My writing, my political activism, and the power of stories

Below is an interview I did with Zehra Naqvi, from B.C,  for the blog Nineteenquestions.com

Zehra Naqvi is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in The TalonSchema Magazine, and Jaggery. She was the winner of Room Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest.

When did you realize you wanted to be writer? You have a PhD in Finance. Was writing something that came to you later in life, or was it something you were always pursuing?

I always wrote. I always loved writing. It was a part of my education, but also a part of my own life. I have always had a journal. I didn’t have a particular idea about writing for others, but for me writing was one of the best ways to express my feelings and to share my ideas with others. Yes, I went to a field that is far from writing. It is assumed to be in a way contradictory or in conflict with what I am doing right now. And there’s truth there. But also, my life is not only my academic background. I think writing came to me, probably as a rescue when my husband was arrested. This is where I started writing opinion pieces, and sharing them with newspapers—basically writing publically. Later on, when I decided to write a memoir about this period of my life, I think this is where I decided to take writing as not just a hobby, but as a tool for me to just survive in this world.

How much have your political experiences been the motivating factor behind your writing? Your first book was a memoir about your husband’s arrest and detainment, your second novel is about Muslim women in Canada, and then this latest one is about the 1984 Tunisian Bread Riots and the 2010 Jasmine Revolution. What is the impulse behind your writing? Why do you write?

I write, first of all, especially with these two latest novels, to tell stories. To tell stories, principally, and very specifically, of Muslim women. It’s very important these days, more than at any time before, to put our stories out there, in the public sphere.  For centuries and till now, we have always been talked about. Stories have been told about us. And I don’t personally identify with a lot of these stories. Some of them are nice; some of them are horrible. I do not want to be portrayed as an oppressed, passive, Muslim woman. If I don’t say anything about this, it means I agree or it doesn’t bother me. So for me, writing is also a political tool. Not only to survive, but to say to people around me: “Look, I exist. I’m here. And there are many other women here as well, and they have different stories. Let’s read about them and let’s know about them.” Yes, it’s political activism, but I think the power of stories is very, very important. And I don’t want only one story to define Muslim women, or women in general. I want multiple stories and I want mine to be also shared.

And I suppose there are challenges that come with that. I was at your book launch for Mirrors and Mirages in 2014 at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember you had come to talk about this book, but a lot of the questions you were receiving from the audience were Islam 101 questions, about sharia law, why you wear the hijab, about banning the niqab—

And this hasn’t changed—

Is that frustrating? How do you deal with often not being able to actually talk about your books, the stories you have written, and talk about yourself as a writer?

I have to tell you something.  You’re right. I have always been struggling as an author with this. But also my background in finance—people rarely ask me about things going in finance, and always just see the hijab and focus on that. By the mere fact, that I am Muslim, I am supposed to embody all the knowledge about Islam. This is also part of the ignorance. However, I think, by continuing doing what I’m doing, in terms of writing these stories—these are Muslim characters, but I don’t really talk about hijab in my books. Yes, I do in Mirrors and Mirages, but it is only one aspect. I also don’t specifically talk about religion. Religion is a detail in the background. So by continuing I’m humanizing Muslim women, whether they have hijab or not, and also introducing this religion to the readers, without those stereotypes. Making it more like a learning experience, rather than a traumatizing experience about violence, and women being raped, and Muslim women being oppressed, and things like that. And yes, we really have a long way to go, but I can already see little changes. Recently, I have had a few interviews about my book in the mainstream media, and there was a story that was focused on the book and about the women in the books. That was really refreshing for me. There will always be questions on the side, which I find totally fine. We are not living in a bubble of only Muslims. We live in the world, and we are affected by everything happening. But I can tell you that the more we try to tell these stories, different ones, not just stereotypical stories about Muslim women, and as diverse as possible, one day people will realize.

Thank you for taking that on.

Well, someone has to.

Yes, as a writer I can count on one hand actual wholesome representations of Muslim women, whether in TV shows or books or literature. There are so few.

Absolutely, and we need more. Not just, you know, “for diversity,” but to be taken seriously for who we are, for what we are, and for what we are saying. Not just as a symbol or a token. We also need solidarity between women. We cannot only talk about oppression happening overseas, and not really talk about what’s going on here. We need intersectional stories, of women, of their struggles. Muslim voices are definitely important today, need to be taken very seriously, to fight what’s going on around us right now, xenophobia and islamophobia. We can’t just count on having open mosque events. These things have been happening for years, many people are still stuck in this narrative of hate. So literature, art, media, and TV are very important in changing these misinformed realities.

You’re also quite involved in the political sphere. You ran in the 2004 Federal elections as an NDP candidate. You’re a human rights advocate. You recently spoke at a rally about islamophobia and xenophobia after the Quebec mosque shooting. What do you think about the term literary activism? Do you see your writing as literary activism?

