Une place dans le cercle

Le mois de décembre passé je suis allée visiter Tunis, ma ville natale. Depuis quelques années, j’y vais tous les deux ans. C’est peut-être la vieillesse qui pointe à l’horizon et qui me rend nostalgique. Nostalgique des odeurs de mon enfance, des couleurs du ciel de l’été à la tombée du soir, après les journées de chaleur torride que je passais dans ma chambre en train de lire, presque collée au mur à la recherche, en vain, de fraicheur. Nostalgique aussi des amitiés que le passage du temps a graduellement effritées pour presque effacer. À chaque visite je regarde les photos que j’ai conservées. Comme si j’allais découvrir quelque chose de nouveau. Et pourtant je les connaissais par cœur. Les photos d’anniversaire où chaque enfant arbore un sourire, prend une pose particulière pour se distinguer. Celles de mariages, avec les robes blanches et longues, les cheveux coiffés pour l’occasion, le regard blasé, des ballons flétris qui trainent par terre. Mais la photo dont je me souviens le plus c’est celle que ma mère a prise à la veille des vacances d’été dans la cour de mon école primaire.

Me voilà avec trois autres filles. Quatre fillettes qui se ressemblent. Non pas physiquement, mais par leurs traits réguliers, les cheveux coupés à la garçonne ou tirés à l’arrière, des petites robes bien propres. Nous dégagions l’odeur de la classe moyenne, nous en exhumions le parfum caractéristique avec un sourire poli et un regard innocent. Les mêmes couleurs, les mêmes rêves, tous peints du même pinceau. C’est justement cette photo qui me revient à l’esprit quand je suis amenée à parler du Canada. Des petites filles de six ans dans une cour d’école et qui s’arrêtent le temps d’une photo.

Je suis arrivée à Montréal pour la première fois au mois de mars 1991. Ce fut pour moi une sorte de voyage initiatique de Tunis à Montréal après une escale de quelques heures à Amsterdam. Traverser l’Atlantique par les cieux. Tout est à la fois grand et petit. Le vaste ciel, les nuages à perte de vue et les terres qui paraissent comme des formes géométriques tirées d’un manuel scolaire. Montréal vue du ciel paraît si bien ordonné, des blocs d’immeubles, quadrillés è à l’horizontale et à la verticale par des rues et des boulevards. Rien à voir avec les cercles concentriques et les labyrinthes que j’aperçois de mon hublot en atterrissant à Tunis. L’ordre et la symétrie sont beaux à voir. Mais ça me faisait peur aussi. Quand on a grandi dans le chaos, on ne peut qu’être fasciné par l’ordre. Mais au bout de la fascination, il y a la peur. La peur de ce que cet ordre peut nous cacher.

C’était ma première rencontre avec des gens qui ne me ressemblent pas. Bien sûr qu’il y avait les livres et la télévisions. J’ai grandi avec les deux. Ils étaient mes guides du monde extérieur. Comprendre les autres. Comprendre ceux qui ne parlaient pas la même langue que moi et ceux qui ne me ressemblaient pas. Mais ce n’était pas suffisant. Rien ne peut remplacer le contact humain, le témoignage des yeux. Voir les rues de Montréal pour la première fois, c’est un peu comme traverser la manche à la nage. Les voitures qui arrivent par vagues successives, les feux de circulation qui commencent déjà à clignoter à peine qu’on a commencé à traverser la rue. Le plus souvent, je finissais presque en courant de peur d’être happée par la prochaine vague. Pas de marchands ambulants qui déballent leurs bric-à-brac, pas de policiers qui les guettent au bout de la rue pour leur faire un contrôle d’identité, et peut-être alors leur confisquer leur pacotille en fourrant le tout dans l’arrière d’un camion.

Quand je marchais dans les rues de Montréal, je passais inaperçue. Une étrangère parmi tant d’autres. En 1991, je faisais partie de ce 16% des Canadiens qui sont nés à l’étranger, aujourd’hui, il y en a encore plus et de toutes les couleurs : plus de 20%. C’est surtout ce mélange de cultures qui décrierait ma nouvelle vie au Canada.

En Tunisie, pendant les vingt ans que j’y ai vécu, j’ai rarement rencontré des personnes d’une autre culture ou d’une autre religion, à part bien sûr les touristes qui remplissaient les souks et à qui les « locaux » vantaient les attraits de leurs marchandises : un tapis pure laine, un plat décoratif en cuivre, une lanterne scintillante. Ces touristes étaient pour moi d’une classe à part. Un peu comme des objets exposés dans une musée. On regarde mais on ne touche pas.

