Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Some years ago, I learned that our local mosque refused to allow women to serve on the board. This sexist practice was also entrenched in the bylaws of the British Columbia Muslim Association for nearly four decades. Only Muslim men, it turned out, could be elected to the board, and only by Muslim men. When I asked the mosque and the BCMA if they would change their policies, they unequivocally refused.
But when I began to prepare a column about the issue, a lawyer reached out, asking me to refrain from speaking out. Why? There was concern that then-prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government would use this information to go after mosques. “Not now – give us time,” came the plea.
“So, once the Liberals are elected, mosques will open their boards to women?” I asked. We both knew the answer.
Rather than address the discrimination within, some organizations have found it easier to simply ignore internal criticism, while silencing whistle-blowers with emotional blackmail: You’ll hurt the community by airing dirty laundry. The problem is that the laundry is piling up and the stench is getting unbearable, while those who can access the washing machine continue to refuse to do their chores.
The situation is especially acute for victims of violence and abuse. They are often pressed to keep matters quiet, and not file charges, so that the community won’t look bad in the eyes of the public. Meanwhile, there is little accountability of perpetrators. Those who do speak out are shamed as traitors, enablers of Islamophobia, or worse, as self-hating Muslims. Often, it is the voices of women that are silenced by these heavy-handed tactics. Consequently, justice is thrown under the bus of community self-censorship.
It’s why well-meaning institutions overreach in their attempts to stamp out a quantum of Islamophobia. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), for instance, has yet to decide whether it will allow teenaged girls to participate in a book club event featuring Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was enslaved, tortured and raped by members of the Islamic State. This courageous young woman refused to remain silent, and has even won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to seek justice for her people. That she was assaulted by sadistic individuals acting under the cover of an inhumane interpretation of Islam is part of her truth, as is the fact that Muslims worldwide repudiate the Islamic State. The TDSB apparently fears that impressionable teens may not be able to distinguish between an extremist group and ordinary Muslims who are their friends and neighbours.
But here’s a thought: The Muslim community can simultaneously fight Islamophobia and address the ills within it. It is not, and should not be, a zero-sum game. Just as Muslims desire from others safety, freedom from discrimination, access to justice and the opportunity to thrive, they should work hard to ensure the same principles apply to those who are themselves Muslims. One cannot make demands and then plead indifference when asked to fulfill those same demands. As the Quran states in the chapter titled “Women”: “Oh you who believe. Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it is against yourselves, your family, the rich or the poor.”
Here’s another thought: Muslim women have the agency to improve their own lives. Their own history is replete with illustrious paradigms, including that of Khawlah bint Tha’labah, who challenged a cruel marital custom in 7th-century Arabia when no one else dared; her courageous stand led to its abolition. She is known as “al-Mujaadilah,” or “the woman who pleaded,” in the 58th chapter of the Quran. For 14 centuries, Khawlah has been a model for unwavering commitment to justice within.
In the coming weeks, the Mujaadilah Centre – founded on the noble example of Khawlah – will be launching. Its goal is to unapologetically address harms faced by Canadian Muslim women within their communities. This will include an in-depth analysis of the gender make-up of mosque boards across the country. And in 2022, the centre will address the controversial practice of polygamy here in Canada, by providing new legal research of the Criminal Code along with documentation of harm suffered by women and children.
There is hope on the horizon. A new generation of Muslims is demanding greater accountability of leadership. They will not turn a blind eye to discrimination and abuse within, since they understand that wrongdoings left unaddressed will only lead to worse outcomes. Too many lives have been destroyed for this to continue. This cohort is taking the lead on addressing taboos head-on. They will make a difference for the better.
In the meantime, let’s all strive for a better society – standing up for what is right, and forbidding what is wrong, across all communities.
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