Hoping compassion, empathy prevail in new year

Author: Alia Hogben

Source: Whig Column

How time flies! The year is almost ending and it is time to reflect on some significant events of 2017.

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women celebrated its 35th anniversary in October.  We are fortunate in having a dear friend, Senator Marilou McPhedran, who organized a birthday party with cake, a huge birthday card and many well-wishers amongst Ministers and other Members of Parliament on Parliament Hill. In Toronto we gathered old and new friends from across the country for a weekend of fun and learning. We had an exciting meeting of youth as well.

This year, CCMW honoured some Canadian Muslim women who have done so much for their country and local communities. As part of our two day celebration we included Professor of Architecture,  Tammy Gaber’s exhibition of beautiful photographs of Canadian mosques and Islamic centres, called “Beyond the Divide: Canadian Mosques and Gender Allocation.” We were pleased to showcase this at the Noor Cultural Centre.

We were also delighted to showcase two young photographers, Alia Youssef and Masooma Ali.

In February, CCMW held a Youth Summit on Parliament Hill. It was such a stimulating day of youth presenting their ideas for community projects across the country to three judges – Senator Marilou McPhedran, James Chan of Impact Hub, and CBC’s Adrian Harewood. Our future leaders!

In February, I was honoured to be invited to accompany the Governor General and Mrs Johnston, for a glorious formal trip to Sweden. It was an incredible time travelling to many cities with the Queen and King of Sweden, who seemed very happy to accompany the Johnstons.

We are grateful that the organization, Inter Pares, awarded CCMW the Peter Gillespie Award.

In September, it was time to hold the annual gathering at the family farm, of friends from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Kingston. It was wonderful to have Professors Ayesha Chaudhry and Rumee Ahmed lead us in an intellectual discussion.

To my pleasant surprise and shock, I was given an award at the MAX GALA in Toronto. This is an honour for CCMW and not for me as an individual.

It was the second year of the Max Gala, and this year a huge gathering of over 1,000 individuals celebrated the successes of Canadian Muslims. Aazar Zafar, a young business man initiated this event in 2016, and did this in memory of his father, who had died recently. Aazar’s father regretted that the “brand” of Canadian Muslims was tarnished and we needed to elevate the brand and humanize Muslims.

This celebration allowed Muslims to tell “our own stories, otherwise others will.” Aazar has energized over 100 volunteers, give out thousands of dollars as scholarships, honour fellow Muslims and bring together Muslim benefactors to showcase “our communities.” A grand event!

On a more personal note, my husband Murray went to Palestine with an American interfaith peace group. The group of nearly 30 consisted of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They were very well prepared prior to the trip and travelled to many places from Tel Aviv – Jaffa to Jerusalem, the length of the Occupied West Bank and even the Negev Desert.

They met many engaged brave Jews and Palestinians and heard their stories. Besides staying within eyeshot of the Dome of the Rock Mosque they also stayed in Palestinian homes and helped harvest their olives.

Murray has been interested in the area and though he knows a great deal of the issues, the journey was emotionally difficult for him and for his fellow travellers.

I cannot ignore all the tragedies affecting so many people in the world. I don’t understand how there can be such hatred and violence against one’s own neighbours. It has been a difficult heartbreaking year for those who have become refugees and have been so horribly treated by their own people. No one wants to leave their country, their home or their families to become refugees.

CCMW often gets letters of support from our fellow Canadians but once in a while we get mail from those who are racist, angry or fearful.

Recently I got a letter from a woman who said she was “dismayed” by my column defending the right of women to wear a face covering. She is caught in the conundrum that if she objects then she is seen as racist, but she does not like it. She sees it as part of a “political movement” and questions how one can be friends with a woman with a face cover? She thinks women with face covers will become teachers and hospital workers and that will be very difficult. She concludes that “this is a chink in the armour of a free and compassionate nation.”

I can only respond by restating that the niqabi woman is not seeking approval from me, but acceptance of her strong religious belief which she feels obligates her to wear the niqab. We may be uncomfortable with this clothing, and we cannot defend it as mandated by Islam, but I will defend this as the niqabi’s right to dress as she wishes. In the same way, I would hate to live in Iran or Saudi Arabia where the state dictates the covering of women. Here, I cannot agree to the state uncovering women.

One can only pray and hope that compassion and empathy will drive out hate and violence. My plea is to individuals who feel fear or distaste or anger, is to reach out to those they dislike. In the same way, I beg those of us who appear “different” to also reach out and not isolate ourselves from neighbours and communities.

H.D. Thoreau said, “It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”

Appropriate to the season is Rumi’s quote, “Christian, Jew, Muslim, Shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the Mystery, unique and not to be judged.” Amen.