This article was written by Nakita Valerio and originally published here.

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD), and many Canadians are celebrating what we believe to be achievements made by women, and the gains made for gender equality, in our country.

It is also a moment for us to remember heroines like the Famous Five Alberta women, whose petition to the Supreme Court of Canada led to women being legally considered “persons.” However, in the midst of our celebration, it is easy to forget that a notion of “inclusive” gender equality, embracing many different demographics of women in our communities including veiled Muslim women, indigenous women, women of colour, and others on the margins, remains an important and necessary goal.

It is easy to forget that it was one of the Famous Five, Emily Murphy, who remarked about Chinese Canadians: “We do not understand these people from the Orient, nor what ideas are hid behind their dark inscrutable faces.”

Divisive debate still triggered by what Muslim women wear

IWD is marked differently around the world. However, as we are celebrating, it shows how much further we have to go. It calls attention to the fact that the question of what a Muslim woman wears (whether the hijab, niqab or burka) still generates such furious, divisive debate among Canadians.

Nakita Valerio

Just last month, a woman wearing a burka was refused service at a North Edmonton business, rallying support and condemnation from both sides of the public debate. It was only recently that the federal government launched an official inquiry into the status of missing and murdered indigenous women.

IWD accentuates the fact that equality for women in this country is still heavily tied to the individual’s background, religious, racial, or otherwise.

Additionally, this inequity is highlighted this year as Women’s Day coincides with celebrations of Alberta’s 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, when Alberta joined Manitoba and Saskatchewan as the first provinces to allow women the right to vote in provincial elections.

Unequal women’s rights

While an important move in the history of the province, such an anniversary further reminds us of the unequal distribution of women’s rights because suffrage was applied unevenly at the provincial and federal levels.

The suffrage provisions of 1916 did not include Japanese and Chinese women who weren’t legally franchised until 1948, nor did it include indigenous peoples, whose suffrage also came unevenly across the country and who weren’t fully franchised until 1960.

I argue that some of the rhetoric surrounding IWD, and other events that are not necessarily promoting a brand of “intersectional” or inclusive feminism, depends on a particular vision of liberation that does not recognize a woman’s own voice.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent that in debates around whether or not head coverings are intrinsically oppressive or liberating, which continue to plague Canadian women of all backgrounds including Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians.

New feminism is based on the understanding that there is nothing inherently liberating about one expression over another. Rather, the liberation is in a woman’s choice and part of modern gender equality rests on the acceptance of diverse womanhood on her own terms, regardless of one’s background.

Edmonton hosts ongoing women’s interfaith discussions

Edmonton, thankfully, is a host to ongoing women’s interfaith conversation groups, Muslim-indigenous education workshops, and public school lectures on the status of women and veiling in Islam.

We are also lucky to have Metro Cinema’s three-night film festival titled, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, starting March 8, hosted here in Edmonton and supportive of dozens of local female artists and women’s social justice organizations in the city.

Indeed, local advocacy groups have taken to creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for women of all backgrounds. One such group, the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, views the day as an opportunity to engage in critical dialogue with women across the province.

Ultimately, the critique of International Women’s Day serves to unify the mandate of groups who attempt to celebrate the diversity of women on their own terms and to continue to sound the call for a new, inclusive feminism to take hold everywhere.

Nakita Valerio is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish-Islamic studies (history) at the University of Alberta. She was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s 2015 Top 30 Under 30 and was awarded the QEII scholarship for graduate students. She is also director of public policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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.

aaronThis blog was written as a guest column for The Drawing Board by Aaron Wannamaker – the celebrated writer behind www.muslisms.com, community leader, and published authour. In this op-ed, Aaron graciously offers his unique insights on what happens when someone converts to Islam.

 

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. As for the precise number of converts that make up that number, it is still unclear. But with Islam in the media spotlight, many people take it upon themselves to learn about Islam.

For those who decide to take the leap—or who have already taken it—this article is for you.

I help to run a program at one of the local mosques in Edmonton called Convert Connect. I’ve spoken one-to-one with many converts. Having been a Muslim for almost 9 years now, I’ve heard a lot of stories of people coming to Islam. Everyone has their own unique story to tell, and their own thing that drew them towards the religion. For some it was a sense of purpose; for some it came after a long, spiritual quest through many religions; for some, it just made sense.

