“Feminism means having a choice. End of story.”
One moment she’s laughing her head off, eyes shining. The next, she’s giving her opinions on African and Middle-eastern politics. But when she says the word “feminism,” the change is dramatic. Maryam turns incandescent.
“We have to keep in mind the intersectionality of the many oppressions women face. We can’t be proud feminists without recognizing the struggles of Indigenous women, trans women, Black women, disabled women...”
Intersectionality – approaching all issues in a way that neither erases nor privileges particular identities and inequalities to the exclusion of others – is a concept close to Maryam’s heart. She believes no one must be left behind. Ever.
Maryam waves her arms in a sweeping gesture that seems meant to gather in as many people as she can. She is drawing in her families, in her native Morocco and here in Quebec, the place where she put down roots and began making connections 11 years ago. Maryam is a one-person civil society, a revolt, a lightning-bolt of joy. And she’s always happy to meet new people.
“If someone invites me to eat with them in their synagogue, I’ll be there with bells on!”
Maryam wears many hats. She’s known for her regular radio segment, her work on the board of the Quebec section of the Ligue des droits et libertés (a human rights organization), and for speaking on panels and at conferences. Recently, she was co-spokesperson for commemorations of the 2017 Quebec City Mosque Shooting. It can seem like she’s everywhere at once.
“When friends ask me to participate in something, I’m always happy to help. My rule is that it has to promote rights and freedoms, or Quebec City’s diversity, in all shapes and forms.”
Maryam’s community engagement has been built up brick by brick, starting in her childhood.
“In my house growing up, we talked a lot. There were no taboo subjects.
While I was still in Morocco, I got involved in student associations. But, it was very small-scale.”
“As far back as I remember, I’ve been in revolt, fighting to improve conditions for women.”
Her deep concern for the issues she saw around her made Maryam conscious of her place in society, and the impact her voice could have. But when she came to Quebec after her architecture degree to study urban design, she put her passion on the back burner. For a while...
“I told myself I would be the ‘model immigrant.’ I wanted to be the flawless, perfect example: educated, working in my field.”
But as she put down roots in her new home, there were things Maryam couldn’t help noticing. Though she appreciated the beauty of her new homeland, she couldn’t close her eyes to the social fissures she saw.
“There were inequities. That upset me. It made me angry, every time. It didn’t seem fair. And it always came down to the same thing. Our voices aren’t being heard. We aren’t getting involved.”
The unattainable standards of the “model immigrant” were also cracking under pressure. It was hard to remain silent while suffering from the system’s flaws. “We can never succeed in being ‘model immigrants’ – the model immigrant only exists in the imagination of the people who came up with it.”
A massive wake-up call came on January 29, 2017.
On the corner of Chemin Ste-Foy and Route de l’Église.
At 7:45 p.m.
In a rain of bullets, the unimaginable happened.
Six lives were brought to a premature end.
Mamadou Tanou Barry
Eight others injured.
A city thrown into darkness.
“It felt like I no longer had a choice. I said, ‘Okay. Now I have to get involved. Maybe we can’t change the world. But we can try to change something. To raise awareness, bring it up to our level.”
Do everything possible to make sure this never happens again. Make Quebecers aware of the fear and hate out there. Get active in the fight against systemic racism.
“What exasperates me is the discourse of denial. ‘No, that doesn’t exist.’
And the gaslighting: ‘Well, Quebecers aren’t really racist.’
But who said that Quebecers were racist?
Quebec is a welcoming society, one that’s open to diversity, certainly.
But from that to saying that there is no homophobia, no Islamophobia, no discrimination, no systemic racism, no racism at all… Well, that’s the problem. Denying that racism exists is a huge problem.”
Since then, Maryam has been working to foster diversity and peaceful coexistence. She embraces Quebec culture without forgetting her culture of origin. But she remains clear-eyed about the work that remains to be done.
“There may not be 25,000 Alexandre Bissonnettes in Quebec. But one is enough.”
The fear that needs to be vanquished is our fear of difference. And women who wear hijabs are often seen as a symbol of difference.
“I feel no need to flaunt my religion. Apart from this so-called ‘religious symbol,’ which I happen to be attached to.”
Maryam’s laugh is lucid, eloquent.
“Now I’m doubly attached to it, because I’m not about to let someone else dictate what I should look like.”
“I’m not going to let anyone control when I should take it off, from 9 to 5 during working hours, or for any other reason.”
Her gaze is frank, unflinching.
“I believe it’s not fair to women who wear the niqab, which covers their entire face. Listen, do I agree with their choice? No. But am I the one who is experiencing it? No. Do I stand in solidarity with these women? Yes. Totally. 100%. Because it’s their choice.”
“The last thing we should be doing, as a society, is putting them on trial and marginalizing them even further by stripping away their rights.”
“And of course now, with COVID-19, suddenly everyone has to cover their faces. And no one has died from that yet, as far as I know!”
There it is again: that laugh that cuts through the veil of irony.
“Every time we let a little bit of our freedom go, we open the door to losing other hard-won gains.”
It is this indignation that pushes Maryam to raise her voice in every public forum she finds worthwhile. She speaks from a personal conviction, and answers to no affiliation. “I don’t represent the Muslim community. First of all, there is no single ‘Muslim community.’ There are many Muslim communities, like so many flowers in a bouquet.”
Maryam chooses her battles, making them into precious gifts to her community.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, to speak up for your beliefs. “Sometimes you’re just tired. Not in the mood. But then you say to yourself: ‘If I don’t do it, no one else will.’”
“No one ever planned to have to stand in front of parliament and make a speech justifying their right to exist.”
But it has to be done.
“All of us must be free to live the lives we want, in a society that recognizes each of us as we are.”
Maryam is inspired to keep going by projects that celebrate the power and beauty of diversity, and especially the women who make up this diversity.
“I’d like us to bring minorities, to bring Muslim women into the conversation, when they’re doing well. Get in the habit of showing this beautiful face of our society.”
“The women I know are all well-educated and well-integrated in society. They speak French. Many are entrepreneurs, coming up with important new ideas. At the same time, they face the daunting task of raising their children, who are growing up as Quebecers, in a way that preserves a link to their culture.”
Maryam speaks fondly of this challenge, celebrates the power these women have.
She is one woman among so many others. But she is one-of-a-kind in her great strength of will.
She is always standing ready to fight against the reductive images that take away people’s agency, to “stand up in the public space, embody an image people don’t often see. To break down the stereotype, in my case, of a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.” To counter the patriarchy, which seeks to either place Muslim woman in a submissive position, through an unquestioned tradition of male domination, or transform her into a copy of the Western white woman, which is held out as “freedom.” Here as elsewhere.
But especially here, in St. Roch, the “neighbourhood she loves.”
“The whole world is right here. People can be themselves here. You can taste it. I mean, you can buy ethnic foods, you can discover all kinds of small restaurants. And it’s delicious.”
“Diversity is something we can all savour!”Back to the mural