Burqas, hijabs, niqabs, oh my!

McGill Daily

I suppose it’s time to address the rather large and noisy elephant floating between the margins of Aristotle’s lackey.

Law 94.

Just last week, the National Assembly passed a law banning the niqab from such critical public spaces as universities, government offices, daycares, and hospitals receiving government funding. The support for the ban has been strong throughout Canada, with an 80% approval rating according to a survey conducted by Angus Reid. Criticisms have been sparse, coming primarily from an unsure Muslim community, various lawyers, scattered academics, and select university papers.

But the general discussion on this matter has just been a mess, with a near complete avoidance in English-speaking Canada of the question of the role of identity. Given the provincial nature of this legislation, however, I will limit my discussion to Quebec.

As mentioned briefly in an article last month by Sheetal Pathak (“Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves,” Commentary, March 18), the Canadian Muslim community is itself divided on this issue. Unlike the hijab, there’s no real consensus on the status of the niqab. A small minority see it as an obligation – or at the very least, the superior form of the modesty principle prescribed by Islam.

While this debate is legitimate, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand – the discussion on the matter within the Muslim community needs to move beyond the question of necessity. If there are women who believe it is their religious obligation to wear the niqab while living in North America, then that choice must be respected.

That cyclic debate along with broader reductionist debate on “choice,” grossly undermine women’s agency and completely overlook the greater context of Law 94 and the persistence of a discourse ultimately not about gender equality, secularism, integration, or identification, but about identity. And just as identity politics create a limiting framework for political discourse, identity politics can and often do create limiting platforms for legislation and issues regarding minority populations.

Quebec is not France. But like French identity, Quebec identity is built upon a shared linguistic and ethnic heritage as embodied by the historical interactions between church and state, epitomized by the near-total rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution.

And like France, Quebec has seen a surge in its immigrant population – which challenges a system long sustained by the province’s homogeneity. It is understandable that the majority of Quebeckers – outside Montreal especially – would fear the erosion of an identity with a tumultuous past. Quebeckers are, after all, a minority within Canada so the issue of identity is already fragile.

While this fear is understandable, it is not justified and it certainly should not be the source for any law. With only a few dozen women in the province actually wearing the niqab, how much of a problem does the covering actually cause? France’s proposed ban on the burqa, recently judged unconstitutional by an advisory board, affected only 367 women out of 5 million Muslims. How necessary is a law for an exception – especially at the expense of appearing hostile to a significant and growing minority? What’s more, where exactly is the line drawn? When does “reasonable” accommodation become “unreasonable”? Can any demand be unreasonable if it’s made in the name of identity and ideology? Is it unreasonable if by the minority and reasonable if by the majority?

All of this is not to ignore the obligation upon the Muslim community itself, as with any other ethno-religious group, to sincerely engage with such issues and ask themselves what is a “reasonable accommodation” to ask of the state. But this question and its implications are to be addressed and dealt with by the respective communities themselves as it hinges on their own identity and place in society.

For many, a law that discriminates against an exception may not be really consequential to the “big picture” in a negative or a positive way. It is, however, crucial that we consider the sort of framework this persistent debate and this particular legislation create for future discussions on matters concerning minorities. This discussion is not black and white, nor do I wish to even hint at such a claim. There are, however, some factors which play a stronger role than others and we must pay heed to their influence.

But until we get to future debates, I’ll keep rocking flashy and colourful scarves that my students seem to love for as long as I can.

Sexquisite Corpses: The shock-and-awe capitalism of BODIES the Exhibition

McGill Daily

If there is anything sexier than a naked human body, it’s clearly the skinned and chemically-preserved human body. At least according to disturbingly exploitative displays such as BODIES the Exhibition, currently being held at the Eaton Centre. BODIES offers med-school failures the opportunity to explore “the amazing and complex machine we call the human body” using “actual human specimens” (apparently of the Chinese prisoner persuasion), allowing “access to sights and knowledge normally reserved…for medical professionals.”

