Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman, published last October, is a collection of monthly columns written by Sheema Khan and originally printed in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, between 2002 and 2009. Khan, who founded the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), was born in India and moved to Montreal when she was young. The short essays that form her book cover a range of topics, interweaving personal experiences of interfaith interactions and spiritual journeys as a Canadian Muslim woman with reflections on national and international political issues.
Overall, the writing is eloquent and engaging, and the content is informative and thought-provoking. The book is structured as a compilation of pieces, none of which are more than two pages long, organized according to five themes:
I found this structure took some time to get used to, since the pieces don’t all flow neatly together, and especially because the dates of the original articles weren’t given, leaving me to guess at how current the issues were at the time of writing. At the same time, the compilation of short pieces makes it easy to take in the information in small amounts, and to skip back and forth between articles.
The book’s title refers not only (as I first assumed) to eye-roll-inducing cliches symbolizing Canada and Islam, but also to Khan’s own experience as a hijab-wearing woman who once spent many years playing intramural hockey at university. The intersection of hockey and hijab (and the ensuing skeptical reactions from people who hear about it) has actually played out rather concretely in Khan’s life, making the title much more meaningful.
As for the second half of the title, “Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman,” it was nice to see that such reflections are not confined simply to Muslim women’s issues; while gender is brought up–as it should be–throughout the book, the other topics covered in the book demonstrate that, as a Canadian Muslim woman, Khan also has important reflections to share on many other issues. Some of my favorite pieces included “The Abuse of Islamic Language,” in which Khan discusses the problems with the misuse of words like “jihad” by both Western media and Osama bin Laden; “Double Standards,” which looks at the unequal application of hate speech laws that are more likely to bar Muslim leaders from entering Canada than they are to affect Christian leaders with similar ideas; “Funny,” a call to Muslims to follow the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) when responding to cartoons that depict him in an offensive way; and “The Soul in Science,” a description of Islamic examples of how science and religion can benefit one another. She celebrates her religion as well as her country, while criticising the racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression found in both.
One of the elements of the book that most stuck out to me was Khan’s unapologetic expression of her commitment to Islam, and her argument that, if Canadian society takes seriously its commitment to diversity, it has to accept and respect Muslims (and, presumably, other people of faith) not only as cultural or ethnic communities, but also as communities with a certain spiritual outlook. One especially interesting passage illustrated the challenge that this idea poses to some understandings of feminism, in response to the Quebec Council on the Status of Women’s call to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols (particularly the hijab and niqab):
Feminism is supposed to empower women to make their own choices. Instead, the council has framed the road to freedom on its own terms: the secular way, or the highway.
This is nothing but fear. In the 1960s, men feared strong women. Today, it seems strong women are feared by women. Assertive Muslim women do pose a challenge to feminism. First, there is the embrace of religion, rather than its rejection, that makes many in the feminist establishment queasy. […]
The fear of Islam is revealed in calls to keep religion a private affair, locked away in our homes. In the past, we tried to hide what we feared and felt ashamed of – for example, physical disability, homosexuality, mental illness. Many were ostracized and suffered discrimination. We realized how wrong it was to deny individuals full participation in society simply because they were different. Now, there are those whose identity is defined primarily by their relationship to God. Dare we deny them full rights? (pp. 143-144)
Later, Khan describes the negative reactions of many of her friends to her decision to become more religious, declaring her “brainwashed,” even though “before I ‘got religion,’ my friends thought my mind was perfectly fine” (p. 155). She highlights some of the fault lines that exist between expressions of openness to all ideas and actual difficulties accepting certain ideas, particularly ones informed by religion. Although this theme isn’t the focus of the book by any means, I thought it was one that she illustrated particularly well, in ways that many writings on racism and Islamophobia don’t always address.
Of course, I don’t agree with every single thing that Khan says, and that’s okay, but the one major criticism I have of this book is that I felt that Khan lets Canada and Canadian culture off the hook much too easily. Although she talks about many different instances of racism that Canadian Muslims are currently facing, and even briefly addresses historical discrimination and oppression against other communities, she continues to point to Canada as a model society for diversity and dialogue, with the examples of oppression that she describes as serious but anomalous injustices in a society that is fundamentally just and accepting of all people.
It’s not that she doesn’t have some valuable examples to share of times when multiculturalism has worked, and has fostered friendships that might be impossible in some other places. However, I would argue that racism, exclusions, and marginalization are all much more deeply rooted within Canadian societies and institutions, both historically and currently, than Khan suggests, and I think that her book could have greatly benefited from a more systemic anti-racist analysis of Canadian multiculturalism.
Although much of its focus is on the Canadian context, there is enough about general issues related to Islam or to global politics that would likely be of interest to a much broader audience beyond Canada’s borders. All in all, this was an interesting read, and definitely a worthwhile book, one that would be accessible and informative for both Muslims and non-Muslims.