by Dr. Gina Valle in Toronto
Children of immigrants learn to live in two worlds. As a first-generation Canadian, I learned to maintain and modify my Italian culture in order to make it valid and workable in Canadian society. There is some consolation in knowing that many children of immigrants share this feeling and practice.
As a woman raised in an immigrant home, I travel daily between the rural, southern Italian culture I acquired inside my home and the urban, mainstream Canadian culture I live outside. Each day, I build bridges of understanding, as I create a new culture. This new culture straddles the ‘old’ world in which I was raised and the ‘new’ world of contemporary Canadian society. There is no doubt that the contrast between these diverse realities has allowed me to live a more full life.
My parents were post-war immigrants to Canada from Calabria. My father, Domenico Valle, arrived at Pier 21, in Halifax, in 1957. My mother, Giuseppa Ziccarelli, came in 1960. My parents had been neighbours in their hometown of Lago, Cosenza. My father was the eldest of his family, and shortly after his father died, he went to France, Germany and eventually Canada in search of steady work.
While in Toronto, my father held down three jobs and lived with his cousins, Luca and Sofia Perri, until he decided it was time to get married. He wrote his neighbour in Lago, Antonio Ziccarelli, and asked for his eldest daughter’s hand. A few months later, in the spring of 1960, my mother boarded a ship in Napoli, bound for Canada. (A wedding picture at left)
Two years after her arrival, I was born. Three years later, my brother Antonio Nicola was born. In the early years, my father made donuts, washed cars, and sold vacuum cleaners. My mother made clothes for dolls and took care of boarders, to help support her family. As my parents worked around the clock, my grandmother, Luigina Valle, cared for us in our home. Nonna had come to Canada, to live with her eldest son, shortly before my baptism.
Although my father’s love of building new homes was where his real interest lay, he went on to start a business as an insurance broker, with my uncle Domenico Groe. They worked hard at this business, until they finally retired and closed their doors in 2002.
Richness of two worlds
I attended public schools, and in keeping with my parents’ strong work ethic, I began working as an 11-year old by delivering newspapers, babysitting and stocking shelves at the local drugstore. From time to time, I would adopt a ‘Hollywood’ version of life, but otherwise, I instinctively knew that everything in life would require hard work.
Language and culture shape me as they weave their way through my life as a daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter, friend, and professional. Creating a new culture, one that straddles the old world that my parents understand, and the new world of contemporary society, has always been a very complex process for me. As a child of immigrants, I often tried to reconcile the irreconcilable — home and school — my private and public worlds. Many children of immigrants feel that they have to choose between family and school, and this inevitably became a choice between belonging to an ethnocultural community, or succeeding as an individual. This reality caused part of the alienation I have known as a first-generation Canadian. Having said that, however, it also has allowed me to experience the richness of living in two worlds.
Over time, as I learned to accommodate Canadian culture, I quietly abandoned my Italian culture. I believe that this is the reality of many first-generation Canadians, as we struggle to merge two cultures. Immigrants in a new homeland often know only one way of viewing the world. Children of immigrants always know two. Very subtle negotiations became part of my daily decision-making, as both cultures competed for my allegiance. As a teen, I told half-truths and half-lies to get by, like when I wanted to attend the school dance, go to a sleepover, date a boy, wear make-up or travel outside of Toronto. (Picture — family Christmas circa 1970)
The tensions between two cultural systems remain inside me to this day.
It is this conflict that fuelled my professional work, as I continue to search for ways in which bicultural, multilingual children in our classrooms can accept and wholeheartedly believe in their contribution to education and ultimately our society. Ever since I was a child, I made every attempt to be recognized as an impeccable member of Canadian society, which inevitably consisted of closing off my private life when I closed the door behind me and went to school. I became resourceful, as I adjusted my behaviour to respond to the expectations of Canadian culture.
I had to become creative to cope with realities like why there was no summer camp, but rather my holidays consisted of hanging out with Nonna on the front porch. When classmates departed for the cottage, my excursions were limited to the park down the street. I attended university in Toronto rather than moving out and living in residence. Often, I try to make sense of the choices my parents have made, and the lives they have led — dislocated from the old world, alienated in the new. In the end, however, living in two cultures has made me a more flexible, open-minded and resourceful person.
