Challenging the dominant narrative

Human rights champion and former TRU professor challenges common perceptions about Muslim women

Monia Mazigh presented "Muslim Women Between Fiction and Reality" in the Clock Tower's Alumni Theatre on May 13. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Monia Mazigh presented “Muslim Women Between Fiction and Reality” in the Clock Tower’s Alumni Theatre on May 13. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

As the second stop on her book tour promoting Miroirs et Mirages (Mirrors and Mirages), TRU was an obvious choice for Monia Mazigh. The critically acclaimed author and former TRU professor of finance spoke to a large audience in the Clock Tower’s Alumni Theatre about her passion for writing as well as the challenges Muslims face, especially Muslim women, in Western society.

“We have a tendency to know things because we have been through them,” Mazigh said, explaining how she ended up rediscovering herself through written expression. At first she was hesitant to write down her thoughts, but with help from family and friends would eventually find the courage to detail her struggle to free her husband, Maher Arar, from a Syrian jail, as well as detail the struggles faced by Muslim women who choose to express themselves through wearing the veil in Western society.

“Stereotypes of Muslim women are everywhere. People think Muslim women equal oppression,” Mazigh said. While in Vancouver she recalled, “one lady, she’s famous, I’m not going to mention her name, but one day she turned to me and said your veil is a sign of oppression.”

Mazigh acknowledges these stereotypes, and instead of directly challenging them, believes that we as an intellectual society need to establish a dialogue where we are free to explore and discuss our individual narratives instead of grouping different cultures, peoples and religions into single dominant narratives. This only leads to stereotyping.

“Many people think Muslims and Muslim converts are brainwashed,” she said, noting that Western media and the stereotypes they create can be very anecdotal. “Our population here is brainwashed and not conscious of it.”

Mazigh said that whenever she turns on her TV or radio, all she hears about is “Islam, Islamic terrorists are everywhere” and that this makes it much harder for average Westerners to participate in intelligent discussion, as we are forced to be “consumers of information, not challengers,” she said.

Another problem Mazigh cited is our foreign policy. “We seem to focus on the Canadians who join ISIS, but what about the young people who go to fight for the Kurds. Our government likes to keep quiet about them.”

Using examples from her book, Mazigh presented some very real challenges faced by Muslim women in Canada. Despite being a work of fiction, Mirrors and Mirages is based on the struggles of six very real women.

Without wanting to spoil the book’s storyline for her audience, Mazigh picked three excerpts to read to the audience, each one depicting a different form of the hardships that many Muslim women face in Canada. The first woman Mazigh described, Louise, converted to Islam only to lose her mother’s affection and respect. Mazigh goes on to exclaim how many young people become dissociated with Western ideals and look for individuality, and those who don’t understand Islam become “very, very scared” of this.

The second character Mazigh describes, Emma, the immigrant woman, who came to Canada as a student. Emma now lives in social housing. For Mazigh this shows how “we don’t really acknowledge these places, which become dumps for newcomers.”

The final woman she describes is Sally, the radical. Sally learns progressively more about her religion from the Internet and digital media, although intelligent she begins to take her religion and how she expresses herself too seriously, eventually leading to climactic moment of self-reflection.

After her readings, Mazigh took questions ranging from her thoughts on oppression and the veil, to what we, as a society, should do to break stereotypes. She reinforced the idea of challenging the dominant narrative that controls our perceptions in modern day society, admitting that “having a healthy dose of suspicion” is to key to achieving this. The most important thing for young people today is to have a voice, she said, as “not enough young people are activists,” instead they get caught up in all the media thrown at them. She encourages young people to “tell your own narrative, through story, through art, through what you love.”

After the talk, Mazigh’s book, Mirrors and Mirages, was available for sale and signing before the discussion continued at nearby restaurant Ooh! Kabsa.

The talk was sponsored by the Faculty of Arts, the TRUFA’s Human Rights Committee and the Council of Canadians.