Please Join #RainyReads November

2013 Vancouver International Writers Festival

2013 Vancouver International Writers Festival

November in Vancouver is a time of cold, grey skies and unceasing rain. It is the perfect season for reading. Last week at the Vancouver International Writers Festival however, I learnt that we’re not reading as much as we could be.  45% of Canadians do not meet the minimum literary standards. 42% of university graduates in Canada never read another book after graduation, and the average young person spends 60 hours a month in front of a screen and texts 20,000 words each month. In fact, 80% of families don’t buy books. (For most people, the speaker pointed out, Chapters/Indigo is a place to buy a yoga mat).

In a small way, I’d like to change that and read with others this November. And so, in the spirit of keeping cheery through the rainy season, I’ll be using the hashtag #rainyreads to share what I’m reading through social media and the blog. Please join me! I’d love to hear about your favourite books, books you’re reading right now, and books you turn to on days when going outside holds no appeal at all. And if you haven’t found time to read for a while now, for the month of November, try reading something you’ve been meaning to try for 15 minutes a day.  Tag your tweets with the hashtag #rainyreads (or @shaguftapasta), write on the Seriously Planning Facebook Page, and if you have reflections you’d like to share, do email seriously.planning@gmail.com.  If you’re in Vancouver, we’ll have a #rainyreads meetup over coffee at the end of the month.

Happy reading!

A Community is Made of Men and Women

Men's prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

Men’s prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

As much as I love Vancouver, there are moments when I want to move. There are moments when I miss spaces where the educational experience of men and women is equal, such as the SeekersHub in Toronto, where I always felt welcome, and never felt like my gender was a barrier to furthering my Islamic education.  I miss interfaith prayer spaces such as the MultiFaith Centre (and other prayer spaces) at the University of Toronto that were physically beautiful, and did not barricade women in a corner.  And more recently, there are moments when I want to return to Dallas, where I spent a month in a mosque learning classical Arabic grammar this summer, and where class was held in the main prayer space, and structured in a way that men and women were on opposite sides of the room, and equally able to learn from our teacher. Aside from the learning benefits, knowing your teacher means that you can model their behaviour. From the ways a teacher interacts with you, you learn what appropriate gender interaction looks like, and can extend those principles to the rest of your life. Knowing your teacher means that you have someone to ask questions and seek advice when you are unsure what to do. It is essential.

In Vancouver however, we’re not there yet.

Two nights ago, the founder of the Bayyinah Institute (the same institute that offers the Arabic course I did in Dallas) came to Vancouver for a lecture on stories in the Qur’an. Though he wasn’t my teacher in Dallas, during one of our class days he came to help us review for an upcoming exam, and I was looking forward to a small way, reconnecting with what was a very special month of learning for me.

Unfortunately, I never heard him speak. The hall where the lecture was held was large, but the women were in a different, crowded space, with no video link. So after waiting for a bit and seeing if I could sit outside the lecture hall, my brother and I left. The teacher was surprised as well I think, and mentioned that ‘he wasn’t used to women not being in the same space, would do a Q and A session after the event with the female attendees, and would stay as long as women wanted him to stay.”

I appreciate his attempt to address an inequitable situation. But it’s not up to a guest teacher to find some way to include everyone; equity needs to be thought of at the outset of the planning process. To give an example from urban planning, when the floor plans of housing developments and community centres do not consider the needs of the multiple communities and cultures, it is a message that only the dominant culture matters. When transit users with wheelchairs experience horrendous delays, poorly lit and dangerous transit stops, and systems that do not account for their needs, those barriers of access signal that their needs are not valued. We send messages about who does and does not belong in the ways we structure spaces and places.

As long the learning experience of women is not valued, the education of women, communities and families will suffer. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it becomes difficult to invite friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning more about Islam and wish to fill in their own gaps of knowledge. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it sounds hollow to talk about how gender equity is something inherent to Islam.

And so, rather than running away to another city, below are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to create better spaces. These are not new ideas, but they make a real impact.

1) If you only have one space available that is large enough for all your attendees, have the men and women share that space, and set up tables that are side by side.

You can have an aisle separating both sides of the room for ease of movement. If you don’t have a classroom available and you’re in a mosque, use the men’s prayer room.  In Dallas, the women’s section of the mosque was on the same floor as the men’s section with a one way mirror. During our evening classes, if anyone from the larger community wished to sit separately, they could still see into the class easily, but nobody could see them. (95% of attendees sat in the main section of the mosque though). A few years ago I was on a study trip called the Rihla, and spent a few weeks with teachers from the US and UK in Saudi Arabia. We sat on the floor in our classes, on opposite ends of the room. In Toronto there is a week long retreat held annually with incredible teachers from around the world, and again, that event happens through side by side seating, with a section in the middle of the room for families who wish to sit together.