As a woman raised in a traditional culture, I was only expected to wed and embrace motherhood. The added accomplishment of higher education and a profession were niceties. I was often caught between my first culture’s expectations and my own needs and aspirations as a woman. I have had to work twice as hard as the men in my culture, only to receive half the recognition.
In the same year I was accepted to do my doctoral work, I also became a wife. Guess which garnered more celebration? As such, I have lived in a sea of crushing pressure to conform and limit my expectations to that of wife and mother. In other words, I was expected to accommodate marriage and motherhood. Although deeply connected to my culture in many ways, I quietly chose to rebel against the same culture that can devalue our contribution as women. I opted to walk away from the ‘script’ that others had written for me. It seemed, at times, that few of my accomplishments in life were worthy of discussion around the kitchen table.
According to my southern Italian culture, success as a ‘real’ woman is measured by how well I tend to the hearth, and not in academic terms. In the home, I clear away the table and make coffee for my uncles. Outside of the home, I challenge people’s biases and teach immigrant women about their rights. At times, the dissonance between the competing images of womanhood is difficult to shoulder. There is no doubt that many young girls from traditional cultures are attempting to resolve the same dilemma. They need to face their dragons one by one, and with time their courage will surface. Having grown up feeling that few choices were available to me, outside of a traditional female lifestyle, my hope in my professional work is to create a space for young women to consider they have more choices.
Persevering with French
In 1994, I married David Chemla (see picture below) and moved to Montreal where my husband articled and then worked as a lawyer at Stikeman Elliott. We lived there for several years. Prior to moving to Quebec, I had made few attempts to understand the complexities of that province. I quietly settled into my life in Montreal, and went about my business, naturally assuming that Montreal was like everywhere else in North America. I decided that my ‘practical’ commitment to the Canadian debate about Quebec would be to speak French as often as my energy and goodwill would permit. I persevered to gain proficiency in the French language. Over the years, my studies in France, work projects in Quebec, and French-speaking friends and family members all brought me closer to the language.
I arrived in Montreal shortly after the Meech Lake Accord and just before the 1995 Referendum. As a newcomer to the province, how could I possibly grasp the complexity of the cultural and linguistic debates simmering in the province? Gradually, my social identity began to shift. I was now categorized as an Allophone and not an Anglophone, even though I communicate most efficiently in English. For the first time ever, my native origin was questioned by strangers. “I hear a tinge of an accent,” they would say, trying to determine where I was from.
I worked, shopped, entertained, assessed arguments and sent e-mails in French and English. I read, socialized, attended meetings, negotiated car repairs, accessed services, took courses and returned phone messages in French and English. Everything about my life in Montreal was becoming increasingly bilingual. In essence, what is most unique about the city is its inherent bilingual nature.
Our first son, Gabriel was born on a blistery cold January day. It seemed that it would take forever before I would love being a mother. But as routine set in and our son smiled and made us laugh, I fell in love with him and with my new role. My husband David’s work commitments, as legal counsel for a multinational engineering firm, took him to far off places. This meant that I was often alone with a newborn. Loneliness set in and I longed for the days of family gatherings around the kitchen table.
I asked David if he could request a transfer to Toronto. He said he would make the request, but he was concerned that our children would not be raised in a French-speaking environment. As a Francophone Canadian, whose family was from France and Tunisia, this was very important. I gave him my word. If we moved to Ontario, I would speak to Gabriel, and then also Alexandre, only in French. I continue this to the present day. Add to that the fact that they attended French schools – their books, television and family chit-chat was in French – and somehow in a sea of English dominance, David and I were able to raise two bilingual Francophone children.
Voice for the community
At some point, their French surpassed mine and it was time to focus on Italian. Gabriel and Alexandre always spoke Italian with my parents. They also attended summer camps, sing-along classes, read comics and watched soccer games in Italian. They developed a strong sense of being Italian, which meant spending time with family, helping the grandparents in the garden or in the kitchen and connecting with their cousins in Italy.
After the defence of my doctoral thesis, which was at the same time that I was carrying our second child Alexandre, my precious Nonna fell ill and it was time to complete the circle of care that she had started when she arrived in time for my baptism in 1963. With two children in diapers, my Nonna bedridden due to a stroke, my husband travelling more than ever since his portfolio had expanded in Ontario, and looking for a decent home in an exaggerated market, my professional goals needed to be put on hold.
