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On Sunday October 4, the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women hosted the Women Who Inspire, which was live tweeted on Social Media under the hashtag #WWI2015. The program included a debate between representatives of the Conservative, Green, Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) followed by a film showcase, poetry and finally an awards ceremony to recognize women who had contributed significantly to the advancement of the Canadian Muslim community in adherence with the core beliefs of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women.
Issues covered during the debate were economic inequality, participation of women in decision-making, youth unemployment, violence against women, missing and murdered Indigenious women, mental health issues within the community of Muslim women and beyond, issues affecting seniors in the Muslim community and beyond and Islamophobia in a broader sense.
The moderator of the debate was Sadia Zaman, a well-established journalist in the Canadian mediascape. She prefaced the debate by noting that references to the "you know what" will not be discussed, alluding to the niqab.
To respond to the broader question on how respective parties would improve women's lives, Green Party representative Adnan Shahbaz prefaced his response with acknowledging his privilege and noting that women's rights are human rights. He noted that issues that have to do with women of colour and Aboriginal women would be addressed by the Green party.
Farheen Khan from NDP stated that her party wanted to repeal Bill C-51 in a broader initiative to replace divisive politics of fear and made specific reference to funding initiatives that address violence against women especially women of colour.
Karim Jivraj of the Conservatives stayed true to the approach of the Conservative Party and not only did not acknowledge his privilege, but also did not respond to the question, and vehemently stated that Canada was tolerant, pluralistic and celebrated diversity.
Finally Salma Zahid of the Liberal Party noted that they had plans to establish initiatives that allow for women to worship, dress, and speak with ease so long as they do not harm others and noted that they wanted to eliminate the rhetoric of divisive politics and re-establish Canada as an inclusive country, but did not give any examples of how the Liberals would go about this.
On economic inequality, Shahbaz noted that poverty has to be viewed in lieu of racism and systemic issues and noted that Green had some "big ideas" to tackle this issue including pay equity legislation and a full inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Zahid noted that the Liberals hope to have 50 per cent female representation in the Liberal Party and hoped to implement pay equality, which importantly should be viewed in contrast to pay which is a needs-based provision as opposed to one-fits-all provision.
The Conservatives stated that there is "no glass ceiling" because women already had opportunities that they can compete with on an equal playing field, to which even the moderator paused and asked if Jivraj meant that women do not face barriers. He responded that women should "not play the victim" and that they can "succeed organically."
On the topic of women's engagement in policy formation regarding women's issues, the NDP's response was to include them in consultations about issues like Bill C-51 through participatory democracy and the Liberal approach was to implement tax breaks. The Green party noted that because MPs act as talking posts for their parties, having a truly participatory governance structure does not work. Shahbaz also noted that the Green party wanted to set up a Canadian Council of governance to address the gaps that hinder communication between levels of government and establish unnecessary and unproductive bureaucracies.
On the topic of violence against women, the liberals indicated that they would look into the issue of missing and murdered women, NDP noted that they were setting up a national violence against women strategy, Green noted that they would speak repeal the Zero Tolerance for Cultural Barbaric Practices Act because it festered a rhetoric of fear.
Jivraj noted that "criminals mustn't be treated as victims" in an incoherent condemnation against violence against women that did not include any statements alluding to concrete plans regarding violence against women.
On the topic of mental health issues and senior citizens, the Green party noted that mental health issues cannot be seen outside livable wages and noted that they want to implement an all encompassing strategy that includes immediate reliefs such as dental care and pharmacare for seniors in addition to addressing root causes.
The NDP agreed with the Greens and noted that root causes need to be addressed, including raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, and implementing housing schemes for all including seniors.
The Liberals and Conservatives did not provide any concrete proposals outside Jivraj's signature solution to every question that is "no party has a monopoly over" mental health.
The debate was wrapped up and in a historically well-precedented tie-up: this audience's vote was lost to the Conservative party.
What followed was a short film by Indian film-maker Shazia Javed about a woman named Namrata who was at the time undocumented who was dealing with gender-based violence, followed by poetry by prolific writer Hawa Mire, who challenged the anti-blackness that violently writes people of the African diaspora, whether recent immigrants or people who have lived in the Americas for centuries, out of the Muslim narrative.
This was also sharply illustrated in the fact that people felt comfortable giving Javed's piece a standing ovation, but there were only four to five people who stood in response to Mire's work because what was evident was that her piece challenged their ideas of what it means to be a Muslim in Canada.
Aaliya is a YorkU graduate who studied Political Science and Communication Studies. She is the founder of Diaspora Defiance, a community blog on the experience of the woman of colour in the West and has been published in Masala Militia, an online Zine that negotiates what it means to be South Asian in Canada. She has worked at the Sexual Assault Survivors' Support Line for three years and is currently the finance coordinator there. She has also been on the board of the Ontario Public Interest Group and has spoken at No one is Illegal events.
Photo: flickr/ Tom Woodward