How Deep is Our Multiculturalism?

Jordanian Folklore
My experience as an Arab, and a hijab-donning Muslim woman tells me that not everyone really understands how multiculturalism works. Not everyone gets it.

From what I have seen, embracing multiculturalism is often celebrated with food and dance and clothing displays of the “other”. That’s a good place to start, sure… the eye craves visual flavours. What is agreed by all as important, is the differences in spices, famous dishes tastes, and traditional clothing styles.

And yet, how is this same level of urgency not inclusive to understand the life values, and most importantly, the experiences of the “other”? To understand what brings them pain, and what brings them joy? To understand how multidimensional identity aspects of their being can play out in their day to day world?

These more important matters that concern a human being’s soul, their thoughts, their feelings – that is not touched. As long as the physical outer appearance is embraced, and what’s on top of their bodies is acknowledged, there is no need to delve deeper into the messy things that actually make us human.

Except, I think there is.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say this: lots of people just aren’t aware that there are unaddressed issues because they don’t have to deal with them on a constant basis. I’m not writing this post to point fingers of blame at anyone – that’s not what I do. Much of what I say might equally apply to me; I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m hoping to shed some light on shadows the mainstream narrative prefers to keep hidden… because if revealed, it challenges the dominant narrative, the status quo.

“Multicultural tolerance and the settler narrative suggest that even though Canada is open to all comers, the recognition of difference is limited to that which does not threaten white settler domination.” ( Carol Schick, White Resentment in Settler Society)

So, as long as multiculturalism doesn’t threaten the benevolent, open, tolerant image of the multicultural country… it’s allowed. As soon as it starts to reveal cracks in the system, intolerant behaviour ensues. It’s slyly disguised as “we are so tolerant, why are these people being so ungrateful now!”

Perhaps an example would help make sense of what I’m writing; just look at Aboriginal people in the West.

“Multiculturalism has been used to defend schools against the need for education for and about aboriginal peoples, in spite of ‘racism and colonialism.’ Ironically, ‘multiculturalism’ operates as a talisman that further relegates aboriginal peoples, along with their culture and history, to a museum-worthy site.” (Carol Schick)

Museum-worthy, eh… Yeah, this strikes a bell. Sure, do let us celebrate clothing, food and music. (No sarcasm, I mean it. Really, let’s!) But if it has to include listening to how racism still exists around us, and if it includes facing the impacts of colonialism that are ever still present…. why, it becomes too controversial for conversation. So controversial, in fact, to even include in educational curricula. While the winds are slowly changing on that front, there is a tremendously long way to go.

Many people will justify their decisions to not take a stance in matters of colonialism or occupation, as “I am neutral.”

Neutral? NEUTRAL?

Woman,

Man,

There is no such thing as a neutral stance in matters of oppression. When you’re silent about defending those stolen from, you are automatically validating the thief.

Hey. I get it. Talking about matters of diversity and lack-of, white privilege, sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination… it’s not easy. It’s not always pleasant. I get that, okay? I’m a person of colour, a visible religious young woman, but that doesn’t mean that I am always in the mood to talk about how terribly insensitive people can be to one another.

But when the conversation is opened, it shouldn’t be shut down on grounds of “neutrality” or “well, I don’t see colour.” That’s a pathetic non-excuse to excuse yourself out of a potentially awkward conversation.

In Nayyirah Waheed’s crystal-clear resonating words:

do-not-trust

As a Palestinian, I have had to live with similar sensations my whole life. I have grown up in environments where my cultural food is celebrated, my Arabic music is enjoyed, our dancing is admired, our fashion is welcomed –  but our hearts, our minds, our experiences, are not worthy enough.

Spotlight

Our history is silenced. Our ghosts are in our heads. In the name of “neutrality”, I have been shunned instead, ignored, silently told “your suffering is not worthy.”

Of course this would be the message: in a land that has yet to fully reconcile with its Aboriginal peoples, who am I to expect that they’d care about the Indigenous peoples of another faraway land? This narrative only causes resentment.

“Anxiety and ambivalence rise in the conflicting desires to be the good, non-racist citizen/subject while maintaining one’s way of living as entitled and superior. The inability to resolve the contradictory and destabilizing stories that have to be told – about racial stereotypes and putative white innocence– are also grist for resentment.”