They were for a while, until we settled into a routine, in our own home. With the kids in school, given that my doctoral work had focused on Teacher Education and Multicultural Studies, I turned my efforts to working in the field of diversity. I launched Diversity Matters Inc. and went on to publish several books, curate a photo exhibit that has travelled to Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, produce and direct a multi-faith documentary, develop curriculum resources and deliver workshops.
Life seemed manageable, and as decent as it should be, given the storyline we are fed in our noisy world, until the sudden illness of my father. At the age of 74, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Dad was the eldest in his family, the caregiver, nurturer, relentless worker who loved his home-made salami, trips to Florida, bocce games, lunch at the Mandarin, and above all else, his family. He died within a matter of weeks, and everything I knew to be true and real, shattered. I grieved longingly for the person who had been such an inspiration in my life, and an exceptional role model for my sons. He left us too soon. (See picture of Domenico and Giuseppa Valle with their grandchildren, in 2004.)
So, instead of having quiet dinners at home or buying a new rug that matches the living room furniture, I participate in a host of Italian Canadian initiatives, from documenting the stories of Italian immigrant women for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, to providing feedback on the Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens national project, or being a board member of AMICI Museum, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Italian Heritage Month and most recently Villa Charities. I am a voice for our community as OMNI Television restructures its programming for ethnocultural communities.
I help with homework, prepare dinner, carpool to soccer practice and go to a meeting in our Italian Canadian community (or to Lifeline Syria, Multifaith Toronto, or the Canadian Race Relations Foundation). I do this for my parents, and I do this for my children. I do this for Domenico and Giuseppa Valle, as it is my small way of honouring my parents’ love and commitment to us and to this country. And I do this for my sons Gabriel and Alexandre, as it is my way of teaching them about the past, and giving them a strong sense of belonging to a place we all call home.
Gina Valle, Ph.D., is a diversity trainer, speaker, author and the founder of Diversity Matters, where she challenges Canadians to think outside the black box when it comes to pluralism within our borders and beyond. This first-person account first appeared in Transformations Canada
Commentary By Dr. Nanah Sheriff Fofanah-Sesay
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises of all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia such as the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris and other injuries to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Proponents of this act often engage in these behaviors to adhere to and preserve an ongoing cultural tradition that failed to take into consideration the dignity, physical trauma, emotional trauma, and human rights of young girls and women.
In a recent article titled SALWACE’s “imitated not mutilated” Campaign, the author/s referred to Bondo (a society for the performance of FGM) as “the recognition of adult women to choose what they want to do with their own bodies.” The author/s further describes the act of FGM as “labiaplasty” and “clitoroplexy” and other forms of “so-called female genital cosmetic surgeries.”
The Patriotic Vangaurd
OFTEN victims of intimate partner abuse, especially immigrant women, are portrayed as completely powerless and helpless in addressing the abuse. What isn’t recognized is the enormous strength and intelligence many South Asian victims of violence have exhibited.
South Asian women are quicker to report instances of abuse now than even a few years ago, […]
by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City
The recent death of Abdirahman Abdi after his violent arrest in Ottawa and the 2015 police shooting of Andrew Loku in Toronto challenge the “meanwhile in Canada” dichotomy that says racial profiling only happens in America.
Racial profiling by police is not a new phenomenon. The ability to now document aggression by law enforcement against Black Canadians and Americans and other visible minorities and broadcast the footage around the world makes this long-standing injustice hard to ignore.
At the same time, we meet a younger cohort that is forcing down those walls in order to be heard.
More story needed
Short stories go well with short attention spans, delivering the main elements of a good story in one quick dose.
At the same time, they can leave many questions unanswered. To sum them all into one: “What happens next?”
Most of the stories in All My Fallen Angelas fall into the latter category.
Just as we are on the cusp of getting to know the characters, and finding our way around the intricacies of their lives, we are abruptly halted and told to move on.
This is a sign of Patriarca’s ability as an engaging storyteller, but also begs whether some endings could be more convincing.
After much pondering, it is hard to determine whether it’s better for the author to provide more finality to her stories, or to allow readers to explore the possibilities on their own.
Alice Munro, arguably Canada’s most well-known short story writer, also gives readers much to think about through her writing.
