By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Women’s voices and their participation in every aspect of society are more vital than ever. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, is a female-only group formed in the US in 2010. The Toronto group formed after Trump’s inauguration of November 8, 2016 to address the expected threat to religious minorities in Canada.
Led by Cynthia Levine-Rasky, a sociology professor at Queen’s University, and Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a doctoral student, the mission of SOSS is to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish Canadian women.
The Toronto group received an overwhelming response and in less than a year, it grew to around 100 active members from both faiths. They are from all walks of life, diverse in age, religious identity and practice, as well as political outlook. The group’s members commit to working together to limit acts of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. They stand up to hate against one another and engage in social action work to benefit their communities.
Group Gatherings and Activities
In monthly gatherings held in members’ homes, these women talk about issues of shared concern: experiences, challenges, and recent events. They also plan activities of mutual interest.
Tamara Rebick, who with Tazeen Alam co-leads the North York circle, shared her experience. For Rebick, SOSS is a place where passionate and exceptional women sit together and “have authentic, meaningful and complex conversations for the purposes of learning and fostering respect, understanding and friendship.”
The women do not share the same degree of religious knowledge. In fact, many describe themselves as secular and as not particularly knowledgeable. As a result, there are opportunities for sisters of both faiths to teach one another about each religion's teachings, customs, culture and traditions.
In their sessions, the host sisters create an opportunity for all sisters, Jewish and Muslim alike, to learn about important customs within their faiths. Last year, Jewish sisters hosted a Women's Seder during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The Muslim sisters hosted an Eid Brunch featuring regional culinary foods, and one of the sister's sons built a model version of Al-Masjid al-Haram while Muslim sisters taught the group about the customs and background of Hajj.
This year, the group will be celebrating the Moroccan Jewish custom of Mimouna. (A Moroccan Jewish custom, Mimouna demonstrates the close relationship that existed between Jews and Muslims in the region early in the 20th century).
Since most Jewish sisters currently involved in the Toronto area are from Ashkenazic (Eastern and Central European) descent, they have never celebrated Mimouna.
As a result, this year's event is being hosted by a team of Jewish and Muslim sisters who are learning about the custom together and preparing an experience where everyone will commemorate this beautiful celebration of neighbourliness.
Connection with Intentionality is Natural
Talking about the historical antagonism between Muslim and Jewish people and the idea that they may be “natural enemies,” the group leaders disagreed. “This is nothing but a spurious assumption…there is nothing natural about hatred towards someone you do not know,” says Ghaffar-Siddiqui.
“What is more natural is how quickly people will find things in common and become friends, despite religious or cultural differences, if put in the same room together,” she adds.
“Connection and camaraderie are more natural than antagonism, and simply require intentionality and opportunity to flourish,” says Levine-Rasky.
Rebick believes that fear and ignorance feed much of the silos that exist in our communities. “There is more we don't know about one another than what we do know, and that leads to dangerous assumptions and unfounded and erroneous conclusions,” she explains.
Tying back to exactly why she wanted to be a part of this group and has become so committed to it. “I love learning about what I don't know, from someone who might be considered as, ‘the other,’ ” Rebick states.
According to both leaders, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom represents the power in building strong bonds between Jewish and Muslim Canadian women. Simply standing together makes a powerful political statement for change, they say.
“When the opportunity arises, we stand together to fight anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred in public spaces, in our public institutions, and wherever the need arises” says Levine-Rasky.
Modelling for Future Generations
The emphasis is on allyship and learning what actions and qualities create meaningful, effective and lasting allies — in the good times and bad. Rebick is encouraging her daughters to become familiar with the group. She wants them each to glean important values and lessons from a group like this one — about growing up as strong and accomplished women in their community, how to identify, manage and address adversity and ignorance, about the need for community and friendship, and about living beyond one’s comfortable and familiar bubble.
Levine-Rasky confirms that there has been a long-standing interest to create a SOSS circle for members’ teenage daughters. They are currently seeking qualified co-leaders for this initiative.
“The potential impact is extraordinarily positive since youthful relationships may continue well into adulthood, shaping decisions and values that are established at this critical age,” she added.
Ghaffar-Siddiqui believes, “The youth circle will be essential to ensuring this interfaith movement continues to grow and have a positive present and future impact on society.”