Mais au Canada, les gens qu’on prendrait pour des touristes à Tunis, c’étaient mes concitoyens. J’allais à l’université avec eux. Je m’asseyais à leur côté, ils étaient caissiers au supermarché et certains étaient même mes professeurs. En Tunisie, les gens pensaient un peu qu’ils étaient le centre du monde, qu’ils avaient la meilleure nourriture au monde, bien avant de l’avènement de la diète méditerranéenne; qu’ils avaient les meilleures plages au monde même si celles-ci étaient remplies de baigneurs et de pelures de pastèques et, bien sûr, la meilleure équipe de foot au monde sans avoir une fois gagnée la coupe du monde. C’est un peu ce sentiment un peu villageois et provincial, qui fait que les gens s’aiment et se détestent à la fois et ne voient pas plus loin que le bout de leur nez, sinon de leurs frontières. J’ai grandi là-dedans. Avec des blagues sur les voisins libyens et algériens, un sentiment de supériorité éphémère pour oublier l’oppression.

J’ai rencontré une personne d’origine libyenne pour la première fois à Montréal. Tout d’abord, les mauvaises blagues me sont remontées à l’esprit mais tout de suite après je me suis rendu compte de la bêtise et la petitesse dans laquelle je me suis confinée pendant toutes ces années.
Car cette personne était l’amie d’une amie. Elle parlait français, elle entamait une maitrise en biologie et venait détruire en quelques minutes tous les stéréotypes que j’avais accumulés dans ma tête pendant des années.

Le quartier dans lequel j’ai vécu à Montréal, s’appelle Côte-des-Neiges. C’est l’un des quartiers les plus multiethnique du Québec sinon du Canada. Mais il n’y a pas d’ethnie ou de culture qui l’emporte sur une autre. Ce n’est pas non plus un ghetto où des gens s’entassent dans la misère ou la pauvreté. C’est un quartier dynamique, rempli de couleurs et de saveurs, dans lequel j’avais facilement accès au transport en commun et à l’université. J’allais à pied à l’École des Hautes Études Commerciales où je poursuivais mes études. Je pouvais aussi faire mes courses dans la multitude de commerces qui bordaient la rue principale qui porte le même nom que le quartier. Librairies, pâtisseries, marchands de fruit et de légumes, se côtoyaient en offrant des produits provenant du monde entier.

A chaque fois, que je passais par l’école du quartier, j’avais l’impression de passer par une mini-délégation onusienne. Rien à voir avec la photo avec mes amies dans ma cour d’école.
Les mêmes couleurs et les mêmes visages. Et pourtant la même ambiance bon enfant y régnait : les cris des enfants qui jouaient, les enseignants qui surveillaient de loin et les passants qui regardaient en souriant.

Même quand j’ai déménagé quelques années plus tard pour m’installer avec ma famille à Ottawa, la capitale du Canada, j’ai vécu une expérience tout à fait semblable. Le quartier Bayshore n’était pas aussi urbain que Côte-des-Neiges, mais tout aussi multiethnique. C’est un peu la banlieue où des personnes de différentes origines habitaient dans un même complexe résidentiel.

A l’époque, j’amenais tous les après-midis ma fille d’un an jouer au parc. C’est là où je voyais réellement la mosaïque du quartier : les petits canadiens de souche dans le carré de sable en train de jouer avec les petits chinois, que les grands-parents surveillaient du coin de l’œil tout en continuant leur conversation animée en mandarin. Il y avait aussi les garçons sikhs dont on essayait de faire pousser les cheveux enroulés en chignon dans un petit foulard de couleur vive. Les grands- parents jouent un rôle important dans ses communautés qui sont arrivés au Canada par vagues successives au grès des guerres qui se passaient ailleurs, des situations géopolitiques de certaines régions et des crises économiques.

Règle générale, les hommes arrivaient en premier, suivis par leurs épouses, puis les grands-parents, grâce au programme de réunification familiale. Ces grands-parents étaient un peu le point d’attache de ces communautés dans ce nouveau pays qui deviendraient ultérieurement les meilleurs « baby-sitters » de la famille.

Quand ma fille avait quatre ans, elle est entrée à l’école du quartier. C’est alors que j’ai pu voir de près cette diversité culturelle. J’allais une fois par semaine lire des livres aux enfants. Les enfants arrivaient avec des bagages différents. Ceux qui ont fui la guerre comme les somaliens et ceux qui ont été expulsés d’un pays qu’ils ont fait le leur mais qui les trouvait tout d’un coup encombrants, comme les palestiniens qui vivaient au Kuwait chassés du jour au lendemain. Il y avait ceux qui ont pu transférer leur fortune d’un compte bancaire à un autre mais aussi ceux qui malheureusement n’ont eu le temps de rien prendre, même pas une photo d’enfance. Je lisais des histoires à ces enfants qui, dépendamment de leur niveau de scolarisation, m’écoutaient les yeux avides et les oreilles remplies de cette nouvelle langue qui s’ajoutait à leur monde. Je ne comprendrais jamais leur monde. Quand j’avais leur âge, mon monde était simple, monochrome et dans un sens, prévisible. Le leur était tout autre. Un déracinement parfois involontaire, de nouveaux visages, et surtout de nouveaux rêves, multicolores.