On writing short stories, Munro told The New York Times 30 years ago, “I don't really understand a novel. I don't understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story . . . I kind of want a moment that's explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”
Historical roots to popular images
Like Patriarca, Munro also writes about women; she has been called a feminist writer. While her stories focus mostly on women in Southwestern Ontario, Patriarca’s reside in Toronto, from the 1960s onward.
We are introduced to characters that bear resemblance to the stereotypical Italian nonna — the grandmother who is the family’s cook, religious authority and resident matchmaker. The classic image of the Italian male with slicked back hair and leather shoes also makes an appearance.
Though these characters seem caricatured in most other settings, Patriarca’s stories provide a glimpse into their historical roots.
We learn about some of the traditions that Italian immigrants brought with them to Canada and their cultural importance.
While traditional interests, such as prayer and homemaking, persuade many older characters, the younger ones express the desire to break away from old customs by becoming entrepreneurs, refusing arranged marriages and deciding not to have families.
“Do I tell her that a man is not what I want?” ponders the narrator in “My Grandmother is Normal.”
“Rather, marriage to a man is not what I want. My time, this place, allows me that choice. How do I make her understand that the world has changed?”
What was vs. what is
The stories also show us how some predominantly Italian neighbourhoods in Toronto have evolved as immigration to Canada has expanded.
“The new residents in the neighbourhood, whose long braids are often covered by lovely scarves, seem reluctant to come into her shop although on occasion Vicky is challenged by the requests of a new customer who will bare her head to reveal black torrents of lustrous hair,” writes Patriarca about Vicky’s salon in the story “Blonde Forever.”
The older characters also note the way they see their neighbourhood changing as a result of gentrification, technology and new social norms.
In “Anna at the Window,” Anna laments the declining attendance at her church, the long distances she must travel for her groceries, and the fact that young gentlemen no longer tip their hats and open doors for her.
“The area now catered to a different crowd, a different way of life, and although she understood that time had moved and that was the natural way of the world, it did not make her feel any better. Time is about loss, she thought, and loss is never a good thing.”
The contrast between young and old, between what was and what is now, is explored throughout All My Fallen Angelas and asks the reader to reflect on whether all change is really for the better, or whether as Anna suggests, it represents some loss.
These contrasts also suggest that while men have historically done most of the decision making in politics and business, it is women who witness and bear the brunt of how these choices affect society at large.
While women today may be better positioned to have an impact on the world around us, Patriarca’s stories are a reminder to never dismiss the sacrifices of our nonnas and other women that brought us here.
Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, ON.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
A study led by SFU Masters of Public Policy (MPP) student Halena Seiferling found that the biggest barrier for women entering politics at the municipal level is persistent sexism and gendered comments.
“Though many people may assume that municipal politics is more welcoming to women, this study shows that problems persist even at the municipal level,” says Seiferling. “My research advocates for municipalities to have equal numbers of men and women on their advisory committees and boards in order to begin to combat this problem.”
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Without saying anything, Farrah Khan hands out a clipboard with a piece of paper on it to each person in the room.
“Now, I want each of you start to draw what was in your head at 9 a.m. this morning,” she says. “When time is due, you’ll hand the clipboard to the person next to you and continue on another person’s drawing.” Khan then plays a song by Beyoncé on her iPhone.
Several participants, including Khan, finish drawing different parts of each other’s pictures before they are returned to the original artist. The result is a joint effort made by each member of the group to explore their fellow participants’ mindsets.
Politics in comics
It is the starting point for The Panel Is Political, a discussion on how to use comic books for social change, at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
The discussion is also led by Seemi Jamil, a youth group coordinator at the Afghan Women’s Organization in Mississauga, and Nicole Marie Burton, a comic book illustrator and founder and co-owner of Ad Astra Comix – North America’s first publisher dedicated to comics about social justice themes.
Jamil and Burton worked together early this year to develop a youth program that teaches immigrant and activist youth to draw and express their feelings. The program involved one-and-a-half hour sessions, held once a week for eight weeks.
“Nicole [Burton] comes by and does workshops with the youth groups and teaches them how to do graphic-novel style storytelling,” Jamil explains.
“We wrote a paragraph about a challenge we had to deal with in anonymity,” begins Burton, describing one of the group’s activities. She says the written paragraphs were ripped into pieces, folded, and mixed in a hat.
“Everybody drew out a story and had to tell it in a comic form,” she adds. “It was incredible to me how much could have been done with that,” says Burton about the activity.