2) If you are designing a space and you’d like a partition, make it subtle. At the SeekersHub in Toronto, one of my favourite spaces to learn, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, the teachers were at the front of the room, and there was a bookshelf in the middle. The room was equally divided, you could see the teacher, but the students on the other side of the room couldn’t see you. It was a beautiful set-up.

3) When you see an uninclusive space, act as an ally. It’s not up to women alone to advocate for inclusive spaces. In our family, we only go to events where I can hear and experience the event properly, and my Dad and brother are my strongest allies in bringing up issues of access. The teachers that I value most: my teacher in Dallas, my teacher at the Hub in Toronto, and other teachers I’ve learnt from in other settings, often speak out about how communities need to view the inclusion and involvement of women differently. The students I studied with at the University of Toronto were men and women who cared about equity, and if I was ever in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, there were lots of people who noticed the same dynamics and worked to address them. It is alienating to be the only person advocating for your learning.

4) Have an ongoing study of the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Sometimes spaces are segregated in harmful ways because we aren’t necessarily familiar with the ways women were nurtured historically in Islam. But when we study the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the ways in which he created a community in which men and women were equally valued, and the contributions, dignity and independence of his wife Khadijah, the courage of his daughters, the beauty of other members of his family and community, it is clear that gender equity are part of the Islamic tradition. One great learning resource to learn more is the Qalam Institute’s Podcast on the Prophet’s Biography, which goes into the Prophet’s life in a lot of detail.

5) Support organizations that care about their female students. If you can’t find inclusive spaces, still continue to learn. I’ve been remiss this year in organising regular study circles with others, but this is something I hope to do in upcoming months.  SeekersGuidance is a place with wonderful online courses, the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto publishes its lectures and classes on its SoundCloud page, and both of these resources are wonderful resources to share, support and learn from.

Take Aways from the National Council of Canadian Muslims Vancouver Leadership Training

Science World, Vancouver BC

Ramadan is a time of re-centering oneself, of getting re-energised spiritually so you have the capacity to create change with yourself and the world beyond during the rest of the year. Yesterday, as I spent some time reflecting on the things I want to work on in the next several months, I came across my notes from a day-long leadership and media relations course the National Council of Canadian Muslims (at that time known as CAIR-CAN ) did in Vancouver called Rise to the Challenge in February 2013. There was much I took away from the day, and I thought I’d share some thoughts and key points here.

Firstly, the training was a reminder that there is so much work that needs to be done in Canada to protect our civil liberties and human rights. As we discussed security certificates, changes to laws that are alarming from a civil liberties perspective, incidents of Islamophobia and much more, we were reminded that apathy and inaction is not an option. It is not enough to simply passively consume news, one must develop the knowledge and skills needed to engage productively in conversations occuring in the public sphere.

And on a personal note, I was surprised to learn during training about the frequency of conflicts in Canada around the development of mosques. Emphasizing that point, the day of the course there was a talk in scheduled in Ottawa by a planning lawyer who had written a book about how to use planning legislation to stop your local mosque from getting planning approval. My Masters research at the University of Toronto was about deconstructing racist and Islamophobic discourse that surrounds the development of mosques, and this course was a reminder that though my project is over, stereotypes about mosques are being continually produced. For me, this means that I need to keep working in this area of research and make practical contributions.

Below, some of my take-aways from the training.

1)  Know yourself. Take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and know what you need to work on, and how you can best contribute.

2) Know your challenger. Be prepared to counter Islamophobia. Knowledge = power.

3) Remember the words of our green teacher: “No! Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!” ~Yoda.

4) From an Islamic standpoint, when doing a task, any knowledge required to do that task is obligatory.

5) Important to act with justice. If asking others for fair treatment of Muslims, need to extend treatment to others.

6)Important to have tawakkul (reliance on Allah). You have to pray, but you have to tie your camel as well.

7) In 1997, the Runnymede Trust (in the UK) defined Islamophobia. In part, Islamophobia is when Islam and Muslims are seen as hermetically sealed, separate, not able to borrow from other traditions and contributions of others. Other components of that definition of Islamophobia are detailed by the Runnymede Trust.

8) Often you’ll see statements made that are thinly veiled Islamophoba, where someone will say: “Not all Muslims are like this, but…” (and then proceed with an Islamophobic statement)

9) Also will see that many people reject criticisms of liberalism and modernity that come from Muslims. We’re in a moment at present when Islamophobia is almost deemed to be normal, natural, and unproblematic. Often subtle and coded and taken for granted as part of normal discourse.

