‘Alexa!’ chronicles the life of a feminist, politician and trailblazer

“It is Alexa McDonough calling…” Those words still resonate in my ears, almost 20 years after I heard them, following the first click and the brief silence that accompanied every overseas long-distance phone call.

Alexa was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. I was the young mother whose Canadian husband was deported by U.S. authorities to Syria. I was in Tunis, my hometown, looking for answers on the inaction of the Canadian government in this case. Alexa was in her Ottawa Parliament office promising to help me find some.

This is a glimpse of who Alexa McDonough is. Throughout the 286 pages of the book that author and journalist Stephen Kimber wrote about her, I discovered and understood better the daughter, wife, mother, and most of all, the politician Alexa was.

Not only did Alexa stand by me when many let me down, fearful of my husband’s alleged “terrorist” ties, she also encouraged me to run for politics, a thing that I never imagined myself doing.

But what Kimber’s book made me understand the most is that I wasn’t the only person whose life was impacted by Alexa’s actions. There is a pattern of behaviour. She was a “dangerous” recidivist. A woman who never stopped believing in people and changing the world around her — starting with her own self.

A daughter born to a wealthy and well-established family in the deeply conservative and men’s-club-dominated circles of Nova Scotia in the period after the Second  World War, she could have easily become a “good girl,” raising funds for charities, or travelling the world, or pursuing a ballet career. She could have become a good wife and filled her time with noble social causes.

But that simply wasn’t Alexa. Those were not good enough objectives for the teenager who, with some school friends, ran summer camps in Africville, a community where Black Nova Scotians were dumped with little support from local politicians and in total disregard from the mainly white Halifax population.

Later, when she entered the political arena in the late ’70s, she could have been a Liberal candidate, and perhaps gained more votes by conforming with the norms of her time, but she looked at her roots and they were undeniably “socialist,” or, rather, as she came later to describe them, “socio democratic.”

Even if today it is laudable and somewhat easy to qualify someone as a feminist, Alexa wasn’t shy about fighting battles to gain rights for women when no one wanted to give or acknowledge their rights — starting with some staunchly conservative men’s club politicians, or deeply religious groups, or simply with a system that didn’t think of women as deserving.

Alexa fought for pregnant woman to get maternity leave while she was still a social worker working for the city of Halifax. She fought for women’s right to choose when Dr. Henry Morgentaler was threatened with prosecution and deemed unwelcome by the government of Nova Scotia. She fought for disadvantaged men and women to get dignity and respect when the government showed bias at every instance toward the poor and blatant favouritism for the rich and powerful.

Donald Marshall was a Mi’kmaw man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1971. In 1983, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia acquitted him of murder but absolved the local police of any blame. Alexa, who was an MLA in Halifax, was one of the few politicians who advocated on his behalf.

“Alexa had been quietly working behind the scenes…to pressure the Buchanan government [in Nova Scotia] to deal fairly with Marshall and to appoint a royal commission to investigate the miscarriage of justice,” chronicled Kimber about this sad episode of the Canadian justice system. In 1989, a royal commission on Marshall’s prosecution concluded that the justice system was really a two-tier system, with one justice system for the poor and one for the wealthy.

About two decades later, Alexa, now a federal politician, became one of the strongest voices pressuring the Canadian government to launch a commission of inquiry into the arrest, deportation, and imprisonment of my husband Maher Arar.

It paid off. In 2004, an inquiry was reluctantly ordered by the minority government of Paul Martin. Alexa and I hugged each other when we heard the news on TV.

The same year, I run for politics in Ottawa South, representing the colours of the NDP.

Alexa came and campaigned with me, knocking on doors. She was always cheerful and optimistic. I remember the image of her: pamphlets in her hands, a big smile on her face, and a long talk to convince the hesitant voter to cast their vote for a woman, let alone a Muslim woman in hijab, after 9/11.

And I wasn’t the only candidate Alexa recruited. She did it with many others — especially young women who sometimes doubted themselves or looked down at their chances to win. Women candidates, who some newspapers would qualify as “a sacrificial lamb,” like they did to me, or others who they would evoke with a “new, stylish haircut (that) has brightened her greying hair to an attractive blond,” as a Toronto Star columnist described Alexa when she run for the leader of the federal NDP, as Kimber reminds us in his book.

