Countering stereotypes of Muslim women in Canada

Until recent times, images of Muslim women living in the West were largely absent from the mainstream Canadian media. Since the events of Sept.11, 2001, Muslim women in Canada have been seen more often in the media, yet frequently these images are dominated by stereotypes.

York alumna Salima Bhimani (MES 2001, right) wants to change the perceptions of Muslim women in Canada and the West. While a graduate student in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, she became concerned about the absence of quality information about them. So she set about recording conversations with Muslim women in Canada as part of her MES major project.

“I was very aware that I needed to do something to speak to the needs within the Muslim community, to provide visible role models for Muslim women and to address the backlash and ‘Islamophobia’ in North American society,” says Bhimani.

What began as a project in her master’s program has now grown into a book. “I wanted to create something that would house this amazing dialogue, so I decided that a book would be a great forum. I put together the first draft as a final piece to my MES project.”

Released in mid-October, Majalis al-ilm: Sessions of Knowledge – Reclaiming and Representing the Lives of Muslim Women gives the stories of nine Muslim women in Canada. It provides a first-person perspective on their religion, culture and daily lives. With various opinions and traditions represented through the women’s intimate stories, the book provides a complex picture of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Canada.

Almost every page of the book has images that express the importance of creativity, calligraphy, poetry, and geometric designs in the Islamic religion. Bhimani explains that these visuals help express the Islamic concepts of God, intellect, faith, connection and other spiritual ideas.

FES Professor Deborah Barndt, Bhimani’s former academic supervisor, says the visual content is striking. “The book integrates historical Islamic art, contemporary media, and the Muslim women’s own images,” says Barndt. “It is a stunning book.”

Bhimani is currently studying at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto, to become a teacher. “There is a great need for teachers of colour who can relate to ethno-racial youth and act as role models within the school system,” she says.

When she is not focusing on her studies, Bhimani works as an activist, artist and educator conducting empowerment workshops with youth and women. She is also a consultant for the federal government’s Department of Canadian Heritage on community development and anti-racism.

TSAR Press in Toronto published Majalis al-ilm. It is available at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore or may be purchased online through Chapters and

Beth McMahon, a first-year MES student who is working for FES External Relations, supplied this article to YFile.