I am totally fine with that term. I think that’s a very noble thing to do.  Writers have been always been doing this. I don’t pretend to be inventing this sort of activism. Basically, every writer has a message in his or her work. This is something that has been done since the beginning of time. Aristotle, Plato, they used writing to convey their philosophical ideas. Here in Canada, there are authors who focus on feminism. Or take the example of Lawrence Hill, who is an author who writes about Blackness and Black lives, either historical or present. There are many, many authors who do this. I am very privileged to be able to insert myself somehow within these diverse voices and complex stories to open a window into stories about Muslim women, or what’s going on in Tunisia, for example. At this moment this is what I am best at and what I would love to continue to do. If you can change things with books, then I’m happy to do that. 

Muslim women writers often have to put on these different hats. There are so many things going on around us, that we are asked to or compelled to address, whether what’s in the news, the latest thing targeting our communities—the racism, the politics, the everyday. How do you maneuver between these different roles?

Well, I think first of all, each of us has to focus on our strengths. My strengths are more in writing and speaking about things that I feel passionate about, such as social justice, human rights, and accountability for politicians. I have those issues that I’m fond of, and feel strongly about. I keep educating myself about them, and thinking and writing about them. It can be overwhelming too. We cannot really change the world on our own. Nevertheless, I think each one of us has some value. I see some continuity in the work that I do. If we talk about fighting islamophobia. I don’t think it will be enough to just make a speech and go to a protest, and then go back to normal. There has to be continuity and work done at different levels. We cannot just fight islamophobia and remain silent about other injustices. We have to understand what other groups have been going through and also develop networks of solidarity. It’s a holistic approach. We also have to keep the big picture in mind: we need to speak out against every sort of injustice that we encounter, and this is where I try to basically find intersections among all these issues. We should have a broad approach if we are serious and really want to change the actions of some of the people we are seeing around us. 

So it’s more about taking a holistic approach, rather than seeing each role as separate?

Absolutely. The other thing I also wanted to add that also affects me personally is the whole idea of national security. The discourse about national security that has been normalized and accepted by many politicians participated in the creation of islamophobia and this fear that many have. So we cannot just fight against islamophobia and forget about this climate of fear that was installed after 9/11. It became the norm for many Canadians and for many people around the world, without questioning what will happen to people who are targeted by abusive and intrusive laws that allow surveillance, spying on people, and arrests without due process. So all these things have different layers and intersect, and we have to understand all these forms of injustice.

There are so many op-eds out there, including about national security.  People are talking about it.  Yet these issues persist. Will writing more articles about it actually help? I’m wondering what’s needed and what’s absent when it comes to writing about issues such as national security?

First of all, yes, we think that maybe writing wouldn’t be enough. Or maybe, as you said, there are plenty of papers and books about it, but we also have to look at the other side. We are fighting this mentality of imposing surveillance on citizens or arresting citizens because of their cultural or religious background. The amount of money, time, and books involved on that side is really huge and incredible. We cannot think, “I’ve done my share, and that’s it.” This is a continual struggle. I guess there are many voices, but we need more, as long as things don’t change, as long as our voices don’t reach the politicians. Writing today is often seen as being powerless. But remember, many revolutions in the world, the French revolution for example, they happened with words and ideas. A lot of philosophers at the time shared their ideas, and their ideas brought people up.

We live in a world of instant results. We want to see the results right away. Results and changes do not happen over night. Sometimes not even during our lifetimes, but maybe later on, through generations. So whatever we can do today to plant those seeds, more generations will be coming and watering them.

You mentioned the power of story. You have written op-eds, you’ve written a memoir. You’ve written novels. How do you determine which genre or which format is the best for a story?

I like stories—fiction or non-fiction. But you know, this element, where we have characters that are not necessarily from the reader’s time, but there is a connection between the reader and those characters, that’s the kind of story that I like. I like biographies and I also like novels where I can really put myself into the life of those characters created by the writer. I try to share these kinds of stories with the reader. Even if you don’t like some aspect of a character in a book, I think the humanity should always be there. I try to create this in my books.

I see that in your books. It’s so much more interesting to learn about the Tunisian revolution through characters like Nadia and Lila.  It’s so much more engrossing. You enter a reality; it becomes your world, more so than when reading a newspaper article. 

Exactly. You have a love and hate relationship with the character. We discover a friend or someone we don’t like or a new reality. I think we can read about a woman with a niqab and not necessarily be scared of her or judgmental of her. We can sympathize. We can dislike. But we cannot hate the person in it. What I really don’t want to happen is this feeling of superiority: “Look, I’m here, privileged, having all these rights, and over there they have none and we should go and save them.” This is what I would love to avoid and I try to find an alternative. To see the human side of people regardless of their religion, how they look, how they dress or don’t dress. To focus on what they think, how they react to those situations. That’s very important for me.

Did you always consider writing fiction, or was it something you considered after you wrote your memoir?