Yet despite that, there are still many overarching themes that I find with convert stories. These are 11 of the common things you may come across, both in your personal life and in the community, after you’ve become a Muslim.

You’ll be tested. I know this sounds scary, so I might as well get it out of the way now. After you become a Muslim, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll go through some form of difficulty. The first year is often the most difficult one. During this time, a lot of new Muslims face backlash from their friends and family and co-workers. Sometimes, health problems arise or jobs are lost. If you do go through a test or trial, think of it as your entrance exam. God says in the Quran:

“Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test?” (29:2)

However, He also says:

“So, surely with hardship comes ease. Surely with ˹that˺ hardship comes ˹more˺ ease.” (94:5-6)

This is a promise from God that, no matter what, things will get better. Be patient, and pray for God to help you. Eventually, your hardship will pass.

You’ll try to do everything all at once. Oftentimes, in their zeal for their new faith, a new Muslim will try and do everything: pray not just 5 times a day, but all the extra prayers—and the late-night tahajuud prayer. They’ll make an extensive, pages-long list of duas to recite morning and evening. They’ll throw themselves into studying fiqh and tajweed and hadith, with some memorization to boot. All of these things are great goals in and of themselves. But trying to take it all on at once is unsustainable.

If you try and do all of this at once, you’ll end up crashing and burning out. At which point, you’ll feel like you’re less of a Muslim because you’ve had to cut back on a lot of your ibadah (worship). You may even feel this because you’ve lost your New Muslim Zeal (which should be the name of a cologne). But fret not: this is normal. Sometimes you end up finding yourself on the extremes. A big part of Islam is finding your balance, so use this as a learning experience to help you find that balance.

You’ll become an ambassador of Islam. Like it or not, you’ll end up becoming the de-facto “Muslim” to the people in your life. In fact, you might even be the first (perhaps only) Muslim that your friends and family and co-workers meet. As such, whatever image you project of yourself inadvertently becomes an image people associate with Islam. This is why, personally, I’m against new Muslims changing their names—especially if they’re pressured into it. Your name is part of who you are. So if you’re friends grew up knowing Alex as a jean-wearing, ball-cap sporting soccer player, and now you’re Ammar with a thaub and kufi who no longer wants to deal with “filthy disbelievers” and is always talking about how evil the world is—well, would you blame them for thinking Islam turned you into this?

Islam is meant to be something that facilitates good for others. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said to make things easy for people, and that “The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of mankind.” Who you are as a human being can change people’s hearts about Islam and about Muslims—for better or worse. You’ll be the face of Islam for many people. They will come to you with questions—do Muslims do this? what does Islam say about that? why do these terrorists call themselves Muslim? And you’re not going to have all the answers at first. But keep on learning, and stay upbeat and positive.

You’ll start to see your world differently.  It won’t happen all at once, but gradually you will start to see the world through the lens of Islam. Things you once thought were normal or acceptable will seem strange or even wrong. You’ll notice that a lot of things our society partakes in are things that Islam prohibits—promiscuity, various forms of intoxication, even dealing with interest in a bank. However, this is not an excuse to hate on your own culture and society. Yes, there are problems. But there’s a lot of good in it, too: politeness, fairness in commerce, care for the disabled—all these things and more are things that Islam encourages. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived in a society where people worshiped idols naked and where tribal honour took precedence over justice. And yet, as he was leaving Mecca, he turned to it and called it the most beloved place to him.

Everyone won’t see things the way you do. And remember that, for a time, you also saw things the way they do. Be empathetic towards them, and if someone questions you as to why you aren’t drinking anymore or wearing tight, low-cut skinny shorts, use it as an opportunity to tell them that it’s part of your faith.

You’ll become a minority. There’s a good chance that if you’re a Muslim convert, you’re Caucasian. For your average, 20-to-30-year-old white Canadian male or female, life is pretty normal. You may sympathize with minorities, but it’s another thing entirely to identify as one.

Even if you’re already an ethnic minority, when you become a Muslim you become part of the 3% of Muslims in Canada. For someone who grew up in your average Canadian household, it can be a bit of a shock. The words “oppression” and “fairness” take on new, and sometimes personal, meaning to you. You see how painful labelling others can be. You may even recognize prejudices within yourself that you never realized.