If you feel like you have to prove your self-worth to someone, then know their company is not worth yours. It shouldn’t be your burden to carry the guilt off of guilty shoulders – even if they don’t know what they are guilty of. Instead, be patient and kind with them until they realise the invisible weight they’re carrying. Whatever you do… don’t haul it onto your shoulders instead. Your mental comfort matters, too.

“it’s not about making you uncomfortable. it’s about making me comfortable.” (“reparations” by Nayyirah Waheed, salt.)

There are so many people and initiatives out there sincerely trying to make the world a better place for all. When I meet these people I am overwhelmed with gratitude to find such goodness. I just pray that more and more of us can fall into this wonderful group – myself included. It is not enough to be a person of colour to absolve blame of blameworthy traits like judgment, discrimination, other forms of privilege… I hold myself accountable just as much.

All praise to the One who puts sakeena and inner tranquillity in hearts. May He put it in yours, whoever you are that is reading this.

Baby Steps

And God knows Best.
-A.S.

It’s Because of Hijab, Not Despite It

Yellow Roses

Once every while, in the midst of a conversation with someone newly met, I get a certain statement delivered my way. It is meant in the warmest of intentions, I know, but…

Here is that magical phrase:

“It’s really great that you are confident mingling in society and seem successful in your career, despite your hijab.

Interestingly this is usually said to me by Muslims, who feel open enough to point it out, as opposed to others who’d rather prefer Islamophobia doesn’t exist. I appreciate the sentiment, and the instinctive side of me wants to automatically nod in agreement – I mean, what is so wrong about that sentence?… It’s true, is it not? I’m apparently confident in my skin, engaged with my community, and blessed to be employed in a great environment… DESPITE my many colourful hijabs.

So why does it instead strike me the wrong way? Why does this seemingly innocent observation irritate me deeply?

Today, while daydreaming about completely different stuff, I finally figured it out. Here is the reality of my situation:

I am content and doing well not despite my hijab… but because of it. And here’s why:

  • Wearing the hijab is a constant visible reminder to myself that no one has any claim to me, my mind, or my body. Sometimes as a human being, I get insecure and wonder what others are thinking about me. But then I look at my reflection when I am out in public, and where others just see a piece of cloth, I see a reminder to myself. I am powerfully reminded that no matter how many things I might feel attached to, the only real lasting thing my heart can know is Allah. I am God’s and God’s alone, and this is liberating.

“Yet she belongs, finally and truly, only to God. The hijab is a symbol of freedom from the male regard, but also, in our time, of freedom from subjugation by the iron fist of materialism, deterministic science, and the death of meaning” (Abdal-Hakim Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 29).

  • Just as hijab hides certain physical aspects of a woman’s body, like her hair, curves and skin, it is a metaphor for me to guard my heart away from the harm that others can inflict on it. I protect my heart by being meditative, listening and speaking with it, and discovering who I really am without waiting for a messed up world to tell me who I am supposed to be. Hijab is not the sole means, but a helpful ingredient certainly, to reminding me that my heart is precious and full of a deep beauty that does not need to be given freely to just anyone who wants access to it. Hijab is my personal physical reminder that within lies a spiritual reality that wants to be realized, and that I have a right to this inner life.

“Hijab narrates self-efficacement for the sake of the Face of God. But it is not a cloak of invisibility, or Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring. The woman in hijab turns in, but stands out. (Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 82)” 

“Hijab indicates freedom from the monoculture, but also freedom from the visual theft of her beauty. It is a denial of the Other’s right of appropriation. (Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 95)”.

Hijabs means various things to different people, and each woman will have her own story to say.

Let’s never make the mistake of assuming that all Muslims think, act and are motivated by the same motives.

As someone in a workshop said very eloquently:

Inline image 1

In my case, hijab has made me more my own by connecting me more closer to God. It has made me more confident to be unapologetically me. It has made me want to excel in all that I do, whether in relationships, faith matters or career goals.

All this not despite my hijab, but because of it.

That is my story.

And Allah knows Best.

-A.S.

9 Years – الحمد لله

I think I’m the only person who celebrates something called a “hijab anniversary.” So be it: Happy 9th Hijab Anniversary me! 😀 Incidentally, I woke up with this song in my head this morning, quite fittingly. 