I loved fiction, but I didn’t start with fiction. After I finished that memoir, I wanted to continue writing, but I wanted to try something different, and create imaginary characters based on my observations and reality. So, in a way, you don’t know what is really reality, what is really imagination, but develop a bond with the characters and it creates empathy. I found writing fiction closer to who I am. I can write another memoir and it would be different focusing on other aspects. I think with these fictional stories we can go wherever our imagination can take us. With non-fiction, we are more limited to facts and reality and we cannot just make things up. With fictional stories we can make things up but they can still be very close to reality.

Would you then say your fiction is autobiographical mixed with imagination?

Yes, I think all authors do that. They don’t live in Mars and then come write the stories here. They live here, on Earth, surrounded by parents and friends, and they always get inspired by things happening around them. Some things are going to be written in a way that is very far from reality, but some others are going to be very close. I do both. In Hope has Two Daughters, I speak about growing up in the 80s in Tunisia. I grew up in the 80s in Tunisia. There are a lot of similarities with that political climate. But I am not Nadia. She’s not me. Many things happened to her that didn’t happen to me, but I have seen some Nadias around me. And this is how I got the idea to write and put them in one character and create this story.

What is your writing process like? How do you begin and finish your book?

I’m not an author who has a plan before writing. I have ideas and I put these ideas together and they evolve. For this book, I knew that I wanted to write about those two times. And then later on I started thinking about these two women. And then the mother and her daughter. Things evolved and unfolded gradually. The same things with Mirrors and Mirages, I wanted a story about four different Muslim women living in Canada, from different backgrounds, and I wanted to create these multiple images of Muslim women, but I didn’t know what would happen to each one of them. I don’t want to confine my stories in a plan. I would rather let it flow slowly.

So there must be surprises along the way, as well.

Yes, for sure. This is something I love. I like to surprise myself, and it gives me more joy in continuing writing because I discover things.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in the publishing industry?

Publishing is very challenging. I write in French, so my books are translated in English. Even for me, writing in French has not been easy, because it’s hard to find a publisher. In French Canada, it’s mainly Quebec, and mainly Montreal that has monopoly of promoting books. For someone living in Ontario, writing in French, I am a minority within a minority. To be accepted by a publishing house is a challenge. It’s easier when you have something published. And then later on, to get translated is another challenge. I think it’s important to write good stories. And each time look for the best and hope for the best. There are many, many good authors who do not get published just because of the logistics.

What advice would you give to young writers, particularly from marginalized communities?

I think we should start somewhere. I don’t think it is easy to come from certain backgrounds and penetrate this place called Canadian Literature. But I think it’s important to believe in ourselves, because we can easily be discouraged. Continue believing in the power of words and ideas, believing in the capacity to bring change for ourselves and others. We should start. Writing blogs is very important for me. They are short-term projects. A book can take over a year or even more. Blogs can keep us reading and thinking about what’s going on. They can also sharpen our writing skills. Sharpen our capacity to come up with short stories that make sense. Keep us in the business. We don’t want to get rusty. It’s easy to lose our capacity to write and summarize our complex ideas into two or more pages. I think blogs are very helpful. Other people are good at poetry, or spoken word. I see a lot of marginalized young people using poetry or songs. Whatever we are good at, we have to continue doing it and sharing it with others. That is my advice.

Thank you so much for talking to me. What’s next for you?

Well, I have been writing another book. I’m working on it. That’s going to take me some time. I don’t want to stop.

Is there anything you can tell me about the book?

This book is going to be also about women. I’m going to have something more historical. A woman growing up in the 30s in Tunisia in a Muslim society so different from today. I want to revisit those times, see how people lived, behaved, especially women. It is another attempt at going beyond simplistic stereotypes and diving into the lives of women of that time.

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Faith and Perspectives

My biggest challenge in Canada is being recognized and living as a Muslim woman.

There are two key words here: Woman and Islam. It should be emphasized that my struggles today as a Muslim woman in Canada are different from the ones faced by a Muslim man. Also as a woman wearing a headscarf, my challenges are different than women not wearing one.

Societies, cultures and traditions in general have usually put women down, despised women and treated them unfairly compared to men. I am very lucky to be born in a family where I was loved and respected and most of all always intellectually challenged. I never felt that I was less than a man. However, this attitude would stop at the doorstep of our home. Outside the house, the society is full of disrespect towards women.

When I chose to wear a headscarf as part of my personal growth and my spiritual journey towards God, I found in the message of the Quran, a message of fairness, a message of divine equity and a message of justice.

This message is very hard to transport into the world we live in. Not only in a non-Muslim context but also in a Muslim environment.

In Muslim countries, it is very difficult for women to be taken seriously at home, at work and in the street. They struggle when they marry, they struggle at work, they struggle when they divorce, and they struggle when they want to inherit their parents or relatives. Their lives are a series of struggles. Some of these struggles are found elsewhere and some others are justified under the name of Islam.

The patriarchal societies where many Muslim societies lived and developed for centuries kept those deep roots of suspicion towards women even though the Quran brought a message of liberation from all sort of form of injustices and worship including patriarchy or tribalism or traditions.