10) Islamophobia can be physical assault and/or verbal assault which has emotional and psychological impacts.

11) Events in the US have Canadian implications.  US-CAN border is very porous, and along with the flow of goods, ideas and concepts flow as well. There is a cross pollination of ideas in public discourse.

12) Often see Islamophobia in certain messages: Examples of this include:

  • Where are the moderate Muslims?
  • Muslims are embracing a victim mentality
  • Stealth jihad -Muslims are building a mosque!
  • Attempts to label a group as foreign

Reminders:

1) Be hopeful! Some of the sahabas (Companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him) who were initially most vociferous opponents of Islam became its most staunch supporters

2) Important to develop good media relations skills and recognise that your faith calls you to care about issues that extend beyond yourself. Islam calls Muslims to speak out against many forms of injustice. On animal rights. On issues related to other religious communities. Have in the Islamic tradition stories of Prophets caring about the wellbeing of ants.

3) Have patience. There are examples in the seerah (life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him) of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) standing up to speak to his community, and his uncle mocking him. And the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) didn’t say anything. He was the most eloquent of people, he had the best speech, and he understood Islam the most, and yet he didn’t say anything. So there are times when it is better to stay silent and not react. We too often have a knee – jerk reaction.

4. Don’t forget about humour and satire. There are great examples of this being used. (The MyJihad hashtag for example, the MuslimRage hashtag). Something that should be explored more often.

5. Build coalitions. Valuable to engage in coalition building when there is an issue that intersects with many different groups. When we stand up for rights of someone else, we stand up for our collective rights. We need to stand up for rights that matter to all of us as Canadians.

6. Need to be aware of all the media in your neighbourhood. Don’t be a media spokesperson who never follows the news.

7. Have a communications plan. Be prepared. If disaster strikes, no time to prepare a communications strategy then.

Don’t:

1) Forget to get back to people
2) Avoid the issues. That’s failing to respond when response is warranted.
3) If you’re not a scholar, don’t be a scholar. Be a citizen.

Take home point:. Have to reclaim your narrative. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. You need to write your book. You need to write your articles, your blog posts.

Resources

  1. Fear Inc by Wajahat Ali
  2. Gallup Study: Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think
  3. Myth of the Muslim Tide by Doug Saunders
  4. Hope and Despair by Mona Mazigh
  5. Tower of Babble by Richard Stursberg
  6. The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada by Augie Fleras

Choose Well, Not All (Sixteen Lessons from the 2013 UBC SLC)

Festival at the Gedung Sate, Bandung

Festival at the Gedung Sate, Bandung (Indonesia)

One of my favourite conferences, the UBC Student Leadership Conference is an event that continues to grow and improve with every year. I’ve attended multiple times, and each time the conference has been an opening to an increased understanding of myself and the kind of work that I feel passionate about.  After two years in Toronto, this year I was blessed to attend once more, and this year was perhaps was my most meaningful SLC yet. From the rich lunchtime conversations, to the interesting case studies, and the palpable emotion in the room during the Closing Keynote, all of it left an imprint on my heart. This post has been in my draft folder since the conference, (apologies for the delay in posting!), but in no particular order, here are some of the lessons/quotes I took away this year.

1) Being exceptional is about overcoming complacency. It’s about doing the things that others are too busy, too important to do.~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

2) I took part in the SLC Case Studies session this year as an alumni participant, and the experience was a lesson that case studies facilitate deep learning. During the session we were given a description of a real project under development at UBC, a series of questions to guide our thinking and then a few hours later presented our findings/solutions to a panel of people involved in the actual project. They listened, gave feedback and asked us follow-up questions after we presented. Instead of simply consuming information about a topic, we were asked to think critically. The experience was a reminder that learning and transformation is about meaningful conversations. Instead of simply taking in information, for ideas to stick you have to interact with what you hear, digest it, reflect on it, and experiment with implementation. In the future, whether I find myself planning a conference, a course or a retreat, I want to embed a case study learning method into the design of the learning experience.

3) You are an ambassador for the causes that you represent.

Every time I’ve been at the SLC, the volunteers stand out. They are consistently professional, helpful, friendly and excited. They radiate energy and enthusiasm and are keen to serve. Without saying anything, but simply through their state, they tell you how getting involved in the conference has impacted them. Extrapolating that lesson, the volunteers were a reminder that whenever we get involved in something, if it is good, the traces of that goodness should be visible from us.

