As an activist, I built my niche.
There are topics I am intimately familiar with: I read about them and I write about them. They are close to my heart either culturally or ideologically: national security, anti-terrorism legislation, women and Islam, and Islamophobia, just to name a few. I’m passionate about other issues, but I don’t have the same knowledge or insights as other activists who have cultural, academical and ideological ties to the causes. In those cases, their voices are much important than mine. So, I stick to my niche and when those activists speak out, I read and watch their work, and stand in solidarity with them.
As an activist, I must notice if I take up too much space and push my fellow activists aside. I am careful about speaking on a cause that isn’t ‘mine’ just for the sake of showing off. The danger of recuperation is always around the corner, and I have to be extremely vigilant to not jump on the bandwagon with only the goal of making my opponents look bad.
There is another layer to my considerations: the consequences on my mental and physical well-being. During the trucker convoy that occupied Ottawa in January and February of this year, a part of me really wanted to join a counter protest to show my solidarity with my fellow citizens, even though I wasn’t directly impacted by the convoy. Another part of me was reluctant.
I thought twice, if not thrice, about my activism and my role.
What if my headscarf was understood as a provocation to those supporting the ‘truckers’? What if my visible religious affiliation would incite personal attacks?
I chose instead to follow the updates through social media. I left the work to other activists who had the privilege to counter protest and express their opinions without the same fears for their safety (though the risk of violence is always present regardless of the visible religious symbols).
Does this mean that we can’t join a particular cause unless we have a cultural attachment or obvious affiliations to it? That’s not the case for everyone.
But for me, personal connections are key in defining my role. Imposter syndrome in activism is always lurking. I choose very carefully whether I publicly join a movement or if standing behind-the-scenes in solidarity suffices.
In 2009, I travelled to Gaza with a CODEPINK delegation. I met with Palestinian women living under siege, visited destroyed universities, spoke with students, activists, doctors and youth. Despite not being a Palestinian, I understood and sympathized the struggles of Palestinians. That didn’t make an expert on Palestine. I didn’t want to replace the voice of Palestinians. I stood in solidarity with them.
When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia, my birthplace, I felt the moral responsibility to support the movement asking for freedom, liberation, and dignity. I was neither a political activist nor affiliated to any particular party. The protesters’ chants were so strong; I couldn’t remain silent.
I wasn’t like the Tunisian activists who took to the streets for weeks, but I felt proud to be part of this wave of protests all over the Middle East and North Africa. I lent my support to activists in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain. I stood with those who went out in protest of dictatorships and oppression.
Counterrevolution forces crushed these voices and turned their legitimate demands into a conflict between ‘Islamists’ and ‘seculars.’ I was pressured to choose between Islam and freedom. I no longer had a safe space to voice my opinions in this dangerous, fabricated dichotomy.
As a practising Muslim woman, my rational arguments can never win this debate.
Since I wear hijab, I was described by some as an ‘Islamist’ or oppressed woman. It is unfathomable for many that I support personal freedoms. When I supported the Syrian revolution, some of my friends thought I was siding with terrorists. They preferred to side with Bashar Al-Assad and his allies, like Vladmir Putin’s Russian regime. They argued Al-Assad was secular and so, there was a conspiracy against his regime by Israel and the United States to remove him from power.
Quietly, I withdrew from this activist space. It was a lost cause for me.
Recently, when Mahsa Amini was reportedly killed by the Iranian police for not wearing her hijab properly, I was devastated. State violence is unequivocally unacceptable and especially when it is targeted at a defenceless woman for what she was wearing. Unfortunately, once again I found myself stuck in a position where showing my solidarity with this woman and other Iranian women must be done in a particular way. Activists who otherwise rarely supported Iranian women and were doing so for political opportunism, set the terms of the debate.
I couldn’t show my solidarity with Iranian women by cutting my hair in public, like some did. First, because I didn’t understand the symbolism and second because I am wearing a headscarf by choice and removing my headscarf would affect me mentally.
When I defended the right of French or Canadian Muslim women to wear burqas, I didn’t wear one myself. During World hijab Day, celebrated annually on February 1, some non-Muslim women wear hijab to express solidarity with Muslim women and raise awareness for gendered Islamophobia.
This symbolic gesture isn’t always well accepted by Muslim women. Some appreciate it but many others see it as a shallow or fake solidarity that is gone the next day.
Beyond dramatic gestures to show solidarity, there must be a continuity of support and ongoing allyship with all women in Canada, France, Iran. No matter the oppressor, no matter who is being oppressed.
As a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, I still value and cherish my freedom to wear it. There was a time in Tunisia when I was denied the right to wear it. There was a time where I was threatened to be banned from campus because I wear it. Wearing it today in Canada is still scary in some places. The uncomfortable looks are never too far.
For decades Iranian women have been suffering under harsh economic sanctions imposed by western countries. These days, some actors and public figures who never cared about Iranian women or rarely stood up for women’s rights in other parts of the world, became outspoken overnight. Many publicly cut their hair as a sign of solidarity with Iranian women. I would love to think that this is genuine. But I can’t stop thinking about it as political opportunism.
As seemingly contradictory, I stand in solidarity with all Iranian women in deciding what they would like to wear and in ending the daily humiliation and physical violence they are victim to. But I would not burn my headscarf, nor cut my hair, for the purpose of pleasing other activists with their own agenda. I chose my own activism and its expression, and I will firmly stand there.