Unfortunately, in our heated climate, you’ll probably see or hear of things happening to your co-religion brothers and sisters that will hurt you. Prophet (pbuh) said that the Muslims are like “one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.” No matter what happens, though, don’t let it drive you to hate. We may be few, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our voices be heard.

Your experience with the community will vary. When you get up in front of the prayer hall and repeat the shahada in Arabic, you’ll hear a lot of cheers and the whole community will come up and congratulate you (be prepared for lots of hugs). It may be a bit overwhelming, but know that everyone’s intentions are good.

The sad truth is, a lot of times Muslim communities, no matter how well intentioned, are not equipped to deal with Muslim converts. While some mosques have dedicated convert programs, many do not. Too often will a convert say their shahada and then be forgotten.

The upside is that you can usually find a way to get involved with the Muslim community. If you are at university, chances are there is a Muslim Students’ Association on campus and they’re always willing to accept new volunteers. If one mosque doesn’t seem particularly hospitable, find another one. Many mosques also function as community centers, so see which programs are going on and try to attend them. Again, at the very least, go to Friday Prayers. All of this can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re introverted. But the small amount of discomfort you’ll feel meeting new people will vastly outweigh the loneliness and confusion you’d feel otherwise. 

You’ll have to develop your filter. The thing about being a new Muslim is that you’re impressionable. And this is understandable. If someone who has been a Muslim all your life tells you you’re going to Hell if you wear your pants below your ankles, who are you to question him? You’ve only been a Muslim for a few days; he’s been a Muslim for a lot longer than you so he, obviously, must be an authority.

But the brutal truth is that just because someone has been a Muslim all their life doesn’t necessarily mean they understand their religion correctly. A lot of people will mix culture and religion, but it’s so subtle that they won’t even notice it. But a good rule of thumb is this: if someone’s advice sounds strange, or they don’t have evidence to back it up, you have every right to question it.

Not only that, but you’ll also be dealing with people whose temperaments and expectations and backgrounds are different than yours. You’ll be exposed to a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways of practicing Islam when you become a Muslim. You may hear different opinions regarding certain issues—such as the aforementioned pants-below-the-ankles. So even if things seem black and white, know that the majority of the time there’s a grey area that can be navigated. It takes time to develop this, and to find where you’re comfortable within that grey area.

You’ll have to find a mentor. You can’t become a Muslim in isolation. Islam is a communal religion, and as a new Muslim it’s imperative that you become part of the community. And even more important than that is that you find a mentor.

A mentor doesn’t have to be a sheikh or imam. It can be an everyday Muslim. This person should be someone you can turn to with questions and advice, and if they can’t answer they should be able to point you to someone who can. But the deciding factor is that they should have a good understanding of the faith. How can you tell this? There are a few indicators:

  • Look at their character; is this person well-mannered and respected?
  • They should practice what they preach; does this person pray regularly, avoid bad habits and vices, ect.?
  • Their advice should be practical; is this person teaching you how to implement your faith in your everyday life? Or did they just give you a laundry list of “don’t do”s?
  • Pay attention to their attitude; are they a positive person, or are they always frowning and complaining about the “evils of society”?
  • Do you like them? A mentor should be your friend.

A mentor should be a positive and encouraging presence in your life. This will help you develop not just as a Muslim, but also as a person.

You’ll be a target. Not to be alarmist, but Muslim converts are easy targets for extremist groups. Because of their impressionable nature, Muslim converts are sought out because their minds are pliable. A seed of hate can be planted in the new Muslim’s head, which can easily be watered by anger and violence, and fertilized with twisted ideologies. Fear can be used as a way to pressgang a Muslim convert into accepting extremist ideas.

If someone comes to you with information that seems strange to you, refer it to your mentor or to an imam or sheikh that you trust. Oftentimes, the strategy of an extremist is to cherry-pick hadith or verses from the Qur’an and ignorantly present them as solitary, hard-and-fast truths, without any consideration for context or other evidences related to this issue.

You’ll have to keep learning.  Never stop learning. This is one of the most important things that every Muslim—not just new Muslims—need to grasp. The moment you think you’ve reached your spiritual plateau, a place where you feel like you know enough, is the moment you begin your downward descend. So keep striving to learn.

Well that’s what the internet is for, right?

No.

No no no no no.