Patriarchy isn’t just a form of decision-making process and financial hegemony inside the family unit but it goes deeper than this. It creates a sort of dictatorship inside the house and that dictatorship would allow other forms of dictatorships to flourish at the level of legal and political institutions.

Islam brought a very special form of management of public affairs: the “shura”. That mean: consultation or moving forward through consensus. Ironically and interestingly, it is a woman who God chose to show us the path in the Quran: Queen Sheba or Saba. There is a whole chapter dedicated to her in the Quran and the following verse tells us about how she dealt with a message sent to her by a powerful man: King Solomon, peace be upon him:

 “She said Oh Chiefs! Advise me in this affair. No affair have I decided except in your presence” Chapter 27, verse 32

Sadly many of these “empowering” and “liberating” stories from the Quran are today unheard of by many young Muslim women and by the societies in general.

I think that the challenges I live aren’t particular to a faith or to an ethnic group. The problems we face today emanate from the attitude that societies have toward faith and spirituality in general. We turned everything into consumption and religion became the cheapest good or the one with the worst customer service. We live in a world that in its path to Enlightenment, Science and Rationality, it ditched Religion, pushed it aside and tried to hide all signs of religiosity from the public sphere. This erasure becomes so obvious and entrenched when the religion is different and called: Islam.

The biggest misconception I would like to clear about Islam is that women are unfairly treated or oppressed. This task is huge and gigantic as I am fighting centuries of ignorance, an industry of entertainment that perpetuate the myths of the oppressed Muslim women, and a lucrative industry of islamophobia that is well funded and that keeps spreading those lies like implementing Sharia in the US like polygamy legalized or women stoned to deaths. Moreover, it is always a daunting task to fight the propaganda around those military expeditions like the war in Afghanistan or the war on Terror that are conducted under the name of liberating Muslim women but that would make them worse with more devastation, less economic opportunities and more social economical problems. Those wars are not anyhow different than the colonization of Egypt and Algeria for instance where women’s welfare became the justification of the foreign presence and the confiscation of the natural resources of those lands.

I would like to remind you that Lord Cromer, who was the first Pre-consul British in Egypt:

“The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation”

You would be surprised to know that the same Lord Cromer was an active member and one-time president of the UK ‘Men’s League for Opposing the Suffrage of Women’ campaigning AGAINST giving British women the vote.

When you don’t know anything about a topic or a group of people or a culture, you always think that everyone from this group looks the same, eat the same and behave the same. It is a sort of defence mechanism to make us feel smart about ourselves and worry less about our ignorance. My mother thinks that Chinese people look all the same and my Syrian mother in-law thinks that Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan dialects are all the same and as a Tunisian I can assert you the opposite.

In fact, the more you know about something, and more details and discoveries you will make. The same thing applies to Islam. The diversity within Islam is of languages, cultures, religious interpretation, clothing, architecture, cuisine…

In my work as an author, I try to tackle this issue of homogeneity by having very subtle and nuanced characters:

  • A woman wearing a Niqab and so attaching to her smartphone and computer
  • A woman not wearing a headscarf but still very attached to her religion and helping others to understand Islam.

 

Many years ago, I came to understand that I can never change these attitudes by only being nice but rather by embracing my civic duties fully and that means that I start considering my self as a full citizen not only when paying my taxes, or sorting my garbage for recycling or holding the door to others but by having political opinions, advocating for rights for the most vulnerable of out society, advocating for social justice, speaking out and challenging injustice around me.

It is actually this common path between my faith and my citizenship that make me overcome the daily struggle and make me continue…forever

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there such a “thing” called a Muslim Writer?

This question kept swirling in my head after I attended the Festival of Literary Diversity, FOLD, organized in Brampton, Ontario, between May 4 and May 7.

First of all, the festival was super well organized. Jael Richardson, its director, and her team were welcoming, smiling, funny and making sure that the authors guests were taken care of, picked up from the airport, driven to their hotel and arriving on time to their panels. During the time I was there, I met and listened to many emerging writers, poets, spoken word artists who belonged diverse communities: Indigenous, Metis, Black, LGBTQ, South Asian and many others groups and subgroups. Within these communities, cross-sectional identities were also represented and celebrated. I participated in two panels. The first one was around the theme of immigrant women from racialized communities. I was one of the editors and contributors to an anthology named: “Resilience and Triumph: immigrants women tell their stories”. In my contribution, entitled: “Random Thoughts about Feminism”, I wrote about my upbringing in Tunisia and my distaste that I developed through he years to the “State Sponsored Feminism” that became another political propaganda used to “sell” the country abroad specially within institutions like International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Gradually, I came to associate feminism with privilege, elitism and one-party politics. Later, this repulsion shaped my political and even religious opinions until I left my hometown for Canada.

 

The second panel was about writing fiction and we were four Canadian authors with different ethnic backgrounds. Many times, as a Muslim woman writing novels, I asked myself whether my Muslim identity can be dissociated from the topics I write about. The fact that I am a practising Muslim woman, does it confine me in one identity that I can’t exist outside it? Are there any specific “Islamic” topics I should be writing about? And if yes, how can I tackle them in an “Islamic way”?