As Ghaffar-Siddiqui explained, “In whichever role a woman operates — mother, entrepreneur, teacher, community worker, etc.— she has a unique ability to spread light and awareness to whomever she interacts with, whether children, co-workers, employees, or community members. This is why the Sisterhood is so important. Each sister brings a unique and important perspective to gatherings and conversations. What is even more important, however, is how far and wide our message of love and humanity travels, as each sister spreads it in her own unique way”.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton, ON
It's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Quebec's National Assembly passed a bill that will require civil servants and members of the public seeking government services to have their faces uncovered. Known as Bill 62, this legislation will affect Muslim women who wear religious face coverings such as a Niqab or Burqa.
To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.
The reality in Canada today is if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec's lawmakers.
I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mas, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.
I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to "strong reactions" from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.
Bill 62, which the Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée describes as a first in North America, is the culmination of a long conflict in Quebec around the province's religious minorities that I personally view as an extension of the province's vigorous protection of its French language and culture that makes them suspicious of those whose behavior or beliefs they perceive as a threat to their "Frenchness."
Meanwhile, those who are critical of Bill 62 are left with few details of how the law would be applied in a variety of circumstances, as the regulations have yet to be written, and municipalities such as Montreal that are blatantly opposed to this bill are demanding to be exempted from it. The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses and doctors — and their professional standards of practice that require they provide medical service to all patients who present themselves for care — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.
To many people who view these "foreign customs" through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.
Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.
Brampton-based Surjit Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer who has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, Toronto Sun and other publications. He is a member of the New Canadian Media Collective.
Commentary by Phil Gurski
On rare occasions I pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or World Weekly News when I shop for groceries. It's not that I am particularly a fan, but they are strategically located at the checkout counter with their flashy, outrageous headlines. Some are truly unbelievable. I think my all-time favourite was 'Titanic survivor found on ice floe, vows never to eat fish again.'
These periodicals deal in what we now call fake news, albeit with a difference: the stories were never intended to be taken seriously and it is hard to believe that anyone could be influenced by their stark departure from the truth.
We are now living in a very different time where outright lies are taken seriously and they do affect the views and opinions of some people on very serious issues. The claim that crime is up (when it is down in many places) has led to calls for 'law and order' campaigns. The belief that vaccinations lead to autism (this was debunked years ago and the scientist making the claim shown to be a fraud) has made some parents eschew life-saving vaccines, causing outbreaks of diseases we thought we had beaten, like measles.
In Canada, there is another onslaught of fake news that centres on our Muslim communities and supposed links to terrorism and clandestine efforts to take over our country. Several Canadian cities have seen demonstrations that appear to have coincided with a motion by a Liberal backbencher to call on the government to look into and report on Islamophobia and other forms of hate. Among the allegations made by some of those demonstrating in Canadian streets are:
One of the great things about living in this country is that we are all free to express our views and opinions to a tremendous degree. There are limits, though, and these limits are both legitimate and necessary. If someone calls for violence, whether against a specific group or in general, that constitutes a crime (we'll leave aside the difficulties in prosecuting these offences). Incitement to beat another person to a pulp should not be ignored and I am confident that all Canadians would agree with this.
No, M103 is not a blanket on free speech, it is a reasonable call for looking into a worrisome rise in hatred online and on certain radio shows. Neither is it focussed solely on Islamophobia, although the highlighting of this particular form of potential hatred is not surprising in the wake of the awful massacre at a Quebec Islamic Centre a few weeks ago. The State has both a right and a duty to investigate individuals and groups who, through their actions or their language, can reasonably be seen as urging others (or themselves) to use violence against anyone. To ignore these actions would constitute State negligence.
While I support the fundamental right of the Islamophobes and the anti-immigrant lobby (thankfully small) in this country to voice their opinions, I also feel it necessary to address the 'alternative facts' they use to make their arguments. I will limit my comments to three here:
a) no, immigrants are not a drain on the system, commit more crimes than native-born and they do not steal 'Canadian' jobs. Study after study after study has shown that immigrants are a net bonus to their adoptive societies and that most integrate within a generation. Those that veer towards criminal acts will be dealt with by the same authorities that deal with all others who engage in crime.
b) no, there is no 'creeping Sharia' campaign in Canada. The last time a government (the Ontario Liberals back in 2004) considered allowing limited Sharia for some family issues, the greatest opponents were Muslim women. In the end the McGuinty government changed its mind and also got rid of other forms of religious arbitration, noting that there is 'one law for all Canadians'.
c) no, the Muslim Brotherhood is not taking over Canadian mosques and planning a stealth terrorism offensive. Reports alluding to this are comical at best, bad analysis at worst.
