Welcome to the thoughts, rants and passions of a young Muslim woman seeking soulful enlightenment in cyberspace.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Move

Well, I've hinted at it long enough - I figure it's about time I make the move. I'm switching to WordPress. I will no longer be updating this site.

You can visit my blog here. I ask for your patience - there are still some changes under way.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Canada Passes Same-Sex Bill

Last night Canada came one step closer to officially recognizing same-sex marriage. Bill C-38 was passed 158-133, with the NDP and Bloc supporting the (minority) government. The legislation awaits its rubber stamp of approval from the Senate and the Governor-General. The vote (and the debate leading up to it) was highly contentious: Liberal backbenchers were allowed a free vote, and many of them did not support their party. Former MP Joe Comuzzi resigned from Cabinet to vote against the legislation.

Many Canadians believe this is a historic occasion, as evidenced by Prime Minister Paul Martin's
speech in Parliament. The legislation makes Canada the third country to officially recognize gay and lesbian marriage, though same-sex marriage has already been legalized and is now performed in most parts of the country due to lower-court decisions in various provinces that redefine marriage.

Bill C-38 will only apply to civic marriages. It includes provisions for the protection of religious minorities and institutions. Religious leaders can refuse to take part in same-sex marriages. There had been talk of repealing the charitable status of religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage. Recently, the bill was amended to protect the charitable status of those groups. It will be fascinating to watch the balancing act between religious (and group) rights and the equality rights of same-sex couples – after all, both rights are explicitly protected in the Charter.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Swearing

I've been thinking about profane language quite a bit lately. Why does it bother me so? And why do I find it so offensive? Is it because I was brought up with my speech carefully monitored? A great deal of coarse language makes reference to body parts or bodily functions. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. So what is it about some words that make them taboo?

And how does one determine whether a word can be used in regular speech or not? Several years back, when the term "screwed up" peppered my speech, my father would insist that I not use that term because it had a vulgar meaning. When I told him it hadn't that meaning any longer – I felt it meant someone was acting in an odd or "crazy" manner - he insisted I shouldn't use it because 1) I just wasn't aware of its connotations; 2) older people still consider it vulgar and wouldn't appreciate its common usage; and 3) I had been exposed to that word at school so often that it no longer had the intended effect on me. I thought his rationale was very convincing, but lately I've come to realize that many words that were once considered offensive have now entered public discourse. So perhaps the term "screwed up" no longer has the negative connotation my father thought it had – perhaps it can no longer be considered coarse language.

Unanswered questions tend to trouble me, so I emailed an old professor to ask her my question:

Dear Professor "Wordy":
I was wondering whether you'd be able to answer this burning question of mine. At what point do swear words lose their force? A few years ago, my father would gently rebuke us when we used phrases like, "he's screwed up" to mean someone has problems or isn't fully normal, because he believed the word has sexual connotations. Yet I'm sure there are some words we use today that might have been considered profanities in the past, and I know there are some words which have quite innocent meanings but have come to refer to sexual activity. How do we judge whether a word is socially acceptable or not?
My professor responded the next day:

Hi Safiyyah,
I wish I had an easy answer to your questions. You are right that swear words tend to lose their force over time and also that they are more acceptable in some situations (say, with your friends) than in others (with your parents). It is not easy to judge when they have become acceptable. One way might be, if you hear them on a family TV show, they have probably become acceptable. I am still shocked when I see an advertisement announcing that something 'sucks' - that is still profane for me, but obviously not for a lot of other people. I would think that most former swear words even if they are no longer profane still remain acceptable in informal language only. A dictionary like the Canadian Oxford Dictionary can give some guidance; it marks words that the editor considers profane as 'coarse' – for example, 'screw up' is marked as slang (meaning informal language only) but not as 'coarse'. I hope that helps.
Professor "Wordy"
I'm not entirely satisfied with this response, but perhaps there simply isn't a concrete answer to my questions. In any case, I thought I'd pose them to my readers once again:

What is it about some words that make them unacceptable for use in polite company? When does profane language become part of the public discourse? And what happens when seemingly harmless words are hijacked and made profane over time? Can these words be used in their original manner or would it be anachronistic to do so?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Islamic School Days, cont'd

Read Part 1 here.

