By Shaista Patel
For the last several years, I have identified myself as a Muslim feminist in my activist and grad school circle(s). However, as I sat down to write this article, I suddenly felt quite nervous. I realized that I did not know if I would be recognized as a Muslim feminist by others. After all, my feminist politics are not specifically related to confronting anti-Muslim violence, nor are they grounded in any particular school of interpretation of the Qur’an. While I find it difficult to articulate my Muslim feminist politics in a definitive statement, I understand them to be situated in the work I do as an anti-racist feminist, and as an Indigenous solidarity activist living in Canada.
My academic and political investments lie in building solidarity between Muslims, other racialized people, and the Indigenous peoples of Canada. After 9/11, the heightened sense of racial injury I experienced as a Muslim woman was the foundation of my activist and academic work. As I navigated various spaces in my hometown in Texas, and later in graduate school on the west coast of Canada, I was constantly angered about how my father and brother and millions of men who looked like them were racially profiled in predominantly non-Muslim public (and private) spaces. I was angry at the racism directed against me, at my body, and at the bodies of those who looked like me. And, I was willing to live up to the stereotype of the angry Muslim to defend myself against anyone who thought that I needed any kind of saving from my “culture.” My Master’s thesis was a study of the post-9/11 Anti-terrorism Act of Canada, where I examined how racial violences against Muslims have been legally sanctioned, and actively participated in by ordinary Canadian citizens.[i] It was later, when I (who did not grow up in the West) began to read up on Canadian settler-colonial history and contemporary routinized exercise of colonial violence against Indigenous people, that I began to understand how this labeling of Muslim bodies as terrorists was the legacy of a white supremacist settler-colonial governmentality that continues to label Indigenous peoples of the land as terrorists, and then targets them for disappearance and death. As I reflected on this, my politics became guided by this question: How could I live on this land that did not ethically belong to me, and talk about violence directed at my body, and at my people, without situating that violence and my work for social justice within the history of a nation-state literally founded on the dead bodies and erased nations of Indigenous peoples?
My Muslim feminist politics are now grounded in an understanding of this land as occupied, where I am marginalized and yet participate in the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples on whose lands I am living. This politics is part of my faith practices which include everyday remembrance of Allah, along with a constant reminder of my responsibility and accountability to people who are the most oppressed in this country, and in whose histories and present realities I, too am implicated. This sense of solidarity with Indigenous peoples also comes from an understanding that some of our historical trajectories coincide. For example, in 1492, when the worst episodes of Spanish genocide were being perpetrated in the ‘New World,’ the expulsion of the last Muslims from Spain was also taking place.[ii] These braided histories of foundational violence of the ‘New World’ and Spain’s repudiation of its internal Others are important to remember so that we don’t forget how our destinies in a white-supremacist global order are tied in very material ways. This history is also reflected in a 2010 CBC-commissioned poll where the findings suggest that one in three Canadians believes that “Aboriginal [Indigenous] Peoples and Muslims are the frequent targets of discrimination.”[iii]
While we may share some histories, it is critical for us Muslims and other non-Indigenous people here to not fall into the trap of equating the struggles of Muslims with that of Indigenous peoples in white settler colonies, where Indigenous people who have been living here since time immemorial have now been outnumbered by whites through illegal land grab, dispossession, and outright genocide. Under settler-colonialism, as Patrick Wolfe asserts, “the dominant feature is not exploitation [of Indigenous peoples’ labor] but replacement” of Indigenous people by white people.[iv] Our connection as racialized people to this land is not the same as that of its Indigenous peoples, and we have to remember that they are not just a “minority” group here, like we are. In “Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy,” scholar Andrea Smith explains how the logic of the genocide of Indigenous peoples and slavery, and continual treatment of Black people as property under capitalism, interrelate and work with the Orientalist logic of seeing Muslims and Arabs as inferior, which legitimizes constant war on their lands and bodies.[v] It is important, therefore, to understand the different but interrelated ways in which white supremacy affects and implicates us. My Muslim feminist praxis asks me not to leave this recognition of living on stolen land as rhetoric, as a mere admission, but rather to make my complicity into an urgent political and personal task.
How does this sense of complicity translate into an everyday feminist praxis? As a Muslim feminist, fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia has been at the forefront of my agenda. However, an understanding of ongoing colonial relations between Canadians and Indigenous peoples here makes it necessary to remember that, as several Indigenous women have patiently pointed out again and again, colonization happened precisely through patriarchal gendered violence against Indigenous women. As Smith explains in her ground-breaking work, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide:
[I]n order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy.[vi]
Drawing on these insights, I recognize that my struggles against gender violence will fail if articulated in isolation from confronting colonial patriarchal relations that continue to strengthen sexual and other forms of violence against Indigenous women, women of color, and white women. I cannot fight against the invasion of my body if my politics do not account for the ways in which Indigenous women have been constantly marked for death and disappearance. If I am angry about Mark Steyn’s anti-Muslim vitriolic cry that the “future belongs to Islam” because Muslim women are reproducing “speedily” while the Western (white) population is declining,[vii] I have to remember that Indigenous women are still seen as “better dead than pregnant”.[viii] The “Stolen Sisters” report by Amnesty International (Canada) states that a 1996 Canadian government statistic reveals that Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44, with status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.[ix] Native Women’s Association of Canada reports the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women at 582 since 1980,[x] while several other Indigenous men and women report the number to be much higher, which is not surprising given the fact that colonialism works precisely through targeting Indigenous women’s bodies. If Indigenous women’s bodies are disposable and a site of everyday violence, what integrity can my body demand here?