Canada is proudly a land of immigrants and it is those immigrants who have built this country and will continue to do so. The vast majority are just average people looking to better their lives as well as those of their families. Yes, there are bad apples, and we will deal with those.
To conclude, here is a great quote I read in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs. I could not have said things any better:
"Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities."
Amen to that.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
Commentary by Phil Gurski
IF there was any doubt about what a Donald Trump presidency means for the U.S. over the next four years, and by extension for all of us, there is little doubt now. In the first week alone, a flurry of executive orders have been signed on a whole bunch of issues that Mr. Trump promised he would act on.
Of interest to me is, of course, the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The Trump administration is selling this as a national security issue – a way to keep America and Americans safe.
But is it?
On the one hand, yes. Terrorists from those seven nations will be unable to enter the U.S. and carry out their heinous plots against innocent people.
The question, however, is: how many individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. after 9/11 came from those countries (or from any country for that matter) to execute their plans? To my knowledge, the answer is precisely – zero. Every attack has been perpetrated by either U.S. citizens or landed immigrants who radicalised almost entirely in the U.S. Hence, a ban on citizens from the listed countries would not have stopped a single incident.
Fact is, immigration has zero relationship to terrorism, absolutely zero.
As an aside, it is of interest that several countries are not on the list – i.e. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, would it not have made sense to put that country on the list?
Immigration a lifeblood
Some would argue that since a few people who went on to commit terrorism in the U.S. were born elsewhere, a ban on Muslim immigration (Mr. Trump’s denials notwithstanding, his act is exactly that) is justified. Perhaps, but immigration is a risk at the best of times.
How do we ensure that an immigrant does not become a murderer? A rapist? An embezzler? A wife abuser? A tax cheat? As there are no guarantees, maybe we should have no immigration at all.
I am kidding – immigration is the lifeblood of a society and the few negatives do not measure up to the many positives.
It is highly unlikely that this move by the new U.S. government will have any real effect on terrorism. Attacks will still be planned by those living in the U.S. A small number of Muslims will continue to be radicalised to violence in the U.S. Terrorism will remain a very rare tragedy.
We must also not discount the propaganda bonus this gives actual terrorist groups like Islamic State. IS has long said that the West hates Islam and that Western governments do not want Muslims to live in their countries. As a result, Muslims must perform hijra (migrate) to a Muslim land. The Trump move underscores and supports what the terrorists are saying.
I am happy that Canada’s Trudeau government is not going down that path. Canada is proudly a nation of immigrants, including Muslim ones, and will remain so, I hope.
Terrorism is real and requires real solutions. The Trump administration immigration ban is not one of them.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto
I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year. It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.
Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.
The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.
The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.
This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.
In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.
The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.
From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?
I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.
I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.
The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?
I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).
Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.
And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.
Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.
Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).
Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.
Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.
I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.
I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.
Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization
Rarely in life is there a stark choice between two polar opposites.
On most occasions, responses to a problem or an issue can be weighed along a range of options, from soft to hard, easy to difficult, or popular to divisive. The ways in which we have elected to deal with violent radicalization and terrorism would fall into this bucket.
Terrorists, of course, do not see variation and they do not do nuance. For them, the world is cleft into black and white, right and wrong, divinely-mandated and sinful. They portray themselves as the white hats inspired by Allah (at least in the case of Islamist extremists) to impose His will on earth.
Since there is no choice of what we should do, there is no need to consult the masses on the direction to take. Ergo there is no need for democracy. Why should we ask people who should govern them when it has always been and will always be God who rules?
Tool of persuasion
As the ballot is not an option and as most people fail to understand that the terrorists have their best interests at heart (why won't they just listen?), the bullet (or the bomb or the knife) has become the tool of persuasion. And, we have seen all too often the resort to violence to cow populations into subservience.
(There is, of course, another set of scenarios where bullets outweigh ballots. When nations are not allowed to vote – say in dictatorships – or believe that their votes count for little, they may resign themselves to using force to obtain what they cannot do so democratically. But that is not the topic of discussion here.)
Fortunately, at least in the West, there is a better way. We may get frustrated – and cynical – at times over whether or not our votes make a difference, but we nevertheless have that option and there are many examples where the citizenry, ripe for change, did overthrow governments that had been comfortably at the wheel for years. The 2015 federal election in Canada was one such example.