While I have not had the chance to visit the exhibition itself, I have heard some interesting remarks regarding the morbidly alluring smell that fills the exhibit, the predominant representation of a particular ethnic group, and the general awe inspired by the sheer complexity and muscular synchronization of the human body. While the exhibit certainly seems as though it would be worth a portion of my pay cheque, I find myself hesitating.

There is only one reason why the BODIES exhibit is as popular as it is and has received the sort of attention and acclaim that it has: the use of “actual human specimens.” As a friend recently, and heatedly, mentioned, we have the scientific ability to perfectly recreate the human body from within; we have the ability to even create the required tissue – so why use cadavers, formerly referred to as human beings, as educational models on display to teach the non-medical world?

Because sex sells.

BODIES sexes up science. It adds to the growing sexual commodification and morbidity to which we are becoming increasingly desensitized. We are constantly looking for a selling “schtick” for our products. Shock-and-awe – albeit the name of a military strategy – is perhaps the best way to characterize this so-called “century of the self,” in which to garner attention for and to sell a commodity means constantly pushing the bounds of the shocking. The human body itself has become a huge marketing point, used to get people to purchase products and services in varying ways and to various degrees – thereby promoting the sexualization of capitalism, beyond sex itself.

See also: Lady Gaga.

Now, I’m not trying to promote any sort of moral Puritanism, but there is something sincerely and deeply unsettling about the concept behind BODIES. For a few dollars, you can see once-living human beings skinned, preserved, and arranged in positions highlighting our own bodies’ intricacies. Just as I stand outside the looking glass, if I were once the unfortunate inmate of a Chinese prison, I could very easily be standing on the other side – frozen in formaldehyde.

What is ironic is that the very same field – medical science – which claims deep respect, understanding, and love for the human body has completely dehumanized it and made it into something worth consuming without the added bonus of being referred to as an establishment of “pimps.”

What does this exhibit – and displays like it – say about our priorities and values as a society? What does it say about us as a people when we use a military strategy to sell products, especially those that are a source of entertainment, using the human body and its various functions? We’re approaching a threshold that will force us to ask: what else is left to sell for entertainment value? And I’m unsure if I want to be around when the answer to that question is known.

No apologies for any self-righteousness that may have been displayed in this column.

Think Before You Give: IOs in Haiti Are Not Without Fault


Haiti’s birth in our collective consciousness can be dated to 4:53 p.m., January 12, 2010.

The Onion recently published an article entitled “Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization Called ‘Haiti.’” I condescendingly chuckled at an initial glance but knew that I stood among the ignorant sympathizers the article targeted. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was that country mentioned on flyers plastered across the dance school on Milton that I passed for three years on my walk to and from campus – flyers that decried the Canadian government’s presence in the country.

But things change. The YouTube-uploaded apocalyptic devastation and chaos that wrecked Port-au-Prince offered unshakable images. Like many others, I immediately ran to organize something – anything – to help. Voices of Haiti has been in the works now for over a week; it will be a night of local visual and oral art aimed at raising funds and spreading general awareness about Haiti. Money is not enough to help the broken country. Knowledge, too, must be donated to those digging deep into their pockets.

We initially planned to donate all the funds raised for Voices for Haiti to Médecins sans frontières (MSF), a great organization that has been working for over 20 years in Haiti and has been providing much-needed medical services after this devastation.

After a conversation with a local Haitian activist and artist, however, my co-organizer gave me a frantic phone call asserting that we had to rethink our financial support of MSF. Taken aback, I tried my hardest to reassure her that the concerns raised were perhaps unfounded and, at best, generalized. But as a former political science student, I knew these apprehensions had merits.

During disaster relief, we are quick to throw money at the problem. Our emotions and conscience get the best of us, as we leave reason somewhere else: it becomes inaccessible for a few weeks before apathy returns. In particular, we hastily assume that if an organization is, let’s say, international in nature and approach and also UN-certified or backed, then it must be the best outlet for our money, comprised of the best people to get “the job” done. Whatever that job is.