Mais le Canada n’a pas toujours été celui que je décris, un endroit un peu idyllique où plusieurs cultures cohabiteraient dans une ambiance douce et sereine. C’est le défunt père de l’actuel Premier Ministre, Justin Trudeau, qui a introduit cette politique qui s’appelait multiculturalisme. Aujourd’hui, il y a certains qui ne jurent que par cela alors que d’autres n’y voit qu’un spectre qui va déchirer les valeurs traditionnelles européennes et chrétiennes qui ont bâti le Canada depuis sa création en 1867, et même défavoriser le Québec dans sa quête d’une identité nationale distincte.

Et même si cette politique a été mise en place en 1982 et inscrite dans la Charte Canadienne des droits et libertés, elle n’a pas été établie pour des raisons purement innocentes d’amour et de compassion. Si Pierre Elliot Trudeau possédait bien un atout, je dirais qu’il était fin politicien et excellent visionnaire. En fait, il a vite compris que le Canada ne pouvait pas perdurer politiquement si on n’y introduisait pas une politique de diversité culturelle qui garderait les communautés culturelles satisfaites et maintiendrait en quelque sorte la paix « sociale ».

En effet, ce n’est pas un secret que le Canada n’est pas seulement le fait de la colonisation française puis anglaise. Il a été construit par des communautés culturelles différentes issues de l’immigration. Les traces italiennes sont encore visibles dans certains quartiers de Montréal avec les maisons en duplex ou triplex où les propriétaires vont habiter l’appartement du sous-sol et louer le premier et deuxième étage, souvent à de nouveaux immigrants, pour rembourser un prêt hypothécaire. Toronto, une autre ville où les différentes cultures se sont succédé est aussi encore un vestige urbain de ces vagues migratoires : juifs, italiens, grecs, portugais, et polonais, tous y sont passés et tous y ont laissés leur empreinte. Le quartier chinois de cette ville constitue aujourd’hui une attraction touristique pour certains visiteurs avec ses restaurants où les nourritures coréenne, vietnamienne et japonaises se côtoient.

Mais le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une succession de mets gastronomiques ou des boutiques de saris indiens ou de marchands de fruits exotiques.

Entre 1885 et 1923, une taxe d’entrée à l’immigration fut imposée aux immigrants chinois, ceux qui ont construit le chemin de fer canadien qui relie l’Océan Atlantique au Pacifique. Ces hommes ont injustement payé pendant des années des sommes importantes pour pouvoir venir s’établir au Canada et pour ramener leurs épouses et fonder une famille. Ce n’est qu’en 2006 que le gouvernement canadien s’est excusé auprès de la communauté chinoise pour le tort qu’il leur a causé.

En 1914, le bateau Komagata Maru est venu accoster sur les côtes canadiennes. A son bord, 376 passagers d’origine indienne, tous venus chercher une vie meilleure au Canada. Mais le bateau a dû rebrousser chemin parce le Canada leur a refusé accès.

Il n’y a pas si longtemps, en 2010, un cargo, le « MV Sun Sea », qui transportait 492 réfugiés tamouls du Sri Lanka fuyant la guerre civile et cherchant un sanctuaire au Canada, a été intercepté par la garde côtière canadienne. Pire, les agents des services frontaliers canadiens sont montés à bord et ont arrêté enfants, femmes et hommes. Certains ont été détenus pendant des mois dans des centres de détention. Vraisemblablement, le multiculturalisme avait des limites.

Toutefois, depuis que je suis établie au Canada, j’ai pu voir à maintes reprises, surtout lors des visites scolaires que j’entreprends lors de certains festivals littéraires, que c’est à l’école que tout se passe.

Lors d’une rencontre avec des lycéens de Vancouver, une ville de la côte ouest du Canada qui compte l’une des plus grosses communautés asiatiques, j’ai pu parler avec des jeunes canadiens qui pour la plupart avaient visiblement des origines asiatiques. Plusieurs d’entre eux rencontraient pour la première fois une écrivaine arabe d’origine nord-africaine. Et pourtant, une fois notre conversation entamée, j’ai vite compris que nous avions des histoires à partager. Pour la plupart le Canada est sans aucun doute le pays natal mais certains restaient attachés à l’histoire d’un grand-père pêcheur d’origine japonaise à qui on a confisqué le bateau de pêche lors de la seconde guerre mondiale ou celle d’un épicier chinois dont on se moquait bien souvent de l’accent. Et pourtant, ces jeunes ont grandi en se voyant parfaitement Canadiens. Ils parlent anglais, parfois même français, ils s’habillent à la mode du jour, mais restent toujours mus par le désir de connaitre leur histoire et surtout de raconter la leur. Ce qui n’est pas toujours facile. Le multiculturalisme n’est pas la carte d’accès magique qui les y conduit automatiquement. Il faut autre chose.

