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Resilient words, resilient women: New collection highlights voices of immigrants

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Rashmi Luther looked around at the first, second, and third-generation immigrant women in the audience for the launch of Resilience and Triumph at Octopus Books in Ottawa Dec. 3.

"I don't want you to be shy," she said.

"You're not subjects in somebody else's research. You're not characters in somebody else's stories. You're telling your own narrative."

The applause was thunderous.

Resilience and Triumph is the effort of the Book Project Collective. The collective is made up of seven women: retired Carleton professor Rashmi Luther, adjunct Carleton professor Dr. Vanaja Dhruvarajan, writer and activist Dr. Monia Mazigh, Equity Ottawa manager Yumi Kotani, University of Ottawa Communications associate professor Dr. Peruvemba Jaya, Executive Director of Immigrant Women Services Ottawa Lucya Spencer, and Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization program manager Ikram Ahmed Jama.

Rashmi Luther speaking at Ottawa launch.

It all began five years ago when Luther spoke on a panel about the first book published by the Feminist History Society, Feminist Journeys. The book is a collection of narratives about Canadian women's encounters with feminism. While Luther loved the book she noticed significant voices missing. She felt racialized immigrant women needed their own book to tell their stories and spent the next five years working to make this vision a reality.  

Luther reached out to other women she knew to form the collective and together they compiled and edited all the contributions in the book. They also wrote their own stories. During those five years the women of the collective became close Luther said.

"We appreciated the strength that each of us had," she said. "We really believed in the project."

The print copy of the book includes over 50 submissions. The ebook version includes six extra stories. Women with diverse backgrounds, voices and ideas come together on the pages. They also came together in real life to hug, laugh and launch their collection.

"It is exactly the kind of book that we hoped to make possible," said Feminist History Society representative Diana Majury. She turned to Luther with a smile.

"You are a tough but compassionate leader," she said. The other members of the collective nodded knowingly.

At the Dec. 3 launch, writer Jacqueline Lawrence set the tone for the evening with a poetry recitation: "Our stories bear witness," she said. "We were here. We are here."

That evening, collective members sat for a panel discussion hosted by CBC Ottawa's Adrian Harewood. Harewood spoke of his personal attachment to the subject.

"My history is wrapped up in this book," he said, noting that his family story is an immigrant story. His mother and "powerful Grandmother," came from Antigua.

"[Immigrant women] are part of the soil of this place. They are integral. Their stories matter," Harewood said. "They are part of the mosaic of Canada."

The entire collective sits together

The book explores the challenges first, second, and third-generation immigrant women face as they negotiate conflicting cultural identities, seek out education, and support themselves and their families in a new country.

Contributor Amira Elghawaby wrote about becoming a visible minority when she first began to wear hijab. She said the collection captures a diversity of voices.

"There is no one cookie cutter impression of what it looks like [to be Canadian]," she said.

Elghawaby added that the book creates a space for women to talk about intersectional feminism.

Many women at the launch called their mothers and grandmothers feminists. They agreed that what is called "feminism" in the West is practised by women all over the world even if they don't refer to it as such. Audience members and panelists alike told stories of mothers who treated their daughters and sons equally, who fought for their daughters education, and who worked hard to bring their families to a new country.

Ikram Ahmed Jama said she learned about female empowerment from spending her first five years in the house of her grandmother, a Somali businesswoman with autonomy and agency.

"Becoming a feminist ... has been a journey that first started in my grandmother’s courtyard," Jama writes in her Resilience and Triumph contribution.

The power of mothers and grandmothers is one common theme in the book. Another theme is the experience of racism said Vanaja Dhruvarajan.

Whether it manifests itself as an isolated incident or in wider institutional prejudice most women in the book have encountered racism in some form she said.

Dhruvarajan wrote about her own experiences with being a visible minority in the world of academia. "Sometimes it feels like we are doing the same thing over and over again," she lamented during the panel discussion. When women of colour aren't included in academic departments their struggles are brushed aside she said.

Monia Mazigh added that no matter how many degrees she gets people still try to save her from oppression because she wears the headscarf.

"Sometimes I am happy when people don't take me seriously because they underestimate me," she said with a small smile.  

The women of the collective are hoping the book will be incorporated into high schools and university women's studies programs. They are also hoping the book has a wider appeal beyond academia.

Luther said she hopes the book opens up opportunities for other women to work on similar projects.

"There are so many voices," she said. "We hope this will inspire others." 

 

Clarissa Fortin is the rabble books intern.

Photos by Clarissa Fortin.

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