 

I remember some years ago while discussing book titles in a book club (where the members were Muslim), I suggested to read “The Yacoubian Building”. I defended the book for its literary merits but also for bringing very “controversial” topics to be discussed in predominantly Muslim society. One member of the book club demolished all my arguments and told me that these sorts of books encourage depravity and bad morals. I was shocked by her strong reaction as I considered myself as a “good Muslim” with some sense of morality. However, this incident made me realize that I crossed a red line, at least for some.

 

When I wrote my first novel, I really wanted to create stories about Muslim women, but not in any way similar to the ones of “Pulp Fiction” as described by Lila Abu Lughod in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” where Muslim women are usually portrayed as victims of their religion, husbands or fathers and end up finally being rescued by the “West”. I wanted stories that describe the lives of women I see around me. Muslim women who struggle within their faith, within their workplace, within their families but also women who love their faith, cultures and studies. Muslim women who look for love and find it or perhaps do not. While doing so, did I have to explain the rituals of Islam? Did I have to be decent? Not always unless needed by the story or its context. Did I have to convey in my writing any sense of morality specific to Muslim or Islam? Not as far as I am aware of. Do I have to avoid describing “depravity” or bringing it forward? Not necessarily. As a writer, my ultimate objective was to be able to bring stories as I imagine them as close to reality as possible.

 

My second novel was about revolutions, women, and political awakening. The protagonists are Muslim women and their relationship to their faith isn’t taking any prominent place in their lives. This choice isn’t deliberate, it is rather natural. This is what I feel around me and this is how I was able to capture in the stories.

I consider writers as the photographers of the communities they belong to. They take multiple shots of the lives of people they meet, talk to, befriend, hate or simply interact with. These shots are not done with a particular intention of voyeurism and judgement but with the objective of artistic sharing. Sensitivity, subtlety, emotions are my guide. I try to follow this approach in my writing without preaching, without proselytizing without any “Muslim agenda” with one objective in mind: humanizing Muslim women as much as possible.

But the stories I bring to the readers are not the ones that makes the best selling titles, are not the ones that would be picked by Heather Reisman of Chapters. They are not the ones that would be chosen by the mainstream media, as they are nuanced, and most importantly defiant of the cliché about Muslim women.

Today in a world where even “hijabi” Muslim women are objectified, sexualized and made into another class of consumers, the writing of a “Muslim women” has become another category to create additional barriers to limit its widespread accessibility and restrict it to another confined space.

 

 

 

Banning the Burkini in Cannes: Continuing Oppressing Women Under the Name of Liberation

So recently, the mayor of Cannes in France issued a ban on burkinis. Burkinis is a made-up name for special full-body swimming garment: a hybrid between Burqa and Bikini. In reality, a burkini is a swimming suit composed of leggings and a sort of a short dress worn on top of it. Some burkinis have a hoodie attached and with some other you add a hijab that would cover the head.

I didn’t grow up knowing burkinis. I used to go to the beach and wear a bathing suit. Later, when I decided to wear hijab, I used to put a long dress and hijab. In water, this can be so uncomfortable and heavy and when you go to sit on the beach it collects tons of sand and you feel you instantly gained extra pounds of weight.

At some point I decided to stop swimming, as I felt so much annoyed by the sand and the curious looks. An experience that was supposed to be fun and joyful turned to become itchy and embarrassing. I had the impression everyone would like at me.

And then, I started hearing about some nice suits that modestly cover the body but are made of appropriate fabric that wouldn’t keep the water and would dry as soon as you are out of the water. At that time, no body called these suits burkinis. We didn’t have a specific name for them. We just called them bathing suit for hijabis.

I think they first appeared in Turkey and Malaysia ( I also read somewhere that it was originally designed by an Australian designer of Lebanese descent, Aheda Zanetti) and I remember one of my friends borrowed a suit from another friend who bought it from Turkey and took it to a seamstress and asked her to do something similar.

In Tunisia, Burkinis made their appearance in beaches in the early 2000s. Before then, many women swam either in bathing suits; some others in bikini but many women would wear long dresses or didn’t swim at all. The contact of the long dresses with water and by the effect of pressure and water, they inflate like balloons so women have to keep burst these bubbles of air each time they stand up in the water. Needless to say, that with a long dress, you can’t really swim and move fast. You just dip in the water and stay there. Moreover, once outside the water, the wet dress becomes so tight on the body revealing the shape of the woman and thus defeating the purpose of modesty that a full body suit is supposed to achieve.

Burkini came as the ideal creation. It gave women the opportunity to enjoy water, beach, swim with her friends, kids and family without necessarily looking like an alien.