So Sr. Shaila had forced us onto our desks as punishment for chatting in class. There we stood, hands clasped atop our heads, waiting for her to come to her senses. We'd been standing there for quite some time when our principal walked in unexpectedly and paused, taken aback at the discovery of thirty sombre statues set upon thirty tiny desks.

"What's going on here?" he asked. His eyes swept the room, baffled at the strange tableau before him. "Get down, all of you! What're you doing up there?!"

But we stood there, shame-faced and silent, knowing we had no choice in the matter. It was either him or the scary lady, and the scary lady we could not ignore.

Our teacher broke the unsettling silence. "I told them to stand there, Br. Abdurrahman. I've had it with them! I've had enough!"

"No, Sr. Shaila, they must come down! It's unsafe. Get down, all of you! Get down!"

We fidgeted uncertainly, waiting for her word. Our principal looked at us, then at her. Finally he gestured to Sr. Shaila. "Can I speak with you outside?" he asked.

She nodded, and he led the way. But before shutting the door, she perused the classroom one last time. "Not a word from any of you. Do you understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!"

We didn't respond. We knew what would happen if we did. Instead, our eyes remained fixed upon the door as we sought to listen in on the secret conversation – in vain.

Minutes later, the door inched open. Sr. Shaila strode straight to her desk, her mouth still set in a stubborn frown. It was Br. Abdurrahman who addressed us: "Get down, everyone. Off your desks! I don't want to see you there again, okay? And I want this to be a lesson to all of you. Have your textbooks out and be ready for class. Is that clear?"

We nodded wordlessly, then scrambled down from our desks, involuntary sighs of relief slipping out as we settled into our seats. Br. Abdurrahman left quietly, shutting the door behind him.

But before we'd managed to pull our textbooks out, before we'd even managed to get comfortable in our chairs, Sr. Shaila's familiar voice startled us: "You know, Br. Abdurrahman is too kind. You people will never learn this way. GET BACK UP ON YOUR DESKS!"

In shock, we stumbled from our seats yet again; disobeying simply wasn't an option. She glared at us from behind her spectacles. "AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!!!" she commanded.

My eyes lingered on the second hand of the clock. I was bored to death and willing the period to end. Before long, i was thoroughly agitated. This was simply ridiculous. We were twelve year olds, and she had us standing on our desks? Wasn't there anything we could do to end this madness?

And then, unexpectedly, I hit upon an idea. What would happen if I apologized - on behalf of the class? Would she let us off? It was worth a try. But I was terrified. What if she yelled at me? Or concocted some unique sort of punishment for me? On the other hand, perhaps I was the best chance we had. She had taken a liking to me for some reason. It was worth a try, I thought. But why risk it? Why not someone else?

The clock ticked away as I pondered my options. Several times I made to speak, only to realize I hadn't the courage to do so. Finally, I could stand it no longer. "Sr. Shaila?" I whispered. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Sr. Shaila?" I asked, more loudly this time.

Her head jerked up from the jumble of newspapers before her. She'd heard. It was too late to back down. My heart beat wildly as I adjusted my clasped hands. "Sr. Shaila, can we please sit down? We're really sorry."

"What are you sorry for, Saffya?" Yes, she called me Saffya and I hated it. She also called me variations of that name, including Soofya and Sowfya. But Saffya was the most popular, it seemed.

Why were we sorry, she'd asked. She was making me spell it out. "We're sorry for not being quiet and for not being ready for class." I felt like a snivelling four-year old begging to play outside.

She slowly turned a page and continued perusing the page before her. She said nothing. Nothing! Oh God, it hadn't worked! Oh, the shame!

Minutes passed. My arms were throbbing. And I silently berated myself for sucking up to her.

Then suddenly, without looking up from her paper, she murmured, "Soofya, sit down."

Did she say what I thought she said? It took a moment for her words to sink in. She looked up to see me still standing. "Soofya, I said sit down!"

Huh? Just me? But I'd already tried my luck; I wasn't brave enough to speak again. Red-faced, I climbed down from my desk and sank into my chair, the rest of the class still towering over me. I felt even worse now, knowing I'd been the only one spared. I suppose I'd learned a lesson: It's not smart to negotiate with a crazy woman.

Time passed slowly in the strangely still room. Then, ten minutes were all that remained. I could see and hear classmates shuffling around, adjusting their hands, rotating their necks – all to alleviate the discomfort they were in. I was suffering almost as much as those who remained standing - not physically, of course, but from the embarrassment of being singled out. So it was a relief to finally hear her voice.

