either people don’t know, or they don’t care.

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

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

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

When I moved to the village, my life as a hijabi began because I was finally free to practice the Deen of Islam in such a context; however what I quickly came to realize was that what I had the freedom to practice and enact as my rights as a Muslim woman was not the same for every woman in the village. In fact my suspicions had been correct: education was a key issue. The literacy rate of women in the village was only 27%. That means that anywhere from 2 to 3 women out of 10 can read. And I’m not talking about reading the Qur’an or legal texts by which they would know their rights. I’m talking about medication bottles or formula recipes for their babies – things that you and I take for granted in a literate, word-saturated society.

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

I met women who:

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

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

Additionally, I became a woman who:

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

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

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

Thank you.