There’s something about Monia Mazigh’s Gendered Islamophobia that is reminiscent of texts such as The Communist Manifesto and Witches, Midwives, and Nurses. These works – short and to the point – were intended by their creators to serve as pamphlets that invited readers to pass along their thumbed-through copies and spread the message to their communities. Recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction, Mazigh’s memoir, at just over 100 pages, is as revelatory as it is trenchant, and it is likewise a call to action against an insidious and nuanced kind of injustice.
Mazigh’s goal is simple: as she writes, like the philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, she aims for her account to serve as testimony. In documenting her own experiences as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, Mazigh lucidly illustrates the existence in Canadian liberal society of a kind of Islamophobia that is filtered through the lens of misogyny – with dire consequences. She cogently links the treatment of Muslim women in Canada with the colonial impulse to attack a group’s women (who are seen as the bearers of the culture) so as to disenfranchise a group wholesale, erase any sense of separate identity, and force them toward assimilation.
Mazigh is an academic by training, so although the book is biographical, personal anecdotes are combined with statistics and the analysis of different studies to support and supplement the social realities behind her experience. She paints a damning image of Canada, particularly of Quebec. It is one in which political figures unabashedly proffer Muslim Canadians as an “other” to be corrected so as to gain political points; after 9/11, these same politicians find supposed justification for their bigotry. She elucidates the culpability of political figures in fomenting hate and how that impacts the lived experiences of Muslim people, ultimately showing that Islamophobia is only effectively addressed and eradicated when it is challenged on a systemic rather than an individual level.
The work anticipates rebuttals and addresses them as thoroughly as possible. Time and again, she speaks to any counter-arguments that might be offered to her experiences of workplace discrimination and verbal assault. After assessing and refuting alternative interpretations, nullifications, or rationalizations of her experiences by skeptical (read: white) interlocutors – even as she holds space for her aggressors’ feelings – Mazigh emerges, with self-respect and self-awareness.
The stated goal of this short work is to “foster understanding, empathy, and compassion.” Mazigh’s writing is instructive, showing some readers how to maintain faith in their experiences despite gaslighting; it also reveals the labour women, especially women of colour, have to perform in a society that so often puts blame for unfortunate events on the victim. By combining the personal with the empirical, Mazigh walks non-Muslim readers toward empathy through an explanation of the nuances of her experiences and she teaches other Muslim women to believe themselves and recognize their trauma – all the while exposing the bias and power imbalance within Canadian society.
Though Mazigh’s intention is to promote meaningful change through understanding, Gendered Islamophobia is also deeply condemnatory and incendiary simply by its presentation of facts. As it unwaveringly recounts the abuse, violence, and discrimination Muslim women experience, and contextualizes it among the suffering of other BIPOC women in Canada, the book makes it tough to look away, remain silent, or fail to pass the knowledge along.
Whether Mazigh validates a reader’s own experiences or prompts introspection and interrogation of biases, what is certain is that Gendered Islamophobia reveals that there is much work to be done to ensure Muslim women’s safety in our society. A towering revelation indeed for so short a book.