“I should be defined by who I am, not where I’m from”: International Women’s Day panel

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on March 31, 2019

The New Brunswick Immigrant Women’s Association held an event to discuss the intersectional experiences of women of colour in Canada on March 30 in Fredericton. Sitting left to right are the panelists, Fariba Solati, Gül Çalışkan and Funké Aladejebi.

Fifty people all backgrounds came together to learn about and discuss experiences of women of colour in Canada.

The New Brunswick Immigrant Women’s Association (NBIWA) invited the Fredericton community to celebrate International Women’s Day at a panel on March 30 on “intersectional experiences of women of colour in Canada,” a topic chosen because of the similarities in the experiences of persons of colour, whatever their origin.

The NBIWA group was founded one year ago on International Women’s Day. Natasha Akhtar, one of the NBIWA founders, introduced the group and the reasons for its founding.

Akhtar said the group was a response to the “multi-layered challenges faced by immigrant women.” “It takes years and years and sometimes it takes generations” for immigrant women to adapt and understand the complexities of their new societies.

The NBIWA hopes to break down barriers and make sure that “people have the tools to better integrate the community and realize their full potential.” Finally, Akhtar stated: “We want to involve the greater community (…) we welcome people from all backgrounds.”

The NBIWA guarantees complete confidentiality to people contacting them about immigrant women’s issues, whatever they may be. They hold monthly meetings and workshops, for example on workplace issues or on government services. Co-founder Layla Rahmeh added: “We have arguments, we don’t always agree on the same things, but that’s healthy.” Membership is restricted to women, and only immigrant women can be part of the Board. The NBIWA is slowly incorporating and has been promised dedicated space by the Multicultural Association of Fredericton (MCAF).

NBIWA co-founder Jael Duarte, from Colombia, spoke about the domestic violence project for immigrant women carried out by the NB Multicultural Council that was the basis of the NBIWA founding. Women can experience being “alone, isolated and vulnerable” during their immigration and settlement process. For example, in cases of domestic violence, Duarte said, for many immigrant women, “the only person they know in this country is” the abuser. According to the project findings during the forums held in various cities in New Brunswick, economic independence is also crucial to women experiencing this process well.

Duarte explained that part of the project developed a protocol for government about “how to address immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence.” For example, government agencies were sending immigrant women to the province’s Multicultural Associations, but the MCAF is a settlement agency and not equipped to deal with international students or people with other status.

Gül Çalışkan, from St. Thomas University’s Sociology Department gave a talk titled “What is White Feminism? How does it show up into our lives and into the works of intersectional feminism? What can you do about it?”

To introduce her topic, Çalışkan showed a tongue-in-cheek video on White feminism, a feminism which separates intersectional issues from gender issues. For Çalışkan, “White feminism can sneak into intersectional feminism, especially when it comes to issues in the Global South.” She also mentioned the experience of sexism and misogyny in immigrant women’s home countries which then “flows” into the practice of immigration. Çalışkan sees it as a “betrayal that White feminism supports some Muslim women but not those of the Middle East,” those who suffer “misogynistic state-sponsored patriarchy.”

Rhetorically addressing the White feminists, Çalışkan criticized “toxic White feminism,” the everyday ways that White women act: proclaiming colorblindness, having a “White Saviour Complex,” promoting “tokenism,” showing up when it is convenient, defining what racism is, “whitesplaining,” asking people of colour not to “make it about race,” and demonstrating “white fragility.” For her, “the people who get to decide what racism is are the people who experience it every day.”

For Çalışkan, White feminists dismiss the words of women of colour in much the same way that they are dismissed by men, they “cast themselves as victims” and “police the tone” of women of colour. Çalışkan questioned: “Do you walk with us, instead of walking in front of us? Do you allow people of colour to take the lead? Step aside and give us the mic.”

Çalışkan offered solutions for countering the messages of White feminists by using one’s sphere of influence, voting for justice, accepting the fact that injustice exists, among other strategies. She called on women to be uncomfortable, ask questions, read and be aware of the work of, walk and work with, and build friendships with women of colour.

Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), Funké Aladejebi’s presentation was titled “Intersectional Experiences of Women of Colour in Canada: Racialized Women and Systemic Challenges.”

Aladejebi questioned the use of quotas to “situate equal hiring practices in workplaces,” since “quotas denigrate the qualifications women of colour have,” a comment that comes to dominate the narration around these women who are seen simply as beneficiaries of these policies. Because equity policies are centered on women, racial equity policies are inexistent or relegated to the future, leading Aladejebi to differentiate between diversity and true inclusion. Many women of colour are working in private and/or precarious spaces and could not benefit from these policies, were they actually inclusive. According to Aladejebi, racism exists even in organizations that promote inclusion and diversity, because those three concepts effectively go hand-in-hand.

Aledejebi identified a second systematic challenge: questioning qualifications. The highly technical skills of many immigrant women are “cheapened” in the Canadian work force, despite the education and qualifications of the immigrant women. Micro-agressions become part of the daily experience of women of colour, whether expressed as silences, missing information and other “insidious and subtle ways” doubt can be expressed about their credentials and experiences. The “constant need to get additional qualifications,” a result of the delegitimization of the person’s qualifications, is touted as the way to better working conditions.

Other systemic transformations include changes in space when women of colour are included. Inclusionary spaces can quickly become places of oppression, and sometimes quite deliberately. This also leads to what Aladejebi terms the “policing of their performance” in deliberate ways in order to correctly play the role of “the model minority,” something that people of colour “should interrogate often.” Women of colour are often “reclaiming power in the ways that they can” in doing this, a way of empowerment. Finally, because of the complicated navigation of their jobs, women of colour “are often policing other women of colour” which, regrettably, “breaks coalition building.”

St. Thomas University Economics professor Fariba Solati is the author of Women, Work, and Patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa (2017), the result of seven years of research which led to her comparative work on immigrant women in Canada. Along with looking at women’s labour participation in the region, Solati’s book includes an index of patriarchy in the Global South.

Solati’s research found that “religion has legitimized patriarchy” in the Middle East and North Africa and “oil income” made it possible for women not to work. Solati indicated a distinction between the private sphere (domestic spaces, volunteering, extended family) and the public sphere (labour market), which leads to the discrepancy between paid and unpaid labour, none of which is reflected in global women’s labour statistics. In the Middle East and North Africa, public spheres are “the domain of men.”

According to Solati’s findings, in Canada, “visible minority women are more likely than other women to have a university degree.” However, are these Middle Eastern and North African women “still women of leisure,” as many seem to think they are? Solati’s research proves that most immigrant women from these regions who come to Canada integrate the workforce in numbers higher than women from any other region.

The long question period at the end of the panel allowed for participants to ask questions and relay personal stories of immigration. NBIWA organizers promised that the day’s fulsome discussion would lead to more of this type of event.

Sophie M. Lavoie, a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board, writes about arts and culture for the Co-op.

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