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The Many Faces

Centering the voices of Muslim women doing equity work in the academy

Our spiritual lens serves as a source of strength and perseverance in the face of ongoing challenges.


Is it really that complex for a woman who is visibly Muslim (who wears a headscarf/hijab) and racialized to thrive in a portfolio of inclusion, anti-racism, and diversity?

The three of us can answer with a resounding yes! Our individualized complexities include discrimination at the intersection of our identities, rooted in Islamophobia, institutional whiteness, sexism and racism. As a collective, we want to share our truths by disrupting Islamophobic narratives and highlighting how our faith and religiosity enable us to do equity work with purpose and authenticity. We also strive to name the strains of such highly politicized portfolios and the impact this has on our bodies, minds and souls. We have a shared lived experience of being visibly Muslim women from diverse South-Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds doing equity work in a postsecondary institution on Turtle Island. We approach this column from a place of unity, not uniformity, acknowledging our differences and individuality and ensuring we are not contributing to the erasure and homogenization of the Muslim woman.

Working in the field of equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and decolonization (EDIAD) is rooted in the core tenants of our faith. As Muslim women, we hold the belief that truth-telling, anti-oppression, respect and social justice extend to all humanity. We consider this to be our spiritual and moral obligation. This is informed by our faith, which has a strong focus on safety and courage – (1) acting if we witness injustice and oppression, (2) speaking out against such abhorrent experiences, or (3) silently resisting. All of these are individual choices one can make depending on their context. Our work goes beyond mere performativity or metrics and extends to a higher purpose and goal in life. There are sometimes feelings of anger and frustration but even these emotions are deeply rooted in love and care for those who experience oppression in all its forms. Our spiritual lens serves as a source of strength and perseverance in the face of ongoing challenges that we face doing EDIAD work and gives us the courage to challenge colonial structures and normative ways of doing and being.

Islamophobia is gendered. It impacts us both as women and as Muslims. We continue to be imagined through Orientalist fantasies as weak, oppressed, passive and in need of saving, while also being labelled as violent and radicalized because of our faith. In Canada, the government’s claim to “save” Muslim women through the numerous laws such as the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, Quebec’s Bill 62, and most recently, Bill 21. It is important to note that these laws target and harm Canadian Muslim women in different ways – specifically our freedom to choose what we wear. Such policies engender hate, leading to an increase in Islamophobic gendered violence and heightened fears for personal safety amongst Muslim women. Together with this, we are hyper-marginalized, facing a triple penalty, for being a woman, belonging to a minority ethnic community and for being Muslim. Our race and ethnicity create further stereotypes such as the questioning of our educational credentials, skills and intelligence and our perceived comprehension of the English language.

Such narratives of “othering” and lacking agency are transmitted into the academy and into our workspaces, impacting the way we are perceived and included by those whom we work with. It leads to questioning the credibility of our work in our EDIAD positions and multiple experiences of being consistently invalidated, silenced, misinterpreted or made to feel invisible. An ongoing cycle of microinvalidations and microaggressions results in the feelings of not belonging, stress, a constant need to prove oneself, and burnout.

“This dynamic creates a paradox in which women who wear the hijab are both hypervisible (due to their hijab) and invisible (not treated or seen as competent workers, but rather as passive and voiceless because of their hijab.)” (Barakat, 2023)

These challenges we highlight do not suppress us; in fact, we demonstrate confidence and resilience to challenge and resist such narratives about us. Existing as “other” in dominant spaces demands us to be resilient. We believe our existence is a form of resistance. We continue working towards thriving and excelling in our respective areas of EDIAD work. We can contribute far more effectively if not for the multiple barriers that challenge our legitimacy. Having experienced racism and Islamophobia throughout our lives has solidified our commitment to work in the academy. This lived experience has informed our ability to incorporate developmental, holistic and trauma-informed lenses when advising campus members and advocating on their behalf.

We wish to remember and mourn the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) women we have lost who have been champions of EDIAD or studied and worked within the academy. Many of these named, unnamed and silenced women have suffered harm, were removed from their positions, or lost their lives. There is psychological and emotional abuse behind the scenes that continues to demoralize the very people who are striving to create a more equitable system and we have shared a fraction of the reality. This epidemic of silencing and erasure of our actions and voices continues to spiral out of control within the academy.

We firmly believe in building partnerships with peers working across EDIAD spaces and having BIPOC mentors and allies inform and support our work. These internal and external partners are integral to creating transformative change. We are continuously working towards disrupting narratives about us within the academy and urge those in positions of leadership and supervision to fulsomely acknowledge, understand and support us. This can only be achieved in dialogical conversations with us and defined in our own words and on our own terms. So, we end with two reflective questions:

How can equitable systems, policies and accountability processes be created to sustain Muslim women as well as those with marginalized identities who do the work of EDIAD so that they may thrive and flourish? How can shared experiences in solidarity within the academy be leveraged whilst not erasing the individual needs, experiences, and identities of Muslim women? 

We are hopeful that our presence and work will continue to dismantle stereotypes about us as we collectively work towards creating a just, equitable and anti-oppressive space for everyone.

Aasiya Satia is the educational developer in anti-racist pedagogies at the MacPherson Institute at McMaster. Khadijeh Rakie is the EDI specialist at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business. Sadia Anjum is the specialist, EDI & anti-racism in recreation and athletics at McMaster University.

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