When it comes to religious knowledge, the internet is like a minefield in the dark. There are some safe spots, but there’s a danger of getting blown up. On the internet, everyone’s an expert. A forum is not where you find your fatwas (religious rulings). YouTube is not your sheikh. While there are websites that provide good information (listed at the bottom), these should just be a starting point.

When opportunities for learning or guidance come up, take them. This can be in the form of a seminar, a visiting speaker, a weekly halaqa (gathering), and at the very least, Friday Prayer. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” You need to put your effort in to learn, because the truth won’t come to you if you’re just sitting in one place.

But just as it is important to learn, it’s also important to learn correctly. You can’t just power through the volumes of Sahih Bukhari or a book of fiqh (religious jurisprudence) and call yourself an expert and start dishing out religious verdicts to people. If you want to learn hadith, start with Imam An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith. If you want to learn Qur’an, start with reading through a reliable English translation, such as Abdel Haleem’s. There are some resources at the bottom of this article to help get you started.

Always stay curious, and never be shy to ask questions. If you have a question, know that you’re not the first person to ask it. There are very few questions in Islam that can’t be answered; those that do relate to matters of the unseen, such as “what do angels look like?” or “how does God decree destiny?”. But questions like “what does this verse mean in the Qur’an?” or “why do I have to do this?” will have an answer. So keep your mind open, and never stop learning.

It’s all worth it.

Many things will bring a person to Islam. Perhaps it’s their own research. Maybe it’s the people they know. It may come after a long and painful spiritual journey. But as time goes on and you deepen your understanding of the faith, you really come to know not only yourself, but God as well. You become more aware and respectful of the world you live in. In your times of need and fear, you’ll find God if you seek Him. You’ll struggle and there may be times when things seem hopeless or like the fear or pain will never end. But they always do. After becoming a Muslim, a better world awaits you—both in this life and in the next.

Islam is a journey, not a destination. Its knowledge is an ocean; you can wade safely along its shore, or dive into its endless depths. It’s your comfort and your armour.

Islam is a way of life, and a way of thinking.

Its message is simple: God is One and Muhammad (pbuh) is His Last Messenger.

Its purpose is clear: to teach us how to live a good life by serving God and honouring His creation.

Islam is simple. So keep it that way.

Aaron’s Recommended Websites

Newmuslimacademy.com

Islamreligion.com

Seekershub.org

40hadithnawawi.com

Islamtoday.net/English

Convertconnect.net

 

 

 

 

 

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that Nakita Valerio has been asked to deliver a keynote speech for the You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down film festival on March 22nd, 2016. The speech will be delivered alongside veritable titans of women’s advocacy, Janis Irwin and Dr. Jodi Abbott.

good-woman-11You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is a three-evening curated film festival and more produced in honour of International Women’s Day in partnership with the Metro Garneau Theatre. It is an endeavour to promote women in the same spirit as the mandate of International Women’s Day itself, here through art and activism. This festival highlights creativity, resilience and advocacy. Films are about the challenges women have faced in the march toward equality. There will be an artistic component leading up to the screening of each film in the foyer of the theatre.

 

Nakita’s speech will fit with the theme of the third evening of the film festival, which is “Make a Change in Your World” – focusing on education and gender equal rights.

It should be noted that Nakita will be representing the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council as the Director of Public Policy at this event, and a portion of the proceeds from that evening will support AMPAC’s women’s advocacy initiatives.

We highly recommend you support this incredible film festival and show your endorsement of what it stands for by purchasing your festival pass today.

nakita036Bio: Nakita Valerio is a prominent Edmonton activist and advocate for gender equality. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies. Most recently, she has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the owner of The Drawing Board, the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and a Director with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

On December 13, 2015, I was asked to be the representative of Edmonton’s Muslim community at the Phoenix Society’s Interfaith Celebration. The event took place in Edmonton’s City Hall and featured representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as musical performances related to each faith. It was an honour to be asked to give my thoughts on the theme of “Hope” in Islam, particularly as the last speaker of the day and the first woman to represent Islam in the event’s history. What follows below is the text of my speech.

I want to begin – In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful – with a translation of the meaning of the 35th verse of the 24th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, entitled An Nur, the Light.

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow forth though no fire touched it. Light upon Light! Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is All-Knower of everything.