My Muslim feminist politics requires me to re-imagine how I frame my struggles in a way that disrupts racist and patriarchal relations and hierarchies upon which this colonial state rests. My goal is not to fight to simply belong to colonial Canada. Confrontations of power that are organized along the loci of race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship struggles, but that fail to center Indigenous peoples’ struggles for sovereignty and to confront colonial violence, continue to strengthen the matrices of power that made the settler-colonial state of Canada possible in the first place.
The question I want to think about is how do I frame my struggles in a way that does away with the settler-state? How can I position my Muslim feminist politics in a way that weakens the workings of this state? Until and unless the settler state of Canada is confronted for continuing the colonial relationship with its Indigenous peoples, for cutting off state funding to Indigenous women’s organizations, health services, and youth organizations, for having bogus inquiries into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous women, for the continuation of the most racist and patriarchal Indian Act, there is no liberation for us Muslims here or anywhere else for that matter. It is futile to ask for justice for Muslims in a nation-state where the genocide, the continual extermination of its Indigenous peoples, is a matter of dull and daily state affairs. Our politics must unsettle these daily practices of violence.
The doing away with the settler state is also urgent if we engage with the fact that state violence here against Indigenous peoples and racialized people strengthens international invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and vice-versa. The arguments used by Canada and the United States in invasions of Afganistan and Iraq are about great ideas, liberation, and a new world order. These are the same arguments that the Lakota women, men, and children heard at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, more than a hundred years ago before hundreds of them were assassinated by the 7th Cavalry. Constitued in 1866 to fight off Native American resisters who fought in the battles of Wahita, Bear Paw, Wounded Knee to name a few, the 7th Cavalry massacared Indigenous peoples of the Phillipines from 1904-1907, participated in the killing of South Korean refugees in the No Gun Ri massacare in 1950, stayed in Japan as part of the occupation after World War II, fought in Vietnam, patrolled the US-Mexican border, and was one of the first units to reach Baghdad in the 2003 invasion by the US.
Similarly, Canadian militia forces participated in acts of violence against indigenous people, including the notable case of Oka. The RCMP was also deployed to Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Somalia, and Aghanistan and numerous so-called ‘peacekeeping’ missions where the soldiers engaged in extreme brutalities towards the locals. In a very telling example of these interconnections between the spatialities of violence, Sherene Razack notes that North American soliders in Vietnam and peacekeepers in Somalia both referred to the places they occupied as “Indian country”.[xi] The interconnections between invasion here and invasion there can further be explained by the fact that every year, hundreds of Indigenous youth in Canada are recruited by the military and deployed to Afghanistan and other places. Indigenous youth, living in extreme poverty on acknowledged Indigenous territories (also known as reservations) and in urban areas of the country, are forced to participate in the colonial military, which has been often deployed to take over their lands here and lands of racialized Others over there. Of course, as has been well-documented, when men come back from (official) wars, the military violence gets mapped onto bodies of women. The cycle of violence thus continues, which in turn strengthens the forces that oppress us as Muslims and other racialized people.
Over the last few years, I have therefore begun to appreciate the significance of developing feminist theories and practices that recognize the critical and urgent need of intervening in the interlocking workings of state power and gender violences, and that engage with histories of the land we are on. This has necessarily meant that Muslim feminists also ethically engage with and listen to Indigenous feminists in Canada and in other white settler colonies. A powerful example of this listening and engaging comes from a three day event on decolonizing that is being organized by Indigenous and racialized women for November 2012 in Toronto. Called “Honouring and Weaving Stories on Turtle’s Back,” this three day symposium focuses on bringing our histories as Indigenous and Muslim (and other racialized ) people together, listening to Indigenous women and learning ways of forming ethical solidarity relationships and developing ways of being accountable. This is just one small but important example of how non-Indigenous people can begin to understand the intricacies of struggles on this land.
Lila Watson, a Gangulu elder from what is present-day Australia, once wrote[xii]:
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
The marginalization of Indigenous peoples’ struggles and politics within our scholarship and political movements can cause our political movements to fail. Therefore, it is we, non-Indigneous peoples of the land, who need the solidarity of Indigenous peoples, even if it is we who are entering the space of Indigenous solidarity work. Moreover, the struggles and resistance politics of those who have fought for their sovereignty for over 500 years can be instructive to those of us who are engaged in various movements for social justice.
