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Trisha Islam on stereotypes and rules of engagement


Trisha Islam is a student, artist, poet and community activist living in Montreal, Quebec. Since October 2013, she has been working with the Atwater Library to develop the Tell it. See it. Hear it. project. Supported by the Inspirit Foundation, this project encourages a diverse team of young adults to use digital media to explore a more nuanced conversation about faith, spirituality and identity.

Trisha recently created a video about a spoken-word poem she wrote about her experience as a Muslim woman who often hears comments such as “you can’t be Muslim and a feminist.” The video has received over 1,300 views on YouTube.

We had a chat with Trisha on her thoughts about what we can do when we want to ask questions and engage with people of different cultures and beliefs but feel intimidated that we’re going to say something wrong or offend someone.

1. In your video, you share assumptions people often make of a Muslim woman. What’re some of the most stereotypical comments you’ve heard?

The strangest comments and questions I have heard are a confused mix between gendered, cultural and religious assumptions that get tossed around and pop out awkwardly. I get asked about whether I will have an arranged marriage all the time, as if my face is an open wedding invitation. I’m not sure if this is because I’m a Muslim, South Asian, female, wear a hijab… or a combination of any. Whatever the case, I try to make the most of the situation by being honest. In most of my experiences, stereotypical comments were ways of saying, “I’m curious but I’m not sure if what I’m saying is the right way to say it,” which I don’t mind.

2. What do you make of the recent debate on the charter of values in Quebec?

I feel lucky to have experienced and have been a part of a critical period in Quebec’s history. The 2014 elections are just the beginning of what’s to come and I am eagerly keeping tabs on further developments.

To be honest, I am disappointed in the lack of conversations pertaining to religious symbols themselves. Every argument I heard countering the charter of values insisted that wearing a hijab, a kippa or a turban is a fundamental human right. While I absolutely agree, I waited months on end for a fruitful discussion about why individuals choose to wear the hijab, kippa or turban to begin with. If people can argue why they should be taken off, surely the very people who wear these symbols have the right to argue why they keep them on. I have heard from friends and colleagues that this simply was not the right time to discuss religion and personal values. To me, it’s always the right time to be more informed. To this day, I am waiting for that conversation.

3. We are often curious about people’s religious beliefs but are afraid to ask questions that may come across as offensive. Do you have any tips for engaging in these conversations, or rules of engagement you find helpful?

Ask with sincerity. People are often good at picking up honest intentions. Pack a smile, open your ears, listen with your heart and you will be fine.

4. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

If we as a society truly consider ourselves open minded, then we must walk the talk and learn to respect and not just tolerate our neighbors. Believe it or not, we basically all strive towards the same objectives, towards meaning and happiness.