Other activities focused on character design, practising different dimensions and shapes, and drawing about current events. She adds that there never seemed to be enough time in each session to meet the youth’s high level of interest in each activity.
“I was trying to get low-income youth groups to have some art form where they can talk about their own stories,” Jamil says. “They are interested in talking about what it is like to be low-income in Canada but also assimilated within society.”
An example of a political comic book that helps youth understand global events, says Jamil, is Persepolis – a graphic novel about the revolution in Iran.
“We’ve seen a large trend in youth groups trying to express themselves through different art forms as opposed to just writing,” she continues.
She says the program’s young female participants are of Afghani and Pakistani descent, and that the workshops focus on minority voices, people of colour, women of colour, and political situations all over the world.
Graphic novels, Jamil says, not only help immigrant and refugee youth to understand, but also to be able to learn how to tell, their own story. She stresses that for marginalized groups who do not have the same vocabulary or English proficiency as other Canadians, art can help them understand and share ideas.
Political comics gaining momentum
Burton started Ad Astra Comix in 2013 in Toronto. She says she is passionate about social justice and wants to see more political comics that touch on topics such as sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia.
Ad Astra Comix not only publishes, but also creates its own graphic novels, including its first full-length graphic novel Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, a collection of stories by Indian women about topics including harassment, race, class and political struggle.
Khan, the inaugural Sexual Violence Support and Education Coordinator at Ryerson University, has more than a decade of experience speaking about violence against women.
As a trauma counsellor, she has led several educational programs, including comic book projects, to help women express their feelings and fears through drawing.
In 2012, Khan put together a program to run a comic book workshop specifically for South Asian women. She says white comic book artists often portray South Asian women stereotypically.
The project resulted in a comic book called Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project, featuring stories and illustrations by South Asian women about violence and resilience in their lives.
The book was chosen by the Tahirih Justice Centre to be part of a tour to raise awareness about forced marriage in the United States.
One of the stories the book features, titled “Cage,” resulted in the escape of one of the program’s participants from her abusive family. Khan says the young woman was able to find help at a women’s shelter two cities away from her home during the project.
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by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says the immigration experience helped make her the award-winning and best-selling Indian-American writer she is today.
Her immigration story — which she calls "strong" and "powerful" — along with those of other immigrant women, are central themes in much of her work.
“I had grown up in a very traditional family, been very protected,” she says of her upbringing in Kolkata, India. “Then I was in America… to go to school,” recalls Divakaruni, sitting behind a table piled high with copies of her latest novel, Before We Meet the Goddess, inside Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre.
“I was living away from my family, I was working odd jobs… and I was really missing my culture. That made me see my culture in a way that I had never seen it when I was living immersed in it.”
The Houston, TX based author is in Toronto for Arranged Marriage, a theatre adaptation of her short story “Clothes,” published in her first book, also titled Arranged Marriage.
“It’s not so much about arranged marriage,” says Peggy Shannon, professor and chair of the Ryerson School of Performance, when introducing the play to the audience. “It is the immigrant story, the immigrant experience.”
The immigrant dream
Divakaruni says one theme the stage production of “Clothes” captured well is the idea of the “immigrant dream” — the hopes and expectations that are attached to moving to places like Canada and the United States — and what happens when they go awry.
“Both of these countries are wonderful in many ways. They offer many opportunities, but they can’t be perfect. No place can be perfect,” she says. “Sometimes that dream is going to fail and then what do they do? They have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives.”
Such is the case for Sumita, the main character of Arranged Marriage, who moves to Mississauga, ON (the original short story is based in California) after her arranged marriage to Somesh. Months after arriving, tragedy strikes and she has to find the strength to go on with her life despite a dream deferred.
Even though people immigrating from South Asia to Canada or America today have a much easier time than Divakaruni did more than three decades ago, thanks to advancements like the Internet and well-established community connections, the author says challenges remain.
This is something she says she sets out to reflect in the characters and plots she creates.
“Missing your home country, missing your family, feeling like you’ve left a whole support system behind – you still feel those things.”
Touching on taboo topics
Through her writing, Divakaruni says she aims to do two things: break down barriers and prejudices between different cultural communities in North America, and ensure that her own South Asian-American community sees its reality reflected in serious literature.
This is why she does not shy away from topics considered taboo by some, such as alcoholism, infidelity, and abortion.