*Dedicated to Rana who wore it the same day I did– Happy 9th Hijab Anniversary, Rana!

It’s so interesting to hear people’s hijab stories. Unfortunately, mine is not particularly exciting, but time and time again, I am asked to tell it anyways- and what better timing to relieve those memories than today? So here it is.

  9 years.

yellow black hijab

One Monday morning, April 5, 2004, I had a truly inspiring dream. It was simple really- I was merely wrapping a hijab around my head, and it felt as natural and normal as putting on a pair of socks- like, there wasn’t anything strikingly bizarre in that dream– but when I woke up, the sudden surge of inexplicable confidence and determination to do something I wasn’t thinking of doing until a decade later was overwhelming.

I went to the kitchen, found my mother, and casually told her I wanted to wear hijab.

“That’s great to hear! When?” she asked.

“Today,” I replied.

She was completely taken aback– she hadn’t seen that coming. I didn’t either.

“Um,” she said hesitantly. “Don’t you think you’re a bit young?” (I looked younger, too.) “This isn’t something you rush, Aya. It’s a serious decision and not something you do on impulse. You don’t want to regret it. Think it through, you have plenty of time. Maybe wait until you hit CEGEP at least?”

Hmm. Maybe I should wait… *slightly relieved*

In an odd secret way, I felt a small guilty pleasure that I didn’t have to wear it after all right then and there. Although I meticulously plan out the details of my life, I also have a fondness for spontaneity– but I decided that maybe, just maybe, today wasn’t the day for it.

Was I even ready to face the world as I knew it through completely new eyes? I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t sure if I ever could be.

You see, I KNOW it’s just a piece of material. I KNOW it’s not a suit of armor, nor is it a bed of nails I’m about to tread upon. I KNOW it’s not the ultimate sacrifice and I KNOW it’s not the defining factor of a Muslim woman’s identity.

But I also knew that to the outside world, it’s not just a piece of material. It’s not just a fashionable scarf creatively wrapped around a head. Instead, it comes with a whole bunch of symbolism and uncharacteristic character traits that are somehow supposed to automatically label any Muslim woman. Thus, a new hijabi not only has to modify her lifestyle in terms of clothing and what not, but she also has to deal with people treating her like a different species under a microscope, with trying to find a balance between disproving the negative connotations of oppression and pitying conclusions associated with her actually freely-worn attire, between trying to demonstrate just what it really does stand for, and simply being herself and being accepted for it.

So on Monday, April 5 (coincidentally my dad’s birthday), nothing particularly special happened. I put on one of my typical humongous earrings, fixed my hair, added the eyeliner and had a normal day of classes.

But I couldn’t really focus. The compliments that came my way for the earrings didn’t bring me the tinge of satisfaction they usually did.

It’s just not right, I thought. I knew that I was mentally ready to wear the hijab. Some women do it earlier, some later, some not at all, and each has her own personal reasons for doing so; none has a reason to judge the other. No hijabi can judge a non-hijabi, and no non-hijabi can judge a hijabi. Besides God’s ultimate judgment, each woman can only judge herself.

Looking into myself, I realized my reasons for postponing again and again really came down to one thing:

I was choosing to conform to society’s values over God’s command in the Qur’an; even though in a different context, in a different country or with different people, I wouldn’t have hesitated in a heartbeat. My current feelings of powerlessness to determine something as simple as choosing to move the scarf from the neck to the hair made me realize that indeed, I was a slave to the wrong idol. I felt a sudden loathing to my weakness, and I couldn’t bring myself to respect myself.

I knew I needed purification and improvement on myself in a whole bunch of areas, but they were all internal things, soul-deep things, between me and God– and I figured that

if I couldn’t conquer the external tangible VISIBLE distractions that were preventing me from worshipping Him to the fullest,

there was no way, in a million years, I could conquer the invisible beast within me called the ego, or conquer the evil my nafs whispers.

I recently heard this outstanding quote from Tariq Ramadan, and I completely fell in love with it because it completely applies to this situation:

۞ 

“I don’t want to be accepted. I would rather respect myself.” 