The truth is that while international organizations ranging from MSF to the International Red Cross do a great deal of good, they are not the answer to situations such as the one currently in Haiti. International organizations (IOs) are not free of political agendas, free of bias, or free of economic and personal interests.

Like any other organization, IOs require that there be both a constant need and a constant desire for their services and products: a market. They compete against one another; survival is a necessity, not an option. Relief organizations thrive on disaster, conflict, and the needs of the afflicted. Thus a population’s dependency on IOs and the unstable situations in troubled countries allow for such organizations to constantly expand: more funding, more credibility.

And while the efforts of relief organizations are extremely important and necessary in any disaster or conflict-ridden region, we must understand that sometimes these groups can do more harm than good.

In the case of Haiti, the population has become dependent on international agencies for many basic services. Rather than promoting sustainable development that looks at transferring dependence from foreign organizations to regional groups, international relief agencies perpetuate constant dependence – sometimes intentionally. There are allegations, for instance, that MSF along with other IOs in Haiti not only quell local activism that attempts long-term development to make Haitians less dependant on foreign services, but also that these groups supported the 2004 coup d’état, backed by the U.S.

We need to get beyond the “immediate relief” mentality. I am not in the least saying that we should forget about these organizations. We should support the work international organizations do, but also empower local groups that seek indigenous solutions to persisting socio-economic and political problems that have been plaguing a country like Haiti for decades.

Within days of the earthquake, representatives from American construction companies were already discussing reconstruction plans and costs. While reconstruction is certainly important, it is more important to consider how Haitians can prepare themselves and future generations for similar or worse disasters. How can youth, among the most marginalized in the country, be empowered to lead their country in a new direction?

It is also important to consider ecological factors that may have contributed to the enormity of the quake, such as the expansive deforestation that has been the result of the intimate relationship between corrupt government and hungry international corporations. Less than two per cent of Haiti remains forested. How can this and other issues be dealt with beyond “immediate relief?”

Immediate relief is just that – a response at the very moment catastrophe strikes. Relief is not a solution. Solutions are possible: they must be local and long-term.

So donate your money, your clothes, and your non-perishable food items. Do not hold back. At the same time, be aware of alternatives and realize that Haiti’s existence and problems exceed the past two weeks.

That being said, what are you doing Friday night?

Bad Romance: Feminism and women of colour make an unhappy pair

Original Source.

Influenced by seventies empowerment classics, the Spice Girls, and my own experience as a veiled teenager vacillating between homogenous and diverse ethnic communities, the word “Woman” became a defining characteristic of my identity during my middle and high school years. While unaware of all the word’s connotations, I knew from a very young age that to be a woman is beyond breasts, Aunt Flows, and unmentionable monologues. Struggle is inherent to every woman’s life, regardless of her appearance, her location, her age, her past. I believed that to be a woman was not only to experience this struggle, but also to realize it, to embrace it, to fight.

To never succumb.

The realization of the struggle(s) inherent to my womanhood helped me better formulate a worldview that would eventually bring me to peace with several things that had haunted my thoughts for years. Vanity, glass ceilings, career, ambition, opinions, unorthodox language and choices, and unattainable expectations had all carved out comfortable abodes in my head and I was constantly forced to deal with the issues that arose from their sometimes unwanted and sometimes desired presence.

I picked up my first piece of feminist literature at the age of 16. It was your basic introductory work, providing a detailed discussion and analysis of various forms of feminism – as an ideology and as an academic discipline – ranging from radical to ecological. The academic foundation of the activist movement attracted me and eventually led me to take a feminist theory class during my first undergraduate semester. A mixture of an activist fetish, first-year depression, and general intellectual curiosity gently coaxed me into joining a collective of sorts and really exploring the McGill feminist landscape. It was angry, fun, filled with ambiguities. I liked it. It terrified me at times, overwhelmed me, but it was something.

