Exploring Muslim youth identities and their sense of belonging in Canada

With the growing number of Muslims in Canadian schools, Neila Miled, a PhD Candidate of the Faculty of Education at UBC, explores how Muslim youth negotiate their identities as Muslims and Canadians. She looks at how they express their sense of belonging in Canada, particularly in Metro Vancouver.

Miled was born and raised in Tunisia, a Muslim country with a secular culture. She started her career as an English teacher in Dubai, an Islamic non-secular city. She was perplexed at the different Islamic interpretations in the regions.

“I was raised in a country where you don’t have to wear the veil. It doesn’t mean that you are not a Muslim if you don’t wear the veil,” says Miled. “I was raised in a country that didn’t have polygamy. These policies are based on different interpretation of Islam.”

Diversity in Islam

Miled delves into diversity among Muslim youth from an intersectional perspective: sex, gender, social class, socio-economic class, education, and country of origin.

“The purpose of my work is to resist the homogenization of what we call ‘Muslims,’” Miled explains. “When I say ‘intersectional perspective’ I mean we need to see how the multiple (axes) of identities are different.”

A recent Canadian survey asked Muslims if they felt more “Muslim” or “Canadian.”

“As if we cannot be both,” Miled expresses. “This is what pushed me to explore first of all how school experiences impact these Muslim youth.”

Miled is exploring how these experiences affect the students (who are between 14 and 19 years old) both inside and outside school and how they impact their sense of belonging in Canada and their “Canadianness.” Miled found that sometimes religion becomes an invisible marker of a student’s identity.

“If you talk to a Somali woman, she will tell you, ‘I am excluded because I am black, not only because I am Muslim,’” explains Miled.

According to Miled, the religious identity of a Muslim white woman from a region like Sarajevo is one of invisibility. She is never perceived as a Muslim; therefore, her experience with peers, teachers, and activities outside and inside the school is completely different from an obviously visible Muslim woman.

“There is [also] a huge difference between the students who were born in Canada or who were young [when they came] to Canada,” Miled says.

The Muslim students born in Canada speak English fluently. She also points out that the experiences and lives of Muslim refugees coming to Canada have been impacted by the political environment and the media.

Photo voice project: Can the displaced speak?

During her project, Miled noticed a group of refugee and new immigrant Muslim girls with limited English language skills. To include these girls in her research, Miled came up with the photo voice project, an art project that uses photography to promote discussions surrounding any topic.

A photo that was taken by one participant to express that Muslim women are silenced and they are only perceived in relation to their religious identity. | Photo courtesy of Neila Miled

“[It is] especially used with marginalized communities,”she says. “I wanted the experience of research to inspire these young people, and especially the young girls, to appreciate and to know the value of knowledge and education,” says Miled. “They took photos and then we started talking about these photos, and what they mean to them. It was an amazing experience. I had very good feedback.”

The school had an exhibition at the end of the year.

“This group of girls who were very excluded in that corner of the school became the centre stage of the school,” Miled describes. “They felt that they belonged to the school because they became contributing agents in the school. They became people whose experiences are important.”

Miled wanted to bring a changing experience to her participants during the process of her research.

“I didn’t want to just be the researcher who comes, does the interview, and then writes the findings in papers that most of the time the participants themselves don’t read,” Miled says. “I would urge that we try to do research with youth using participatory methods that would encourage them to speak about their experiences and the way they want to be seen and perceived.”

Miled suggests that we need to move beyond simpler forms of identification and try to understand the more complex reality for these students.

“The question is not if they see themselves as a Canadian, because they see themselves as Canadians and Muslims in most cases, but do we see them as Canadians? Does the system see them as Canadians?” says Miled.

For more information, visit www.grad.ubc.ca/campus-community/meet-our-students/miled-neila