Group finding its voice on violence

Adela Talbot // Western News

A group of young Muslim women in London are working to dismantle stigma that surrounds gender-based violence in Muslim communities. They joined forces for Reclaim Honour, a project that came out of the London Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration nearly two years ago. Nana Kanaan, far left, who graduated from Western with a Health Sciences degree in 2015, is the project facilitator and is working with Gina Kayssi, second from left, who studied French and Political Science and completed a master’s in Political Science in 2013, Sara Raza, a first-year Economics student and Fattimah Hamam, a second-year Anthropology and Political Science student.

Talking about gender-based violence is hard. If you’re part of a Muslim community, it is markedly harder and a group of young women in London wants to change this.

Nearly two years ago, the London Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration hired more than 20 young Muslim women – many of them Western students – to explore the issue of gender-based violence within Muslim communities. The women were left to define the issue and find ways to tackle it proactively. At the outset, that wasn’t an easy task.

It’s not that domestic violence or gender-based violence is exclusive to Muslim communities, it’s that barriers, stigma and assumptions surround the issue and prevent the communities from tackling it, the young women collectively explained.

“Domestic violence and gender-based violence is such an important issue that is not touched upon in our Muslim communities. It occurs, but nobody wants to talk about it, and I think that’s a very dangerous situation – not just because it occurs, but because no one is willing to talk,” said Sara Raza, a first-year Economics student at Western who is part of the Reclaim Honour project.

“We’re not trying to say the issue is heightened in the Muslim community; we are just using this project to be proactive about it. We need this project, specifically, not because of the way violence manifests itself, but because the barriers that exist in Muslim communities can be unique at times,” added project facilitator Nana Kanaan.

In Canada, Muslim women encounter intersectional identities, comprised of their immigration status, among other things, Kanaan explained. They could be refugees, newcomers. They may or may not be racialized. They may or may not speak English, or might come from different social contexts, making their interactions with social service providers difficult, or non-existent, once they are in Canada.

“We wanted to address the issue on a prevention level, and bring together a group of young Muslim women, to get their voice out, and get them to talk about it, address it through their perspective,” said project assistant Gina Kayssi, who studied French and Political Science at Western and finished her master’s in Political Science in 2013.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of caricatures of what young Muslim women are or what they have to say. But you often don’t hear from the young women themselves. It was really important to create this platform for our voices, and engage the community members, the larger public, whether through social media, workshops, conversations, presentations,” she continued.

The young women have encouraged broad community conversations about gender-based violence in Muslim communities by way of art, social media, workshops, poetry, even a graphic-novel style story, 19 Reasons Why Our Nest Is Broken. The initial community buy-in was not strong, they said, but today is garnering a lot of attention, even potential for partnerships with Muslim communities outside of London.

The 20 young women were hired as facilitators to develop, brand and run the project. Six months later, the group put a call out for young Muslim men to join the team. They helped to facilitate workshops, create the community awareness campaign and engaged in important conversations. The young men became integral partners and contributors on the team.

“It was important to bring along young men to emphasize that gender-based violence and family violence is not a ‘women’s issue,’ but rather, our collective responsibility,” Kayssi added.

“Muslims are generally stigmatized in the Western world. People don’t refer to (domestic violence in our communities) as gender-based violence – it’s usually honour killings, graphic or unpleasant words. There is lots of mystery and stigma around it,” said Fattimah Hamam, a second-year Anthropology and Political Science student at Western.

“I felt this (project) was an opportunity to deconstruct some of the things that are going around and what people are saying,” she added, noting the project’s aim is to connect with the broader community as a whole, as well in discuss gender-based violence as it pertains to Muslim communities.