And, as I blogged earlier this year, a particular group of Canadians were desperate to see the backs of the Conservatives and voted en masse to bring about the desired result. I am speaking of the various Canadian Muslim communities and the efforts of The Canadian Muslim Vote.
Now, U.S. Muslims are coming to the same realization.
Mobilizing the "Muslim vote"
According to a story in the Toronto Star, US Muslims are worried about a possible Donald Trump victory in the November presidential elections and are mobilising their communities to get out and vote. U.S. Muslims, like their Canadian counterparts, were not keen voters historically and some used to say that democracy was un-Islamic (which is exactly what the terrorists say).
The spectre of a Trump presidency, however, in which Muslim immigration will be banned and the families of terrorists are killed, seems to have galvanized them into action.
This is indeed a very good story and one that all Americans (and Canadians) should celebrate. When a country's citizens realize that they have the power to change the government, with all that entails, by merely marking an X on a piece of paper, they not only serve as an example for others worldwide but they undermine the terrorists's message.
More ballots are always better than more bullets.
by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
In Canada, Muslim people are often spoken about, rather than the people who are doing the speaking.
The program recently launched Homebound IIII, its latest collection of Muslim women’s poetry, during its fourth annual Volume: Sisters Make Noise showcase held at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.
Homebound is a collection of poetry written by six young women who self-identify as Muslim through spiritual, familial, ancestral, cultural or political connections. During six months, the women came together bi-weekly to share “herstories,” explains the book’s preface.
“This was a sacred place where our worlds came together, and we felt less disjointed, taking parts of each other and making a whole,” it reads.
The result: 36 pages of powerful tales exploring everything from the immigration experience to young love, carefully crafted in various styles of poetry.
You can exist
El Mugammar says that in Muslim communities, events are often separated into the “sister side” and the “brother side.”
The sister side is taking care of children, preparing food for everyone, organizing and cleaning up. It’s not usually invited to participate. Both the book and its launch — an evening of spoken word, poetry, and musical performances by Muslim women — represent something that is lacking.
“I think it’s critical to just carve out space and say this is just for us . . . this is our space,” explains El Mugammar, who performed at all four editions of Sisters Make Noise and mentored many of the current and past contributors to Homebound.
Resilience and strength in the face of adversity are common threads found throughout Homebound. In her poem, “choose you,” Urooj (MC Shahzadi) writes:
Even in this damned society you can exist,
Blessed with experiences filled of heavenly bliss,
Take the hardest moments as a reminder to choose,
The choice towards a destiny only determined by you.
In the book’s preface, Outburst facilitators Jamila-Khanom Allidina, Rosina Kazi, and Shameela Zaman reflect on this verse, writing, “Not only do we exist, we fight, we laugh, we write and centuries of Muslim women’s resilience is celebrated and remembered. Even if it’s just to remind ourselves: we are powerful, breathtaking and brilliant.”
Fighting to claim stories
El Mugammar says she likes to tell stories of the people in her life, primarily Sudanese women. These stories, she says, are missing from the very public, “Google-and-find-it” type of mainstream historical documentation.
“Our day-to-day lives, they often get lost,” she says. “I don’t want the women that I know helped shape me to be the person that I am today to be forgotten.”
These daily experiences are creatively woven throughout Homebound.
In “skype-shype,” Reema Kureishy captures what it’s like to video chat with her grandparents in her native country, India, effectively detailing their minimal understanding of how to work with technology and the endless promises of “coming home” thrown back and forth.
In “thoughts in a waiting room,” Seema (who goes only by her first name) offers a story about the agonizing pain of finding out if a parent has cancer.
In the book’s opening piece “jung,” Kureishy writes about the fight “to claim not land, but our stories.”
As El Mugammar points out, these stories are important for everyone, not just Muslim women, to listen to and read.
“A lot of people...who may not identify with that identity of being a young, Muslim woman… can identify with a lot of the feelings, a lot of the kinds of stories that we tell.”
I am real…
El Mugammar says that Outburst allows racialized women like herself to be showcased as more than one-dimensional.
She explains that while she has often relied on writing to release some of the anger she feels about the social injustices and oppression she experiences, she is more than the “angry, Black woman” people are quick to label her as.
