Female and Muslim in Canada=No big deal
What's it like being a Muslim woman in Canada?
On March 2nd, Hiyya spoke with Nancy El-Gindy, a PHD student in Middle East Studies at the University of Toronto and Muslim of Egyptian background to discuss the Muslim experience in Canada.
When did you (and your family) first arrive in Canada? Why did you move to Canada?
I was born in Canada, but my parents came in 1983. They came on a job contract for my dad, who is a university professor. They left again in 1985 after his contract was done, but then came back in 1988 for another position (and stayed permanently). I left to Egypt when I was 14 and returned with my husband, an immigrant, when I was 25.
Do you think Canada has done a good job welcoming migrating Arabs and refugees into the country?
I think it had historically been welcoming to Arab immigrants, but had started to retreat under Harper. With Trudeau, it is attempting to become more welcoming once again, particularly with the influx of Syrian refugees that it opened the country to.
With the rise of violence occurring against Arab Muslims in Canada, what organizations do you think are making a difference?
I think Muslim Canadians are still very young and less experienced than its American sisters - they have less presence, less funding and a much smaller group of employees. They don't have the presence that the American organizations have (such as CAIR). These organizations include the Muslim Association of Canada, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, and Muslim Canadian Congress.
How comfortable do you feel living in Canada as a Muslim?
I've always felt very integrated into Canadian society, particularly because I never felt there was a dominating race group where I grew up (Ottawa, Ontario). It was an extremely diverse city, with a huge Arab population. I never felt different, even when I left for 10 years and came back as an adult, to Toronto this time. I have continued to feel comfortable in large Canadian cities. I might not have the same feelings if I were in rural Canada, or a lesser diverse city in Canada. But, I have always lived in major cities in Ontario, which is home to a huge Arab community.
What stereotypes do you think Canadians have about Muslims in the country?
I think one of the biggest - unspoken stereotypes - is the one on the hijab and hijab-wearing Muslim women. A lot of people believe that we are submissive, uneducated, and weak. I see the surprise in people's faces when I tell them my background, and my family's background. Particularly the level of education. I also think they are surprised to see men who are not controlling, closed minded and stubborn: the typical stereotypes of Muslim men.
What changes should happen to stop acts of violence and discrimination against Muslims in Canada?
The most powerful way to thwart acts of violence against Muslims is through educational campaigns. I think these should be emphasized in grade school. Students need to be immersed with classmates from other world cultures - educate them in the difference between reality and stereotypes as well as the benefits of diversity. Of course, there are already initiatives, like recognizing Muslim holidays, but there is still the problem of discrimination in certain areas of Canada. Perhaps more work on rural areas and less diverse cities would be most helpful.
What makes Canada different from the U.S. and European countries in how it addressing Muslim issues and integration?
I've always felt that certain parts of Canada are a lot more comfortable for Arabs and Muslims than in the U.S.- for instance, halal meat is available everywhere, including in mainstream stores in major cities. There are large communities that have been well integrated into Canadian society, but at the same time, there isn't the intense push to change and become "Canadian" like there is to become "American". There is more of an acceptance that you are ‘Egyptian’, for instance, rather than say 'my parents are Egyptian'. Canadian Arabs will say where they are from, and there isn't pressure to eliminate any aspect from their identity. I find that is the most glaring difference between Arab Americans and Arab Canadians - American culture really tries to 'Americanize' immigrants rather than accept their differences and take them how they are. I think in Canada, immigrants are less pressured to erase their country of origin from their identity.
Recently, it was reported that Canada's parliament has more diversity than ever, including many Muslim members. Do you think Canada is making serious efforts to include cultural and religious inclusion? How so?
I think the Liberal government has definitely been trying to make government more inclusive. And although direct discrimination seems like a rarity, indirect discrimination in professional settings, is common in Canada. I never worked in Canada, I was always a student, which is a much more inviting environment for non-white Canadians. There is discrimination when it comes to hiring - they may not tell you directly, but your background does matter, it is more likely that you will be hired if you are a white, non-immigrant - particularly from the point of view of some recruitment companies. This is tricky because there is not a case of direct discrimination, but we are well aware that it happens and that there is a bias. I think something needs to be done about this.
There are a huge number of professional, well qualified immigrants that come to Canada and drive taxi cabs, for instance. It is incredibly difficult for many professional immigrants to find a job in their field. Instead of utilizing them, their talents are wasted because there is a stigma associated with hiring new immigrants, without so-called "Canadian experience." HR associates need to be educated on the quality of work done by immigrants abroad - that they are not unable or less qualified to work in a Canadian work setting. So many of them are fully capable and even familiar with the western company culture. It has a lot to do with ignorance. But I also believe that it may simply be an excuse not to hire immigrants - they can just state that you don't have "Canadian experience." There is a hierarchy, and immigrants are certainly not anywhere near the top. Now that I wear the hijab, I am nervous about my chances in the professional job market, which is still dominated by white Canadians.
Read more here on Canadian efforts at integration in a recent post.