Pakistani Canadian Saima S. Hussain took the initiative to commission and edit the stories of 21 Muslim women after a non-Muslim friend and co-worker said Hussain was the only Muslim woman she knew. Shockingly, this was in Mississauga, one of Canada’s most diverse suburbs with a thriving Muslim presence and regular Muslim conferences, festivals and cultural events. The area is even home to a neighbourhood known as Begumpura where thousands of Muslim women live with their children while their husbands work in the Middle East.
Yet, this co-worker of Hussain’s — and perhaps many others — didn’t personally know Muslims or their stories. This could partly explain the fear and distrust most recently exposed in Toronto when dozens of protesters objected to Muslim students being accommodated in vacant schoolrooms for Friday prayers. The hysteria reached fever pitch at a meeting where insults were shouted and people attacked. The police were called to clear the meeting. All this over “reasonable accommodation” mandated by the human rights law of the country and school policy.
Hussain joins the growing number of Muslim writers, artists and comedians attempting to harness the power of narrative to humanise Muslims and combat ignorance and hate. The anthology, The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women, allows readers to meet one-to-one with the authors, giving a window into each Muslimah’s world with all its human complexity. The contributors transcend sectarian lines to represent the diversity of the Canadian Muslim mosaic in terms of religiosity (from the ultra-conservative to the uber-liberal to the secular to the conflicted), ethnic/linguistic differences, marital status and sexual orientation.
Tackling stereotypes and in the process, creating empathy
Each Muslimah has her own way of understanding and living Islam. The only common thread between them is that they are Canadian and going through their own inner jihad. They go beyond religious struggles to share their experiences of integrating, finding love, finding work and fighting their battles while negotiating their status within the mainstream as well as within their own communities.
As expected, the hijab is one of the themes, and the views on hijab reflected in the book are best summed up by Mariam Hamaoui who writes: “I support those who wear the hijab and I support those who don’t wear the hijab. Hijab is a choice. Often difficult, but the choice has to be made by the woman. If a woman chooses to wear it, it is not for the sake of anyone else but for herself and God [...]”
There is also a piece by Zunera Ishaq, the niqab-wearing Muslimah who took on former prime minister Stephen Harper for targeting her choice of religious dress. The courts agreed with Ishaq and overturned the Conservative government’s ban on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. The Pakistani immigrant, who says she started wearing the niqab in high school, against the wishes of her family, certainly challenges popular perceptions in more ways than one. She notes: “As a niqab-wearing woman, I have found more acceptance in Canada than in my country of origin.” However, despite the tolerance of religious dress by most Canadians, Tammara Soma observes in her piece that, “It takes a strong heart and a thick skin to wear a hijab.”
The collection pulls no punches. Many authors are candid and unapologetic. Azmina Kassam, a Kenyan-born woman of Shia persuasion who does not don the hijab, for instance, writes not only about sectarian tensions, but shares her unease working with niqab-wearing Afghan women.
Of course, no book about Muslim women would be complete without addressing the subject of marriage. “Are you married yet?” is the first question anyone of marriageable age is often confronted with. If the answer is “no”, then “why not?”
In ‘No Suitable Boy’ Ashi Munir documents the oft-repeated stories of failed parental matchmaking where potential suitors are evaluated like prospective employees or actors auditioning for a role — Munir has still not found Prince Charming. Then there are the challenges that get in the way of marital bliss when a union is eventually formed. In ‘For Better or For Worse’ York University student Ghazia Sirtaj recounts in detail her experience of violent abuse at the hands of her ex-husband.
The authors do not shy away from controversy or what may be considered taboo by a sizeable number of — if not most — Muslims. Kirstin Sabrina Dane’s ‘Standing My Ground’ will probably raise eyebrows as it addresses the issue of women’s roles in mosques and the community. Dane documents her journey from the “perfect Muslimah” to one who challenges segregation and orthodoxy by leading a congregational prayer.
Dane is not alone as more and more women question the position and role of women within mosques and Muslim community organisations. For many contributors, reconciling faith and feminism is at the core of their struggle for identity. This is even more pronounced with the younger generation that is becoming more vocal and staking claims on more gender-friendly interpretations of Islam. Of the nine Muslims elected to Canada’s parliament in the 2015 federal elections, four were women: Iqra Khalid, Salma Zahid, Maryam Monsef and Yasmin Ratansi. Muslim men, including many active within mosques, voted and campaigned for them, yet these women would not be able to stand for elections for — let alone get elected to — most mosque boards. Indeed, if welcome at all they are marginalised to women’s committees tasked with bake sales and other housekeeping duties.
As trite as this may sound, Hussain’s emphasis on diversity shows readers that there is no one mould of a Muslim woman. Despite the advances made by Muslim women, the stereotype in popular imagination is still of the oppressed, submissive and traditional variety. This book does an excellent job of shattering this view by giving readers access to the internal conversations and struggles of a group of women as they navigate modern values and ideals with traditional mores that are rooted in religion, but are the product of human agency. Their stories share insight, perspective, understanding and lived realities. Their narratives are, therefore, crucial in eliciting empathy, which is something we need more than ever today.
As simple as this is, the book’s strength lies in conveying the rich diversity and lived realities of Muslim women and like any good book, it invites the reader to join in on the journey, opening the possibility of creating understanding and hopefully greater empathy.
The reviewer teaches at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto
The Muslimah Who
Fell to Earth
Saima S. Hussain
Mawenzi House, Canada
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2017