Alas, somewhere along the way, the relationship went sour. The passion left. The tensions had always been there, but were ignored for the sake of solidarity.

Though always aware of my womanhood, I had never been as sensitive to my ethnic and religious identity as much as I was forced to be upon entering university. New ideas regarding power relations, history, politics, gender, and ethnicity were thrust into my adorable 18-year-old face. I embarked on the sort of spiritual and cultural rejuvenation that seems to come with age and paying tuition. I began to re-explore my Islamic identity while also looking into my heritage, beyond the date of my parents’ migration to North America.

And as my awareness of racism and ethnic power dynamics’ pervasive nature increased, the paradox involved in maintaining a capital-F feminist self also increased. I became more and more uncomfortable being associated with Feminism – a feeling fueled largely by how mainstream strands of feminism (including the ever-dominant Radical branch) would treat ethnic identities.

Generally speaking, feminism, as a socio-political and intellectual movement, has been dominated by white women, along with a select few white transgendered individuals and white homosexual men.

Think that’s a gross exaggeration? Send a letter.

There has been very little input in the initial and primary construction of feminist discourse by those outside the aforementioned groups. The “white” history and experience – the meaning and implications of which exceed the scope of this column’s word count – defined, created, and have sustained what we understand feminism to be today, specifically the Liberal and Radical strands.

Now many will respond that several types of feminism today have evolved into more inclusive movements that take into consideration that so-called “women of colour” have different experiences than white women as women.

And that’s precisely where the problem lies: women of colour.

“Women of colour” beautifully illustrates the exact problem I discovered with feminism, as a woman who did not fit the mainstream criteria for being just a Woman. As a “woman of colour,” I am not just a Woman. I am a woman with a little something extra; there is a difference struck between women like me and white women. There is no Woman. There are no Women. There are two groups: women and “women of colour.” This tidily, and unfortunately, translates into the “us” and “them” categorization.

Because this distinction is made and has been proudly appropriated by “women of colour” without much criticism, this presumption that the white woman’s identity is a sort of “foundational” identity for all women is prevalent within feminism. As mentioned earlier, feminism was created and has been sustained on a very white – and North American – experience and history. This experience and this history have created the framework within which decades of feminist theory and thought have been constructed.

This paradigm was most aptly demonstrated when non-white feminists began to critique the very real ethnic power imbalances that existed in the discourse during the sixties and seventies. “Ethnicity,” including also faith and culture, was more or less fitted into the existing framework: the framework that was built on the white woman’s experience with and understanding of patriarchy. There was no real attempt to rethink the intellectual and historical foundations of the movement. Those thinkers, like Angela Y. Davis and bell hooks, who did attempt that reconceptualization, have gone into the shadows of academia, existing as mere footnotes at the end of feminist class syllabuses.

So, is the white woman the palette upon which the “colours” of all other women can be found and mixed, used interchangeably to create a beautiful “inclusive” portrait of something which is, in many respects, ugly? If we are all equal, why are some “of colour” while others have the privilege of a much shorter identity label?

I strongly believe that much of the feminist analysis on sex, sexual identities, capitalism, beauty, and gender deconstruction comprises a powerful tool, building ideas that require our consideration if we want to change our status-quo condition. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe in the universal applicability of these ideas here in North America (forget the rest of the world).

There is a real void within mainstream feminist discourse that has marginalized the very women whom it has allegedly sought to empower and “save.” Feminism is still very much a white woman’s movement and discipline; it has tokenized women it sees as “of colour” in its attempt to be more inclusive and universal. This is not progress: this is not equality. This is a kinder racism: unintentional, and really a part of an institutionalized mentality and epistemic history, but racism nevertheless.

What is required for feminism’s return to relevance is a complete reconsideration and questioning of the foundation it was built upon, one sustained by the white woman’s narrative on patriarchy. This reevaluation can potentially lead toward a more holistic feminism – hopefully rebranded as something for all men, women, and everyone beyond – that is based on an understanding that the experiences of all women with patriarchy vary. All women view and interact with “patriarchy” in different ways and more than lip-service recognition of this fact is required to transform feminism.