Alexa knew about sexism in politics and encouraged other women to make the jump. Several succeeded, including herself. But the success came with a huge toll.

On a personal level, Alexa found herself several times without a long-term partner. The strong commitment to politics and staunch desire for independence from a woman seems to attract men at the beginning but later make them fearful and distant. Despite those setbacks, Alexa continued her journey while still believing in social justice and, of course, politics.

Kimber’s book is a wonderful and detailed account of Alexa’s rich life, that Nova Scotian woman who broke a glass ceiling of her time, just for being a woman.

Her political career is a role model for any woman looking for true stories of struggles and success. Alexa, in her cheerful, graceful and stubborn way, moved heavy bureaucracy, proved her critics wrong, and most of all, made her way as a feminist, politician, and trailblazer.

This article was published at rabble.ca

Wages of Rebellion: Calling for a peaceful revolution

Chris Hedges’ recent book is a passionate call for the “oppressed” of the Empire to revolt against the tyranny of surveillance, financial greed and propagandist journalism.

Oppression, tyranny, greed, propaganda — these are words that seem to come straight from a communist manifesto or anarchist pamphlet. But Hedges is neither the former nor the latter. Actually, in some of his previous writing, he referred to himself as a socialist.

His book, Wages of Rebellion, is a compilation of several stories about Americans, some of whom became household names: Mumia Abu-Jamal, the imprisoned Black revolutionary, Chelsea Manning, the imprisoned whistleblower, and other “normal” citizens like Avgi Tzenis, a survivor of Hurricane Sandy who saw her house badly damaged after the disaster and has since been living in poverty with no or little assistance from the U.S. government. All of these stories are handpicked with care and purpose, and make up the portrait of a new socially, financially and ethically unfair America formed over the last few decades.

Hedges’ main thesis is that as a society, we have reached the point of no return when a tiny group of political and financial interests is controlling the majority and “blindly serving their masters.” Meanwhile, the majority is kept under control with massive surveillance programs, through mass incarceration, without health care, and with a high rate of unemployment, rising level of debt and scrambling infrastructure. According to Hedges, only a peaceful revolution can change the tide and reestablish equality and peace.

Hedges is not a prophet. He doesn’t know when, how, or when this crawling revolution will happen, but he firmly believes that it will happen as it did in other countries and eras.

For this, Hedges brings in some historical examples: from the 1905 Argentine Revolution, the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, the 1911 Chinese Xinhai Revolution, to current ones like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. They were all unexpected, with a misleading facade of powerful governments but with decreasing government popularity and a strong desire for change.

But the type of revolution Hedges is calling for sometimes remains a bit vague for readers. Even though Hedges calls for a peaceful revolution, the line between peaceful resistance and armed struggle is sometimes blurred. Were there really peaceful revolutions with no blood and victims? Perhaps the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia? How about the Arab Spring that started peacefully and turned into bloody repression? How about the French Revolution? The Bolsheviks’?

Hedges quotes the work of Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. In 2008, the authors studied 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements and found that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings.

Hedges mentions the case of Edward Snowden and even goes on to visit Julian Assange in his forced imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. The fact that these two figures have been demonized in the West’s mainstream media seems to be indication for Hedges that they are rebellious figures fighting the hegemony of a media more and more aligned with the interests of political and financial elites.

The motives of Snowden and Manning may appear useless or self-destructive since one is in exile in Russia and the other has been in prison since he leaked sensitive files that the U.S. government never wanted the public to see. It is interesting to note that Snowden’s sacrifice, for one, didn’t go in vain: the new U.S. surveillance legislation, the USA Freedom Act, has been rewritten mainly as an answer to what Snowden disclosed to the public.

A crucial point of this new legislation is that it limited National Security Agency activities that were exposed by Snowden, and forced the government to stop its obvious spying on its citizens’ electronic communications.

The new legislation is not perfect. Instead of accessing the phone records of citizens directly, information is now stored in the hands of phone companies and the state will need a warrant to access them. In other words, the spying will continue, it is just the methods and scope that will change; but it is important to note that Snowden’s “peaceful act of rebellion” didn’t go in vain.