4)  I spent a magical lunchtime during the SLC this year with friends I hadn’t seen for several months (years in some cases!) speaking about learning goals, and the challenges of finding your way post graduation. Our rich conversation was a reminder that assistance and advice can only come when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and open up on what it is you find challenging. When you’re honest and authentic about being confused. Once you share, you give others permission to do the same, and in that mutual sharing, there is strength, hope and advice to be gained.

5) A great deal of karma, good luck and blessings required for success.~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

6) You remember the moments when you ask God to rescue you. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter.

7) Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have what you want. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

8)Bureaucracies foster environment of scarcity. You need to foster an abundance mentality and see the world through a lens of abundance. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

9) Do work that would be meaningful to you if you had two years to live. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

10) I learnt to have patience with myself and world. Because there is hope, but it comes on a different schedule than yours. ~Closing Keynote

11) Each difficult moment has made me the person that I am today. If you can make it through the darkness, will be transformed. Will be closer to the person supposed to be, and closer to doing the work only you are supposed to do. We grow through struggles and pain. We all have gifts. We need to share our gifts. ~Closing Keynote

12) Please live. Life is amazing. When I was struggling with thoughts of suicide, what kept me going was the thought that nothing is forever. ~Audience Participant, Closing Keynote.

13) You are in not even the 1%, at this institution, you’re in the less than 1% of high achievers. You don’t feel like that because you’ve always surrounded yourself with the same sort of people, and so you think you’re just average. No. ~Closing Keynote.

14) Make the time to fulfill your dreams. Wake up at 5 and write every day to finish that novel. ~Closing Keynote.

15) Tolerating Diversity is Not Enough

Whenever I go to a conference, I am used to sadly going over to the table where the vegetarian options are laid out, and hoping that the sandwiches present are somewhat interesting. Not so at this year’s SLC. There were several vegetarian options available. It wasn’t a reluctant accommodation or tolerance of diversity, it was a celebration of different eating choices. It was a refreshing change to experience a conference where a recognition of diversity was embedded within its design and planning process. It’s rare for me to have that experience; whether it is food, finding prayer space, or finding social space that is not alcohol centric, most of the time, I’m used to having to explain and request accommodation.

16) Choose well, not all. ~Faces of SLC

With Warmheartedness, Intelligence is Constructive

Hart House, University of Toronto

 For two days in 2009, I was transfixed by the amazing speakers who spoke about peace and transformation at the Vancouver Peace Summit. Their message, that we need to think about how we are creating spiritually healthy communities was powerful, and it is inspiring to see examples of communities attempting to bring this idea to life. 

Last year for instance, Karen Armstrong, the winner of the 2008 TED prize and author of “Twelve Steps to Live a Compassionate Life” visited Vancouver for twelve days to hold discussions across the city on compassion. The visit also marked “the launch of the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network, part of an international movement to build compassionate communities” (12 Days of Compassion, SFU).  Also in BC, the Healing Cities Institute examines the connections between city form and public health/ healing and investigates the “spiritual dimensions of urbanism” and the “concept of the sacred within planning” (Healing Cities Institute, About.)  And in 2007 Durham University in the UK held a 24 hour colloqium about the “connections between connections between faith/spirituality and contemporary city-making” titled Faith and Spirituality in the City.

Similar to how we consider how social connection, economic and physical health is nurtured or hindered in our city, these initiatives ask us to consider how our cities nurture or hinder spiritual health. They ask us to think about how different areas of city life are connected, and it is exciting to imagine city planning occurring in such an integrated way. They also ask us to be clear about the values that infuse our planning process. In Vancouver for instance, sustainability is an organising principle in the muncipal planning process, and whether it is in food policy plans, regional strategic plans or in buying decisions, an explanation is needed about how the principle of sustainability is being advanced. 

All of this work is still very new and rapidly developing. Here’s to hoping these conversations continue to grow and spread and are able to create change! See below for selections from my Peace Summit notes.

Continue reading

Oh Dear, It’s Raining (Again)

Though I don’t quite miss the chilly weather of Toronto, it’s strange to see rain on a daily basis now I’m back in BC.

For me, pouring rain and wind equals warm knitted sweaters, soup recipes that warm you up from head to toe and deep within, and Taboo and Risk for cold nights. And it means baking crumbly apple crisp, drinking cardamom chai in mugs the colour of the summer sky, and writing letters to far off friends on bright sunshiny paper.

And of course, it means a fresh reading list for those evenings when a warm blanket and tea is much more appealing than venturing outside.

And  that’s where you come in  readers. I’m nearly finished reading How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, and I’m curious..  What have you read recently/hope to read soon?  This is always one of my favourite/most referred to threads, so please do leave a suggestion in the comments below! Also, what does rainy weather make you think of?