"You know," she said, her voice deceptively casual, "you people have no shame. The least you could do is apologize. But you people are too proud for even that. And what grade are you in? Grade 7? GRADE 7?! What kind of example are you? WHAT KIND OF EXAMPLE?! La halla wa laa quwwataa!" She shook her head at the class, mouth twisted in disgust, the anger just barely veiled.

And then a voice broke through the tense silence that followed. "Sr. Shaila, I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what? SORRY FOR WHAT?!"

"For talking before you came in."

"SIT DOWN!" she thundered.

Then another voice. "Sr. Shaila, I'm sorry." And another. And another. Within a few minutes, everyone had apologized and was seated, a sense of normalcy returning to the classroom.

"Open your textbooks to page 89," she commanded.

I'd never seen textbooks whipped out so quickly.

"Read quietly until the end of the period. Answer the questions at the end of the chapter. I'll check your work tomorrow." And with that, she collected the remnants of her newspaper and waltzed out the door.

That day – the day Sr. Shaila disciplined thirty twelve year olds – that was the day I finally realized my history teacher had gone berserk. She wasn't the only one. It was much later that I came to appreciate the distinct madness that pervaded that school.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Islamic School Days

I spent most of my childhood in an Islamic school – I won't mention which one. In fact, I'd appreciate if there were no guesses. I'm not out to pick on my old school. I was there until the age of fourteen or so. I loved it – well, at least parts of it. But there were lots of funny bits, and that's what I'm going to share with you right now.

The story I'm about to tell you is completely true. It happened when I was in grade 7. We were a class of about 30 students, with the boys and girls arranged on separate sides of the classroom. On that special day, we had just returned from lunch break, and we were sitting around waiting for our teacher to come in. Our teachers always seemed to take their good 'ole time, and like any other kids, we got bored. So we started chattering back and forth, not noticing what a racket we were making.

Then, BAM! We froze. In charged our history teacher, a deadly frown set within the folds of her drooping cheeks, glasses resting low upon the bridge of her dainty nose, eyes shooting angry darts at every face. She was old and very intimidating. I'll call her...Sr. Shaila. Yes, we didn't call our teachers Ms. or Mr. or any other name like that. It was either Sister or Brother. And this teacher was one sister!


We stared at her, still stunned by her sudden appearance. We'd forgotten, we really had! But there was no arguing with this woman. Should I take out my textbook and risk having her notice I hadn't taken it out earlier? I could sense I wasn't the only one paralysed with indecision.

She continued her slow perusal of the class, glaring eyes settling upon each trembling child in turn.


A girl in the front row quietly reached into her desk and pulled out her book, her eyes still fixed upon Sr. Shaila. (No, there were no lockers in this school.) The rest of us cautiously followed suit. We were scared stiff, we really were. We stared straight ahead, casting fearful glances at her from below lowered lids, not a peep coming out of our mouths.

And then it came. The tirade we'd been anticipating.


She stopped to take a deep breath. Uh oh. This was a biggie.


But we knew by now she didn't really want us to admit we'd rather be anything but burger flippers. In fact, we knew that if we did tell her, we might get into even more trouble. (It had happened once before, you see, with a student too eager to please.) So we kept quiet, staring at the ridges in our desks, our fingernails, anything to avoid her accusatory glare. We were praying she'd soon stop and we could just get on with learning. But then we realized that wasn't going to happen any time soon:



I scraped back my chair as fast as I could, hastening to do as she ordered. The clang of thirty chairs was ear jarring, but she was so angry she didn't notice. What would she make us do? Hands on our heads this time?

"GET UP ON YOUR DESKS!" she screeched.

What?! We stared at her in confusion, not believing our ears. We'd had strange punishments before, but this was unbelievable.


The lady had gone bonkers. She was losing her marbles. She was...crazy. But we couldn't risk her wrath. We rose solemnly on our chairs and climbed onto our desks.

A few minutes after we'd settled in, she had one final order: "PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS AND NOT A SOUND!" We put our hands on our heads. And we stood there. Waiting. And waiting some more.

She didn't seem to notice. She was sitting at her desk now, carefully flipping through the Toronto Star newspaper laid out before her. She looked comfortably happy, as if she could easily sit there for another hour.