Il y a deux ans, avec la fin de la Commission de vérité et de réconciliation entre le Canada et les premières nations, on a pu assister à l’affranchissement de plusieurs voix autochtones. Ses voix sont importantes car le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une mosaïque destinée à « vendre » le Canada au reste du monde. Mais aussi faut-il rappeler que le Canada est le pays qui appartient à des peuples qui ont permis à des « Jacques Cartier » et à des « Samuel de Champlain » de survivre les longs hivers rigoureux en leur faisant découvrir ce vaste pays et en les invitant à leur cercle. Le cercle, symbole si important chez les premières nations comme un lieu où aucune hiérarchie n’existe mais juste des places les unes à côtés des autres avec une parole autour ou bien un silence…

Un grand cercle où de voix diverses se joignent pour chanter ou se taire et contempler le ciel limpide, le fleuve qui coule et le soleil qui brille. C’est justement vers une telle image que j’aimerais voir le Canada se diriger. Un cercle de cultures. Un cercle qui s’élargit et grandit avec le temps.

Je repense encore à cette photo de la petite fille que j’étais dans sa cour d’école. Tous les enfants se ressemblaient. Aucun visage différent, aucune surprise. Rien que la vie qui passe.
Au Canada j’ai découvert la possibilité de voir le monde autrement et de le vivre d’une autre manière. Intense, complexe et surprenante. Je ne pense pas que le multiculturalisme tel que vécu aujourd’hui est parfait. Mais je crois profondément qu’il pourra le devenir un jour. Il faut juste trouver notre voix et notre place dans le cercle.

Une version courte de cet article a été publié au Magazine français, l’Express, Juin, 2018

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The othering of immigrants in Canada

This summer, I was a writer in residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today’s standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly “legal” — approved by Canada’s Parliament, the country’s main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the “homogeneity of Canadians.” This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the “othering” of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn’t happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The “othering” of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants “stealing jobs” from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn’t cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today’s politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain “social harmony”? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) “think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014),” whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) “think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014),” and only a mere six per cent “think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014).”

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that “it’s hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa,” basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn’t matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other’s false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa’s family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada’s history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the “Other” as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the “Others” as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure — it won’t take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven’t learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The “othering” of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: “How did these horror stories happen?”

This article was initially published on rabble.ca

What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

Last week, I was on the bus travelling from Gatineau to Ottawa. I was taking that bus line for the first time and wasn’t familiar with the route and stops. Assuming that my stop was coming, I rang the bell, signalling my intention to get off. It turned out that I was wrong and that I was still far from my intended stop. The bus stopped anyway, and I didn’t get off.

A middle-aged man standing beside me asked, “why you didn’t get off?” Taking his question at face value, I replied, “it was a mistake.” To my surprise, he was quick to fire back: “Next time, don’t do it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The bus driver didn’t say anything to me and here is this man, a simple rider, who feels entitled to talk to me in a patronizing tone to teach me how to behave on the bus. “Don’t talk to me like this,” I replied to him, fuming. “Shut up,” he ordered me angrily. “You shut up,” I replied back. “I am going to report you to the bus driver,” I continued.

In the midst of this heated interaction, a white lady stood up, got closer to me, and moving between me and the man, asked me, “is there anything I can do to help?” The whole dynamic changed. Until then, I was the “isolated” Muslim woman facing her white male bully, and now this white woman decided to break the “domination” relationship and turned it into an allyship. In matter of seconds, a Black woman joined the circle and said, lightly, “what is the problem here? I always make mistakes when requesting bus stops.” Another racialized man, who so far had been watching quietly, became encouraged and said to the white man, “why are you behaving this way?” The white man was isolated and started to retreat.

No longer on the offensive, he started saying he was “just wondering.” “No,” I corrected him, “you were simply mean.” He didn’t say a word. I was still shaken, but because of the solidarity I felt surrounded with, I decided to go to the bus driver and tell him about what happened. He was very cooperative. “If you want me to report him, I can do it immediately; I can even kick him off the bus.” I was not on a power trip. I was just trying to go home. I told the bus driver that this time I will let it go and then I got off. The white and Black ladies who stood by me both got off the bus; I thanked them for their actions and words, and each one of us went on her way.

This incident might look trivial, but shook me to the core, physically and morally. I thought I was much stronger than this but obviously I was not. I thought that words would come more easily to my rescue, but they were trembling and slow. I speak three languages: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French and English. It is known that in tense and emotional circumstances, when a person is at risk or in a situation of fear, she finds it easier to communicate her emotions in her mother tongue. Not only did I have to reply to this man in English but also in a manner that accurately reflected my emotions. I became so overwhelmed. Once at home, I felt I needed to cry.

Crying would help ease the tremendous anger raging inside me but also would bring me to my humanity — the simple humanity I constantly have to prove exists under my hijab.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve felt insecure on the street; I am not exaggerating. As a woman wearing a hijab, I became an easy target for glares, rude behaviour, bigotry, and Islamophobic comments. I don’t claim that I am constantly a victim. Nevertheless, fears are always in the back of my mind, and unconsciously or consciously, they shape my actions and my attitudes, my words and even my silences. The hypervigilant state I am always in drains me emotionally, and nothing can calm me down until I am at home.

