On Feminism, Islam and Civil Liberties in an Era of Fear
Ausma Zehanat Khan in conversation with Monia Mazigh
In the west, the past year was marked by a rise in racial intolerance, xenophobia and a divisive politics about identity. As a populist streak blazes its way through North America and Europe, Muslims in particular are feeling its effects.
Ausma Zehanat Khan and Monia Mazigh have, in their writing and their academic work, explored questions about cultural identity, human rights, feminism and faith.
Khan, formerly the editor in chief of the ground-breaking Muslim Girl magazine, has long been at the forefront of creating public space for Muslim women and girls. A British-born Canadian, she holds a PhD in international human rights law, and has worked as an immigration lawyer and taught at universities in Toronto and the United States, where she now lives. Her upcoming novel, Among the Ruins, is the third in a mystery series centred on Toronto-based detective Esa Khattak.
Mazigh rose to prominence as a tireless advocate for her husband, the Syrian-Canadian engineer Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria in 2002 and tortured and held without charge for more than a year. An academic with a PhD in finance, she has remained in the public eye as an activist. She was also an NDP candidate in the 2004 federal election. Born and raised in Tunisia, Mazigh has lived in Canada since 1991. Her novel, Hope Has Two Daughters—her third book—is published this month by Anansi.
Khan and Mazigh spoke with each other via email from their respective locations in Colorado and Ottawa.
AZK: Monia, salaam! I follow your important work in the news, but how lovely to finally meet you.
MM: Salaam, dear Ausma. I am so happy to be in touch with you. We read your novel, The Unquiet Dead, in our book club, and my daughter was in love with Muslim Girl magazine when she was about ten years old. We were living in Kamloops—I was an assistant professor at the business school there. I had always lived in big cities in Canada and Kamloops was really a small town. I had a hard time adjusting. One day, my husband comes home with Muslim Girl, so excited. He had bought it for our daughter. We had a subscription for her until the magazine stopped publishing. She loved reading stories of other girls like her. She didn’t feel alone in her pre-teen and teen struggles. You were behind this project that made many girls and moms feel that there is a place in the public space for Muslim girls.
AZK: Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life. Our editorial vision essentially came down to self-representation: telling our own stories in our voices, and challenging the dominant, one-dimensional narrative about Muslim girls and young women. I think the need for a publication like it is even greater now—there’s so much more to challenge in the discourse about us.
And thank you for sharing The Unquiet Dead with your book club! It’s the most important and most personal book I’ve written so far. What did you think of the background in the book where I wrote that the Maher Arar case had galvanized a generation of Canadian Muslim lawyers to be much more vigilant about civil liberties? True or an exaggeration?
MM: First of all, I found it funny to read about my husband in your book—basically he follows me everywhere, even in books! I didn’t expect at all to find his name mentioned, but his case is no longer “ours” only but a story for all to reflect upon and share. And yes, Maher’s case changed our attitudes toward civil liberties. We don’t take it for granted.
Our world is changing so quickly, and I have the impression that the coming months and years will be determining ones for our definitions of civil rights, freedom and peace. In particular, I am thinking a lot about Muslims in the United States. No matter how I try to avoid reading about it, I can’t. How are you doing? Even raising the question of a Muslim registry shouldn’t happen, but now it is all over the media.
AZK: Well, as you may know, there was a 67 percent spike in hate crimes against American Muslims in 2015, the highest in any period since 9/11. We’re also seeing specific, gendered violence because the hijab makes a Muslim woman a readily identifiable target. I think people have been emboldened by the campaign rhetoric, and certainly by the outcome of the election.
For some time now, I’ve had a sense of being besieged—not just me personally, but all minority communities—and I’ve routinely engaged in self-censorship to adjust to it. For example, am I comfortable wearing a headscarf on my own porch, as I normally do if I want to sit outside and read the Quran in Ramadan, or praying in my house with the blinds open? The answer to both those questions is no. I don’t discuss my views on current affairs in public, I’m extra careful at the airport, I don’t carry certain books with me and, if I attend Friday prayer, I note my surroundings carefully. That kind of vigilance is fatiguing, and it’s a distraction from the very real work that needs to be done.
MM: In a way, I find myself going through this as well. When I decided to come to Canada 25 years ago, I was looking for a country where I could live my religion without being judged.
