Canadian Muslim Women Tackle Stereotypes

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CAIRO – Aiming at clearing misconceptions long associated with Muslim women, Canadian women are organizing an all-woman forum on Islam and women this week to fight stereotypes and correct mistaken beliefs about women position in Islam.

"We seem to be singled out and that's not fair to begin with and that's not accurate,” Shahina Siddiqui of the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA) told the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper on Saturday, June 4.

“How can you build relationships when you don't have accurate information, when you don't fully understand?”

These misconceptions are the main topic in the event held next Monday, June 6, at Millennium Library, 251 Donald St. in Winnipeg.

Intended for women from any faith tradition or background, the free forum includes a panel discussion with seven Muslim women representing a wide range of perspectives, and time to talk in small groups.

"What's I'm hoping by frankly talking about our experiences, both within and outside the community, the sisterhood will develop," she says.

The event is sponsored jointly by ISSA and the Winnipeg Public Library.

Among key stereotypes issues Muslims have to battle comes Muslim women hijab. Muslims usually face accusations that their faith is oppressive and forces them to cover up, a charge they staunchly deny.

"My biggest beef is that this piece of cloth is the definition of a Muslim woman and it's not," says the Pakistan-born Siddiqui, who started wearing the hijab after she moved to Canada 35 years ago.

Donning hijab in her last year of high school, Seema Uddin, now a psychology student at the University of Manitoba, noticed the uncomfortable way her classmates began to treat her.

"Right away I got the impression they weren't sure how to talk to me," explains Uddin, now 23.

"They were uncomfortable. It was like a little barrier."

Reaching out to her friends, she explained to them how Muslim women are required to cover up and be modest, and they supported her decision to wear it.

"We're like everyone else. Wearing the hijab shouldn't be a barrier in terms of community with people," she says.

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.

As for the face veil, the majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman is not obliged to cover her face or hands.

Shared Values

Along with clearing misconceptions, the event aims at educating non-Muslims about the high position women hold in Islam.

"That means there is absolutely no qualms that we are the same and that in our creation we are equal," says Siddiqui.

"People need to know that Muslim women need education themselves about their own position in Islam, their role in Islam, their rights in Islam."

Muslims’ book, the Holy Qur’an, supports the rights of women to be independent, to keep their own names, to inherit property and to practice their faith without coercion, says Siddiqui.

The Qur'an also says that men and women are created from a single soul.

Another key issue in the upcoming forum would be focusing on Muslim immigrants seeking balance between their religion and the different Canadian culture.

"Part of it is keeping your values you came with and having peer pressure at school to fit in," explains Yasmin Ali, who was born in Trinidad and raised her children in Winnipeg.

"I say you're not allowed to drink and they want to go to parties and (then there's) the boyfriend issue."

Such social problems is not only a Muslim issue, ISSA office manager Irene McConachy, not a Muslim herself, says.

McConachy confirmed that she has realized there are more similarities than differences between herself and Muslim women, especially when it comes to raising children.

"As parents, as women, our value systems are very similar," she says. Ali, the Muslim mother from Trinidad, agrees.

"One of the things we have in common is we believe in God. That's a starting point," adds Ali.

"Being Muslim doesn't set us apart. As women, we have so much in common. We can learn from each other."

Muslims make around 1.9 percent of Canada's 32.8 million population, and Islam is the number one non-Christian faith in the Roman Catholic country.

A survey has showed the overwhelming majority of Muslims are proud to be Canadian.

Winnipeg's Muslim community of about 10,000 includes people from 54 countries.

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