Despite who I think I am or describe myself to be, my appearance speaks more quickly than me in public spaces. The decade-long hammering about the question of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, followed by the failed attempt to ban “religious symbols” specifically targeting women in hijab by then premier Pauline Marois in the 2013 provincial election, later taken over by former prime minister Stephen Harper during his “niqab ban” in 2015, created this atmosphere of a vigilante attitude by some Canadians.

These tactics of identity politics are not merely political experiments that magically disappear once an election is over or after a politician is defeated. They are not merely words that fade away with time; they have a long-lasting impact on people and they can lead inevitably to actions.

The dehumanization that Muslim women are subject to — either through classic Orientalist depictions in paintings like The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix or through stereotypes like the cute Jasmine character in Aladdin by Hollywood — is ingrained in people’s imagination. The common, simplistic and wrong perception that the hijab is a symbol of oppression is still alive and thriving, even though many books have been written by Muslim women to declare otherwise.

I don’t know what exactly pushed that man on the bus to ask me that question and to treat me the way he did. Is it just the fact that I was a woman? That would be misogyny. Or is it the fact that I was wearing a headscarf that invested him with the mission to “teach me a lesson”? I can’t ever know for sure. However, as someone who lived through that experience, looked into his eyes and saw his expression, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn’t have talked to me if I wasn’t a woman wearing a headscarf.

As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.

My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.

Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.

I believe that populist politicians, with their simplistic and dangerous rhetoric, empower their bases to act upon their words. The dangers of populist politicians like Donald Trump or Doug Ford are not “simple talk” or “controversial tweets” shared in virtual platforms. The impacts of these politicians are what happens to vulnerable people in the streets, on public transit, or in detention centres. Their words are calls for actions. Their words act as green lights for some to “defend” their territories from people who seem weaker than them.

I have never considered myself oppressed. In fact, I think I am privileged. I came to Canada to pursue my graduate studies. I have a family. I have a house and I drive a car. If I didn’t take the bus that day, this incident wouldn’t have happened to me and I would have thought that the world is still a wonderful place and Canada the most “tolerant” city. But obviously, it is not.

Imagine I was a Syrian refugee or any other hijab-wearing woman who doesn’t speak a lot of English, on the bus in the same place. What would have happened? What if the two women who offered support were not there? What if everyone else behaved like bystanders, felt unconcerned by what was happening? What if the bus driver wasn’t cooperative, or worse, indifferent? Most likely, the white man would have been more empowered and even more invested with missions to defend his “public space.”

When I give presentations about Islamophobia, people wonder how it concretely happens. I usually share statistics with them or refer them to examples from the media. Next time, I will tell them this story.

This blog was published on rabble.ca

How Hijab is becoming a neoliberal product for cosmetic and fashion multinationals

Each time I see a young Muslim woman in the front cover of some fashion magazines wearing a “hijab” or rather a sort of a fancy headscarf covering some of her hair, I have mixed feeling.

On one hand, I feel optimistic that “hijab” is becoming more and more visible in some mainstream media. In that sense, it is becoming a “normalized” outfit and this would inevitably reduce the level of rising Islamophobia that is particularly targeting Muslim women. ( Recently, it was reported that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform”)

But one the other hand, I feel that hijab is being “used” by multinational corporations ( L’Oréal, Dolce and Gabbana, Zara…) as a marketing product to appeal to a new group of consumers: young Muslim women. This fact alone makes me feel so outraged as hijab in its essence was never a symbol of marketing but rather a symbol of modesty and resistance to the oppressive social criteria of physical beauty and the never ending demands of consumerism. That doesn’t necessarily means that a Muslim woman who decides to wear a hijab should renounce to beauty or elegance but I personally understand hijab as a way to be at the same time beautiful and still remain modest and discreet and never bow to the rules of the market.

We live in a neoliberal economy that believes in one thing: the free market. In this economy, we are merely consumers who can attain happiness through our levels and patterns of consumption. We are defined by the car we drive, the house we live in and the clothings we wear. In Islam, the economy is one aspect of our lives and doesn’t define us entirely. What really matters in Islam are the ethics of things. What sort of economy do we aspire to? An oppressive economical system where people are left out and with the market deciding of their fate, or a caring economy where the under privileged are “taken care” by a universal healthcare system, affordable housing programs and social welfare for the needy? An economy where personal happiness is becoming the only measure of success and the only objective sought by people or an economy where the general welfare of the population is the goal to be attained together as a whole community? It is through these exact theses lenses that clothing should also be perceived. We dress to cover our nudity and vulnerability but also to be agents of protection rather than an agents of destruction. The clothing we cover ourselves with, are meant to make us beautiful from inside and outside. The clothing we choose to wear are supposed to make us “close” to each other through awareness, sharing and compassion and not divide us through judgements, competition, arrogance and waste.

