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

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Peace be upon all of you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.


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

 

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 addresses a prevalent problem in Morocco and around the world: street harassment. Emily unpacks and breaks down some of the common reasons given for street harassment, from orientalist misunderstandings of Arab men as over-sexualized to misguided associations of street harassment with Islam, from unemployment and boredom to the litany of victim-blaming reasons given by men for why they do it.  As usual, she cuts to the heart of the matter to understand rape culture and the power struggle at the heart of this epidemic problem and issues a revolutionary call for change that starts with YOU. #fierce #boyswillbeheldaccountable #womenwillbefierce #riseup #slay

For other episodes in this series, click here.

Letters to Our Brothers can be found here.

While the problem of Islamophobia might seem like a relatively recent media buzzword, it actually describes a phenomenon that goes back to the beginning of revelation and one that has been dealt with by each of Allah’s prophets in different ways from Adam (a.s.) to Muhammad (saw). In times of increasing insecurity about our positions as Muslims in the West and the world at large, as well as increasing instances of divisive political rhetoric and verbal and physical assault against Muslims, members of our Ummah are uncertain about the most appropriate course of action when dealing with discrimination. Many feel angry, fearful or helpless. What better example do we have for dealing with these difficulties than the last messenger of Allah himself, Muhammad (saw), and the one who endured the worst abuses hurled at himself, at Islam and at Muslims in the history of our Deen?

Firstly, Muhammad (saw) was commanded personally and along with all other Muslims, to be patient with the abusers and forgive them. Allah tells us, “You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah – indeed that is of the matters [worthy] of determination.” (Qur’an 3:186) Further, among many other instances, Allah adds, “And do not obey the disbelievers and the hypocrites; and disregard their hurt and put your trust in Allah; and sufficient is Allah as a Disposer of Affairs.” (33:48)

Further, by being exemplary practitioners of the Deen and refusing to respond to provocations in a manner that is ignorant, we are also embodying the methods of the Prophet (saw) in enduring and rising above abuse. He sought refuge in Allah as he was commanded to and, in doing so, gained the respect of his perpetrators, caring for them even in the face of their abuse. One excellent example of this as recorded in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim recounts an incident that occurred when the Prophet (saw) travelled to a neighbouring town of Taif. Contained within is a beautiful supplication that creates peace in the heart when recited in emulation of him.

In Taif, the elders of the town planned an organized campaign to ridicule the Prophet (saw). To escalate their disapproval of the Prophet and prevent him from preaching Islam, they set a group of children and vagabonds behind him who then pestered and threw stones at him. Tired, forsaken and wounded, he sought refuge in a nearby garden which belonged to Atabah and Shaibah, two wealthy chiefs of the Quraish. They were both there when Prophet Muhammad entered and sat under a distant tree. The Prophet raised his face towards heaven and prayed:

“O Almighty! I raise unto you my complaint for my weakness, my helplessness, and for the ridicule to which I have been subjected. O Merciful! You are the Master of all oppressed people, You are my God! So to whom would You consign me? To the strangers who would ill-treat me, or to the enemies who have an upper hand over me? If whatever has befallen me is not because of Your wrath, then I fear not. No doubt, the field of Your security and care is wide enough for me. I seek refuge in Your light which illuminates darkness and straightens the affairs of this world and hereafter, that Your displeasure and wrath may not descend upon me. For the sake of Your pleasure, I remain pleased and resigned to my fate. No change in this world occurs without Your Will.”

Atabah and Shaibah were watching. They sent for their servant named Adaas and gave him a plate full of grapes. “Take this to that man under the tree,” they ordered, which he did. As the Prophet (saw) picked the grapes he said: “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate”. Adaas had never heard this before and was impressed by it, because the Prophet was invoking mercy and compassion of Almighty in spite of all his hardship.

“Who are you?” Adaas asked. Muhammad replied, “I am the Prophet of God. Where do you come from?” The servant said: “I am Adaas, a Christian. I come from Nainava.”

“Nainava? You come from a place where my brother Yunus bin Mati (Jonah son of Mati) lived,” the Prophet said. Adaas was surprised to hear the name. “What do you know of Yunus? Here no one seems to know him. Even in Nainava there were hardly ten people who knew his father’s name.” The Prophet said: “Yes, I know him because just like me, he was a Prophet of Almighty God.” Adaas fell on his knees before the Prophet, kissed his hand and embraced him.

It is further reported that after the Prophet took refuge from the stone throwing mob, Angel Jibreel came to the Prophet and asked him if he so wished Jibreel would give the command to bury the city between two mountains. Although the Prophet had suffered a great deal at the hands of these people, he replied that he did not wish destruction for the people of Taif because maybe their offspring would proclaim the religion of truth. Even in his moment of earthly suffering, he still maintained righteous behaviour and compassion – an example we can all benefit from witnessing through our learning.