We therefore need to craft our identities as Muslim feminists or anti-racist feminists in ways that are local and global, that make land and sovereignty of Indigenous nations central so that we do not end up reinstating the same matrix of power relations which makes the workings of Canada as a white settler colonial and racist state possible. This centering of Indigenous sovereignty in our politics is not some charitable move. Beyond the need to constantly examine our own complicity in maintaining oppressive relationships of power, such politics of solidarity are also urgently needed because unlike those of us on the side of critical anti-racist and anti-colonial politics, the Right is getting stronger. In Ontario, for instance, anti-Native activists who work against the Haudenosaunee people are ‘friends’ with the anti-Palestinians and Islamophobic groups such as the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and the Canadian Hindu Advocacy Group. In the summer of 2011, when the very racist and anti Muslim/Islamophobic Dutch politician and leader of the Anti-Islamic Party for Freedom Geert Wilders came to speak in Toronto, he was accompanied by some prominent members of the JDL, Hindu Advocacy Group, and anti-Native right activists such as Gary McHale who along with Mark Vandermaas maintain dangerously anti-Native and Anti-Palestinian/Muslim blogs.[xiii] Confronting the JDL, for instance, requires confronting its (anti-native) allies in order to pose a serious critique and challenge to its powers. Needless to say, the necessity of forming political feminist solidarities across our communities is more apparent now than ever before.
Muslim presence in Canada is not a recent phenomenon. Some writers and historians have traced it to the late nineteenth century when Muslims came here from the Ottoman Empire, and settled in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, most of those immigrants lived under precarious conditions. As Jasmin Zine, drawing upon Baha Abu-Laban explains, when the First World War broke out, many Turkish immigrants were labeled as enemy aliens and sent back to Turkey.[xiv] Today, too, several of us who have come here as immigrants and refugees continue to be illegal, heavily policed, and marked for state and gender violence. We also live in times where there is significant distrust of Muslims everywhere, including Canada. A 2012 online poll of 1,522 Canadians, commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies and Toronto-based Canadian Race Relations Foundation revealed that more than half of all Canadians believe Muslims can’t be trusted. And nearly as many people believe discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault.” It is a tough battle–a battle where it’s easy to ask “why should we worry about Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity when we are so targeted by ordinary white Canadians and the settler state?” But, as I have outlined above, we cannot win this battle if foundational violences are not targeted in our struggles.
Despite conditions of instability, several people who like myself have access to privileged spaces need to articulate our struggles, frame our politics, and form alliances with peoples whose lands we have been living on for so long–people whose liberation is entwined with ours and others throughout the world. I also want to caution my readers in the U.S. to not dismiss the message in this article as being about “Canadian politics.” I have certainly provided examples that would make this dismissal difficult. Nevertheless, beginning with an understanding of whose lands we have been occupying is not about some particular Canadian politics. The history and present of the U.S. as a strong white settler-colonial and imperial power needs to be taken into account when movements in support of Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and other Muslims here are mobilized.
[i] For more information on my thesis, see Shaista Patel, “The Anti-Terrorism Act and National Security: Safeguarding the Nation against Uncivilized Muslims,” in Zine, J., (Ed), Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada (pp.272-298), (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).
[ii] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, tr: Richard Howard (New York: 1985) at 50.
[iii] CBC, “Aboriginal Peoples, Muslims face discrimination most: poll”, March, 2010: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2010/03/15/discrimination-poll-2010.html
[iv] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of An Ethnographic Event, (London: Cassell, 1999) at 163.
[v] Andrea Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” in The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, ed. Incite! (Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 2006).
[vi] Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2005), at 23.
[vii] Steyn is a Canadian writer and political commentator who regularly engages in racist and Islamophobic discourses. His article in question has all the classic components of white hysteria over the presence of racialized Muslims in Europe and North America. For more information see Mark Steyn, October 20, 2006, “The Future Belongs to Islam,” http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20061023_134898_134898
[viii] Smith, supra note 4 at 79.
[ix] Amnesty International (Canada), “Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada,” October, 2004, http://www.uregina.ca/resolve/PDFs/Stolen%20Sisters.pdf
[x] Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls in British Columbia,” March, 2010, http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/imce/FACT%20SHEET_BC.pdf
[xi] Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) at 17.
[xii] Lila Watson, when interviewed, has stated that she is uncomfortable with being given credit for a quote that was born of a collective process of resistance by Australian Indigenes.
[xiii] For example, see Mark Vandermaas’ blog, Voice of Canada, http://voiceofcanada.wordpress.com. This blog regularly features hateful articles against Muslims in Canada and around the world, including advocating for Israelis and condoning the occupation of Palestine. Of course, this blog came out of staunchly anti-Six Nations sentiments. For a detailed critique of the connections between Zionists and Anti-Natives, please refer to my blog post, “Examining the Connections between Zionist and Anti-Native Mobilizing in Canada,” published August 2010 at http://6nsolidarity.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/examining-the-connections-between-zionist-and-anti-native-mobilizing-in-canada/
[xiv] Jasmin Zine, “Introduction,” in Zine, J. (Ed.), Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012) at 5.
Shaista Patel is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. Her Facebook info page reads that she is a “perpetual graduate student.” She is uncertain about her future.