The hijab is not anyhow excluded from this vision. A hijab isn’t only a piece of fabric to cover the hair. It doesn’t only has a purpose of social etiquette between male and female. Personally, I see hijab as a powerful statement to renounce to the hegemony of fashion and beauty industry that are both unethical and run by corporations motivated solely by profits and greed and predominantly targeting women. So how should I feel when I see a Muslim girl appearing on these magazines with a big smile and a headscarf on her hair. Aren’t these corporations trying to continue to impose images of beauty and success to women whether they are Muslims or not and whether they have hijab or not? Shouldn’t I be concerned by this model of “success”?

What is even more troubling and concerning is that this debate of ethical economy is almost inexistant in “Muslim” countries. In Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that is perceived in the West as the “beacon” of Islam with “Islamic finance” and women covered from head to toe, a neoliberal economy is thriving. Malls with multinational corporations are in all the major cities, even in Makkah, the city that watched the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. Kaaba, the centre of the annual pilgrimage, a ritual of devotion to God where all humans, men and women are requested to dress modestly and avoid all ostentatious signs of beauty and wealth, is today surrounded by high-rise hotel chains filled with neoliberal brands and stores selling clothing that are unethically made in sweat shops. So once, again, what is the meaning of hijab if one one hand we wear it and on the other hand we keep accepting these neoliberal economic models, including fashion and cosmetics? Where is the role of hijab as a symbol of resistance and consciousness? Probably lost or literally hijacked by these new criteria of success, accepted by these same Muslims women posing for these magazines.

Unfortunately, I can only notice that hijab today became a simple accessory like a bag, or a pair of earrings or a watch. A piece of fashion among many other pieces that are daily sold to Muslim women. What is supposed to be a piece of spiritual resistance that defines a “way of an ethical life” was able to be “appropriated” by this neoliberal economy and turned into a marketing tool with huge profits.

The torturers’ bargain: Crime and no punishment, but many rewards

Despite being deeply implicated in some of the worst crimes of the Bush administration’s torture regime, Gina Haspel has been promoted to Director of the CIA.

Haspel managed the CIA’s Site Green detention camp in Thailand, the blueprint for the rest of the Agency’s “black sites” around the world: a matrix of secret prisons where the captives could be brutalized with impunity.

Black site detainees were broken physically and psychologically; kept naked, beaten, hooded, waterboarded, threatened with electric chairs and military dogs, sexually abused (including through medically unnecessary rectal feedings so forceful the effects resembled those of violent rape), locked in boxes filled with insects, and forced to lie in their own excrement. One lost an eye, at least two died, and many hallucinated or begged to be killed.

Even more damningly, it turned out that almost one-quarter of the detainees had been sucked into the CIA’s system of black holes completely by mistake, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

One of the prisoners over whose torture Haspel presided, Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, was described by a U.S. Navy reserve doctor as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen … in my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The prohibition of torture in international law is universal and absolute, and the UN Convention Against Torture requires all forms of involvement in it to be criminalized. But instead of being punished, many of the officials responsible for America’s torture program have been advanced to positions of even greater power — a tradition started by Presidents Bush and Obama, and now extended by Donald Trump.

Government lawyer Jay Bybee, for example, who helped construct the legal framework used to justify torture, was given a lifetime seat as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bybee’s co-architect of legalized torture, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, was elevated to U.S. Attorney General.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who approved the torturous interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, went on to become President of the World Bank.

John Brennan, who endorsed extraordinary rendition and torture as a CIA official during the Bush years, was appointed first as White House Homeland Security Advisor and then as CIA Director by Barack Obama.

George Tenet, who authorized and directed the use of torture as Director of the CIA, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush — while Bush himself is now being memorialized in nostalgic hindsight as Trump’s contrast in presidential virtue and restraint, rather than his precedent in lawless brutality.

In Canada, too, individuals complicit in torture have long been rewarded instead of removed.

For instance, psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron — who conducted electroshock experiments on humans at McGill University in the 1950s, for a CIA-funded project on mind control — ascended to President of the World Psychiatric Association.

More recently, the O’Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries determined that Canadian security agencies wrongfully labelled four innocent Muslim men as terrorists on the basis of racist stereotypes in the wake of 9/11, and then took advantage of their resulting incarceration in countries infamous for torture to try to extract information out of them.

But none of the authorities inculpated have been prosecuted. On the contrary, several were promoted — among them Mike Cabana, the inspector in charge of the RCMP’s torture-enabling A-O Canada investigation, who climbed the ranks to Deputy Commissioner; and Stephen Covey, the RCMP’s liaison with the torture-mongering Syrian regime, who became a Superintendent.

At least three of the participants in the torture scandal, including Cabana, were subsequently honoured with the Order of Merit of the Police Forces for “exceptional service.”

Giuliano Zaccardelli — who was pressured to resign from his post as Commissioner of the RCMP after lying to a parliamentary committee about the torture of Maher Arar — was given a senior position in Interpol, the global police force.

