As for any culture, creating a new reality from a more traditional, and sometimes stereotyped, community brings challenges and opportunities. Three Muslim Canadians, Khalil Jessa, Taslim Jaffer and Özlem Sensoy, are finding creative ways to express the complexity of their identites.
Khalil Jessa, founder of Salaam Swipe, wants people to meet. A native of South Surrey-White Rock, he says the traditional way of selecting a partner for Muslims involves what he refers to as “bio data”: each person’s biography and photos are passed back and forth by the families and if both parties like each other, they meet.
“Those who are born and raised here face a different reality than what our parents faced, especially when it comes to meeting people, marriage and dating,” he says.
Jessa, 26, wants to give young people more autonomy in making these decisions and enable them to have their own experience.
Last August, Jessa launched the mobile application Salaam Swipe. According to Jessa, it is designed to help people find out what they are looking for in a fun, non-intimidating way, while keeping a finger on the pulse of the Muslim community.
He came up with the name Salaam Swipe to connect Muslims locally and internationally. Salaam means peace and it brings people together.
“The word transcends all those boundaries,” says Jessa.
Users sign in to Salaam Swipe using Facebook and can flag users for inappropriate behaviour as well as maintain discretion by using the application’s incognito mode, so family and friends do not know they are using the application.
“Everyone is looking, but [they] don’t want to be seen,” says Jessa, who adds that the response has been positive despite concerns from the older generation.
“They have concerns because they don’t have control over it,” he says.
A graduate of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science from McGill University, Jessa says he is not coming at this from a technologically trained perspective. For him, the application is an answer to a social problem.
“Our whole philosophy is to capture the diversity in our community – one of those things that is underappreciated. There’s not one type of Muslim out there,” says Jessa.
The space in between
Since she was a young girl, Taslim Jaffer has kept a journal and written poetry to share messages about multiculturalism and celebrate diversity.
A trained speech therapist, Jaffer left her occupation to pursue writing. Jaffer, 37, recalls the moment when she realized she should pursue her dream. She was on Facebook, reconnecting with an old friend from high school who had become a professional writer and thought, “Oh my god, you can do that?”.
“I live in this space in between cultures,” says Jaffer, who was born in Kenya, moved to Western Canada before the age of one and settled with her family in the Lower Mainland in the late 80s.
Jaffer, who is Muslim, says it is difficult to separate her faith and lifestyle.
“Our religion is our way of life, where we draw our ethics and values from,” she says.
A mother of three, Jaffer started working on her website, Let Me Out Creative, on a part-time basis four years ago.
“Initially, it was to remind other moms about that person inside of them that wants to come out creatively,” she says.
Jaffer offers her readers a chance to explore their creativity by trying new and different things such as writing poetry. After writing an article on Huffington Post that addressed issues around multiculturalism (like treatment of Muslims, particularly post Sept. 11), Jaffer received an invitation to speak at a Unitarian church, and this led to more guest speaker roles and freelance work.
“The first step to affecting positive change is to look inwards; the next step is to go out in the community, talk with neighbours and ask open-ended questions with the ultimate goal of understanding,” says Jaffer.
It is what you make of it
Özlem Sensoy, associate faculty, Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University, has written about identity and representation and can relate to the concept of the space in between.
”We really are driven by our own experiences,” says Sensoy, an immigrant from Istanbul, Turkey who moved to the Lower Mainland with her family at the age of eight.
Sensoy uses the term duality, and says she first experienced it in school.
“I was confronted with all the things folks thought they knew about me. People would ask me why I was so light-skinned,” says Sensoy.
She was also asked why her mother did not wear a veil and what Turkish prisons were like. According to Sensoy, film, television and other media were shaping the perceptions of the people she met.
According to Sensoy, films such as Midnight Express, which depicts Turkish prisons as terrifying places where prisoners were treated horribly, frightened people and reinforced stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East. Furthermore, the popular ‘70s American television show, I Dream of Jeannie, conveyed the idea that Middle Eastern women dressed like genies.
“Cultural imagination has been shaped, whether it’s the genie or the terrorist,” says Sensoy.
She believes Muslims face the same challenges now as they did back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the intensity has changed.
“The rise of technology and the speed in which information is created and shared has changed,” she says.