I remember the first time I went to buy a burkini in Tunisia, it was like trying to buy alcohol in Canada when you are underage. It was in 2008, the dictatorship of Ben Ali was still in place and all sign of religious symbols were suspicious to say the least. Burkini, like hijab, was of course considered in Tunisia as a sign of affiliation with Islamic groups and thus selling them would mean for the regime encouraging women to join these mouvements. So I went to the souk and I asked some store about them. The seller would look at me and assess my real intentions and then once I passed the “test”, he would bring from, literally under the table, one or two packages with a burkini inside them so I can see the models.

But after, the Arab Spring, burkinis were freely sold even in large supermarkets and women who whished to buy one, could freely do so.

It is interesting to note that Tunisian beaches today are full of women wearing burkinis. Even some women, who are not wearing hijab, would go for a burkini.

(It must be mentioned here that women in bathing suits are not harassed but it is very common in these societies that men would stare at women so burkinis is a way to keep some of these unwanted stare away or limited. By no means, burkini would become a way to control to opposite sex attitudes, as this is a matter of education that has never been tackled)

Of course, for people who still consider women covering their bodies as a sign of oppression, burkinis joined the list of words and clothing that linked Muslim women to the world of darkness. For many Muslim women who didn’t want other people commenting on their bodies or showing off their skin for public consumption, burkini achieved the total opposite. It combined liberation with modesty: the best of two worlds!

The recent decision of France to ban burkini from the beaches in Nice is another example of anti-Muslim attitudes wrapped under the disguise of women liberation and combatting religious extremism. All what it will do is: to alienate French Muslim women furthermore and of course prevent them from a nice refreshing swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

What bothers me even more is the total silence of Western feminists. Their silence is disappointing for this is a perfect example of male interference with female choices.

When women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, all western feminists would mobilize and stand up (rightly so) to denounce the arbitrariness, abusive and patriarchal nature of such decision. When women in Iran are punished for showing more hair in public or going out with make up, the outrageous reaction of Western feminist is so intense ( and yes we should be outraged) but when Muslim women are banned from going to the beach wearing a burkini, all you hear is silence or whispers. The burkini ban perfectly fits the old equation, so why bother?

Islam= Women oppression

How can a country, considered as a beacon of rights and freedom go so low and do this to its won citizens?

In France, it isn’t a secret that women are allowed to go topless on beaches. There are even some beaches especially designated for nudists. But to prevent women to swim because of the length of their swimming suit is a silly and a simply revengeful reaction. Once again, one of the most vulnerable groups of a society have to pay for the incompetence and failures of the politicians.

At least, and for a small temporary confort, we have some powerful words from Arundhati Roy who commented about the banning of burqa in France in 2010:

“When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems.”

 

The evolving meanings of “hijab”

About 25 years ago, I decided to put on “hijab”. It was one of the most difficult decisions in my life. From the camp of the “modern”, I switched to the camp of the “backward”.  From  the group of “normal”, I jumped to the “abnormal” one, I became a social embarrassment, an extremist, a “khowanjia”( a member of the Muslim Brotherhood), or a “khomeynist”  ( a supporter of Imam Khomeini and by extension of the Islamic Iranian Revolution). Wearing a “hijab” became my new identity, whether I liked it or not.

I was always a spiritual person, growing up going to the mosque with my father, reading Quran, reading history books about Islam, prophets, religions. My surrounding was not particularly religious. Rather, I would say my friends were culturally Muslims, not very much observant. At school, the worst subject was “Civil and Islamic education”. The professor usually affected to teach these subjects lacked the passion, the knowledge and the pedagogical tools to do it. Everybody waited for the teacher to finish his or her rant and most of the students cheated on exams by writing little notes to memorize the verses or hadith. This is all to say that my “islamic identity” wasn’t forged in school. My family wasn’t also particularly religious. We were practicing but nothing deeply conservative. My father never asked me to cover my hair. He wasn’t very happy when I told him that I am going to start wearing hijab but he told me that it was my decision and that it is up to me.

Tunisia was in the midst of “cracking down” on the Islamists. Immediately, after deciding on wearing a hijab, I became considered by the authorities as one of them. Even though, I never belonged to any political party in Tunisia. The hijab became to be the “banner for political Islam” as they claimed. I became that banner.

Wearing a hijab was for me a deeply religious act. Before wearing a hijab, I had a double life. I explain myself: from what I was wearing and how I looked nobody have thought that I was religious or that I would go home and pray for example. Being one person at home and leaving all this behind me to become another person outside and show that I fitted in the “modern society”, that I was a liberated girl who can do whatever she wanted, didn’t make me at peace with myself. I call it Schizophrenic Identity Syndrome. Outside, I was tempted by fashion, make-up, boys… Then in my moment of privacy I would think about all of it and found myself not really interested and not really ready to embrace those things. They didn’t fit my personality and they didn’t fit my spiritual component. Nevertheless, society won’t leave you alone. Social pressure, peer pressure, culture, traditions, everything question your choices and want you to behave like the norm. Being normal. But I wasn’t normal. I questioned cultural expectations about the role of women, I questioned the cultural expectations about how we are supposed to dress and please boys and men. Why do I have to do my eyebrow, why do I have to straighten my hair, why do I have to be thin, why do I have to show my “boobs” in a nice tight dress or shirt? Islam, as I understood it, allowed me to be myself and to be accountable to God only and not to society or the surrounding culture. For some, Islam was oppression, for me it was liberation. And indeed, I felt a sense of relief after starting wearing hijab. A relief from those boxes waiting for me to be fitted in them. Boxes that are usually bigger or smaller but never fitted my questions or my opinions.