There should be no saving involved. There should be no brackets. There should not be two categories of women, if it is women about whom we speak. There should be realization, embracement, and battle. There should be real inclusivity – of cultures and ideas. Nothing fitted neatly into the existing crevices and cracks.

And there should be just Women. Period.

Multiculturalism is a Sham: The Canadian mosaic trivializes immigrant culture under a façade of respect

Recent Column.

I’m going to say it. I’ve been holding it in for a while but the time has come for me to say it: the Canadian mosaic is complete and utter bullshit.

Catch your breath.

In classical Western political theory, the key to state stability has often, if not always, been seen as the maintenance of a homogeneous society. Foundational divisions of any sort create a threat to both the state and the fabric of society. And how was this homogeneity achieved? Primarily through education, as philosopher Ernest Gellner so wonderfully noted. Industrialized societies require strong bureaucratic states and these states must in turn create educational systems, the goal of which is not learning but rather the creation of a perfect citizenry to serve that state materially and ideologically.

While it was easier to achieve homogeneity during the time period when such monistic, dead-white-man liberal theories were popular, today’s pluralism forces another approach. Theorists and statesmen are trying to come up with ways to deal with the issues pluralism has brought up in the West. Problems of religious values and rights, individual rights, language, secularism, immigration policies, and gender have all been pushed and pulled. While some countries have tried to deal with their minority populations through assimilationist policies, others have opted for seemingly more inclusive models.

Like Canada.

During the mid-to-late 20th century, Canada’s demographic landscape saw some major changes. The population, which at the time of confederation was primarily French and British in origin, had begun to transform into a collage of various ethnic identities. In response to these changes, Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s federal government sought not only to ensure the political and social integration of these populations, but also to allow them some form of cultural continuity in order to contribute to what would soon be called Canada’s mosaic identity.

The development of Canada’s multiculturalist policies saw three major stages intended to homogenize the Canadian citizenry’s thinking about its society’s nature and makeup. The incipient stage (pre-1971) consisted of gradually socially accepting the ethnic and cultural diversity that was becoming more and more apparent. The formative stage (1971-1981) legally recognized this diversity. In 1969, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended an ethno-inclusive integrationist policy, leading to the formal creation of multiculturalism. Equality became the end goal, and removal of racist or unfortunate circumstantial obstacles became the means. In the period of institutionalization (1982 til present), multiculturalism was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in 1988 a reform of the policy made the Multiculturalism Act into official Canadian law.

That’s five years of Canadian grade schooling right there.

Here we are, 20 years later. Are we heading toward a society that has successfully been able to balance its heavily heterogeneous populations, which in turn have contributed to the prosperity of our country? That was the point, was it not?

No, not really.

Multiculturalism, as an official policy and not as a demographic reality, was never meant to sustain our diverse Canadian cultures. Instead, it has been a way to create a façade – a fictitious support of diversity that in fact suffocates it.

Let’s take the instance of “illiberal” cultural practices and beliefs, however they are defined and categorized. How does our multiculturalist structure allow us to deal with them? Will Kymlicka, Canadian scholar and Official Defender of Multiculturalism, provides some insight into this question in Multicultural Citizenship. Kymlicka argues that multiculturalism should seek to liberalize facets of various cultures that appear to the government to be ‘illiberal.’ It is ethnocentric to think that cultures are intrinsically “illiberal” and thus incompetent to change. He argues that since there is a link between choice and culture that allows individuals to live and work in their relative cultures, there is a right, a right that is waived once immigrants have left their native countries. Kymlicka concedes that there are limitations to liberal tolerance. A liberal state cannot allow groups to restrict the individual freedom of their members nor can these groups impede on the rights and freedoms of other groups. The question is thus not about whether liberals believe in toleration; it is about what kind of toleration they support.

