It is Saturday morning in a downtown restaurant, and Shahla Khan Salter sits with three other local Muslims. They’ve been brought together by a 24-year-old Indo-Canadian who has been trapped in Saudi Arabia since 2007 due to a practice that requires women to have a male guardian's permission to travel. Ms. Khan Salter has assembled the group to brainstorm ways to help the young woman, Nazia Quazi, return to Canada.
While Ms. Quazi’s case is unusual, what it may reflect about changes within Western Muslim communities is equally noteworthy. Historically, Western Muslims have been apathetic when it comes to civic engagement, but increasingly Islamic communities in the West, like those helping Quazi, are beginning to buck this trend.
“I definitely think that there is increased civic engagement,” says Nadia Roumani, director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, which helps Muslim leaders and non-profit organizations develop the skills to get involved in anything from politics and education to interfaith work. “It’s not pervasive, but there is a critical mass.”
A history of silence
For years, the Muslim community has remained silent about many political issues. In 2003, for example, when Maher Arar, a Muslim-Canadian, revealed his story of rendition and torture in Syria, Canadians were outraged. They watched his press conference by the millions, the media wrote about his case almost daily, and the government eventually awarded him $10 million in compensation for his suffering. But the Muslim community’s response throughout his ordeal was mostly muted.
The explanations for this lack of civic involvement are varied. In 2001, 72 percent of Canada’s 580,000 Muslims were immigrants, many coming from repressive countries where speaking out can be a ticket to jail or even a death sentence.
Regardless of the country of origin, newcomers are often most concerned with the challenges of immigrating to a new country, fitting in, and giving their children a better life. Muslim organizations that might get involved in these types of issues are still young and sometimes lack institutional capacity.
“I have found that it is the fear of exposing ‘dirty laundry’ in a context of a potentially Islamophobic and certainly Orientalist-inflected media environment that inhibits Muslims from speaking out publicly for social justice issues. They talk about it privately,” adds Kathy Bullock, a political science lecturer at the University of Toronto and a convert to Islam.
On sensitive topics like family matters and Saudi Arabia’s austere Wahhabi version of Islam, the stakes are even higher – especially in a Muslim community where, as Ms. Roumani puts it, “there’s very little space for intellectual discourse.”
Quazi case draws out Muslim voices
Yet Quazi’s case reflects what seems to be an increased willingness to speak out.
She is stuck in Saudi Arabia under a local system that requires every woman, no matter how old, to have a male guardian – a brother, father, husband, or son – who decides whether she can travel, marry, go to school, work, or access certain medical services. The male guardianship system has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of women’s rights.
Quazi is a Canadian citizen, but her father has worked in Saudi Arabia for years. The two butted heads over her boyfriend. She went to Saudi Arabia in 2007 on what was to be a short religious pilgrimage, but she says her father changed her status in the country without her knowledge, making himself her sponsor and male guardian. Now she is unable to leave without his permission and she accuses him of physically abusing her and threatening to kill her.
When Khan Salter – a trained lawyer – heard Quazi’s story, she felt compelled do something about it.
“The male guardianship system is completely un-Islamic,” says Khan Salter, chair of the Ottawa chapter of Muslims for Progressive Values, an organization based in Los Angeles that advocates for social justice, human rights, the separation of church and state, and tolerant, inclusive understandings of Islam. “It should be an embarrassment to the Saudis that they’re allowing this to continue,” she argues.
New public discourse
Such strong public statements are not always heard from a North American Muslim community that has often fallen silent in the face of civil, political, or human rights abuses.
“People don’t want to pop their heads up too high,” says Roumani. “They ask the question: ‘Do I really want to take that on?’“
Azhar Ali Khan has spent years trying to ensure that Western Muslims look beyond brick-and-mortar projects like building mosques, urging them instead to focus on engaging with the societies in which they live.
So far, he says, it has been a struggle. “I don’t see that the community is very engaged,” says Mr. Ali Khan, head of the Muslim Coordinating Council, an umbrella group that represents most Muslims organizations in the Ottawa region.
Time for introspection
But as the coffee flows in this Ottawa restaurant, so do hopes that Quazi’s case will give Canadian Muslims a chance to scrutinize themselves.
“This is an opportunity for the Muslim community to examine some of those values, to look at what it means to be a Canadian citizen and to think about: is this an opportunity for civic engagement?” says Fauzya Talib, one of the women at the meeting.
And more than that – many of them see this as an opportunity to push for reform within Saudi Arabia, and more widely, to change the kinds of mentalities that can lead to situations like Quazi’s.
“Part of the problem is that we have a silent moderate majority of Muslims – in North America, in Western Europe – who are not necessarily speaking out, [but] who don’t agree that women should be treated in this way,” Khan Salter insists.
New generation of activists
Population projections put the number of Muslims in Canada at more than 2.5 million by 2031, and the percentage of Canadian-born Muslims is expected to rise. Settlement experts says second and third generations are always more likely to get involved than their immigrant parents or grandparents.
Still, Khan Salter’s ambitions – the safe return of Nazia Quazi and the abolition of the Saudi male guardianship system altogether – are very high. Trying to convince Saudi Arabia that its ways are not only a violation of human rights, but also a violation of the spirit of Islam, is like venturing into a “minefield,” Ali Khan says.