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.

 

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

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Fast Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of podcasting?

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

What are some of the most challenging aspects of podcasting?

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

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

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

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

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

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What do you like to do in your personal time?

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

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

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

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

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

To sign up for The Modern Hijabi, click here.

With the launch of Dolce and Gabbana’s haute couture hijabi line in January, many people are questioning the motivations behind such a move. This wouldn’t be the first western fashion group to launch a line aimed at garnering a chunk of some of the $266 billion spent by Muslims annually (a number expected to rise to $488 billion within 3 years). H&M also launched a campaign that was aimed at supplying hijab-wearing shoppers with modest and fashionable apparel. Dolce and Gabbana represent a much different market than H&M and are looking to tap into the haute-couture market of the gulf countries, where approximately 33% of the world’s haute couture purchases originate from.

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Hijab fashion is nothing new. Take five seconds to plug that into Youtube or a search engine and you will be inundated with videos of hijabi women from around the world saying “Salam Alaikum everyone! Today I have an amazing hijab fashion tutorial for you.” Usually these videos and blogs offer fashion tips and tricks for looking good while staying modest, ranging on the modesty scale from jeans and boyfriend sweaters, to all-out maxi dresses or fashion abayas.

Dolce and Gabbana are at the more modest end of the spectrum, coming up with a range of long flowing abayas and complementary head scarves with eye-popping accessories to boot. So if the hijab fashion market has always been around? What’s different? Why are some people questioning the motivations of the Sicilian designers? Is what they are doing an example of the now-infamous “cultural appropriation” or patriarchy or neo-colonialism (or all of the above) simply because they are non-Muslim, Western men?

I don’t think that such accusations are very productive or make a whole lot of sense. For me, what they are doing depends on their research. I’ll admit that so far they don’t have a great track record for research, especially considering that last summer, the designer duo scheduled an ultra-exclusive fashion show during Ramadan, meaning that many of their Middle Eastern/Muslim clients could not or would not attend. The faux-pas has stimulated the pair to learn more about Islamic religious practices though, and with such prominent names doing this research, especially while Islam is continually and perpetually under siege (that’s not up for discussion folks), I can’t argue with that kind of publicity.

And, in actually looking at their designs, I am floored by how stunning they are while being much more modest than most fashion hijab purports to be these days. They are obviously catering to the Gulf aesthetic taste for abayas and that’s great: they know their market and in the world of business, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. They aren’t forcing it down the throats of women and they aren’t necessarily dictating what those women should wear. In fact, hijabis around the world have been cobbling together modest outfits (let’s be honest about how many of you have about 5000 layers going on daily in an effort to make sure you’re just covered) from designer fashions and clothing labels not marketed towards them since…forever. And we’re all going to keep buying our scarves at the same store that hipsters do but instead of wrapping them around our necks ironically, they will be pinned to our heads. Suddenly, because someone decided to pitch something directly to us, it’s an issue? Frankly, I’d prefer if someone took us into consideration because I am getting really tired of wearing turtlenecks under everything because the sleeves are too short.

My first real concern comes from an Islamic perspective more than anything and centers on the ethics of the labour that went into making them. This, of course, is something that can be asked of everything Muslims wear. Are we dressing ourselves on the slave labour of others across the world? Are children being forced to make our clothes? As Muslims, believe it or not, these are important questions to be asking. We should not be supporting companies that partake in poor manufacturing processes or do not take care of their employees’ working conditions and pay. While the ethics behind a company’s manufacturing practices is not always clear, we should feel obligated to do the research necessary to make sure we are not unknowingly participating in the entrapment or forced servitude of other people. This is critical wherever manufacturing takes place and whoever is doing it. For Muslims who might not particularly care, it is important to note that clothing manufacturing dominates in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – all countries that have large Muslim populations which could be directly affected by poor work conditions. Of course, it is the duty of the Muslim to care for all people in positions of injustice, not just other Muslims; however, if it takes imagining your little brother or sister chained to a sewing machine for 15 hours a day to wake some people up, then so be it. Theoretically, Dolce and Gabbana manufacture most of their clothing in Italy, however, some of their eyewear and accessory lines are made in China, and knockoffs abound from all over the world.

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Other issues have been raised by Muslims about the new line and others that will follow suit, including the fact that it’s too little too late – that after a lifetime of suffering because of wearing the hijab, the slight joy of it becoming a fashion statement does little to ease the trauma. While I don’t doubt that some women have felt that their modest Islamic dress has caused them untold suffering, whether from limited opportunities to outright physical violence, it doesn’t follow for me that if an industry suddenly starts to catch up on that fact that, hey, we’re women too and we like to present ourselves well to the world (indeed, looking good is part of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him) it is negated by the fact that they have operated in ignorance for so many years prior. Bring on the knowledge and understanding!

The claim that the move reeks of Western double standards (because people in the West don’t want women to wear hijab?) is also a gross conflation of a) the opinions of Westerners and b) the entire concept of the West. There are plenty of people who have zero issue with hijabi women choosing to wear a headscarf and modest dress every day and to presume otherwise is unproductive and accusatory. I have little patience for binaries (in case, you hadn’t already noticed). Sure, D&G might be more interested in tapping into a lucrative market, but there is something to be said for the fact that they even have the gall to try. It might have something to do with the fact that they are Sicilian and the gorgeous Italian island was colonized by Arabs for 200 years, but I’m a Calabrese (neighbouring province to Sicily) convert to Islam so I’m a bit biased when it comes to residual cultural DNA cropping into my vocabulary.

The final criticism that I want to address is an important one: the whiteness of the model used to photograph the abaya collection. The issue of this woman’s skin colour has come up more than I can count and while I do agree that Dolce and Gabbana missed a huge opportunity for intersectional visibility here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing to have happened. In fact, it actually goes against presumptions found within the Arab world itself: that Arabs are the truest Muslim because they come from the same tribes of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) and they know the language of the Qur’an, despite the fact that they only represent about 15% of the worldwide Muslim population. Having a white (or Italian?) hijabi Muslim also flies in the face of stereotypes lobbed against paler converts to Islam who get accused of converting only for marriage or of being Orientalist – pretenders who will never actually grasp the weight of their conversion by virtue of having come from the land of the great colonizers. For me, embodying my own peripheral intersectionality as an Italian convert from the West, I didn’t mind such a model, but I wouldn’t, obviously. And I suppose that’s just my privilege talking because it just so happens that some of my people (even though I hate nationalism) decided to represent some of my other people (ie. Muslims) – an overlap I never expected to happen.

Islamically speaking, the price tag is the real issue for me when it comes to buying modest, hijabi clothing from designers like Dolce and Gabbana, simply because it is the only part of the equation that is not modest. The collection has yet to be priced, but if it is anything like the rest of their designs, it is going to be substantial. To put this in perspective, the only floor-length maxi dress in the D&G 2016 collection is priced at $7070 US and a standard headscarf from the same collection is approximately $484 US. That’s a lot of dollars being spent on “modesty”. Money that could be better spent on charitable ventures, one’s own family or the general betterment of society.

For modest, fashionable hijab options, I recommend Modern Hejab and Afflatus Hijab.