I stand before you today as a woman, a mother, an academic, an activist, and, above all, a Muslim.

I stand before you today as a Muslim woman and some might note the cruel irony in that, at this particular moment in history, I am supposed to talk to you about hope.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. Even, to fall into despair.

I look around at what is happening in this world, in places like Yemen and Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, in Mali and Tunisia, in Palestine and Israel, in Lebanon and France, in America, in our own backyard in Canada, in my own family.

I look around at what is happening in this world and I have seen it all before. As a historian, I have seen all of this before: all the violence, the hate, the divisive rhetoric, the othering, the anger, the retaliation, the death of so many of our children. And the more I study, it seems the less I can make sense of any of it.

I started my journey in academics as a historian of the Shoah – the Holocaust perpetuated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. And in this example, we find some of the darkest depths of human depravity. The absolute worst of humankind. We find this darkness emulated every day around the world, individually and collectively: in war, in genocide, in terrorism, in racism, in abuse. We find darkness everywhere. We carry it with us like a shroud.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. And I do grieve.

In language, grief almost always involves water, with people drowning in it or passing through life in a fog due to it. In grief, we find the nomads, the memorialists, the normalizers, the activists and the seekers: those who are unresolved, those who seek to preserve memory, those who recreate family and community, and others who turn to prayer for meaning.

Grief occupies a physical space in the phenomenal realm. An immoveable mass. It cannot be perceived by the senses but it’s there, an invisible tunnel entered through the gates of trauma, sometimes narrowing to the point of suffocation, other times widening so that its grasp is forgotten.

Studies of bereaved individuals reveal that grief is not linear – it does not plot itself neatly on a road map from denial to recovery with despair and depression as pit-stops in between. How can grief be linear when there is continuously so much to mourn?

I grieve because grief is part of my hope. In grieving, I mourn the loss of life, the loss of love and the death of morality that has become normalized. In grieving, I know we can be better.

Psychologists suggest that bereavement carries with it one of the greatest qualities of humanity: resilience. From disaster and tragedy, people almost always reflect and rise up stronger than before and the process is so individual that it resembles a fingerprint. It cannot be shaped by others. Our resilience is at once our own and communally, universally shared.

Resilience carries with it the connotations of brilliance, an illumination that, even if small, forbids darkness from taking over completely. There cannot exist total darkness as long as there is a single light and it is this light, this noor, that we must choose. Choosing hope, being resilient does not mean you will never grieve or that you will never fall into despair. In fact, it means that those things will be a necessary part of your hope.

I want to share an important interpretation of a Qur’anic passage with you about the nature of humanity as carriers of both shrouds of darkness and resilient light. This comes to me from a fellow Muslim, brother Aaron, writing in response to the recent terrorist attacks across the globe and the violent backlash felt in Muslim communities everywhere.

The creation of Adam (a.s) is mentioned many times in the Qur’an, but the first time it is mentioned, the angels asked Allah of the earth: “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we praise You and glorify Your Name?” (2:30). Their question was well-founded. Prior to the creation of humans, jinn were constantly fighting and killing and spreading corruption. It got so bad that the angels intervened to stop their constant wars. So when they learned that God was making another creation, they probably had reason to fear that this creation would behave much like the jinn did.

Were the angels right about us? Have we spread corruption and shed blood? Yes. So very often, yes. The earth has been saturated with the blood of humanity. But, when the angels asked why God would create something that would spread corruption and shed blood, Allah responded:

“I know what you do not know.” (2:30)

What does Allah know? Does God know some true potential of humankind?

In this, I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. But, I do hope.

I have seen people change before my very eyes. With consistent patience and compassion, I have seen their hatred give way to understanding and acceptance, seen their fears turn to knowledge and kind action.

The world continues through the walls of grief.

People will fall in love and be married; children will be born; poetry, art and beauty will forever echo our dreams.

History marches on into the future.

A collective loss is a mark in our continuous time – a crack in the sidewalk that some people step over, others stumble past, and still more individuals stop and marvel when tiny, yellow flowers push up through the fracture.

These are the ones, the ever-bereaved, the ever-hopeful, the resilient ones who I emulate and in whose tireless efforts I place my trust to carry the Light into an uncertain future.

Thank you.

Nakita Valerio is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 Under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies. Most recently, she has been 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 a Director with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.