I was born and raised in Tunisia, an Arab and Muslim country with a complicated relationship with Islam. In the 1960s and ’70s, you would seldom see a woman in a headscarf in the streets of Tunis. After independence from France, the headscarf had become the symbol of rural women, linked to backwardness and oppression. My mother didn’t wear a headscarf; neither did my grandmother. Then, in the 1980s, young female university students started wearing them. For some, modesty became a way to recognize the Islamic identity that was taken away for centuries by colonialism. For others, it came to symbolize political Islam—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolution—and thus it was demonized by government policies under the cover of secularism.
When I started wearing a headscarf in 1990, I was caught in the middle of this polarized rhetoric. My decision was solely motivated by my spiritual beliefs. However, I became automatically in the camp of the “dangerous Islamist.” At university, I was asked by the director of the institute to remove my hijab or leave. I didn’t leave. I stayed until the end, and later decided to leave to Canada.
So, Canada was for me a relief from this social, mental and cultural suffocation: You can’t speak politics, you can’t criticize authorities, you can’t challenge opinion. You are either with us or against us!
AZK: You are describing the chilling attributes of authoritarian regimes, and it’s daunting that we now need to be vigilant about that in the United States. The president-elect is already attempting to stifle the free press by dodging the press pool, threatening to broaden libel laws and personally taking issue with criticism and dissent. I’ve been reading the comments of journalists and historians on how slowly and insidiously authoritarianism becomes normalized. I would imagine—or at least hope—that things are different in Canada on this point—although, during Canada’s recent election, I became conscious of a hostile and unfamiliar new rhetoric.
MM: Yes, things started to change a decade or so ago, especially in Quebec where I lived for a while. It started with strange looks, rude comments. Today, after the reasonable accommodations debate in Quebec in 2007, the debate about the Charter of Values in 2013, the controversy around the niqab during the last federal campaign and now Kelly Leitch surfing the Trump wave with her talk of “anti-Canadian values,” I feel like I live in another country.
I am super self-conscious. I am cautious in my talk, in my actions. I feel scared for my kids. Recently we learned that the Ottawa Main Mosque was vandalized with graffiti saying “Go home.” Before that, it was a synagogue and a church with a black minister that were vandalized.
I can’t pretend not to be Muslim. I can’t be invisible from public space. My hijab defines me, as does the colour of my skin. I live my spirituality outside and inside. I can’t hide it from people.
AZK: Well, out of this ugliness, we’re building a solidarity that we probably weren’t as conscious of before. I read Joy Kogawa’s Obasan in school and it made an indelible impression on me. Now I live in a state where there actually was a relocation camp for Japanese Americans—an internment camp, why am I dressing it up? I learned more about it through Sandra Dallas’s beautiful novel, Tallgrass.
It seems nearly impossible to believe that after this terrible episode in our history, the subject has been raised for public debate again—this time for American Muslims. At its extreme end, it criminalizes identity—it criminalizes the things that are essential to how we define ourselves.
Like me, Monia, you lay claim to multiple identities. I’m a Muslim woman of South Asian background, born in England, essentially Canadian, but I’m also starting to feel like an American, and I just as frequently refer to myself as Pakistani, or some hybrid identity that encompasses all of these. I negotiate these identities differently depending on the cultural context I’m in. I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about this as I continually cross the U.S.-Canada border. I recognize how privileged both those passports are. I have relatives and friends who hold different passports. There’s a stratification of who gets to travel and engage in free movement, and how comfortably they’re able to do so. How do you define your various identities—what kinds of compromises and negotiations do you have to undertake?
MM: We all negotiate multiple identities—as immigrants or transplanted Canadians, as parents and children, as professionals, and so on. I am no different. So why should I only be defined by my headscarf? I am a woman first and then come other identities. My multiple identities are an advantage and not just liabilities. I speak three languages so I am exposed to multiple cultures, imaginations and horizons. I don’t understand when people talk about their single “values” or their “identity.” They do that in Tunisia too. Official media speak of “our Islam” and people speak of “our food,” “our clothes.” We should go beyond these places of confinement for the mind and the body.
AZK: Your mother tongue is Arabic. And you are fluent in English and French besides. Which language is easiest for you to write in? And when you were writing your memoir, were there moments when you wished you could express your thoughts in several languages to reflect your complex and nuanced reality?
MM: All my books were written in French and later translated to English. It is a bit of a dilemma for me these days, as it was for many writers and authors in colonized countries. Why should I write in the language of the oppressor? I am still thinking about it. I would love to be able to share my works in Arabic, but of course, I don’t have an audience in Canada. So I continue to write and express my opinions. Sometimes, I include some Arabic words in my writing as I found them more natural in the context.
