From 2000 to 2005, I served as the chair of CAIR-CAN, a grassroots advocacy organization that fought discrimination against Muslims. Whether it was a Muslim woman denied employment because of her hijab, or the rendition of Maher Arar, we fought for basic human rights based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This journey opened my eyes to my own double standards: I fought for Muslims to be treated with basic human dignity by the wider society, yet looked the other way when such treatment was denied to women within my own community.
Toward the end of my CAIR-CAN tenure, I could no longer stand the hypocrisy, and decided to tackle a fundamental problem that our community has been content to ignore: the treatment of women as second-class human beings. As chair, I came across incidents against Muslim women that would never have been tolerated had these been perpetrated by a non-Muslim. But if a Muslim did it, well, we would let it go, hoping that attitudes would one day change.
It was, and continues to be, the denial of the fact that many Muslim cultures have a bias against women. Consider the past few years of the Gender Gap Index, published by the World Economic Forum. It continually lists predominantly Muslim countries in the bottom rung of societies that equitably distribute resources between men and women. From the super rich (such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States) to the impoverished, a large chunk of Muslims live in societies where women are shortchanged in terms of development, opportunity and participation.
The bulk of Muslims in Canada are immigrants who naturally bring to this country the attitudes and norms shaped by their culture of birth. These will be transformed by Canadian norms; the transformation varies from person to person. Suffice it to say that many traditional Muslim institutions continue to operate on a patriarchal model, in which women are either unwelcomed or merely tolerated, but are always expected to keep the status quo. Those who demand basic rights are labelled with the "f" word – feminist.
Two recent news stories ought to jolt us to address troublesome attitudes toward women, head-on, rather than fear the label "self-hating Muslim" or Islamophobe.
The city of Cologne reported co-ordinated sexual assaults on scores of women during New Year's Eve celebrations, allegedly perpetrated by hundreds of men who appeared to have a "North African or Arab" background. This is reminiscent of the 2013 mass sexual assaults by groups of men against women during demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Perhaps countries, including Canada, should look to Norway, which, since 2013, has provided lessons for migrants on how to treat women. Per Isdal, a clinical psychologist who helped develop the program, told The New York Times that many refugees "come from cultures that are not gender-equal and where women are the property of men. We have to help them adapt to their new culture." Kudos to the Norwegians for directly addressing a delicate topic with sensitivity and firmness.
According to the New Yorker, Saudi women are starting to assert their rights, even within the confines of a strict, sex-segregated, guardianship system legitimized by the stamp of religion. Saudi influence leads to the export of gender apartheid to conservative circles elsewhere. In a study of gender relations during the time of the Prophet, the late salafi theologian Abdul Halim Abou Shaqqa found that the interaction between men and women was natural and mutually respectful; both played a dynamic role in building a vibrant community. Contemporary Saudi strictures were absent back then.
Some will be critical of the airing of "dirty laundry" during difficult times for Muslims. Yet meaningful discussions about the treatment of women have been avoided for far too long. To what end? What we don't need is another lecture about the dress and behaviour of the "ideal" Muslim woman. Instead, we need to hear more about men taking responsibility for their actions, and treating women as equal human beings.