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December 11, 2011

Speaking out against stereotypes

Besma Soltan

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Three years ago, I sat in a circle in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto. Around me was a group of Muslim youth who had gathered to discuss a media related project that would focus on finding the points of overlap between Muslim Canadian Youth and the larger diverse Canadian Community.

Prior to that, my community involvement was heavily Islamic. In my last two years of High School I was president of the Muslim Student Association, volunteered and contributed to various Muslim organizations and events in my first years of University, and mostly spent my free time in activities of the sort.

Then SPEAKout was born.

In short, SPEAKout Poetry is a not-for-profit organization that the group of Muslim youth and I created. Through SPEAKout we wanted to inspire respect, entertain with a purpose, but most importantly connect communities.

Part of SPEAKout Poetry’s mandate is to foster a safe, respectful and inclusive environment for the exchange of ideas and visions.

We wanted to challenge the status quo by providing a platform for the exchange of ideas and the search for points of overlap in our different communities. We hoped, this would help foster dialogue, understanding and establish a common framework to build healthy and diverse communities together.

What SPEAKout taught me to do is burst out of my bubble and expand my activist thinking to the various communities I never thought I belonged to. I define myself as an activist, a social entrepreneur, a passionate social innovator, an educator, community lover, a young woman, Canadian, Arab, Muslim - and a human. In order to feel fulfilled as a human being whose aim is to not leave this globe in the same way she arrived in it, my contribution needs to expand to the various things that define me.

A while back someone told me that by wanting to contribute outside of the "Muslim community" I will compromise my faith and my people for others. I won't lie, the strength of the statement made me pause for a second. However, I thought back to various interviews with researchers and documenters working to find out what it means to be a combination of a Female Muslim Youth active in the large Canadian Community post 9/11. The one question I was always asked was "Did you feel stereotyped? Were you mistreated because of your religion or ethnicity post 9/11?"

My answer was yes, to a certain extent and in certain situations, but part of the fault falls on me and my community for not speaking out through action about who we are, what our faith teaches us, and what we truly represent to our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Many of us either live in a bubble of fear of the outside world. We teach our kids that it is Satan, and that we are saving ourselves by not interacting with it.

Others did the total opposite, melting into the pot of Globalization, hiding our identity as if it is something to be ashamed of, changing our names from Mohammed to Moe, and not practicing our religion out of fear of being stereotyped. But the reality is, we helped in creating those stereotypes by simply not being who we really are. We allowed the media to focus on the negatives and we did not work on finding and highlighting the points of overlap that bring us together.

Speaking from experience in the Spoken Word scene, and being exposed to other art scenes; If most of the art events are being held in bars or clubs where alcohol is being served and some Muslims do not feel comfortable being in such environments, then they need to explain, in the right and appropriate ways, why. And this is only one example out of the many that we need to examine and find solutions for.

As Muslims, we need to step out of our bubbles. We need to contribute to the multitude of things that define us if we really want to see the country we call home warmly welcome us into its arms, even on the coldest of December days. It is also part of our faith. Only then will we be able to move past the stereotyped image of Muslims and dispel fears and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims.

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