Awesome, but isn’t the attempt to “liberalize” a culture or group another form of assimilation? Multiculturalism then serves only to create a sort of symbolic identity. People shed any real, substantial ties and practices to their cultures as generations progress, holding onto the very superficial. Additionally, assimilation through liberalization becomes inevitable even without government intervention; individuals become liberalized and distanced from their own cultures and ethnic identities not only through daily interaction with individuals outside their “ethnic” or “cultural” group, but also through the daily barrage of the media. The change is slow, but emphatic: the second generation Indo-Canadian begins to date; the third generation Catholic Italo-Canadian supports gay marriage; and the Syrian-Muslim girl living in Canada since she was six years old begins to drink.

So, do we really believe that we are helping sustain cultures when in actuality all that is being sustained are colourful costumes, delicious cuisine, and fun dances that we can add to further enhance our mosaic?

Most importantly perhaps, what does it mean to receive state-enforced values of equality? If the state is telling us through education and other institutions that we are equal, that we must respect one another, are we really creating any values of substantial worth? Within the past two decades we’ve seen a sharp rise in ethnic tensions in our country. From the wearing of the Islamic hijab during sports to the bearing of the Sikh kirpan to school, any “minority” tradition or practice that seeks to integrate itself into the dominant culture has become a polarizing issue: it has been welcomed not with open arms, but with angry outcries. While one side of the debate argues for integration, the other side, which is becoming louder, argues for assimilation. For Canadians who are espousing assimilationist opinions, it may very well be the fact that they are frustrated not with what is happening but with how it is being dealt with by the government. The government must think of ways not only to ensure the rights of minority groups, but to keep the dominant culture content – a balance which is seemingly becoming harder to achieve.

At the root of this problem is the educational system that has been constructed by multiculturalist policies. What we have is a material educational approach to Canada’s diverse populations. Young Canadian students reading their social studies textbook might see their country as the Canadian mosaic but fail to grasp the profound understanding of the term. Instead, they are made to believe that this mosaic, colourful and cohesive, each piece complementing the other, is what Canadian society is like, leaving them unprepared for the realities that face thousands of so-called hyphenated Canadians everyday. And this needs to change.

The policies of multiculturalism may have worked for Canada and its citizens for the short-term, but are we prepared for the potential long-term affects?

But, then again, I’d rather live here than anywhere else, so I’ll just shut up now.

Save Your Pity: Migrants don’t need your pity, or their own

Original source.

Rehearsal came to its unfortunate close. Laughing and joking, we wrapped up our first “Greased Lightening” performance. We were doing a tribute to Broadway that year, creating a grand mixture of some of the greatest songs and dances to have graced the coveted stage. It had taken me a while, but I finally felt as though I had found my niche during my first year at the all-American Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School, located in the bustling and quaint town of Port Washington on Long Island. My once-foreign features were made familiar when I joined a more diverse crowd. I was Latino, Italian, Persian, or Greek; I wasn’t the new Pakistani girl in a primarily Jewish elementary school anymore. Middle school, Grades 6-8, allowed for an automatic maturation. There were more opportunities for me to create my American dream: chorus, drama, chess club, student council, yearbook. I delved into any student club for which I could find time and interest. While unaware of my subconscious intentions at the time, this was how I was going to be finally accepted as the American I had always believed I was. The Baby-sitters Club books and Nickelodeon had taught me well: I was going to be a mixture between Mary Anne and Clarissa. 

Exhausted but combusting with energy, I said my goodbyes and acknowledged friends with reassuring nods to indicate that late evening phone dates that would have to follow. I grabbed my belongings and left to look for my father’s silver Ford Taurus, most likely waiting outside the western exit of the school.

I jumped into the car, answering his unspoken questions about my day and rehearsal. He just smiled, nodded and murmured occasionally to show me he wasn’t completely annoyed by the irrelevance of my unending blabber. He seemed more subdued than usual. Must have been a tough day at the bakery, I figured. My father ran a successful business making well-known goods across New York City. Things got tough at times, but after 10 years of an entrepreneurial struggle, he had established a good business.