Do you have a similar dilemma about language, or is it perhaps more around the nature of the stories to tell?
AZK: English is my mother tongue but my books explore the cross-pollination of languages and cultures, given my lifelong exposure to the myriad influences of the Islamic civilization. Before I set out to work on any of my books, I ask myself why I’m writing it. What story do I want to tell? And what’s the most effective way of telling it? I write because I have something to say, something I’m compelled to say about these deep divides between people, and how we might find a way to understand each other.
MM: I started writing long ago when I was a teenager. I wrote about my life, my friends, my parents, my dreams and fears. I wrote short stories that were never published. I wrote articles. One short article was published in the newspaper when I was 16 under a pen name! Then I went to business school. Later, after my husband came back from prison in Syria, I decided to write about my life during his incarceration, torture and disappearance. It was a selfish action solely motivated by my desire to tell what happened to me and my kids. It wasn’t my husband’s story [I was telling] as much as it was my story! I didn’t want my kids to know this story from someone else. It is like when you share painful news with your loved ones—you want to be the person to do it and not others: it makes it less tragic.
That book, Hope and Despair, helped me tremendously to accept the new me, the new life, the new husband I had. It was a form of therapy. Later, I decided to write fiction. I had plenty of other things I wanted to say but not about my personal life, rather about things around me: Muslim women, faith, intergenerational conflicts …
AZK: Let’s talk about the tensions between feminism and Islam. I certainly view myself as a feminist. I see myself as being entitled to equal rights, equal opportunities, equal pay for work of equal value, and so on. But I’m also a Muslim woman and I argue that that’s completely in harmony with being a feminist.
But this is also the area where I think it’s most incumbent on us to be self-reflective and critical. Clearly, there are significant problems with patriarchal interpretations of faith that subordinate or, in more extreme cases, subjugate women. Sometimes it exists in our households; sometimes it’s at our mosques and community centres. I’ve had experiences where I haven’t been allowed to sit on committees or where my prayer space is marginalized. My friend Hind Makki has a blog called Side Entrance that documents the inequality of women’s access to mosques around the world—it’s eye opening. She was inundated with stories from Muslim women around the world—and I can attest to exclusionary experiences in Ottawa, in Jerusalem, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. I can’t accept that. I don’t want to be marginalized in the mosque or treated like a lesser spiritual being.
What are your own reflections on this? Has faith been a process of growth for you? Are you comfortable calling yourself a Muslim woman and a feminist at the same time?
MM: I grew up having a bad experience with feminists. Many feminists in Tunisia sided with authoritarian regimes, letting down other women who didn’t have the same socioeconomic privileges. Being a feminist was understood as being liberated from religion, and I didn’t agree with this position. For me religion can be liberating and empowering; it all depends on the context and on the level of education. Education is key. I despised those women who never denounced President Habib Bourguiba’s human rights abuses against his political opponents because he is supposed to be the “liberator” of women. For many allies in the West, Bourguiba and Tunisia became a beacon of women’s liberation—but which women and what liberation? The elite profited terribly from this simplistic discourse and it is true that many Tunisian women and girls benefited from it, as they went to school. But many women who were invested in liberation from authoritarianism, from imperialism, from consumerism, were deemed not liberated enough or, rather, not patriotic enough.
Later, when I read about Islamic feminism, I found an answer to my dilemma: can I be Muslim and feminist? I even published an article, “Re-examining Relations between Men and Women: Partnership as a New Paradigm for Reading Islamic Religious Texts,” where I combined my knowledge of finance and Islam. Unfortunately, these initiatives to reinterpret some sensitive issues in Islam are disliked by traditionalists and judged inadequate by many feminists. So I am caught in the middle. No matter how insistently I call myself a feminist, I am judged otherwise, and no matter how much I call myself a religious Muslim, I am also judged otherwise.
AZK: This labelling—whether it’s about feminism or being called an apostate—is aimed at disempowerment. And at silencing those who demand change. There are systemic and structural injustices that need to be defeated in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly when it comes to women’s spiritual and legal equality.
MM: Yes, despite some intellectual disagreement with some authors, I am still convinced that we need to tackle the “traditionalist” interpretations of Islamic religious text, an umbrella that many Muslim men have been hiding under to justify oppression of Muslim women.
