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

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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.”

 

Xenophobia, Racism, Islamophobia: How is Canada doing?

In 2007 the debate held in Quebec about reasonable accommodation has polarized the opinions in the society. Requests of certain religious groups were amplified by the media and exploited by political parties. All swirled rapidly down to a dangerous spiral where the presence of religion in the public arena, other than the Catholic religion, has become a source of discomfort for many.

After the Taylor-Bouchard commission, things relatively quieted down for few years and then took another steep turn in 2013 when the “parti québecois” has built his entire political platform practically on banning certain religious symbols in public. But no one was fooled (except for few of course), the “charter of values” that was supposed to uphold “la laïcté” in Quebec became the perfect pretext to ban Muslim women wearing their headscarves or niqab in the workplace.

The rest of Canada didn’t not necessarily feel concerned by what was happening in Quebec, sometimes portraying themselves as above this “racist discourse” or evoking the two solitudes, but not for long. Indeed last summer, during the federal election campaign, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to play dangerous xenophobia play. He introduced a law on zero tolerance to barbaric cultural practices. He wanted to change the procedures in place and thus prohibiting Muslim women who wear the niqab to attend the citizenship ceremony while wearing the niqab. He continued to appeal to successive judgments by various courts that ruled in favour of Omar Khadr. He announced the creation of a 1-800 line to report “barbaric cultural” practices. His government only accepted to take 1300 Syrian refugees over a period of 2 years. In short, one could say that he acted as a “mini” Donald Trump.

At the end, Stephen Harper has failed in his attempts to divide and conquer. But unfortunately Canada woke up slowly today from a long nightmare that has become a reality. For years Canada has surfed on the waves of its former reputation gained from the Lester B. Pearson legacy as a country that participates in missions to restore peace. To the opposite, Stephen Harper has done everything since coming to power until he left to show the world that Canada is a belligerent power. We went to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq and Syria in combat missions to kill. We have even positioned ourselves strongly against Russia in the Ukrainian conflict to the contrary of the Americans.

For years we surfed on our reputation that we are a welcoming nation that embrace refugees with open arms and yet today we have a discourse that would discourage politicians to accept more refugees for fear of terrorism. Certainly we are not Europe with its heavy colonial past and its strained relations with its Muslim and North African communities for instance. However, it’s so easy to become like them if we do nothing. If we do not invest in education, in public transit and in job opportunities for all.

Recently, Canada accepted 25,000 new people coming from Syria. This should be seen as an asset, a wealth to the nation and not a burden. However, this could quickly become a burden if these people and their children are left to themselves, if schools are not provided with appropriate educational resources, if professional training programs are not adequate to prepare them for work and if urban planning of our cities is not creative by allowing previous residents and new residents to see each other and meet and if we don’t invest in small and medium enterprises to encourage the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. All these programs need to be studied and seriously considered if we really want to prevent xenophobia, islamophobia and racism to become the rule rather than the exception.

Today xenophobia, racism and islamophobia are not just some isolated unfortunate incidents. It is not only a burned mosque in Peterborough or a veiled woman to whom we take away by force her headscarf in a street in Montreal or Vancouver. It’s more than that. Xenophobia and islamophobia and racism are ideologies. An industry that makes profits, political parties that win votes and consumers who consume it and ask for more. We cannot combat them by some simple pamphlets or some few nice words of welcome. We must fight them with educational and social programs well thought and designed, with new urban planning and above all with an open, intelligent and concerted vision aimed for the long term.

These are my notes for a panel at the Summit of the Broadbent Institute on April 1, 2016.

From Marois to Harper, niqab debate plays with xenophobic fire

The election is coming to an end. All the way, I resisted the urge to write about the niqab. Why? I didn’t want to create more controversy and stir the already ugly pot simmering in many people’s minds. But then, it became stronger than me. My brain isn’t as disciplined as my fingers so I found myself typing out thoughts about the niqab.
Who would have thought that “niqab” — a word not well known or used in the Muslim world — would find its way into political debates among party leaders and hundreds of articles in the North American context?! Even the U.S. and U.K. newspapers that covered the Canadian election did so from the perspective of the niqab.
For those who followed the Quebec election in 2013, Pauline Marois and her genius “strategists” (à la Lynton Crosby) introduced the Charter of Values disguised in noble arguments of secularism and gender equality, intended to ban wearing the hijab and the niqab in the public service. Now following the news during this federal election, I had the impression I was watching the same horror movie, this time in English.
The doors of bigotry and xenophobia seem to have been opened and very rare were those who stood up bravely and firmly trying to close them. It’s ironic that during Marois’ failed attempt at banning the niqab, English Canada looked at Quebec with superiority, insinuating that Quebecers were more uncomfortable with diversity and especially with the Muslim religion than the rest of Canadians.
Three years later, the rest of Canada found itself immersed in the same polarized debate à la George Bush: you’re either on the side of the niqabis (and thus you are oppressed, barbaric, misogynistic, archaic, anti-women, for Saudi-Arabia, for the Taliban, for the terrorists) or you side with us (and you are for security, for freedom, for women’s rights, for freedom, for gender equality, for universal human rights).
So Stephen Harper, following in the footsteps of Marois, started talking the niqab language. And all of a sudden, we discovered a “feminist” Stephen Harper who cared about women’s equality and who even set up a hotline for people to report barbaric practices, a.k.a., practices related to Islam.
When we were children, we were told that if we played with matches, we risked being burned. Has Stephen Harper heard this warning? Or maybe he is betting on being a superhero, a sort of inflammable one. He is playing with the fire of Islamophobia and simultaneously refuses to be blamed for it. Actually, he doesn’t even refuse: he ignores the consequences.
In this landscape filled with dangerous games, there is hope. Hope coming from women. These women don’t need men to talk on their behalf; for sure not the likes of Stephen Harper. A group of 538 women from various fields — political, academic, legal, religious, business — issued the statement “Respect Women” to denounce how the niqab issue was used in the election campaign. They stated:
“It troubles us that the current focus on the few instances of women wanting to wear a niqab during their citizenship ceremony has divided Canadians and stigmatized Muslim women. We are alarmed that this appears to have incited discrimination, and even violence, which undermines equality and respect for human rights and ignores the greater issues facing women in Canada.”
The group included prominent names like: the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Alexa McDonough, Sheila Copps, Maureen McTeer, the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, Marlys Edwardh, Dawn Memee Harvard, and hundreds of other women who joined their voices together. Their purpose wasn’t to defend the niqab. Their message was to refocus the debate:
“We are worried about the economic insecurity facing many women as we age in Canada. We are disturbed that women, on average, are not earning at the same level as their male colleagues. And we are troubled at the lack of investment in women’s empowerment and leadership across this great country. It is time to set aside the issue of the niqab and move to the issues that impact the daily lives of most women and girls in Canada.”
The journalists who were so eager to report on the niqab in the last few weeks were not as eager to report on the powerful voices of 538 women. Maybe this is not “hot” enough!