This article was originally written for Islam 101, a monthly publication in Edmonton, Alberta.

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.

 

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

We are living in a time of great unrest. While there are many causes worthy of our attention, today I need to talk to you about something very important: Islamophobia.

You might think this subject does not have much to do with you other than outraging you every time you hear about xenophobes spinning gravel at me with their pick-up truck wheels or some intolerant old man at the mall telling me to go back where I came from. You might think that your outrage is enough.

It is critical to realize that Islamophobia is not just about hijabi women being called out in the street or even violently attacked. It is not just about people calling us sand n*ggers. It is not just about the implicit bias we are up against daily, every time we apply for schools, for jobs, for positions we are overqualified for and rejected from because we are named after our beloved Prophets (peace be upon them) or their companions. Islamophobia is also about mass Muslim death going unnoticed and uncared for. About unspoken genocides, about massacres of Muslim children, about destroying our right to self-determination and life, about artificial famines that starve our people, about 1.2 million Iraqis dead without an apology, without the world batting an eyelash never mind shedding a tear.

In The Other America, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

Islamophobia might not be the “new” racism to some but it follows a similar distorted logic. It is not only about the micro and macroaggressions Muslims face daily. It is about the end logic of what those aggressions mean– that the people who hate us ultimately believe we do not deserve to exist. That we are collateral damage on their way to homogenizing the world as they see fit. Can you imagine this being your daily reality? That someone hates you enough to think you don’t deserve another breath of air on this earth?

I, for one, try not to live in fear, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss what I know to be truer than most: Islamophobia exists in its most subtle and most violent forms. It is pervasive and it is far more common than people realize (or want to realize). Dear ally, step one is to recognize this. Don’t dismiss this. Don’t tell me it is all in my head. Don’t tell me I am being overly cautious. Or dramatic.

Step two is to reject Islamophobia with all your heart. Recognize that, despite your best efforts at acceptance and understanding, you are immersed in a culture that creates negative associations with me and my religion at every possible opportunity. Even Muslims suffer from the internalization of these oft-repeated and relentless messages. Many of us have come to stereotype ourselves and even reject our religion for the lies told about it. Recognize that you likely have implicit bias. Recognize it when it rears its ugly head: when something I do “pleasantly” surprises you, when you have to overcome your shock at seeing my hair for the first time, when you find yourself wondering just what I keep under that headscarf, when you think of our men and women as over-sexualized, when you think of Islam as a monolith and fail to see our incredible diversity, when you don’t think of me as a capable resource first, or second, or ever. De-bias yourself consciously, daily, feverishly.

Step three is action. No, dear ally, outrage is not enough. Returning to your life after glimpsing our reality is simply not enough. Waiting for Muslims to liberate themselves, to demand their freedom, to take their rightful space back is not enough. Waiting for us to explain ourselves, to educate the ignorant masses, to change the minds of non-Muslim non-allies is not enough. We are doing everything we can but we need your cooperation. You occupy a unique space of privilege. You exist in a space where audiences will listen to what you have to say about Islam because they perceive you as having no vested interests in the outcome of your teaching. You exist in a space where people will listen. I know, because I used to exist there too, before I converted.

Some of the greatest allies have not been those people who occupy the highest levels of privilege. The greatest non-Muslim allies have typically been those who too experience prejudice: people of colour, Sikhs, Jews, LGBTQ people and women. The minorities who also get spit on, who get discriminated against, who are abused, who are killed are often the first to stand with us. And it does not go unnoticed. We see you standing there with us. We thank you.

But if you occupy a socio-economic space of dominance, your outrage is not enough. Your introspection is not enough. Your personal de-biasing is not enough. You need to create spaces to centralize our voices. You need to #makeitawkward wherever you can. You need to speak out against injustice and celebrate our difference. You need to check out all the things you can do right now to combat Islamophobia. You need to initiate projects and plans that do these things. You need to be at the forefront of education on these subjects, engaging as stakeholders. You have something at stake here, in all of this: how you choose to stand up for a people marginalized, your integrity.

Does this seem like too much of a burden to bear? Am I asking too much from you? Are other marginalized peoples calling on you too? Are you tired? I understand your concern. I feel it when I am called on to stand up for others too. I feel exhausted by the weight of my own circumstance combined with the need to alleviate the suffering of others.

But I take solace in the collective. Take solace in knowing that you might not be able to save the world but you can join forces with other people who are trying to repair it, in their corners of this crazy place with the tools and talents they have their disposal. No small effort in the way of compassion is ever wasted.

Anas Ibn Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “If the Hour (of the End of Time) were established upon one of you while he had in his hand a tree sapling, then let him plant it.”*

In solidarity,

Nakita

*(Musnad Imam Ahmad 12491)


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.