With the sense of relief, came also the sense of “defending my choice”. I was always asked, question after question about the reasons that pushed me for wearing hijab. No matter how well I answered and how sophisticated or how simple were my answers, they were rarely met with conviction or satisfaction. There must be a brother hidden behind my back forcing me to cover, or a despotic father brainwashing me, or a poor mother, trying to make me look like her or a cheikh whispering in my ears. My choice was never accepted as it was: an adult decision with strong desire to follow islamic faith and teachings.

Today, many things changed. I am older, I live in Canada and hijab went through many trials and several political battles. With time also, the meaning of hijab evolved. Yes, it is still about modesty but it is an identity symbol and a sign of resistance to all other temptations. Not necessarily sexual temptations, but consumerism temptations, hyper sexualization temptation…In other words, the new boxes prepared for me when I was 20 by an Arab, secular with Islamic inspiration society, were replaced 25 year later by other prettier boxes but still as hollow and superficial: middle aged women should die their hair, should be fit, should wear tight cloth to make sure that they are still in fashion and attractive, should be financially independent, should shop and have fun and show her friends on social media that she is happy and fulfilled…Obviously, I didn’t want these boxes and my hijab came to symbolize this resistance.

Ironically, I look around me and many of the young and older women wearing hijab are not bothered by these new boxes. Even if hijab was for years wrongly described as a sign of women oppression and is still so, some smart “businesses” are embracing hijab, not ideologically but for business reasons. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” that seems to be their motto. Hijab became a lucrative opportunity for many businesses. Muslim youtubers are becoming so famous teaching young hijab fashionista how to do wrap their scarves, how to make their head look bigger, how to do make up, how to be a modern hijabi. Hijab became a brand, and hijabi, another potential customers, a market to be conquered.

Gone are my naive ideals of resistance, social justice, equality, that came along a deeply religious feeling about hijab. Gone are those ideals, taken away by a globalized world, where even modesty became a traded good that can be bought and sold.

I am not trying to say that there exists only one meaning to hijab and that I hold it and have the monopoly over it. Not at all. I am just trying to convey this feeling of evolution on how we are and how some symbols can seem radical at one time became later one accepted or  emptied from their first meaning at another time. I am not also saying that hijab is today better accepted than before. It is still perceived as a sign of oppression and rejected by the main stream culture, however, there is some change in attitudes among Muslims and Non-Muslims alike and that should be taken as an opportunity for a better understanding of hijab.

 

What Does it Mean to be a Muslim Woman in a Secular Democracy?

This is a dangerous and ambiguous question. Why?

 It implicitly assumes that there is one definition of “Muslim’, one understanding for “woman” and one sort of “secular democracy”

 In reality, all theses words are evolving today very fast. They can have not one particular meaning but several.

 I met many people who drank wine, don’t pray, don’t fast and still consider themselves Muslims.

 On the other hand, when you hear in the news that “Muslims” commit terrorist acts, very often, the perpetrators abused their wives, drank wine, were not particularly religious. But still, they are associated with Islam. Their violent actions come to represent Islam.

 So who is Muslim and who is not? Is it a question of rituals? Is it more about actions and attitudes? Is there a typical Muslim model that all Muslim should adopt and embrace? I don’t know.

 As far as I am concerned, I consider myself a woman. But today, there is an ongoing discussion about gender. What is to be a man and what is to be a woman? Does the sex only define femininity and masculinity? Some people consider themselves “gender neutral”.

 For years, women have been calling for equality and for more rights. We still live in a society where women are still behind compared to men in terms of pay equity, job promotion, political representation…

 So how can Muslim women fit in these discussions?

 Muslim women are only “visible” when it comes to the “scarf” issue or the “veil”. As if they live to represent “oppression” that the rest of the society fought to overcome. But they are rarely included in these discussions affecting women in general.

 Our vision about Muslim women in “secular democracy” is still fixated around the hijab as a symbol of oppression.

 Meanwhile, Muslim women, at least from what I know from them, in Canada and in North America, who decide to wear the hijab, went beyond “the symbol of oppression”. A hijab is a fashion statement, a political statement, an identity statement, a feminist statement, or all of that at the same time! So why can’t we go beyond the hijab when it comes to Muslim women?

 And now, what does we mean by “secular democracy”.  Do we really live in “secular” and in “democratic” societies? It is not a secret that the mainstream culture in Canada is influenced by Christianity and Christian symbolism and references. Statuary holidays are inspired by Christianity. So are we really secular? Why is secularism is used today as the saviour of Islam?

