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Canadian Arab Women

Kumkum Ramchandani

Muslim immigrants in the West have always faced culture clashes, identity crisis and feelings of insecurity adjusting to a new, unknown environment. The issues that were earlier brushed under the carpet are out in the open and have taken on a new dimension after 11 September. Kumkum Ramchandani talks to Canadian Arab women who are redefining their roles in the Western world

Before 11 September, 2001 Canada was an immigrants haven, known worldwide for its tolerant culture and welcoming attitudes towards refugees and immigrants from all over the world, regardless of race, colour or creed.

That equation changed overnight after the horrific events in New York and Washington as a shaken Canadian population began to redefine its thinking. Two mosques were damaged and a temple was burned down in quick succession in the Toronto region while some people of ‘brown' colour or a so-called ‘Middle Eastern' appearance were subjected to racial remarks.

Toronto, Canada's most popular city, is home to thousands of people of Arab descent. Most of them have integrated so well that it is hard to pinpoint them in the mainstream of society. However, several months after 11 September, feelings of insecurity have not abated and police patrols of mosques and Arab associations are still intensive.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations Canada has documented 115 cases of threats, harassment and racial profiling since the attacks. Hundreds of cases have probably not been reported.

Arab women in the West
Many Canadian Arab women, who have thrived in Canada's liberal atmosphere have deeply felt the inevitable racial profiling following 11 September.

Laila and Zahra BinbreckSays Zahra Binbrek, who is of Yemeni descent: ‘Muslim women face enormous challenges after 11 September. They need to continue to be vocal about who they are and what they believe in, because if they don't, as history has shown, other people will speak on their behalf and rarely does this happen in a positive or accurate way.'

Zahra's sister, Laila, has a slightly different point of view. She points out, ‘I don't think that it is only the events of 11 September that have given Islam a bad name. A negative image in the West has been perpetuated by movies, books and documentaries and the lack of coherent and articulate speakers on TV.'

According to Laila: ‘It is also our fault (Arabs and Muslims who live in the West - and also those back home) for not being more pro-active in promoting a more positive image. We need to educate people on what Islam is - what our similarities are in regards to culture and religion.'

Deena ThakibFor 23-year old Canada-born Deena Thakib, a producer at a radio station and writer, life in Canada offers her opportunities she would probably never have had if she had been brought up in Egypt. Her parents migrated to Canada 25 years ago to give their children a better break in life and lead a peaceful existence.

As Deena points out, no society is perfect and people in Canada are generally too busy working hard to earn enough money to waste time on picking at people of Arab appearance. As an example of Canada's egalitarian views she lauds the recent decision by the government to give funding to religious schools. Catholic schools are already being funded by the government.

‘I am thankful for my entire Canadian upbringing. I am thankful for living in the city of Mississauga where during the Holy Month I was able to freely worship at a local mosque of my choice every day. My religious beliefs were never questioned and I was free to practice as I wished. I am thankful to hear parents tell me every day that they have the choice to send their children to private religious schools where Islam in the classroom is not viewed as a threat and where being Canadian only provides for a sharper understanding of the world,' she says.

Deena continues: ‘I am thankful for proudly calling myself a Muslim woman in a non-Muslim country yet never being excluded from mainstream society, where I can make decisions that will surely affect my future: where I study, what I study and what career I wish to pursue.

‘In fact, I am able to use my whole Muslim being to achieve the things in life I wish to pursue with no questions asked. I am thankful for being able to walk in a mall and to see Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab do so with confidence, even if others view it as a sign of oppression.'

Islamic dress code
The hijab is one aspect that has drawn quite a lot of speculation from non-Muslim Canadians who view it as a sign of repression of women.

A young Canadian Muslim woman, Naheed Mustafa, decided to wear the hijab when she was 21 and wrote lyrically in an Internet article of her reasons: ‘Because it gives me freedom. It is simply a woman's assertion that judgement of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction. Young Muslim women are reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in the light of its original purpose - to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies. I do this because I'm a Muslim woman who believes her body is her own private concern.'

She wrote, ‘People have a difficult time relating to me. I'm young, Canadian born and raised, university-educated - why would I do this to myself, they ask. Strangers speak to me in loud, slow English and often appear to be playing charades. They politely inquire how I like living in Canada and whether or not the cold bothers me. If I'm in the right mood, it can be very amusing!'

Naheed continued, ‘I get the gamut of strange looks, stares and covert glances. I often wonder whether people see me as a radical, fundamentalist Muslim terrorist packing an AK-47 assault rifle inside my jean jacket. Or maybe they see me as the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere.'

She finds the hijab liberating because it takes away the stress of trying to live up to the image of beauty that has been so constricting for Western women.

She explains, ‘Feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty is tiring and often humiliating. I should know, I spent my entire teenage years trying to do it. I was a borderline bulimic and spent a lot of money I had potions and lotions in hopes of becoming the next Cindy Crawford.

‘Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bear their breasts in public as some people would like to have you believe. True equality can only be attained when women don't feel the desire to display themselves to get attention and won't need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves,' Naheed added.

Making a choice
Zahra, Laila, Deena and Naheed have one thing in common. They are all in their twenties and have lived in Canada long enough to assimilate and enjoy the many facilities the country has to offer. They acquired the accents, the requisite educational qualifications and the ability to face challenges, whether social or work-related. Their ties with their country of origin are nebulous unlike those of their parents or grandparents.

Thirty-one year old lawyer Dorisa Nachla, born in Canada to an Egyptian father and Lebanese mother, visited Cairo for the first time as an adult last year. She was somewhat appalled at the yawning gap between the rich and poor though fascinated by the rich culture and family closeness of Egyptian society.

‘But at the end of the day, after we came back, I told my father, thank god we migrated!' Dorisa says. ‘I know for a fact that I would not have had the life style and choices in Egypt that I have here in Canada.'

Young Canadian Arab women are thankful for the freedom of expression allowed them and their acceptance within Canadian society. The events of 11 September had not really touched them in their day-to-day existence.

Says Laila Binbrek, who is a client administrator at a company that designs websites, ‘I find that a majority of people I meet don't see me as an Arab or a Muslim. I am not sure why, but some of it might have to do with the fact that I don't speak with an accent and I don't wear traditional Muslim clothing.'

Zahra, her sister, who works as an office manager and research assistant, is more sensitive about her identity. She explains, ‘I feel like I am always in limbo between what is Canadian and what is Arab, bearing in mind that in my opinion they are two exclusive identities. Some times I feel very alienated from my ‘Arabness' and much more Canadian and at other times I feel excluded from Canadian culture and more in touch with my Arab side.

Sometimes this can prove to be a painful conflict especially now. The things fellow Canadians were saying and writing about Arabs and Muslims after 11 September shocked me and made me question my Canadian identity. I thought maybe I had been fooling myself all these years by considering myself a Canadian when the majority of people don't see me that way and have all these preconceived ideas about my ethnic and religious background.

‘When I am with non-Arab Canadians I am always put in the position of trying to broaden and give balance and context to the person's image of Islam and Arabs (and especially how they relate to women), which is usually distorted and narrow-minded. In this process, I feel like I have no time for self-reflection, self-education and self-criticism which I think are essential in the process of evolving into a better human being. I think this applies also at the community level where most of our energies are spent defending our culture and religion and little or no time in looking inwards and growing as a community,' Zahra adds.

Identity crisis
Laila too, does confess to some confusion about her identity. ‘I find myself balancing two cultures at the same time. I don't always feel I fit in with the Arab community - and I am not sure if I am always accepted completely by the Arab community either, as I don't speak Arabic very well. Perhaps it is my own complex I have to deal with.'

She continues, ‘Being a Canadian to me means having a good blend of cultures. Canada is a country of immigrants - we all bring something with us, the idea to share and to grow. I have found some of my close friends, children of immigrants or immigrants from other countries or of European descent, have similar values as I do.'

Zahra has a diffrent theory for accessing an identity crisis. ‘Identity also has to do with how you see and define yourself, not just what others perceive. So I have decided that I still feel Canadian and if anyone chooses to see me differently, that is their problem!'

But for Deena, identity is not a problem. ‘I never have to make a choice between being a Muslim and a Canadian. I am both, and for that I am very thankful.'

Rafar A DhahirFor new immigrant, Rafal Dhahir, who was born in Iraq, the immediate problems of settling down seem almost too daunting. For her identity is defined by her role as mother, wife and an earning partner. She, her husband and her four children arrived in Canada on 25 September, 2001, from Tripoli, to where they had fled in 1993 to escape hardships in Iraq. Rafal has made Canada her home because of the personal development and human rights the country has to offer, a far cry from what she has been used to.

She recounts, ‘Before we came to Toronto on 25 September, just a few days after the horrible events, we were very apprehensive about the kind of treatment we would get in Canada especially as we had been told terrible stories by friends in Tripoli. In fact, we left all our belongings behind with some friends and came only with the bare necessities.'

But when the Dhahir family arrived at the Toronto airport there were no untoward incidents and the whole immigration procedure went smoothly, which came as great relief. Rafal is full of plans to better her technical qualifications in this country of great opportunities but is finding the settling in process quite difficult . As is the case for all new immigrants with no credit history and no salary stubs, it has proved tough to rent an apartment and to find jobs for her and her husband who are both in the engineering field. Moreover, her children, three girls aged 18, 16 and 11 and one boy aged 15, are finding it hard in school due to their less than adequate grasp of the English language.

But Rafal's has a positive attitude and knows that eventually she and her family will realise their ambitions with hard work and strength of character. She has already started by taking on a three month voluntary position as a laboratory assistant which will count as her ‘Canadian experience' when looking for a job. She knows what to expect from a Western society as she lived in the UK for three years before coming to Canada.

‘I have always wanted to live in the West after hearing about it from my father and Canada has been the right choice. I love the systematic way things are done here, the well running policies, human rights and rules and laws which apply to one and all. Have we made the right decision? I will only be able to answer that when I see my children successful!' Rafal says.

The events of 11 September have caused not only the Western world to stop and ponder, it has led to increased introspection even amongst the Arab community. Canadian Arab women, too, have had to redefine their roles and are playing an important part in putting back together the social fabric of one of the most multicultural countries in the world.

Courtesy: Arabian Woman

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