Last month, Kelly Pocha was fired from her job in a British Columbia car dealership, following outrage about her racist tirade in a Denny’s restaurant denigrating a group of Muslims as “not Canadian” — while the planners and executors of a global system of abuse designed to treat scores of Muslim detainees as non-human have not only been spared punishment, but permitted to rise to the heights of institutions entrusted with enormous amounts of power.

The logic required to rationalize the apparent paradox — the bigger the scale of the transgression, the smaller the penalty — can only be described as tortured.

This article was written in collaboration with the legal analyst Azeezah Kanji and first published at rabble.ca

When reporting competes with fake news, journalism is the first victim

The recent van attack in Toronto has left 10 people dead and 14 injured. It is deeply shocking, and as with all the other attacks around the world in recent years, very troubling.

Beyond the human tragedy, this attack has convinced me that journalism, as I have understood and read it since I started paying attention to the news (about 30 years ago), is on the way to becoming extinct. In the last decade, many newspapers have gone bankrupt and several newsrooms closed. Analysts blamed the situation, rightly so, on the internet or digital media and social media, as well as the lack of a viable business model that would allow journalism to survive. But the social media and the polarization that is turning these virtual places into warzones between “supporters” and “enemies” are not the only factors to blame.

Mainstream journalism and some journalists are increasingly reproducing the quick, biased reporting widespread in social media. What we publicly despise in others seems to be a reflection of our own mistakes. The result is a slowly erosion of what makes journalism a strong pillar of democracy, intended to keep the public informed in an objective and accurate manner.

Here, I use examples to show how some “mainstream” journalists are falling into the trap of sensationalism and quick scoops, thus following in the footsteps of what their competitors are already doing.

Each time a tragic event takes place, a new narrative is quickly shaped and spread, and many journalists run to embrace it, without realizing that each time they are digging a bigger hole in the “seeker of truth and objectivity” grave.

When in 2015, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, journalists reported that there were snipers on building roofs and that the suspect had accomplices. That created a tremendous climate of fear. The “terrorist” label was quickly attributed to the perpetrator and a “hero” was made of Kevin Vickers, who was later appointed as an Ambassador to Ireland by then prime minister Stephen Harper. All these news stories, comments and decisions were made within a matter of days, giving the impression that there were no other versions of events and no other plausible explanations.

Zehaf-Bibeau was portrayed as a monster to the point that, fearing the backlash of being considered guilty by association, not a single Muslim place of worship was willing to bury him in Ottawa and his father had to take his body for burial in Libya. His mental health and drug addiction struggles, as described by his mother in a letter to the media, weren’t taken seriously in his public representation. A mug shot of him with either unkempt hair or harbouring a Palestinian keffiyeh to cover his face made the headlines. Despite all the questions about his real motives, the RCMP Commissioner concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau was a “Mujaheed,” a terrorist affiliated with “international” terrorism, a newly introduced term to describe what I guess should frankly be labelled “Muslim terrorism.”

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American security guard, attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. The narrative that came out immediately was that Muslims (Omar Mateen’s faith) are haters of LGBTQ communities and that Mateen went on a rampage as an attack on the sexual orientation of nightclub visitors. Another narrative, widely circulated, went on to describe Omar Mateen as a self-hating closeted homosexual. It took only a few hours and days for these narratives to be circulated in social media and endorsed by “mainstream” journalists. It took more than two years of investigation, legal procedures and thorough journalism to quash these erroneous stories. Last month, Glen Greenwald from the Intercept wrote an investigative piece exposing that the real motives of the perpetrator were related to the U.S. wars and killings of Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a young Canadian man, killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. Some media outlets, quickly followed by a number of national columnists on social media, reported that Bissonnette had accomplices and that his accomplice was a Muslim man of Moroccan descent. Bissonnette’s motives were not rapidly disclosed. A general unease made some journalists less eloquent about the linking of this man to white supremacy movements. Bullying and mental health kept emerging as the main “known” motive of the cold-blooded murders. A clean-shaved picture of him was also shown in the media and his history of anxiety and depression history was repeatedly mentioned. A hero was even found in the actions of Azzeddine Sofiane who was killed in the course of trying to save some of the other worshipers. A heroic act, indeed, but in my opinion, another attempt to positively distract us from the narrative of the horrible actions of the perpetrator.

Alek Minassian, the man arrested and charged with killing 10 people this week by driving a van onto the sidewalks of Toronto, also “benefited” from a narrative quickly shaped by social media, and endorsed by journalists looking for sensationalism and a bit of “market share” in this new model of news.

A reporter from CBC declared on Twitter that the perpetrator was “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern,” trying to associate the attacker with the now classic narrative of “another Muslim or Middle Eastern violent guy.” Later, after this narrative made its way into many news outlet and websites, some journalists quickly jumped and kept asking — was this case not related to “international terrorism”? How did they know? Is it the mere religious affiliation of the perpetrator that makes you a terrorist? Or rather, through negation, “if you are not a Muslim, a.k.a. a terrorist, then you can be anything else.”