This column was previously published at rabble.ca

Harper’s recycled anti-terror rhetoric is getting tired

Obviously, the national security experts advising Prime Minister Stephen Harper are not doing a good job. They seem to be whispering new measures into his ears — from the outside these might look new, innovative and effective in fighting terrorism, but in reality when you get closer and on further examination, they’re nothing more than recycled old measures that already exist, hidden in the multiple layers of successive anti-terrorist laws that have been adopted since 9/11.

Of course that doesn’t necessarily make the Anti-terrorism Act 2015 (ATA 2015) look any better, but it makes the prime minister look redundant in his rhetoric and frankly, not very well advised.

Perhaps I am wrong in my quick judgment and it’s the communication staff suggesting these re-packaged anti-terrorist measures, to make them better suited for an election context, “punchier” and more dramatic. I don’t know.

So either national security experts or his communication staff advised Stephen Harper to declare that if re-elected, he would introduce a ban on travel to regions of the world controlled by terrorists.

My point here isn’t to prove how unconstitutional or how flawed this promised new measure is. As, indeed, I totally believe it is. The proposed measure not only restricts the mobility rights of individuals but also aligns Canada with dictatorships that stop their citizens from leaving their home countries to travel to destinations of their choice.

With this logic stretched a bit, are we going to soon expect a travel ban on popular “pedophile destinations” or a ban on “sex tourism destinations” or maybe even a ban on “wedding destinations” since travelling to Cuba or Mexico or Las Vegas to have your wedding might be considered by some as helping the economy of other countries while harming our own economy?

So now let’s go back to the first question: what makes this measure redundant?

Last January, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-51, now known as the Anti-terrorism Act 2015. This law enacted a new piece of legislation named the Secure Air Travel Act. This new legislation would allow the extension of the Canadian “no-fly” list, already established in 2007 under the Passenger Protect Program (PPP). In the PPP, Transport Canada shares information with air carriers about passengers — including name, date of birth, and gender — on the “Specified Person List.” This list is established by intelligence officers, police officers and senior bureaucrats who meet at regular periods and make their recommendations to the public safety minister. If the carriers find a passenger matching the list provided by Transport Canada, then they are bound by law to inform the transport minister, who might decide to issue an “emergency direction” — only if she thinks there is a threat to aviation or public safety. That is the old system.

With the ATA 2015 and under the new provision pertaining to travel, the same list will remain in effect, but it will include the name, date of birth, and gender of any person that the public safety minister:

“has reasonable ground to suspect will engage or attempt to engage in an act that would threaten transportation security or travel by air for the purpose of committing an act or omission that is an offence under certain sections of the Criminal Code, including participation in an activity of a terrorist group, facilitation of terrorist activity, or the commission of an offence for a terrorist group.”

With the new legislation you don’t need to pose a threat to the plane itself — you can be added to the list and thus prevented from travelling if there is reasonable ground to suspect that you are travelling to commit a terrorist act abroad.

But even without ATA 2015, such a measure of banning someone from travelling to areas controlled by terrorist groups already existed in Canada’s Criminal Code.

In 2011, Somali-Canadian Mohamed Hassan Hersi, designated in the media as a “terror tourist,” was arrested at the Toronto airport, prosecuted, and in 2014, sentenced for trying to leave Canada to join a militant group, al-Shabab, in Somalia. Despite all the lingering questions around the circumstances that led to Hersi’s decision to leave Canada, his possible entrapment and radicalization by an undercover police officer who befriended him, Hersi was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He is the first Canadian to be convicted of joining an overseas terrorist group. Hersi was not even charged under the amended Criminal Code of 2013 (the Combatting Terrorism Act or Bill S-7) — he was charged under the Anti-terrorism Act 2001. So that would prove we don’t need Bill S-7, Bill C-51 or even this new measure contemplated by Stephen Harper. Canadian judges already have all the necessary legal tools needed to prevent people from travelling to undesirable destinations.

In the Maclean’s leaders debate, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told Stephen Harper that whoever advised him that it’s constitutionally valid to stop appointing senators “needs to go back to law school.” Well, Harper is not a lawyer, but his national security adviser or communication staff should definitely follow her advice.

This article was published at rabble.ca

Do Muslim Women Need Saving: A book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abu-Lughod explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column was orginally published at rabble.ca