AZK: We must, I agree. And there has been some significant work done by Muslim women scholars to this end, work we need to build upon. And there do seem to be signs of hope. In Tunisia, from a distance, it seems the recent democratic transition has been able to reconcile tensions between secular feminists and religious Muslims, as articulated by the new constitution and supported by both Ennahda [the leading Islamic party] and secular groups in Tunisia. This is a huge leap forward for Muslim societies. Perhaps it could serve as a model for other countries.
MM: You are right, Ausma. Recently Tunisia seems to have found a fragile balance to handle secularism and political Islam. At least headscarves aren’t demonized as they used to be, but this is a fine balance and it can tip to one side or another at any occasion. There are old wounds that need to heal. Just recently, the Truth and Dignity Commission held its first public testimonies. Communists, nationalists, Islamists and other political opponents testified about the horror of torture and oppression at the hands of the government [since independence]. It was an emotional and poignant moment for many Tunisians. Perhaps this will help the victims to forget and the politicians to learn from the past. Perhaps this would make us write more stories and encourage other countries to keep this fine balance as well.
AZK: Given the long battle you fought for your husband’s safe return and for accountability from the Canadian government for his detention and torture, what are your thoughts on the status of these issues in Canada?
MM: I think the so-called war on terror waged by the U.S., after 9/11, opened the doors to new practices that would never be accepted otherwise. What is being done in the name of security to citizens or refugees or people in general around the world and specifically in the U.S. and Canada is a step ahead of the public knowledge and awareness of these methods.
When Maher was rendered from the U.S. to Syria via Jordan, the Canadian public didn’t know about the policy of extraordinary rendition. The case of my husband made it known. Other cases happened before him; we never heard about those men. They simply disappeared in those “black hole” prisons spread in several locations around the world.
AZK: This question of the disappeared and the missing has been on my mind for a long time. I read human rights reports about prisoners of conscience, and I was thinking of all the people who don’t have family to fight for them like Maher. My third book is on this subject: it looks at who speaks and acts for the disappeared, and why some lives are so easily thrown away and forgotten. In Among the Ruins, I’m looking at Iran, but I see a lot of parallels to Maher’s situation.
MM: People disappearing, lives taken away, kids assassinated, these seem to be part of the tragic realities of our world. These kinds of practices become permissible with the “ticking bomb” scenario that has been shared publicly by politicians and some prominent lawyers—the idea that if we have a suspected terrorist in our hands and the only way to prevent the killing of thousand of innocents is to torture this suspect, then we will do it.
AZK: And it’s astonishing how swiftly and easily torture has been normalized. Think of the slew of television shows that depict torture as a successful means of obtaining critical information in those ticking-time–bomb scenarios. 24 was the foremost example of this: the most brutal forms of torture yielded results, a de facto cultural justification, when, in fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture in the U.S. concluded exactly the opposite: in none of the top 20 examples of the CIA torturing prisoners at Guantanamo did torture yield a concrete or immediate national security benefit.
MM: The case of my husband brought a different narrative. It broke those “engineered” examples and told the public that this is what happens when you arbitrarily arrest someone and send him to be tortured. Today, I don’t think that this practice will be used again. It is like fashion—once everyone is on it, celebrities move somewhere else. Security and intelligence agencies have already moved somewhere else. They are using drones to conduct their extra-judiciary killing. Even though President Obama said that if we need to use rendition, we won’t hesitate to use it.
You know, I am reading Orhan Pamuk these days, and his A Strangeness in My Mind is an absolute delight (no pun intended, speaking of things Turkish). He talks in the novel about how Greeks in Turkey saw their buildings, businesses confiscated and occupied by the Turkish in 1955. Of course, similar things happened in Greece as well, with the Turkish.
Is it possible that no matter how civilized we become, we remain primitive in our first reactions? What is the importance of these laws, international conventions, agreements if they will be violated under the name of national security, or for the sake of other “superior” motives?
This is why I decided to write. Writing is the only thing left for me in the world as an individual. I feel I am privileged to have a platform such as books or articles to convey my views, my criticisms and appreciations, disappointment or anger. These days, as a Muslim, you are not even allowed to be angry! You have to be constantly nice, polite, considerate, peaceful, smiling, compromising. Any criticism, any expression of outrage or despair would be tied to your culture or religion or place of birth. So for me, writing is not only reclaiming my voice but also reclaiming my humanity. Having the right to be a human being—someone with the most beautiful aspects of humanity, and the worst as well.