Standing on a desk was one thing; standing on a desk with our hands atop our heads was a new experience. And it wasn't pleasant, I tell you.

My arms were starting to hurt. I glanced at the clock. Half an hour left. When would she let us off?

Then there was a knock at the door. In came our beloved principal. "Assalaamu Alaykum," he said in usual cheerful voice. Thank God! We sighed a collective sigh of relief. He was here! He'd save us! He was the kindest man on earth. And sure enough, his bright smile turned to horror as he found thirty twelve year olds standing stiffly atop their desks...

To be continued (I think).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Nothing to see here... least not until late Thursday. Sorry to disappoint. I've got a major deadline coming up, and it's draining me of my creative energy.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


I'm looking for information from anyone who has traveled from England to Continental Europe by train. Here are some questions:

What would be a reasonable time frame for someone who wants to visit a few countries in Europe? A week? A month?

What sort of costs would the traveler have to consider?

If you've stayed in a hostel, what has your experience been like?

Are there places to see or things to do that you'd want to recommend to a first-time visitor?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Canada – brrrr!

Safiyyah getting ready to play in the summer snow!

On a random tour through blogosphere, I came across a woman who is planning a trip that will pass through Montreal. She is concerned about what sorts of clothing to pack. Would it be too cold for summer gear? Reminds me of the time someone admitted she'd heard about Islam but wasn't sure who he was. I suppose people just don't know very much about Canada either. What pops into your head when you think of Canada?

Friday, June 17, 2005

A Question of Tolerance

We sat together at MoMo's, a bunch of old friends immersed in deep discussion about what religion meant to us. We had organized a series of peace-building initiatives on campus many months before, and we continued to meet regularly to engage in our own informal dialogue.

We were discussing prayer when "Maria", my Christian friend, suddenly revealed that she regularly prays for her mentor (who lives what she considers a very sinful lifestyle). She asks God to guide her mentor back to what she defines as the moral path.

I was surprised by her bold admission, but I kept my thoughts to myself. "Isaac", my Jewish friend, was too astonished to hold back. "You do that?" he asked.

"Yes, I do. Every day. I pray for everyone I care about."

"I wouldn't want you to pray for me," he exclaimed, consternation colouring his usually calm demeanour.

The fervent interjection startled her. She paused, eyes flickering across the faces in the room, taking time to judge each person's reaction as if unsure of what to say in response. Finally her eyes settled upon him once again. "Why?" she asked.

The table was suddenly quiet. In his usual eloquent way, he sought to explain why he deemed her prayers so distasteful. His words flowed beautifully, and I simply drank them in. But one idea stood out: "Praying for another to become a Christian, or in some cases, to become a better Christian, indicates one's deep desire to change another person. That shows a lack of acceptance for that person."

Maria was stunned. Clearly she did not really understand his unease. "My prayers are based on love," she pointed out. "I love my mentor. Because I care about him...that's the reason I pray for him to become a better person. My intention isn't at all bad."

I caught Isaac's sidelong glance. He was waiting for my perspective. "To be honest, I don't really care one way or the other," I shared. "If she wants to pray for me, that's fine. If she doesn't, that's fine too."

Always the thinker, he sat back in silent contemplation, puzzlement evident upon his face. He was likely questioning his own tolerance. How could he dictate how another person prayed? After all, praying is a very personal action. One must not be prevented from praying for whatever one desires. At the same time, praying for God to change an individual in a way that the supplicant so desired - and in a way that the person in question might not appreciate – seemed both selfish and uncaring.

The conversation suddenly shifted direction and the issue was dropped, but as I left MoMo's that day, Isaac's reaction kept replaying in my mind. I wondered why it didn't matter to me - and why it troubled Isaac so. Was it because he was less tolerant than I was? Or was it perhaps because I wasn't tolerant enough? Maria was very dear to me, and yet I was startled by the possibility that my indifference had to do with the meaninglessness of her prayers; believing that I had the truth, her appeal to God that I be guided to the straight path couldn't do much damage.

Is one's tolerance correlated to one's belief in the invalidity of another's faith? Was I more tolerant and more willing to accept Maria's religious actions because I didn't feel they were of much consequence? Perhaps one can only afford to be tolerant of another's religious beliefs when one thinks that the other's beliefs are wrong or less legitimate than one's own. If that is so, then the concept of religious tolerance is very shallow indeed.