Civil liberties and privacy rights will always be fragile, and will always be in need of more activism, vigilance and acts of courage, but this small setback to the surveillance apparatus should be recognized and emphasized.

Last October, Chris Hedges was ordained a Presbyterian minister. After reading his book, I have no doubt that his faith played a tremendous role in shaping his ideas. In Wages of Rebellion, he declares: “There is nothing rational about rebellion. To rebel against insurmountable odds is an act of faith, without which the rebel is doomed.”

As a person of faith myself, I can’t say it better than this!

Do Muslim Women Need Saving: A book review

Do Muslim women need saving? This is the question author Lila Abu-Lughod tries to answer in her bookpublished by Harvard University Press in 2013.

Abu-Lughod is a trained anthropologist from Columbia University. For several years she lived with Bedouin women in Egypt’s Western Desert. She wrote Veiled Sentiments, a book filled with poems Bedouin women tell about their men, their relationships and their lives. Abu-Lughod kept returning to visit and live with rural Egyptian women for the purposes of her studies, and one can feel throughout the book that these women are not objects of curiosity or pity, or perhaps objects of study — but rather becoming akin to close friends and almost relatives to the author. She compares her own children to theirs, speaks fondly of their attitudes, and tries so hard to understand their struggles and the dynamics of their decisions.

Abu-Lughod constantly questions herself about the reasons that would make these women look oppressed to their Western counterparts. She acknowledges that their lives are economically and socially challenging, but reports that they have never accepted their fate in any way and instead are constantly trying to change things around them at their own pace and on their own terms.

In the West, some authors and popular media make us believe that it is both the culture and/or the Muslim religion that are the causal roots of this “oppression.” But Abu-Lughod claims that her own experience actually showed her the opposite: how culture and religion can sometimes become the real engine behind the strong will of change she frequently encounters with these women.

Abu-Lughod studies in great detail the messages of “pulp nonfiction” books sold in the West, whose dangerous mixture of violence and pornographic content about the lives of Muslim women abused by their families is intended to keep the supposed link between religion and oppression alive.

Abu-Lughod exposes the pattern behind memoirs telling us horrific stories of Muslim women abused by their husbands, fathers or family, who were able to escape and embrace freedom in the West. For instance, the story of Zana Muhsen told in the book Sold is a story of a Birmingham girl who escaped from Yemen with her mother’s help after 13 years of abuse. These books are usually written by ghostwriters, sold by the millions and sometimes turned into movies. These books enter the popular imagination and become the reference points for an avid Western audience already convinced of the moral superiority of their culture and the universality of “freedom.” What Abu-Lughod names as the fantastic world of “pulp nonfiction” is filled with real or sometimes simply “invented” stories that are later used to justify moral and military crusades from the West with the dubious objective to “liberate” Muslim women from the barbarism of their culture and offer them freedom of choice.

Thus, the obsession of the Western media with “honour killing” stories does not always emerge from a genuine desire to help women fight the injustice they face in their own communities but rather from an intrinsic message that their indigenous culture is barbaric, doesn’t permit love, and forces girls to marry men they despise.

Abu-Lughod explains:

“[T]he problem is that when violence occurs in some communities, culture is blamed, in others only the individuals involved are accused or faulted. As Leti Volpp has shown in her classic article called “Blaming Culture,” violent or abusive behaviour gets attributed to culture only when it occurs in minority or alien culture, racial, or national groups.”

So what to do to improve Muslim women’s rights? Abu-Lughod gives two examples of women’s rights groups: the classical Western feminist approach and the new Islamic feminist approach. Abu-Lughod praises some aspects of both approaches but also criticizes their shortcomings. For instance, she points to the danger of the governmentalization of rights where the government would sponsor a sort of elite feminism, especially in urban centres and wouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the population in rural areas.

The emerging movement of Islamic feminism that started in Malaysia can be seen as responding to an increasing need to change the Islamic texts underlying marriage and inheritance. She cites the example of some North African countries where feminist reformers developed a model marriage contract that would build the requirement of consent into a husband’s decision to take a second wife.

Even though she applauds the extensive work done by these initiatives, like the Musawah movement, she criticizes the fact that they “have aligned surprisingly well with the clichéd causes familiar to us through our study of sensational media and pulp nonfiction.”