When I arrived home, I found my mom sitting on the floor of the main bedroom, with all her personal papers loose-leafed across the floor. She was frantically searching, ripping and throwing away things of no importance and collecting whatever seemed valuable. She looked up at me as my father joined her to look through the sea of endless papers. There was a brief silence as my dad, through his eyes, seemed to provoke my mother to speak.

“We’re moving to Canada.”

My initial reaction is not something I’d like on the record, but let’s just say a fit of epic proportions was thrown. Thrown all over the place. I was completely aghast – why on earth had my family decided to move, without any sort of consultation with me, to a frozen tundra with igloos and an ugly head-of-state matriarch? 

But my and my young brother’s cries of disgust meant nothing in the face of my parents’ determination. The 11-year-long American citizenship process didn’t really pan out and we had been offered access to Canada on the basis of my mother’s medical qualifications. She hadn’t been able to practice in the United States, given that she committed the grave sin of becoming a doctor at one of the best schools in a developing country. To be offered a position in her field with that sort of pay, and really with no other choice, my parents packed up everything and we were on our way to Canada within two weeks.

And we were not impressed. Not only was life completely different in Vancouver, where we moved after a brief and yawn-inducing stint in Toronto, but none of the promises of the new promised land seemed to hold. My mother was told that she forgot to read the verbal small print on her immigration conditions: not only did she have to take about four years of Canadian medical school classes and residency, she had to take Grade 12 English.

Just to make sure.

The hit was immediate and spread quickly. My parents found themselves completely lost, financially and emotionally weakened. The most basic of things, to my 12-year-old mind, became beyond luxurious. We slept without mattresses for a year, with virtually no furniture in our house, while my parents looked for ways to regain financial security without tapping into their savings. My mother trained to become a midwife while my father worked security. Both of my parents come from upper-middle class strata and both are highly educated with years of unmatchable experience under their respective belts. But pride must be swallowed in order to keep the family fed.

Eventually both made their ways to calling centres, where they found themselves in the company of other medical doctors, former professors, accountants, civil engineers, economists; you name the career and it was there amongst a sea of headsets. They slowly moved up, got better positions, and started becoming more comfortable in our new lives. We all did. My brother and I had our American-ness stripped of us, and we were hesitant to accept a country which had torn us away from what we loved based on what we saw as deceit. The consciousness of our new immigrant identity forced us to wake up. Everything we did, said, wore, felt was spoken, worn, felt in the context of being essentially “legal aliens.”

It was hard for me to see myself as Canadian for many years, even when I took the oath of citizenship in 2004. I had my occasional bouts of patriotism, but they were always superficial and brief. I was angry; I was upset. My father’s business had been destroyed, my mother’s dream slaughtered, and I never got to do the tribute to Broadway: I never got to live my all-American dream. The only solace I ever found was in hockey – and even that was usually depressing, thank you very much, Vancouver Canucks.

But this sort of self-pity is nothing more than self-fulfilling. Pity gets you nothing, whether it’s from yourself or others. And I’m not asking for your pity either, as you read this brief account of my family’s migration story. No immigrant or migrant wants pity. And they don’t need it either. Instead of pitying, as members of a country built on the backs of immigrants we ought to rethink how we as a society engage with our immigrant population. And I don’t mean through the shoddy multiculturalist façade we’ve thrown up in an attempt to simultaneously appease and liberalize. It’s time for serious and practical immigration reform both at the structural and societal levels. 

But I’ll save that discussion for another time. I have a hockey game to catch.

The popular, pornographic view of Africa

Original source.