Soon after, another narrative came to be built by reports (once again gleaned from social media) indicating that the attacker was a misogynist belonging to an “incel” group — men who are angry about their involuntary sexual inaccessibility to women. As quick as the police and journalists were to “clean” the attacker of accusations of terrorism, they were not as quick to corroborate this troubling news. Maintaining fuzziness in this case makes all explanations plausible and none true. What is supposed to be a rule of objectivity is becoming a fluid argument that some journalists use when it suits them, to refute some claims and accept others.

And once more, a hero is instantaneously found — in this case, the police officer who didn’t shoot at the killer. It’s a gesture that we have seen many times in other situations, especially when the suspect is clearly identified as a person of colour. What should be a rule is unfortunately portrayed and accepted as the exception. A heroic gesture that we cheer despite the real tragedy being lived by people, and the human and social damage created by the attacker in the community.

These examples illustrate how both social media and mainstream reporting are shaping dangerous and misleading narratives that, in the long run, are slowly causing the erosion of the real work of journalism.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

When it comes to Palestine, many Canadian politicians are silent

In June 2009, I joined a delegation of Code Pink to visit Gaza. The main purpose of our delegation was to build playgrounds for the children of Gaza after Israel’s brutal aerial, naval and ground attack named Operation Cast Lead. It was estimated that 1,400 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces. Schools, hospitals, universities and a major part of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed. The ultimate objective of our delegation was an attempt to break the siege imposed since 2007 by the Israel government on the Gaza strip — a densely populated 365 square kilometres where 1.8 million people live, many of them in precarious conditions.

Our delegation was composed of U.S. human rights activists, mostly women, and a few Canadians. We were motivated by our quest for justice and our will to see with our own eyes the conditions Palestinians were living in after the devastation caused by the military operation. Armed with patience but mostly a lot of good luck, our delegation was able to cross the Gaza border with Egypt, another country complicit in maintaining this unfair and humiliating blockade.

Since then, two other brutal military operations (Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014) targeted Gaza, and the humanitarian crisis has deepened. Last week, on March 31, Palestinians from Gaza gathered along Israel’s borders for a “Great March of Return” to demand that refugees obtain rights to return to their land. It is a symbolic but strong move, expected to continue until May 15, the commemoration of the Nakba, when Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. Israeli soldiers responded to these demonstrations by firing live ammunition and killing 17 Palestinians and injuring more than 700 hundred people. Israel claimed that the protesters killed were either violent and part of Hamas.

Last December 2017, when Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, Canada issued a statement where it described itself as “a steadfast ally and friend of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people.”

One assumes that if a state is an “ally and friend” with another state, both offer condolences to each other in times of tragedy and share “good advice” or at least “restraint in using force” if an “ally and friend” has fired on demonstrators, killing 17 of them and injuring more than 700.

But this is only if the “ally and friend” is not named “Israel” and if the victims of the military operation are not named “Palestinians.” So Canada sheepishly didn’t say anything to its “friend and ally” and once again let down the Palestinian people.

This position — choose what you’d like to name it — of “cowardice” or “self-censorship” or “who really cares,” not only defines the action or inaction of the Canadian government in general, it also applies to individual members of Parliament, who in a democracy are supposed to enjoy freedom of opinion and some sort of immunity to speak their minds. But, once again, apparently this applies only to “some issues” and to “some countries” and not when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian people.

Last year, when a simple “harmless” motion, M-103, that led to another “harmless report” with no serious recommendations regarding Islamophobia was presented in the House of Commons to study the extent of Islamophobia in Canada, many members of Parliament were panicking, speaking out, and raising the spectre of the loss of freedom of expression and a creeping sharia invading Canadian streets. They were claiming that people should be able to criticize everyone — even Muslims and Islam. Over and over, we heard the argument that “no one is above criticism, we are a free country.” No one or maybe except when you kill 17 people and they happen to be Palestinians, then freedom of expression isn’t used — it is replaced by silence.

Even our Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — whose spokesperson explained her silence on the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem with the reason, “The minister does not make statements about world events before they happen” — didn’t say a word about the killing of 17 Palestinians by the Israeli army.

However, Minister Freeland was eloquent in speaking out about the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Canada, because of the alleged Russian poisoning of an ex-Russian agent and his daughter in Britain. There is not an investigation into the poisonings yet, no report yet and still she was quick to take strong actions and words. But on the killing of Palestinians, despite the flagrant casualties, the pictures on social media, the dead bodies shot by the bullets, the denouncing of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, she kept silent.

In about a year, there will be a federal election. I really hope that Canadians will remember this troubling silence and think of the MPs that communities worked so hard to elect, the ones they distributed flyers for, the ones they went door to door to help elect, the ones they helped to raise funds. These hard-working communities should remember how their MPs reacted during these moments of tragedies. Did they react with silence or did they stand up for justice, even with a simple word? I am not saying that federal MPs should be elected solely on a single issue, in this regard their positions on Israel-Palestine. But rather, these positions are very eloquent. Sometimes silence is more telling than words.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca