How anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the Quebec election

It was a strange election in Quebec. I followed it from afar but with a lot of interest and a certain dose of skepticism. Since arriving in Canada and living in Montreal in the early 1990s, I found that during provincial and even federal elections, the question of Quebec independence occupied a big portion of the political debate. Usually Quebec independence came as a final threat launched by the “federalist” Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) to dissuade the last batch of hesitant voters from siding with the “sovereigntist” Parti Québécois (PQ). And this polarization worked relatively well, at least to a certain extent, for the PLQ. But over the last two decades, the referendum on Quebec independence has been losing ground, especially among younger voters, but even baby boomers, usually supporters of the idea, have been showing signs of tiredness.

Over the years, the focus of polarization in Quebec politics has shifted from independence to identity. It was Mario Dumont, forefather of today’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), who was instrumental in bringing the inflated “reasonable accommodation” debate to Quebec political affairs. Political fear-mongering stopped targeting federalist Anglos, who supposedly threatened French culture with their imperialistic language, songs, movies and powerful economic institutions. Instead, it was directed — skilfully, with media complicity — at a new threat: immigrants.

CAQ leader François Legault and his team ran much of their election campaign on the backs of immigrants. They spoke on their behalf — only about 12 per cent of their candidates are from racialized groups, a similar percentage to the other parties — and they demonized them. They created a dangerous rhetoric and repeated it until they won the election on October 1, 2018.

Throughout their campaign, the CAQ insinuated that there are “good immigrants” — the ones who arrive from certain regions of the world, look like Québécois de souche in skin and hair colour, don’t speak barbaric languages, don’t cook with garlic and smelly spices, and accept the jobs that are left over. They have some children — one or two, just enough to keep the jobs in the family — and don’t leave the province of Quebec, as a sign of loyalty. Those are the jackpot of immigrants, the ones Mr. Legault and his supporters want.

But there are also “bad immigrants,” the ones no one likes. They are loud. They have many children, who don’t behave themselves and end up being shot by the police. They complain a lot, they live in ghettos, they don’t want to integrate, and most of all, they wouldn’t hesitate to leave the province after benefitting from its social programs. Even worse, they have barbaric cultural practices, they oppress their women, and they want to change the culture of the majority with their backwards habits.

Clearly, this is the kind of immigrant Mr. Legault and his supporters were thinking and speaking of during the election when they promised to reduce the annual number of immigrants coming to Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000.

Otherwise, how can we explain the fact that on the day after his election, Mr. Legault — instead of acting as premier to all Quebecers — continued with the dangerous, divisive rhetoric of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants.”

He didn’t shy away from invoking the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a prohibition against public employees wearing religious symbols such as as hijabs or kippas in the workplace.

I wish he was a little more honest and clearly stated that by religious symbols, he meant only “hijabs.”

Because, let’s be clear, the PQ’s target, when they first presented their “Charter of Values” in 2013, was women wearing headscarves and niqabs, even though they claimed that they were ready to ban all religious symbols. There was a tacit public understanding that the main targets were Muslim women. When the PLQ won the election in 2014, the Charter of Values was buried but the PLQ produced another legal chef d’oeuvre by introducing Bill 62, which ended up targeting another tiny group: women wearing niqabs. Even though no one in Quebec was capable of answering the very simple question of how many women were wearing the niqab in Quebec, the bill passed and became a law that is currently being challenged by a niqab-wearing Quebecer.

But what Mr. Legault and his team are not getting is that many “good immigrants” are choosing to leave Quebec. Indeed, according to University Laval political science professor Thierry Giasson, 25 to 40 per cent of French immigrants to Quebec decide to leave the province.

And on the other hand, many “bad immigrants” are fighting for their right to stay in Quebec and feel safe in their jobs, offering a great lesson on civic engagement to the new premier and his team.

These nuances show the dangers of polarization and the instrumentalization of “immigrants” in gaining votes. But one thing is for sure. Even if Mr. Legault and his team were able to exploit fear, ignorance and racism to get power in this election, they won’t have an easy time implementing their proposed agenda. This time, they found in immigrants an “alibi” to win. Next time, real problems like climate change, health care and education will catch them.

This article was published on rabble.ca

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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.

Hijabs, feminism and hypocrisy

When it comes to women’s wear, everyone has an opinion — from fashion designers to mothers-in-law, to boyfriends, to politicians, to random people on the street.

For Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf) or the niqab (a face-covering veil) these opinions may be even more unsolicited and can become subjects of books, movies, laws, heated family discussions, slurs on the street and even federal election campaigns like the one we had in Canada in 2015. If you think I am exaggerating, you need only go back four months in time and read about Bill 62, introduced and passed in Quebec’s National Assembly, which prohibits women from receiving public services while wearing a niqab.