Fall semester of the 2008 school year at McGill, my political science degree came to a sombre close. I had come to university as a bright-eyed, excited 18-year-old, in love with politics and assured that I was meant to study in the field. And like every other political science major, I was determined to pursue a degree in international law at a prestigious university and ideally wished to work in some sort of diplomatic department at the United Nations, after a wonderful and brief stint at a well-established non-governmental organization (NGO). This is how I would have saved the world.

But that was September 2005. By my fourth and final year, every ounce of idealism and hope had been successfully dismantled by too many fumbles into the dreaded bell curves and the endless nonsense of realism that seemed to punctuate all the classes I took in the department.

Regardless, I was saddened when my political science career ended. This sorrow, however, was not limited to the end of a personal era. The very last paper I wrote for my major was the first paper I had ever written on Africa. My only contact with the place prior to this was in the form of Egypt, in the Middle-Eastern context, and North Africa, discussion of which merely revolved around the recognition of the area’s existence. This final paper thus forced me to question and analyze my personal and academic relationship with the “Dark Continent.”

What I realized, in part thanks to conversations with my token African friend, was that my own perception, as well as the popularly projected view of Africa was almost exclusively this oddly pornographic, stagnant, and singular image of the continent. In other words, we have a grossly generalized and exploitative view of Africa, as bereft of its constituent parts, as a single entity ravaged by famine, poverty, and disease. We rarely think of the parts that make up Africa, and when we do, those pieces of the continent are limited to conflict-ridden countries.

The “real Africa,” as we know it seems to be in between North Africa and the south, the latter of which is associated with being Western and European. And we never go beyond the negative. We never even think to ask about Africa’s thriving arts, literary, and academic cultures. African history is limited to the period of and after colonialism. Rarely are the historical achievements stemming from the African continent, which have helped the world modernize and progress, discussed – let alone acknowledged. 

International institutions and NGOs don’t exactly change this, either. While helping the poor and destitute of the world is vital, the campaigns undertaken by groups ranging from UNICEF to Make Poverty History to Save The Children have exploited and exacerbated the view of Africa as a single “country” ravaged by war, lawlessness, illiteracy, disease, and drought. These issues do exist, but in varying degrees in the various countries that share the continent. This attitude also clouds our perception of most of the non-Western and non-European world: this “other” world becomes ours to save. All we see is Kipling’s burden alive and thriving within our minds. In other words, every time you donate to World Vision, you are undermining the ability of Africans to be the agents of change of their own condition. How do you sleep at night?

I recently decided to see if this perspective is in fact correct: do most people see Africa through a pornographic lens? I updated my Facebook status (a most accurate empirical approach) and asked friends to comment, without pretending to be enlightened, with the first word(s) that popped into their heads at the mention of Africa. The results were unsurprising. Out of a total of 25 responses, three said “black”; four friends wrote “disease” (of whom one said AIDS); four said “famine”; and two responded with “Toto.” Other responses included: oppression, tribes, rain, drought, children, safari, cows, Simba, beautiful black women, Apartheid, and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Intrigued, I updated my status once again, this time applying the same question to Europe. The results were radically different. The 13 word-associations included: wine, sophistication, art, dream destination, empire, culture, gourmand, imperialism, education, croissants, cafés, and cobblestone.

Europe epitomized high culture, savoir-faire, knowledge, art, and personal desire. The Cradle of Civilization, on the other hand, was reduced to a colour, to famine, to children, to Toto. One continent claimed the pinnacle of what a civilization should be while the other encompassed precisely all that creates the antithesis of a great civilization. The power relationship between the two continents, both historic and epistemic, is thus apparent. Surprise, surprise. 

The “Dark Continent” remains as dark as ever, but more so because we have allowed for greater darkness to overtake it. By ignoring the contributions of African civilizations, the continent’s particular parts, its non-colonial history, and its thriving cultures, we do a great disservice to our fellow human beings and undermine our own so-called humanitarian efforts. Aid, food, condoms, clean water, and building schools will help. But nothing will help more than acknowledging that Africans are beyond care packages, that they are beyond drums, beyond civil strife, beyond pigment, and beyond our television screens.