The strength of Abu-Lughod’s message is the intricate and complex stories of Muslim women that she shares with readers. In these stories, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish between oppression and the consequences of colonialism. On many occasions, the concept of choice, so much cherished in the West, is blurred by poverty, economic and social problems.

So finally, after reading Abu-Lughod’s book, can we answer the question, “Do Muslim women need saving?” The answer isn’t as obvious as some authors, politicians and journalists want us to believe.

Abu-Lughod’s book isn’t a justification for Muslim women’s oppression. It is a plea for the humanity of all women, regardless of their religion or race.

This column was orginally published at rabble.ca

Lean In: A fairy-tale in a fantasy land

After reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I couldn’t stop comparing myself to her. After all, Sheryl Sandberg is almost my age. We were both born in 1969. We grew up in a middle-class family and went to business school.
But perhaps the similarities stop there.
Sheryl Sandberg became one of the most powerful and successful women in the U.S. During her ascent, she had powerful mentors — for instance, Larry Summers, Secretary of the Treasury under the Clinton administration — who believed in her, helped her and pushed her forward, despite her doubts and tumbles.
So despite the fact our paths seem to have been quite similar, at least from the beginning until we finished university, there are plenty of differences between the two of us. In Tunisia, I never had a mentor. Nobody believed in me, except my parents. No Tunisian “Larry Summers” hired me or pushed me forward to succeed. To the contrary, I was implicitly pushed aside because I didn’t conform to the mainstream society moulds waiting for me. The Tunisian government of the time did all it could to strip me of my rights to a scholarship because I was wearing a veil. I was considered a fundamentalist.
When I came to Canada, I was in a way given a second chance, a new opportunity to build a new life and show my true self. As a new immigrant I had to not only be good but extremely exceptional to be noticed. I had to always double my efforts to be recognized as a woman with the potential to succeed and make a difference around her.
I never had the luxury to lean back. I always looked forward, climbed ladder after ladder to find closed doors. I understood that no matter how far and how hard you “lean in,” when you are starting from below the bottom you will never reach the summits of the world in which Sheryl Sandberg lives.
And as an immigrant Arab-Muslim woman, I can assert that I was starting from very low. In Canada, I had mentors; one of them was my thesis director at McGill University. He believed in me and defended me when others wanted to put obstacles in front of me. But contrary to Sheryl Sandberg, he wasn’t trying to find me a job in the Bank of Canada or in the Department of Finance; he was trying to keep me in the program. My battle is one of survival, not of ambition. Later, I had Alexa McDonough, former leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, stand beside me and my children when the Government of Canada let my husband down. Once again, I wasn’t fighting to become a successful leader in my company or a brilliant politician; I was fighting for my rights to be treated with dignity and justice. I was fighting for the bare minimum.
In contrast to Sheryl Sandberg, I didn’t have a nanny to take care of my kids when I went out to defend my husband’s rights. I didn’t have a partner, as he was far away in prison. I had my mother who stood beside me all the way and if I didn’t have her I wouldn’t have been able to go outside and leave my children at home.
My path isn’t an exception. There are many other women in Canada and in the U.S. who “lean in” every day as single mothers, as Aboriginal, immigrants, refugees, as underprivileged members of society. Their battles aren’t recognized. Some think of them as lazy, marginalized, or perhaps not adequately integrated.
In my opinion, their battles are as important, if not more important, than Sheryl Sandberg’s. These women are working so hard to bring food to the table and find affordable daycare for their children. Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t speak about them in her book. They seem to be invisible to her eyes.
Sheryl Sandberg is talking to a small, restricted “girls’ club.” And I admit, it is a fine discussion. In theory, I agree with most of it. But it forgets all the other women who are in another world. Not the world of Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill or fancy lawyer’s Manhattan towers. They are the women who work in the fields, in the factories, in the offices, in hospitals, in schools. They are the women who do not have nannies to feed and clean their kids, or wealthy husbands to pay their bills. Sheryl Sandberg’s book is excellent — but only for women who are like her! It gives them a moral boost. It motivates them to climb the corporate ladder from being a manager to becoming a CEO. However, her book, for many other women, me included, means nothing. It is another fairy-tale to add to the list.

This book review was originally published in July 11, 2014 at rabble.ca