“I’m also funny and smart and a whole lot of other things,” she says, adding that the Outburst program allows participants to explore the multi-faceted aspects of their personalities, experiences, and community’s stories.
Dumo, an Outburst alumni and co-host of the Sisters Make Noise event, exemplifies this multi-faceted experience in her high-energy monologues. One is about her mother interrupting her Dragon Ball Z episodes to cart her off to Qur’an lessons, another about convincing her Muslim parents to allow her to participate in the school Christmas concert.
As another woman of East African descent, El Mugammar says that while watching Dumo, she felt a strong sense of connection.
“There was a young girl,” she begins, referring to 11-year-old Marley Dias of the United States, “who started a Black girls’ book club because she was tired of reading about ‘white boys and dogs’ and in a lot of ways, I feel the same. It’s always nice to get the kind of humour and the kinds of stories that are absolutely relevant to my life.”
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VANCOUVER – Protesters held hands in front of the Trump tower in Vancouver in opposition to Donald Trump’s assertions that the LGBT community supports his plans regarding Muslims entering the U.S., reported CBC News
Dozens of people from Vancouver’s LGBT and Muslim communities held hands in front the city’s Trump International Hotel & Tower to protest comments made by the U.S. presidential hopeful that he has the support of LGBT people on his plan for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Canadian authors of faith-based fiction say seeking answers in religion to the injustices of their pasts enhances their creativity and inspires their literary work.
A group of authors explained how their spiritual backgrounds influence the creation and shape of their stories during a discussion titled “Faith and Fiction” at the recent Festival of Literary Diversity held in Brampton, Ont.
Growing up, panellist Zarqa Nawaz says she questioned the divider that separates women from men at the mosque.
“It seemed to me, as a child, very fundamentally unfair,” says Nawaz, creator of the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie.
She says that while faith is an important part of her life, gender inequality caused a disruption for her until she created the documentary Me in the Mosque.
During her research, she discovered that in Islamic history, there was a section of the mosque for men, a section for women, and a third section for people that define as a third sex.
“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex,” she says.
Nawaz grew up reading memoirs and watching documentaries on feminist struggles of different faiths and cultures. She says her understanding of prejudice against women is not limited to any faith, but is in fact a “universal theme.”
“Getting away from faith doesn’t mean that you get away from prejudice,” she says.
She describes an incident in which a Hijab-wearing Muslim girl was barred from going to school in France, where prominent religious symbols are banned in grade schools.
“How is it different from the Taliban?” Nawaz asks.
She says such injustices provoke her to fight back by raising awareness through her work.
For Ayelet Tsabari, fiction is a place to question the existence of God.
Tsabari grew up in Israel and says believing in God in the Jewish religion was something that she never questioned until her father, who she describes as a pious man, passed away when she was nine years old.
She developed a belief that when a person dies, so does God and that is why he was not there to save her father.
“That was something that sort of made sense to me as a child,” says Tsabari.
She describes this loss as a crisis of faith, which has inspired her writing. Tsabari’s book The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
“My characters are facing either crises of faith or there is a clash within family over the issues of faith,” she says about the book.
Finding role models
Vivek Shraya says while she does not follow Hinduism anymore, Hindu mythology from a feminist lens has inspired her work. She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.
As a queer artist and writer, she says she aims to counter genderphobia, or fear of gender-nonconforming individuals, in her work. She puts particular emphasis on the God Krishna and says she believes that she has an intimate connection with this role model.
Shraya adds that male Gods who have long hair, wear jewellery, and are friends with girls help her relate to the genderphobia she experienced in school.
“It seems to be a common theme throughout my work, because its one of the first places where I felt that I [could] see myself,” explains Shraya.
Shraya’s debut novel, She of the Mountains, has two narratives – one is a contemporary bi-sexual love story, and the other is about re-imagining Hindu mythology and its illustrations.
Panellist Cherie Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community in Ontario. Her books Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy and A Gentle Habit reflect on indigenous people’s connections with the land.
“That’s what we base our understanding of spirituality on,” she says.
Dimaline says she learned to practise a version of the Roman Catholic faith infused with First Nations beliefs – what she describes as a “mixing and melting of understandings.”
“It was a very mixed, but also very structured upbringing,” she says.
Along with the influence of the church, Dimaline says she was also privileged to grow up with her grandmother who was the story keeper of the community.
When young Dimaline was selected to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, the responsibility of preserving her community’s memories – seven generations back and seven generations to the future – fell on her shoulders.