 Take the example of France, a country that considers itself the champion of secularism or rather “laicité”. France came to ban the scarf to preserve the “laicité” of the school institution. That means restricting individuals rights to save the right of the state.

Is this democratic?  A majority imposing laws on a minority, under the name of “laicité”? Is secularism, or laicité, becoming the new “religion” of modern times? I am still wondering.

More and more cracks are appearing today in the meaning of “secular democracy”.

Movements like “Idle No More”, “Occupy Wall Street” or “Black Lives Matter” are showing today how these cracks in the system are growing and becoming fault lines, evidence of “democracy” failure.

 Muslim have been accused and constantly put on the defensive by “Orientalists” commentators and pundits to apologize about the actions of terrorists groups.

This is never done to other faiths. Buddhists in Burma who kill Muslims. Israeli who kills Palestinian. Christians in Africa who kills Muslims. No religious communities are held accountable for the actions of what violent groups associated to their faith have committed. Except for Muslims.

We often hear that there must be something inherently violent in Muslim DNA or religion that make Muslims incompatible with democracy.

But, most often these voices tend to forget that all the recent attempts by some Muslim countries to use democracy instead of dictatorship have been defeated by “western” countries. Example: Algeria (1992), Palestine (2006), Egypt (2013) and even as of yesterday Turkey (2016).

 Leaving it for most of the Muslim countries to choose either between “ terrorism” or “dictatorship” both experience filled with violence and oppression.

 So to go back to the initial question: what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in a secular society?

 This means to be constantly looking for answer to all these words. To reflect on all these definitions and not simply accept on side or the other. “Good” versus “bad”, “black” versus “white”, “us” versus “them”. Truth is somewhere in between.

Finding an answer is an act of balance that keeps changing with time, with gender, with economic and social situation, with spirituality.

 I shouldn’t be the only person asked to reply to that question. Rather, we should ask ourselves the following question:

 “What does it mean to be a secular democracy today?”

Salon du livre de Genève

Je viens de passer des journées magnifiques à Genève. J’ai visité pour la première fois le Salon du livre de Genève dans sa 30è édition, en tant qu’auteure canadienne. Des auteurs québécois comme Marie Laberge ou Patrick Sénécal y sont des habitués. Ils avaient leur fans qui les lisaient et qui en demandaient plus. C’était des stars du Québec.

Evidemment, personne ne me connait là-bas ni comme auteure ni comme militante engagée pour les droits de la personne. Toutefois, en tenant des séances de dédicace, j’ai fait la connaissance de certains lecteurs suisses qui m’ont paru trop ouverts et très intéressés par ce que j’avais à leur dire sur mon experience personnelle mais aussi en tant qu’écrivaine immigrante et qui parmi ses multiples identités se présente comme musulmane.

J’ai aussi l’occasion d’avoir eu une discussion avec un auteur français sur “la philosophie de la migration”. En fait, c’était plutôt un monologue. Mr. Hédi Kaddour qui est apparemment un écrivain connu en France, n’avait pas l’air du tout intéressé à parler de migration mais certainement passionné et animé pour parler de son livre “Les prépondérants”. Je n’ai pu établir aucun dialogue avec lui, c’est comme si je n’existais pas ou presque.

Bref, tout ça pour dire que mon expérience avec “M. et Madame tout le monde” était plus chaleureuse et plus humaine qu’avec un auteur, intellectuel qui a en fait tout pour partager avec les autres mais chez qui je n’ai pas détecté beaucoup de curiosité, du moins à mon égard…

Je comprend de plus en plus que porter un foulard peut créer des obstacles, pas chez moi en tout cas, mais chez les autres. Moi, qui ai décidé, de porter un foulard pour qu’on me prenne au sérieux au lieu de s’attarder sur mon maquillage ou sur ma coupe de cheveux ou sur la mode de vêtement que je porte, me retrouve aujourd’hui toujours ramenée à la case de départ: mon choix vestimentaire et tout ce que cela représente: l’oppression, l’intégrisme, l’obscurantisme…

Je reste cependant déterminée à écrire, à réfléchir et à partager mes écrits avec ceux qui sont curieux et ceux qui veulent apprendre, connaitre et découvrir, et non pas ceux qui sont imbus d’eux mêmes et qui pensent avoir tout compris sur le monde ou posséder la vérité ou la lumière unique qui les guidera dans cette vie.

Certes, les gens en Occident ont peur de l’islam et des musulmans. Mais, les gens ont aussi besoin d’un discours intelligent, nouveau et innovateur. Les gens ne croient plus toujours à ce que leur disent les médias ou certains pseudo-intelectuels ou experts en l’islam. Ils veulent autre chose. Ils veulent des explications honnêtes et personnelles. Ils veulent des histoires et c’est là où réside le travail. C’est là où nous avons besoin de nouvelles voix pour parler, discuter, échanger des idées.