۞ 

My 14-year old self didn’t know how to eloquently and briefly think it like that, though– she instead thought,

Oh, what the heck. Screw what people might think, do or say. I’ve had enough of caring about other people who are never satisfied with you anyways. You will never please everybody– in fact, you will never please even one person entirely. The only Being you can please is God, because even when you’re short of fulfilling your obligations, He at least knows your efforts and takes every little detail into account, from the invisible in your heart and mind to the visible of your limbs– He knows all. And that suffices for me.

I seriously needed guts. It was no wonder I couldn’t respect myself, and my self-esteem was dependent on what other people thought of me…

So I got home Monday afternoon and told my mother I was going to wear it the next day after all. She was both pleased but still hesitant- she wasn’t sure what our experience would be like. She suggested I speak to my father about it.

(I still smile to this day at his reaction… and my non-Muslim friends find it incredible he didn’t force me to wear it, nor did he even request it. He certainly did not fit the typical father-forcing-his-daughter-or-he-will-murder-her-or-at-least-throw-acid-on-her-face propaganda that had ludicrously been circulating around at that time.)

So I told him I wanted to wear hijab. (And you ain’t gonna stop me, I’d added silently.) He merely looked from me to my older sister Rana (who decided she would wear it when I did, it would be fun exchanging stories), and then shrugged and said, “If they want, they can go ahead. But you do have a lot of time– you’re still quite young. And you realize this is a lifelong decision, right?” he asked us.

“Yes yes,” we both nodded.

He was silent for a moment as he looked at our eager faces, then gave a reassuring grin to my mother, who still looked a bit uncertain. “Let them,” he said simply. “They can handle it.”

And so it began.

bird takeoff

Tuesday morning, April 6, 2004, smack in the middle of the year and smack in the middle of a totally random week, I picked out my favorite hijab at the time, which was sky-blue with white hazy swirls that actually looked like blurry clouds. It was a perfect match to the sunny day it was.

I am amazed how accurate my dream was. Indeed I got looks and stares and some perplexed reactions, but that was all expected and done mostly by strangers whom I never cared about anyways. But my friends! They continued interacting with me like nothing different happened. Instead of the compliments that used to come for my many exotic earrings, I was getting them for the many exotic hijabs instead, so even that aspect didn’t change.

What I found most intriguing was that, for my closest friends, it took them almost five minutes of speaking with me before they realized there was something different about me. We’d be talking casually before she’d give a small jump and say, “Oh my God– you’re wearing the hijab!” or “Oh my, I just noticed– you’re wearing the headscarf! I didn’t notice!”

(Normal and natural – hijab? Oh, you betcha. Dreams aren’t always just dreams.)

I think it’s been from that day on I’ve been seeing the world from a different lens, a different perspective. And in doing so, I’ve been having a different and healthier relationship with my own being. I can’t explain it exactly– I know it’s just a scarf– but for me, that scarf was self-empowering in every way I thought it might disempower me due to society’s standards. It, too, also came with a whole bunch of (positive) symbolism and expectations to me, and with a sweet responsibility that I have yet to properly fulfill.

It hasn’t all been flowery. I can’t say what my intentions were back then, crystal-clear definite, because my intentions have changed and fluctuated over the years. It’s out of His mercy He allows one to fix intentions even after starting the journey of purification.

Did I become the perfect Muslim woman 9 years ago? Definitely not. But I can honestly and truly say that

9 years ago, I decided to stop caring about people that don’t care about you

9 years ago, I learned the difference between want and need

9 years ago, I learned to properly prioritize

9 years ago, I made the first long-term decision of my life

And

I have

Never. Regretted it. Not for a single second.

For 9 years, I’ve been in constant struggle with myself, with trying to be better and better and sometimes acknowledging to myself that I’m really really bad despite it all, but I’m trying my best and God, does He know it! Contrary to what some might perceive it to be, hijab is not the ‘icing’ on the cake; it is not a mark of having perfected faith. It is just the beginning of a long, difficult journey– as all journeys to worthy destinations inevitably are.

الحمد لله

May your journeys be ever so smooth as you get closer and closer to His loving Presence. Amen!

birds hijab disintegrate

Wishing you all sweet dreams that one day become a reality 🙂

Peace  ஐ

A.S.