“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community of safety and understanding of our spirituality,” she explains. “The base of the understandings and world views that we have come from that faith.”
by Danica Samuel in Toronto
When Sheema Khan told audience members at the Aga Khan Museum that the men sitting at one of her last lectures refused to face her, the entire room cringed.
Khan, a Globe & Mail columnist, author and women’s activist, says that she became a activist and feminist because of the Muslim community and this kind of behaviour.
For Aga Khan’s lecture series “Islam in the 21st Century,” Khan spoke on the challenges and opportunities of being a woman, muslim and Canadian.
Known for her fiery columns and controversial discussions on the perception of women in the Islamic community, Khan centred her talk around her latest book “Of Hockey and Hijab: New Reflections.”
Dr. Ruba Kana’an, head of Education and Scholarly Programs at Aga Khan, organized the event that had 250 audience members in attendance.
The topic was chosen amongst many that the Aga Khan visiting survey uncovered, but Kana’an said such a controversial topic was sure to pique the interest of many people within and outside of the Muslim community.
“The issues of women, gender [equality] and the perception of women [are] questions we always ask,” says Kana’an. “It’s important to address these issues especially with how much misconception and misunderstanding there is between patriarchy and religion. It’s a topic to bring to the public.”
Muslim women’s unhappiness in Canada
The highlights of Khan’s lecture related to the statistics that started off her talk, which she used to discuss how unhappy and targeted Muslim-Canadian women felt.
In the Environics Survey 2016, 42 per cent of Muslim women said they felt discriminated against. Of that percentage, 60 per cent wore a head covering and 40 per cent did not. Compare this to Muslim men, of whom only 27 per cent said they experienced discrimination.
Khan says this treatment leads Muslim women in Canada to be unhappy and concerned.
“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims. They are far more pessimistic than men are,” she says. “They worry about how Muslims are portrayed in the media, stereotyping their neighbours and wondering if the the next generation will face more difficulties than they do. ”
One of the members of the audience, Judy Csillag, who has been doing interfaith and intercultural work for over 35 years, says that these worries could stem from the fact that mothers and women see how prejudice affects their children more than the men.
“Khan spoke a lot about how women don’t go to the mosque as much as men do. They are usually at home with the kids and involved in their children’s life,” Csillag says.
To the contrary, Khan says part of the reason why Muslim men are happier is because they aren’t seen as inferior in Islamic society.
Experiences drive desire for change
Khan recalled a few experiences in her lifetime where she felt that men refused to acknowledge her as a scholar and speaker.
One circumstance, Khan recalls, happened in 1996 in Quebec. She was preparing to speak at a Unity Dinner — a function put together by the Islamic community to address inequality in their community — when she heard that the more Conservative mosque had rejected the idea of having her speak.
They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.
“One of my muslim colleagues said, ‘Sheema don’t take it personally, it’s not you they’re against, it’s just women in general,’” Khan repeats, laughing with the audience.
She says that the views that conservative Muslim men have of women stems from their ignorance of the roles of women during the prophetic era.
“There was one scholar, the late Abduhalim Abu Shaqqa: he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He [performed] very valuable research on Islamic women, which unfortunately is ignored in the Muslim world,” Khan explains.
“It took him ten years, but he looked at every single verse and narration that had to deal with women and, in conclusion, he found that the way women participated in society during the best era and generation is very different from what we see today in the Muslim world.”
The importance of women in the conversation
Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants looking to locate their experiences within a Canadian context.
“One of the things that we are noticing [. . .] is that there is a happiness in the awareness of students, that they gain a sense that they matter, their history matters and that there is a worthwhile contribution they’ve made to the world at large,” she explains.
Csillag agrees, saying that as a refugee from Hungary, it was hard for her to settle in Canada.
“[How] pleased my heart is that women are starting to take the stage, and Aga Khan has been a godsend for women speaking as equals,” she comments. “What was fantastic is that so much of the audience is not Muslim, so people are reaching out and wanting to learn.”
For Csillag and Khan both, educating the younger generation is of utmost importance in order to fight radicalization and misconceptions.
“Being treated as an inferior human being is something no one should go through” says Khan. “I decided that I had to fight back. And by pushing back that’s how I gained my self respect. I’ve created a lot of controversy in my community, and I don’t mind because I’m thinking of the next generation.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit