Harper, We Have A Problem: Women-Only Gym Hours, Niqabs, and Canadian Islamophobia

When Soumia Allalou recently put forward a request to institute women-only hours at McGill University’s gym, she set off a maelstrom of controversy both on campus and off. Opinion pieces articulating outrage along with a petition opposing the idea quickly circulated. The University administration’s response was to unilaterally cut off discussions, stating that “it’s always been clear, McGill is secular and co-ed, and this is what we promote.” This is an interesting version of McGill’s history, given that McGill operated as a male-only institution for the first 63 years of its existence. In fact, up until the 1970s, all female undergraduate students were categorized separately as students of Royal Victoria College. It is also intriguingly amnesic in light of the Christian imagery found throughout campus, such as the stained glass windows portraying Saint Michael in the War Memorial Hall and of Saint George elsewhere.

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student. Source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/women-only-gym-hours-nixed-by-mcgill-university-1.3002816

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student.
Source: http://www.cbc.ca

Speaking from personal experience as a woman who has worked out in a gym, I agree with Ms. Allalou’s perfectly reasonable statement that “there are many reasons women would want to work out only with other women. They might feel more comfortable. They might have had bad experiences in the past…” Given the University administration’s citation of secularism, one wonders what the response would be if a non-Muslim woman had put forward the request…

As one online comment on the McGill Daily states,

“This is only about accommodating a growing religious group that hold an ideology that is demanding more and more changes to our secular society. The fact that feminists are endorsing this kind of thing shows that we need to educate ourselves more on these customs and take a look at the middle east where they are the norm – because that is where we are headed.”

This comment is both disturbing and representative of the response to Allalou’s request. Firstly, note the framing of Muslims as a group who are demanding changes in the context of a zero-sum game in which accommodating the needs of a minority is seen to equal rescinding the rights of the majority. This kind of thinking sets up an “us vs. them” mentality in which it becomes increasingly difficult to think collaboratively or collectively. Secondly, this comment reveals the now familiar assumption that Islam is somehow particularly demeaning to women (never mind the fact that clear incidents of misogyny can be found in nearly all major world religions). This comment also troublingly demonstrates an unquestioning adoption of a belief that has been at the centre of several major imperialist interventions throughout history, including the more recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such Western invasions have often actually resulted in devastating set backs for the status of women, despite the rhetoric citing ‘the plight of women’ as justification for military intervention.

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod's latest book on the topic.  Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s latest book on the topic. Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

The idea that Muslim women are particularly oppressed and need to be ‘saved’ by ‘our superior secular society’ is a trope that is stealthily seeping into many of the discourses around immigration, Islam, and navigating cultural difference in Canada. (On a side note – why is it that the very people who are making these kinds of statements are often in the very next breath claiming that we live in a ‘Judeo-Christian’ society? You really can’t have both!). Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod offers some extremely relevant perspective on this topic in a piece entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (2002).

In it she provides us with a timely reminder of the ways in which the issue of the burqa and women’s rights were boldly mobilized in order to justify the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abu-Lughod tells us that

“it is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.” (Abu-Lughod 2002:788-789).

The slide from demonizing women who wear niqab to making blanket statements about the supposed inferiority of Islam is chillingly smooth, and often used for nefarious purposes.

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.  Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

The incident at McGill is but one example in a recent spate of Islamophobia that has occupied the nation’s headlines over the past few weeks. The arguably racist attitude expressed in these discourses is unfortunately not confined to Internet comment sections. Our Prime Minister, the political leader of this country, is also guilty of stoking the flames of Islamophobia in similarly unabashed fashion. Whether for tactical political purposes meant to distract the public from a less than stellar economic record, or out of plain old racism, Mr. Harper’s statement that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” (and as such should not be worn during the Canadian citizenship ceremony) is undeniably Islamophobic. As other commentators have pointed out, the real anti-woman sentiment here is to be found in the idea that the State has the right to tell women how to dress. Another Conservative Member of Parliament, Larry Miller, echoed this Islamophobia when he told women who wish to wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from.”

Importantly, all of this is taking place in the context of a noticeable ratcheting up of anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Conservative party has expressly utilized the threat of Islamic terrorism to gain support for their controversial Bill C-51, against which there has been widespread protest. During the hearings for this Bill, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s questioning of the head of a group that represents Canadian Muslims was labelled downright “McCarthy-esque.” In fact, this group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has launched a defamation lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s office for slanderous statements linking the group to Hamas.

If all of this wasn’t troubling enough news from our political leaders, a recent EKOS poll found that “not only is opposition to immigration in general scaling heights not seen in twenty years but the number of Canadians saying we admit too many visible minorities has just cracked the 40-point ceiling for the first time ever.” The author rightly points out that “opposition to immigration can be driven by factors other than racial discrimination, such as economic anxiety. But it’s hard to see how those saying too many immigrants are visible-minority can be motivated by anything but racial or cultural bias… these numbers should alarm anyone who believes in an open and tolerant society.”

The denial of a university student’s request for women-only hours at the campus gym may seem a small and trivial issue. However, it is in such seemingly mundane examples that we can begin to see the shift in attitude towards a totalitarian rejection of those we perceive to be ‘the other.’ If history has any relevance for the unfolding of the future, it is that the stakes for such a rejection are unbelievably high. These kinds of divisive tactics have no place in our collective future. We must reject Islamophobia, and smash the walls Prime Minister Harper is attempting to build between us. We are enriched through our differences. We are stronger, better and more prosperous together.


Blood & Oil: A Smattering of Canadiana

The camera pans over rows of plush chairs upholstered in a hideous green, creaking under the weight of indifference. A man, wearing a crisp suit, his long black hair swept back, stands and speaks an unwelcome truth into a space which is saturated in long years of deceit.

The speaker is Romeo Saganash, Member of Parliament for the riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou and you can watch his speech here. In it, he called for an official inquiry into the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada. The proposed inquiry has been gaining support after the body of 15 year old Tina Fontaine was found dead in a garbage bag in the Red River in August, and volunteers, losing hope in the government’s willingness to do so, begin to drag the Red River themselves, looking for the bodies of other missing indigenous women.

Another clip from the House of Commons circulated on social media around the same time as Saganash’s speech. In this second clip, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is shown asking some pretty reasonable questions of Conservative MP Paul Calendra regarding Canada’s military mission in Iraq. Instead of responding to the questions (with information that I believe Canadians are entitled to know!), the Conservative MP launched into a completely unrelated attack on the NDP concerning the position of an affiliated fundraiser on the Israel-Palestine conflict, repeating the same irrelevant information over and over again, like an enraged parrot.

As if we needed any more proof that the Canadian government currently in power is utterly and completely out of touch with Canadians’ priorities, our dear leader Mr. Harper declined to attend the UN summit on climate change which took place a couple of weeks ago. Harper has made it audaciously clear that we apparently have neither the right to know the details of our military involvements in other countries, nor the right to any assurance from our leader that he recognizes the importance of what has been called by many the greatest challenge of our lifetimes (i.e. climate change). Nor do we apparently have the right to a say in how our natural resources are used, and whether or not we want pipelines spewing toxins into the water and land.

At first glance, these issues may seem disconnected. They are not. Building pipelines and developing the tar sands are a direct repudiation of the idea that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and carry on with business as usual. To do so would be to commit a slow, toxic, collective suicide, and the evidence is clear that breaking our dependence on fossil fuels is essential if we want to counter and reverse (if possible) the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have been extensively involved in environmental activism, and respecting the Earth was a common theme in the Idle No More movement, which began in December 2012. Not only does our addiction to fossil fuel continue to destroy the planet, it also sets the stage for devastating military interventions, such as the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for the greedy despoiling of land in blatant disrespect for indigenous people’s rights to it.  The depth of denial of the Conservative government is readily apparent in the actions of its leader: denying that we have a history of colonialism, claiming that the murder of so many indigenous women is a “crime problem” and not a “sociological” one, tweeting about the deliciousness of bacon while Chief Teresa Spence was on hunger strike outside the Parliament building protesting the stunningly economically depressed conditions of Attawapiskat, muzzling scientists working on the issue of climate change, and generally creating an environment where speaking out against such things is more and more saturated with a simmering fear of government crackdown.

These sorts of actions reinforce a creeping suspicion of mine that perhaps the answer to these questions will not come from coercing and needling our government into respect our long term interests through acting on climate change, breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and forming respectful relationships with indigenous people whose territory we have colonized. I’m not convinced the current class of people from whom the ranks of politicians are drawn will ever be able to do so, given how intimately tangled up they are in the flows of the capitalist class’s ill-gotten wealth. In short, they have been bought. But I refuse to be bought, or paid off for my silence in this egregiously obvious manner by shaky promises that cannot be delivered: candied promises of jobs from poisonous pipelines in the depths of a recession will not sway my conviction that to force these projects to completion would be morally reprehensible on multiple levels.

Intimations of the determination needed to combat these sorts of actions float across my newsfeed daily. Recently, a group of indigenous nations located on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border signed an international treaty amongst themselves, vowing to protect the Salish Sea, and asserting their right and their perceived duty to do so. Notably, the Canadian government is not a signatory, because it does not recognize the sovereignty of indigenous nations. The fact that this treaty was signed, even though the Canadian government will not recognize it fills me with hope: although we may not see much of it in the mainstream media, indigenous sovereignty is real, and it is being practiced as we speak.

This kind of quiet “we’ll just have to do things our way” action calls to mind David Graeber’s book “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”[1]. In it he discusses the idea that in the end, perhaps capitalism will not be dismantled in the roaring fires of revolution, but rather through quietly determined, collective non-cooperation, through the construction of alternative networks and circuits of economic exchange which reflect a different set of values than those endorsed by the current political hegemony and the wild west/neoliberal iteration of capitalism those in power so vociferously champion.

clearing the plainsWe, political subjects and ‘ordinary Canadians,’ know better than to believe that the Conservative government currently in power will ever treat any of these issues with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Despite Harper’s historical amnesia, we know about residential schools, policies of forced starvation[2], discrimination, mass murder, systemic sexual violence, and economic conditions that result in extreme poverty, suicide, and substance abuse for indigenous people.

What we don’t seem to know is our own power. What would happen if Settler Canadians collectively chose to recognize indigenous nations’ sovereignty despite our government’s colonial attitudes? In what position would the Canadian government find itself, if we-the-people decided to actually treat indigenous nations as de-facto sovereign nations? Would we ask permission to enter their territories, passports in hand? How would this look? How could this be practiced? Perhaps we could start by thinking of these pipeline projects in the same way that we think about the invasion and occupation of places like Iraq. There are some striking similarities, to be sure. Depending on how you look at it, our government is unilaterally entering another sovereign nation’s territories for the purposes of economic gain (specifically pertaining to oil), against the will of that nation’s peoples. Perhaps we should oppose the pipelines on this basis and start asking our government to reveal not only the exit date for our troops in Iraq, but also for the exit date of unwelcome government agents and their business sector cronies in indigenous territories.

[1] Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2] Daschuk, James. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

Nelson Mandela and Political (Mis)Remembering

Terrorist. Freedom fighter. Subversive. Communist.

All of the above are words that have been used to describe Nelson Mandela, contrary to those being used by the mainstream media in the wake of his death in order to sanitize and subvert his legacy. He is now being hailed as an icon of peace, and elevated to saintly status with the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa (who are not exactly the kind of moral compasses we have been led to believe – Teresa was virulently anti-choice, and Gandhi’s exploitative sexual practices have recently come to light). I would like to argue that Mandela was not a peace icon, nor was he a saint – but that these are the very aspects of his legacy that have left such an impact on us, and that should give us hope for the future.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the mainstream media’s discussion of Mandela is their smug, self-satisfied declarations that equality and democracy have arrived, that history is past and settled, that racial harmony is pervasive and the struggle is definitively over. All of this is a blatant lie.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this approach is apparent in American right-wing politicians clumsily stumbling over themselves in attempts to ‘pay homage’ to the legacy of Mandela. What they are really doing is desperately trying to obscure their own complicity and support of the former Apartheid government in South Africa. You can view a timeline of American right wing support for the Apartheid government and their accompanying demonization of Nelson Mandela here.

UK Conservative Students

A Poster from the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students (1980s)
Source: http://threefingeredfox.net/?p=98

But one aspect of the coverage which seems to be distributed across the ideological spectrum is this idea that Nelson Mandela was an icon of peace. In a time when class divisions and resentment over increasing joblessness and income inequality is growing, maintaining the idea that the only legitimate form of political change is peaceful is clearly only in the interest of the status quo. Nelson Mandela was a man who believed that violence had its time and place, that sometimes the system is entrenched in such a way that violence becomes necessary.

As one commentator predicts, “As with [Martin Luther] King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons.”

However, it is possible to resist this trend of sanitization and to remember history despite the mainstream media’s short memory and the status quo’s campaign to wipe it out.

As one blogger reminds us,

“Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators…Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Instead of buying into the insidious repackaging and sanitizing of Mandela and his politics, let’s examine some of the issues he cared about, such as his belief that freedom from poverty is a fundamental human right. Because as much as we turn away and try not to see it, we face some of the same issues today, now, in our country. When the crisis in Attawapiskat came to light in 2011, images of people living in shacks, with no running water or electricity emerged. Many mainstream commentators were shocked, as they exclaimed “this is not what Canada looks like!” Unfortunately, extreme poverty is the reality for many Canadians, and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. We, as Canadians, must face our own history as well as the fact that we continue to live in a colonial state. It is not enough to praise leaders in faraway places for confronting these issues in other times, if we ourselves do not recognize our current complicity in the colonial structures that, for instance, continue to oppress indigenous people here in Canada.

Returning to the case of South Africa, the truth is that it is impossible to look at the poverty in South Africa today and say that the struggle is over. It is impossible to look at how entrenched the ruling political party, the ANC, is and view South Africa as an entirely healthy democracy. South Africans have dismantled Apartheid. But they have not yet dismantled the economic system which still places an incongruent amount of the nation’s wealth in the hands of so few (disproportionately white South Africans), while leaving so many out on the peripheries, struggling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and suffering in poverty. The fact we all must face is that when we speak about poverty, what we are really talking about is income inequality and the greed of the ruling class. Poverty will not be alleviated until we have set up an economic system in which everyone shares in the wealth, and everyone has access to the resources a government can provide.

So instead of remembering Mandela as a peace icon and a saint, in a slick, repackaged image let’s remember him as the man who went to prison because he was charged with the intent to overthrow the government (and not only actually tried to, but had some measure of success). Let’s not forget him as the man who was branded a terrorist by the United States government up until 2008. It is those fearless confrontations with entrenched imperialist powers that really make him great.

As one commentator beautifully put it,

“Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X…You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us…You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail…

Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.”

With that in mind, we should celebrate the aspects of Mandela’s life that brought these issues to the fore and refuse to sanitize his beliefs and his values. We should also refuse to forget all the messy complications, and competing forces in history (including the sordid past of his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, infighting between different political parties in the fight against apartheid, and the ANC’s collaboration with organizations such as the IMF and World Bank along with the damaging consequences of these collaborations for many South Africans). We should refuse to allow mainstream media sources to colonize his radicalism. Let’s take him at his word, because I believe that that is exactly what he would have wanted. Let’s apply the lessons he has to offer us to our own country and the injustices that are apparent all around us.

The struggle is far from over. We still have a great deal of work to do.

The Past Never Dies: An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Modern Evangelical Missionary Literature

I grew up attending a church where a large world map was displayed in the lobby. Brightly coloured push pins with strings marked the locations where missionary families from the church were currently stationed. We sang songs in Sunday school with lyrics like “I’m in the Lord’s army” and “Onwards Christian soldiers.” We spoke about “conquering souls.” Embedded within this ideology are unabashed echoes of colonialism, which I believe need to be called into question.

Onwards Christian Soldier Map

I came across a perfect example of the material manifestation of this ideology just a few days ago. I was reading a newsletter from a family member of mine who lives and works as an evangelical missionary in Sub-Saharan Africa (because I have not asked permission, and I highly doubt they would grant it, given the tone of this piece, I have neglected to link to the newsletter or mention the specific country this relative operates in). For those who don’t have missionary relatives or friends, it is common practice for missionary families to write regular newsletters detailing their exploits, with reports on their successes/struggles, requests for prayers on specific issues, and updates on how each member of the family is doing, often including photographs. More recently, missionaries have taken to creating these newsletters electronically and distributing them online through emails or social media networks. The newsletter I read was perfectly representative of this trend and was scattered with photographs of the African people with whom my relatives work.

However, it was the captions on these photos which raised some questions for me. Strangely vague captions such as “Vadoma lady & baby in clinic” and “Bemba people” (group names have been changed to preserve anonymity) immediately brought to mind photos from old Evans-Pritchard ethnographies (a colonial anthropologist who worked in British controlled Sudan). When my missionary relatives appeared in these photos, they were identified by name. This style of description is a direct descendant of earlier anthropological and colonial literature. I wonder if the people photographed were asked for permission to use their images? Surely the authors are aware of the people’s names – why not include them in an effort to portray the subjects in a more humanizing light? The effect of this type of captioning is to dehumanize the subjects of the photography, and to portray them as part of an anonymous mass of poor, racialized people, neatly opening up the line of logic which leads to a racist, colonial, and imperialistic ‘White Man’s Burden’ style philosophy.


If my criticisms sound strongly worded, I should mention that I speak from the perspective of someone who has intimate, personal experiences with evangelical missionaries. I have many relatives who conduct missionary work in foreign countries, an “MK” (slang for missionary kid) parent who was raised in the “mission field,” and grandparents and great-grandparents that devoted their life’s work to evangelical missionary activities. Several of my great-grandparents’ children died of tropical diseases while in the mission field. But not only are the effects on the people with whom these missionaries work dubious, I have personally seen the negative effects the decision to participate in these activities can have on the missionaries’ lives themselves. I’m not the only one.

With that said, the colonial mentality behind these photographs and the accompanying newsletter is clear. The idea that one belief system, nay – one interpretation of one belief system, is superior to all others and must be propagated “for other peoples’ own good” is inherently arrogant. The concomitant goal of the obliteration of all other forms of spirituality only serves to emphasize the damaging implications of this ideology. In not allowing for the validity of other spiritual paths, and in actively seeking to destroy other ways of being spiritual (including indigenous modes of spirituality) evangelical missionary work reveals its underlying bigotry, not to mention a twisted form of intellectual and spiritual tyranny.

As a Canadian, I cannot help but think of the devastating consequences of missionary activity among indigenous peoples in my home country. The horrors of residential schools including the rape, physical, sexual, cultural and psychological abuse of indigenous children by priests and other religious figures cannot be dissociated from these practices. Anthropologists have long been critical of our own historical complicity in the colonial endeavour. As someone who occupies both positions (as an anthropologist and member of an evangelical missionary family) I would like to suggest that we do some soul searching pertaining to these ideological roots in evangelical missions as well. Aren’t these historical records an indication that we should examine current missionary work with a critical eye? That perhaps the past should give us pause?

The truly unfortunate (and heart-breaking) aspect of all this is that often people who participate in evangelical missionary work are genuine and well-meaning. (And please don’t misinterpret me – I am in full support of religious freedom; that is the very reason why I oppose these types of colonizing mentalities in which privileged foreigners set up shop in someone else’s country with the explicit goal of convincing people there that their cultural practices are ‘wrong’). I write about these issues from personal experience which has led me to believe that these missionaries and their supporters truly, whole-heartedly believe the merit of these endeavours, and endure great personal sacrifices to enact them.

Unfortunately, voices like mine are often drowned out in the evangelical missionary collective conversation, through in-built devices within the ideology that view any form of criticism as a sure sign that they are on the right path. If you bring these issues up, you are often met with a response along the lines of “Christ warned that his followers would be persecuted.” Rather than taking an honest look at the history and effects of their work, they cover up these arguments in a shroud of upside down logic, often citing 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted” (ESV).

To be fair, there is a huge difference in the actions of a person who is motivated by their personal faith to help others and those with the explicit goal of converting others to that faith while using apparent “helping” activities as a prop/cover. I want to make clear that in voicing these criticisms I am attacking an ideology, not the people who subscribe to it. I implore evangelical missionaries to take a good, hard look at some of the underlying tenets of this ideology as it pertains to missionary activity. Instead of brushing aside criticism through ideological sleight of hand, let’s identify shared values. Let’s critically and honestly look at our histories. Let’s look at the root causes of underdevelopment in formerly colonized countries and seek to acknowledge those injustices. Let’s advocate reparations and redistribution, not condescending “help” laced with religious intolerance, bigotry, and arrogance.