Her approach has not always been popular among readers, both in North America and in India. But as of late, more people are accepting that Divakaruni pushes boundaries.
One taboo topic she writes about at length is domestic abuse — an area in which she has been volunteering to help victims since university. Problems like this can be aggravated in immigrant communities because victims are away from their larger familial and friend supports, she explains.
“It’s very important for us to create a realistic and complex notion of our community,” she says. “Otherwise, we are giving in to stereotypes, either positive or negative ones.”
When this happens, Divakaruni continues, people will feel like they are the only ones experiencing such things and something must be wrong with them.
“I have this great quote that I love: ‘Good literature should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,’” she shares. “If we are complacent, [thinking] we have no problems, that’s a problem right there because we are not being realistic.”
In Before We Meet the Goddess, the chapters alternate between the lives of grandmother Sabitri who lived all her life in India, mother Bela who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and daughter Tara who was born in the U.S.
The novel details their complicated, and often strained, relationships with each other and the many challenges they face in their journey to figuring out what success is.
Similar to her earlier works, Divakaruni aims to empower women with this novel.
“All of these three women who are the main characters… they certainly have their challenges, but I think by the end of the book they’ve achieved something,” she says.
“I’m hoping that my books are empowering to women of all backgrounds as they’re going through their own challenges, hopes, and trying to reach for goals . . . [and] help the readers to examine their life and what it means to be [successful].”
by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
In Canada, Muslim people are often spoken about, rather than the people who are doing the speaking.
The program recently launched Homebound IIII, its latest collection of Muslim women’s poetry, during its fourth annual Volume: Sisters Make Noise showcase held at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.
Homebound is a collection of poetry written by six young women who self-identify as Muslim through spiritual, familial, ancestral, cultural or political connections. During six months, the women came together bi-weekly to share “herstories,” explains the book’s preface.
“This was a sacred place where our worlds came together, and we felt less disjointed, taking parts of each other and making a whole,” it reads.
The result: 36 pages of powerful tales exploring everything from the immigration experience to young love, carefully crafted in various styles of poetry.
You can exist
El Mugammar says that in Muslim communities, events are often separated into the “sister side” and the “brother side.”
The sister side is taking care of children, preparing food for everyone, organizing and cleaning up. It’s not usually invited to participate. Both the book and its launch — an evening of spoken word, poetry, and musical performances by Muslim women — represent something that is lacking.
“I think it’s critical to just carve out space and say this is just for us . . . this is our space,” explains El Mugammar, who performed at all four editions of Sisters Make Noise and mentored many of the current and past contributors to Homebound.
Resilience and strength in the face of adversity are common threads found throughout Homebound. In her poem, “choose you,” Urooj (MC Shahzadi) writes:
Even in this damned society you can exist,
Blessed with experiences filled of heavenly bliss,
Take the hardest moments as a reminder to choose,
The choice towards a destiny only determined by you.
In the book’s preface, Outburst facilitators Jamila-Khanom Allidina, Rosina Kazi, and Shameela Zaman reflect on this verse, writing, “Not only do we exist, we fight, we laugh, we write and centuries of Muslim women’s resilience is celebrated and remembered. Even if it’s just to remind ourselves: we are powerful, breathtaking and brilliant.”
Fighting to claim stories
El Mugammar says she likes to tell stories of the people in her life, primarily Sudanese women. These stories, she says, are missing from the very public, “Google-and-find-it” type of mainstream historical documentation.
“Our day-to-day lives, they often get lost,” she says. “I don’t want the women that I know helped shape me to be the person that I am today to be forgotten.”
These daily experiences are creatively woven throughout Homebound.
In “skype-shype,” Reema Kureishy captures what it’s like to video chat with her grandparents in her native country, India, effectively detailing their minimal understanding of how to work with technology and the endless promises of “coming home” thrown back and forth.
In “thoughts in a waiting room,” Seema (who goes only by her first name) offers a story about the agonizing pain of finding out if a parent has cancer.
In the book’s opening piece “jung,” Kureishy writes about the fight “to claim not land, but our stories.”
As El Mugammar points out, these stories are important for everyone, not just Muslim women, to listen to and read.
“A lot of people...who may not identify with that identity of being a young, Muslim woman… can identify with a lot of the feelings, a lot of the kinds of stories that we tell.”