And if you still have doubts, you can read about the “burkini ban” in France during the summer of 2016 when Muslim women wearing burkinis (swim attire consisting of leggings and a dress with a hoodie) were banned from beaches.

These political decisions, whether made in Quebec, Canada, France or elsewhere, are justified by two main arguments. They are either seen through the “holy” lens of secularism or through the noble objective of women’s liberation and feminism.

As far as the “myth of secularism” and how it brought more rights to women in Western societies, I leave it to Joan Wallach Scott, who wrote extensively about the topic and who demolishes the secularism argument in her recent book, Sex and Secularism.

As for the feminist argument, let me share some personal experience and thoughts to show how it has been wrongly used.

Even when Muslim women strongly and loudly voice their disagreement that they are not oppressed and that wearing the hijab or niqab is their own choice, they are not taken seriously or they are not heard at all.

Personally, I have heard many comments directed at me, especially from women, telling me that I am oppressed without knowing it or that I have been brainwashed by patriarchal Islamists (understood to be my father, brother and/or husband) without noticing it (perhaps while I was busy writing my PhD thesis).

Today, in the era of the #MeToo and “Time’s up” movement, it is time to trust women’s stories when they are facing all sorts of adversity. It is unacceptable that we still have issues with trusting women’s intelligence and decisions, especially when those decisions happen to run against other people’s desires and counter the mainstream narratives of women’s liberation.

We live in a time of hypocrisy, where double standards are commonly used, especially by those who use feminism whenever its suits their personal agenda.

Last week, about 29 women decided to stand up publicly in the streets of Iran and remove their hijabs. They were protesting the compulsory hijab imposed on women since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

On social media, these women were described as “heroes” and their protests branded as “courageous.” Even though I strongly believe that these spectacular actions play into the Western obsession with the hijab and Muslim women’s bodies, I consider these actions courageous. However, on the other side of the spectrum, when Zunera Ishaq legally challenged the Harper government to be able to take the citizenship oath while wearing a niqab, she was not called “courageous” on social media. On the contrary, then prime minister Stephen Harper jumped to a simplistic justification for the hijab ban and described the niqab as “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

Another example of the hypocrisy of those using feminism when it suits their agenda is the treatment of Amena Khan, the first Muslim model hired by L’Oréal, to star in a campaign selling hair products. A few hours later she was fired after old tweets surfaced in which she made harsh criticisms towards Israel and its policies vis à vis Palestinians. Even though I have tremendous reservations about how the hijab is being used by multinational corporations and thus becoming another marketing tool used, for instance, by l’Oréal or H&M, to get customers and profits, I was dumbfounded by how the loud voices using feminism here and there didn’t find it outrageous that a woman was silenced for her opinions.

Some would argue that in Iran or in Saudi Arabia (another country where women are obliged to cover their heads and bodies), when women decide to remove their hijab, chador or niqab in acts of defiance, they stand to lose their freedom and this could put their life in danger, in contrast to Amena Khan losing her job in the U.K. or women unable to take the bus and visit the public library in Quebec. I agree. We should compare apples to apples and not to oranges. However, we should also keep in mind that consequences are relative to the state of the democracies we live in and if women are removed from jobs and public spaces for their appearance this will lead to their social and economic marginalization, which is not a minor fact.

During the ’90s, women in Tunisia, the country where I grew up, were persecuted because they were wearing the hijab. They were raped, verbally and physically assaulted by police officers, put in prison and some even died. Last year, the truth and dignity commission listened to some of the survivors’ horrific stories. All these years, these women have been suffering in silence. France, one of the main allies and supporters of the regime at that time, never called these women “brave” or “heroes” or used feminism to defend them. They were left to their fate.

Homa Hoodffar, a Canadian scholar originally from Iran who was arrested in 2016 by the Iranian regime and later released, wrote about how Iranian women lived under the Shah dictatorship before the Islamic revolution, and explained how many Iranian women suffered when the Shah banned the veil in an attempt at “modernization.” Many women stopped going out because they didn’t want to be uncovered. They stopped socializing and were deprived of going to places such as public baths or even working outside, thus losing social and economic status.

My point isn’t to defend some choices over others or to claim that wearing a hijab is harder or more courageous than removing it. Both are difficult and dangerous decisions depending on the countries where women live. However, it is how the same “feminism” is used to justify some actions and denounce others that deeply bothers me. I believe that “time’s up” to have all women’s decisions and stories taken seriously. We can’t pick and choose which women are worth listening to and whose stories are braver than others.

This article was initially published at rabble.ca

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.

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.