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Muslim women speak for themselves

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A lot of discussion these days about Muslim women, but the problem is few of us get a chance to sit down and talk with some of them.

I have met quite a few simply because I work as a volunteer in one of Winnipeg's largest affordable-housing societies. The women were all different, but none of them had the characteristics of the Muslim-woman stereotype -- a supine creature who is browbeaten or sometimes beaten by her husband.

In fact, it was sometimes the reverse -- the women told their husbands where to get off. In other instances, the women did all the talking and the men said nary a word.

Muslim women are in the news because of the trial of Mohammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yaha, and his son Hamed, who are accused of killing Shafia's first wife and three daughters in what the Crown says was an "honour killing."

Shahrzad Mojob, a professor in the University of Toronto's women's studies section, told the trial it's wrong to blame religion for such killings because they predate all the great faiths.

Honour killings -- the United Nations says there are thousands worldwide each year -- don't need to be prefaced by actual deeds, Mojob said.

"Even the assumption (of extramarital relations) is seen as a huge violation of the family honour," she said. "It doesn't need to be actual. Even the rumour can cause the killings of young women."

The killings, she said, are a means of "cleansing" a family from disgrace.

I can't ask the Muslim woman sitting across the table opposite me about the killings, although the reporter in me would love to. We are here to discuss housing. The woman wears a long coat buttoned up around their neck, a head scarf and woollen gloves in case, by accident, our hands should touch.

Her dark eyes watch me intently as she takes off her gloves. "The apartment," she says, "is a very good apartment." But she is worried it is too far from a school her children enjoy.

Like many immigrant women, she wants her children to succeed. She knows they must learn English and do well in school. She also knows the bullying of immigrant children takes place in some schools, and in others their special needs are ignored. Gangs are a constant worry.

Her husband, a big, handsome guy in a jaunty Afghan hat, likes the new apartment, and the price is right. The woman turns to the husband and begins to make her points in a very forthright manner. I can't follow the whole discussion because the interpreter is discreet. The woman's body language, however, indicates she is not happy.

The couple didn't take the apartment.

In another setting, I interviewed an imam who worked part-time in his mosque and was a leading expert in Winnipeg's medical community. "Anyone who thinks Muslim women are subservient should see my wife talking to me," he said. And some members of his congregation, sitting around him, nodded in agreement.

Codi Guenther, of New Journey, who helps my group with housing problems, says immigrant women in Canada are becoming even more influential in families because cheques for child tax benefits are made out to them. And in our society, money talks.

You can't judge Muslim women by what they wear. Turkey is the Middle East's most open Islamic democracy. I asked a group of women university students there why they wore head scarfs. "We have a choice," said one, "and we choose to wear them."

"We don't want to be confused with Lindsay Lohan," another added.

In one housing interview, a woman, smartly dressed in her colourful native costume, told me quietly about how she had taken her children across part of a desert to get to a refugee camp, then fought hard to get to Canada where her children would have a chance at a better life.

She put a mighty dent in my persona of rough, cynical reporter.

Need I add that she got the apartment?

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2011 A12

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