I am real…
El Mugammar says that Outburst allows racialized women like herself to be showcased as more than one-dimensional.
She explains that while she has often relied on writing to release some of the anger she feels about the social injustices and oppression she experiences, she is more than the “angry, Black woman” people are quick to label her as.
“I’m also funny and smart and a whole lot of other things,” she says, adding that the Outburst program allows participants to explore the multi-faceted aspects of their personalities, experiences, and community’s stories.
Dumo, an Outburst alumni and co-host of the Sisters Make Noise event, exemplifies this multi-faceted experience in her high-energy monologues. One is about her mother interrupting her Dragon Ball Z episodes to cart her off to Qur’an lessons, another about convincing her Muslim parents to allow her to participate in the school Christmas concert.
As another woman of East African descent, El Mugammar says that while watching Dumo, she felt a strong sense of connection.
“There was a young girl,” she begins, referring to 11-year-old Marley Dias of the United States, “who started a Black girls’ book club because she was tired of reading about ‘white boys and dogs’ and in a lot of ways, I feel the same. It’s always nice to get the kind of humour and the kinds of stories that are absolutely relevant to my life.”
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Canadian authors of faith-based fiction say seeking answers in religion to the injustices of their pasts enhances their creativity and inspires their literary work.
A group of authors explained how their spiritual backgrounds influence the creation and shape of their stories during a discussion titled “Faith and Fiction” at the recent Festival of Literary Diversity held in Brampton, Ont.
Growing up, panellist Zarqa Nawaz says she questioned the divider that separates women from men at the mosque.
“It seemed to me, as a child, very fundamentally unfair,” says Nawaz, creator of the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie.
She says that while faith is an important part of her life, gender inequality caused a disruption for her until she created the documentary Me in the Mosque.
During her research, she discovered that in Islamic history, there was a section of the mosque for men, a section for women, and a third section for people that define as a third sex.
“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex,” she says.
Nawaz grew up reading memoirs and watching documentaries on feminist struggles of different faiths and cultures. She says her understanding of prejudice against women is not limited to any faith, but is in fact a “universal theme.”
“Getting away from faith doesn’t mean that you get away from prejudice,” she says.
She describes an incident in which a Hijab-wearing Muslim girl was barred from going to school in France, where prominent religious symbols are banned in grade schools.
“How is it different from the Taliban?” Nawaz asks.
She says such injustices provoke her to fight back by raising awareness through her work.
For Ayelet Tsabari, fiction is a place to question the existence of God.
Tsabari grew up in Israel and says believing in God in the Jewish religion was something that she never questioned until her father, who she describes as a pious man, passed away when she was nine years old.
She developed a belief that when a person dies, so does God and that is why he was not there to save her father.
“That was something that sort of made sense to me as a child,” says Tsabari.
She describes this loss as a crisis of faith, which has inspired her writing. Tsabari’s book The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
“My characters are facing either crises of faith or there is a clash within family over the issues of faith,” she says about the book.
Finding role models
Vivek Shraya says while she does not follow Hinduism anymore, Hindu mythology from a feminist lens has inspired her work. She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.
As a queer artist and writer, she says she aims to counter genderphobia, or fear of gender-nonconforming individuals, in her work. She puts particular emphasis on the God Krishna and says she believes that she has an intimate connection with this role model.
Shraya adds that male Gods who have long hair, wear jewellery, and are friends with girls help her relate to the genderphobia she experienced in school.
“It seems to be a common theme throughout my work, because its one of the first places where I felt that I [could] see myself,” explains Shraya.
Shraya’s debut novel, She of the Mountains, has two narratives – one is a contemporary bi-sexual love story, and the other is about re-imagining Hindu mythology and its illustrations.
Panellist Cherie Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community in Ontario. Her books Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy and A Gentle Habit reflect on indigenous people’s connections with the land.
“That’s what we base our understanding of spirituality on,” she says.
Dimaline says she learned to practise a version of the Roman Catholic faith infused with First Nations beliefs – what she describes as a “mixing and melting of understandings.”
“It was a very mixed, but also very structured upbringing,” she says.
Along with the influence of the church, Dimaline says she was also privileged to grow up with her grandmother who was the story keeper of the community.
When young Dimaline was selected to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, the responsibility of preserving her community’s memories – seven generations back and seven generations to the future – fell on her shoulders.
“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community of safety and understanding of our spirituality,” she explains. “The base of the understandings and world views that we have come from that faith.”
by Danica Samuel in Toronto
When Sheema Khan told audience members at the Aga Khan Museum that the men sitting at one of her last lectures refused to face her, the entire room cringed.
Khan, a Globe & Mail columnist, author and women’s activist, says that she became a activist and feminist because of the Muslim community and this kind of behaviour.
For Aga Khan’s lecture series “Islam in the 21st Century,” Khan spoke on the challenges and opportunities of being a woman, muslim and Canadian.
Known for her fiery columns and controversial discussions on the perception of women in the Islamic community, Khan centred her talk around her latest book “Of Hockey and Hijab: New Reflections.”
Dr. Ruba Kana’an, head of Education and Scholarly Programs at Aga Khan, organized the event that had 250 audience members in attendance.
The topic was chosen amongst many that the Aga Khan visiting survey uncovered, but Kana’an said such a controversial topic was sure to pique the interest of many people within and outside of the Muslim community.
“The issues of women, gender [equality] and the perception of women [are] questions we always ask,” says Kana’an. “It’s important to address these issues especially with how much misconception and misunderstanding there is between patriarchy and religion. It’s a topic to bring to the public.”
Muslim women’s unhappiness in Canada
The highlights of Khan’s lecture related to the statistics that started off her talk, which she used to discuss how unhappy and targeted Muslim-Canadian women felt.
In the Environics Survey 2016, 42 per cent of Muslim women said they felt discriminated against. Of that percentage, 60 per cent wore a head covering and 40 per cent did not. Compare this to Muslim men, of whom only 27 per cent said they experienced discrimination.
Khan says this treatment leads Muslim women in Canada to be unhappy and concerned.
“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims. They are far more pessimistic than men are,” she says. “They worry about how Muslims are portrayed in the media, stereotyping their neighbours and wondering if the the next generation will face more difficulties than they do. ”
One of the members of the audience, Judy Csillag, who has been doing interfaith and intercultural work for over 35 years, says that these worries could stem from the fact that mothers and women see how prejudice affects their children more than the men.
“Khan spoke a lot about how women don’t go to the mosque as much as men do. They are usually at home with the kids and involved in their children’s life,” Csillag says.
To the contrary, Khan says part of the reason why Muslim men are happier is because they aren’t seen as inferior in Islamic society.
Experiences drive desire for change
Khan recalled a few experiences in her lifetime where she felt that men refused to acknowledge her as a scholar and speaker.
One circumstance, Khan recalls, happened in 1996 in Quebec. She was preparing to speak at a Unity Dinner — a function put together by the Islamic community to address inequality in their community — when she heard that the more Conservative mosque had rejected the idea of having her speak.
They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.
“One of my muslim colleagues said, ‘Sheema don’t take it personally, it’s not you they’re against, it’s just women in general,’” Khan repeats, laughing with the audience.
She says that the views that conservative Muslim men have of women stems from their ignorance of the roles of women during the prophetic era.
“There was one scholar, the late Abduhalim Abu Shaqqa: he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He [performed] very valuable research on Islamic women, which unfortunately is ignored in the Muslim world,” Khan explains.
“It took him ten years, but he looked at every single verse and narration that had to deal with women and, in conclusion, he found that the way women participated in society during the best era and generation is very different from what we see today in the Muslim world.”
The importance of women in the conversation
Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants looking to locate their experiences within a Canadian context.
“One of the things that we are noticing [. . .] is that there is a happiness in the awareness of students, that they gain a sense that they matter, their history matters and that there is a worthwhile contribution they’ve made to the world at large,” she explains.
Csillag agrees, saying that as a refugee from Hungary, it was hard for her to settle in Canada.
“[How] pleased my heart is that women are starting to take the stage, and Aga Khan has been a godsend for women speaking as equals,” she comments. “What was fantastic is that so much of the audience is not Muslim, so people are reaching out and wanting to learn.”
For Csillag and Khan both, educating the younger generation is of utmost importance in order to fight radicalization and misconceptions.
“Being treated as an inferior human being is something no one should go through” says Khan. “I decided that I had to fight back. And by pushing back that’s how I gained my self respect. I’ve created a lot of controversy in my community, and I don’t mind because I’m thinking of the next generation.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit