It was a great honor for Canada to welcome Baroness Caroline Cox of the UK House of Lords last week.

How to describe this indomitable person? A headline of The Daily Telegraph reads:

“The feisty baroness defending ‘voiceless’ Muslim women: Baroness Cox of Queensbury is fighting to stop sharia ‘seeping’ into enforcing divorce settlements.”

Cox has increasingly become involved in endeavors to be a “voice for the voiceless” in the UK, where she has been working on behalf of Muslim women suffering from gender discrimination inherent in the application of sharia law.

She introduced a private member’s bill into the House of Lords to highlight the issues and address some of the problems. This has strong support from members of all parties in both chambers as well as Muslim women’s organisations. The website provides updates on this and related initiatives.

That’s not all Baroness Cox does. She is an advocate for and mentors victims of UK grooming gangs. She is also the founder and CEO of an organization called Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) through which she has campaigned for humanitarian causes, particularly relating to disabilities.

Through HART, she travels to remote parts of the world to personally meet victims of oppression and persecution including those in northern Uganda afflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); the people of Timor Leste, who are still affected by the Indonesian occupation (with a particular focus on child malnutrition); and Dalits in India, including Devadasi women entrapped in the enforced prostitution of the centuries-old tradition of “temple service.”

She is a voice for persecuted Christians in areas of the world where there is little media coverage and where traditional humanitarian aid does not reach.

Of course, Islamists in Canada were irked by the presence of Baroness Cox, as they are with other activists who speak on Muslim matters. They are afraid the truth may expose their own falsehoods in the communities they have succeeded in fooling.

So the Islamists set out to derail her appearance in Ottawa. Individual Islamists with anti-Semitic views and Islamist organizations closely affiliated with a terrorist entity went to media and cried “Islamophobia” (as Islamists are wont to do so that their own shortcomings can be deflected).

They tried to turn the baroness’s visit into a smear campaign leveling unfounded accusations against her. One of the accusations was that she invited Geert Wilders to speak in UK.

To her credit, Cox responded with frankness to all the allegations made against her and even offered to speak to her detractors but, of course, they did not respond.

She said:

“1. I work with, and have very affectionate relationships, with Muslim women’s groups in the UK helping them with problems caused by gender discrimination inherent in the application of Sharia Law in the UK. If interested, please see an article in the Daily Telegraph with the heading ‘They would love to call me Islamophobic – but I love Muslim women.’

“Please see our website for evidence of work to help Muslims in the UK. Anyone can be in touch with Muslim women’s organisations mentioned on that website to counter allegations of Islamophobic sentiments.

“Also, in my humanitarian work, we risk our lives to help Muslims suffering at the hands of oppressive regimes – such as the Muslims in Blue Nile State, Sudan. We visited them last year; met 9,000 IDPs who had fled from civil war and were at risk of dying from starvation – and raised funds to save their lives. So I will robustly challenge any attempts to call me ‘Islamophobic’ or to the claim that I spread ‘fear and division’. You should have seen the warmth and appreciation – and love – expressed by many Sudanese Muslims at a meeting I chaired in Parliament last week. They (and many Muslim women) will readily come to my defence if any slurs are published about me being ‘Islamophobic!

“2. Yes, I did support Geert Wilders’ visit to UK. I believe in freedom of speech; he was a democratically elected member of a European Parliament; and I do not agree with all he says, but one cannot have a dialogue to discuss different views if you promote censorship.”

Much to the surprise and chagrin of Islamists, and despite their pushback, Baroness Cox’s appearances in Toronto and Ottawa were a huge success, especially in relation to women and youth. In Toronto at a seminal event, she stood and spoke alongside courageous women from the Muslim world and was awarded a medal of courage.

This is the difference between Islam and Islamism. Moderate Muslims support those who work towards human rights and the integrity of women, rejecting those norms against humanity incorporated in some aspects of sharia.

Islamists, on the other hand, want to politicize an activist’s visit to shut down all discussion and debate.

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March is when we celebrate women. Although March 8 is International Women’s Day, activities take place throughout the month. Some people question as to why we need a “Women Day”? Well we need this to create awareness that women are still not recognized for their complete human rights in many parts of the world.

It’s in this essence that I travelled halfway across the world to participate in the The 49% Film Festival held in Jerusalem from March 6 – 8, 2019.

What exactly is The 49% Film Festival? This is the brainchild of Paula Kweskin, a Human Rights lawyer whose first film Honor Diaries went on to become an award-winning documentary about honor based violence. Why is this festival different? She invited films, film makers and activists to openly address issues that are considered taboo or too controversial to be included in regular festivals, but are the burning issues for women of today e.g. FGM, sexual harassment, religious space for women and forced marriage. The line-up was diverse and international. The participants to the festival included filmmakers and activists from Canada, Egypt, Israel, the US, and the UK.

In creating the Festival she explains:

“Women are disruptors of their societies and the agents of social change. While women are 49% of the population they are only:
* 32% of national parliamentarians worldwide
* 4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies
* less than 30% of researchers worldwide
* 24% of protagonists in Hollywood films

We believe that women must tell their stories in order for the status quo to change. That’s why we are launching The 49% Film Festival. The 49% Film Festival will feature films from underrepresented female (and male) filmmakers from around the world whose films focus on women’s stories and struggles.”

So it is with a sense of anticipation that I attended the opening night on March 6 with the Canadian Ambassador to Israel as the keynote speaker. This was followed by a screening of In Her Footsteps at the Cinematheque, a film by Rana Abu Fraiha. The film documents an entire family torn between fulfilling the mother’s last wish and social codes that cannot be ignored. During the process of separation from the mother, the film reveals the family intimacy, secrets and dilemmas, raises serious questions about women’s identity, nationality and the meaning of home.

There was also a screening of The Cruel Cut which a film about Female Genital Mutilation. Every 11 seconds, a girl undergoes female genital mutilation (FGM). Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the UK and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It is not an African issue, it is not an Asian issue; it is a global issue that requires a global investment in women.

Other films that were screened were The Youngest and His Cucumber by Sharine Atif. Each film was followed by a panel discussion in which the audience participated.

On March 7, there was the first ever screening of a Pakistani film in Israel. Dukhtar was screened at Cinematheque with English and Hebrew subtitles and I spoke on a panel after the screening. Accompanying me was a Haredi Jewish activist, Fainy Sukenik who runs an organization called Basher Telchi (which roughly translates as “wherever you go”. It was mind boggling to hear her speak of some of the issues faced by Orthodox Jewish women with regards to divorce and child custody. It also made me realise that we have similar issues and it’s so important for women of different backgrounds to come together to discuss and debate these problem. This is why I found this festival so inspiring, innovative and exciting.

Subsequent festivals will be held in various locations throughout the world with a goal toward empowering and emboldening women’s voices globally.
My trip was made even more poignant when upon landing back in Toronto, I was standing at the baggage carousel at the airport, and a stranger came up to me, shook my hand and said “Thank you for the work you do. Please don’t ever stop”….

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Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
Dalai Lama
“Let yourself be empty so you can learn”. These are the wise words with which Sri Sri Ravishanker started his 3-day program called “Unveiling Infinity” at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto and which I was fortunate to attend thanks to a good friend.
I had met Sri Sri Ravishanker many years ago when we were on a panel together in Jerusalem. I reminded him about our connection and despite meeting millions of people in his travels, he remembered. I was quite intrigued by the Guru and the fact that he combines knowledge of science, medicine and other faiths in his talks. So when I was invited his sessions in Toronto, I took the opportunity to refresh the spirit. In a world beset by trauma and materialism, I knew that taking time to meditate is important and sometimes we just need reinforcement.
What I learned is worth sharing and maybe some of those who could not attend, might be able to also learn.
When Sri Sri came on stage, he just stood there with a sublime smile on his face and said nothing for a while. Then he explained that waiting is form of meditation. He then started by asking us if we still experienced ‘wonder’ at the world around us. So he helped us recreate ‘wonderment’ – that aaaah moment when we realise that the world is full of wonder.
He then took us through some exercises on breath. Being a follower of Sufism, I know that breath is life and learning to control breathing is an important part of meditation. He showed us how to breathe deep and also how to stop breath for 5 to 10 seconds a few times a day which refreshes the brain. It was ‘breath-taking’ to see thousands of people breath in and out in sync.
Sri Sri has a great sense of humour and tends to giggle at his own jokes. Dressed entirely in white, he presents a gentle soul who is at peace with himself and the world around him.
He spoke about how most people suffer from Depression-Aggression and this can be overcome with focus on mind over body and spirituality. He explained that mediation is about expansion of the consciousness.
His next exercise was to make us aware of the ‘chakras’ in our body and he helped us breath in a way that we were conscious of the chakras. He explained that breath starts 12 inches below the nose and goes up to 12 inches above our head where the final chakra ends.
Then he led us all in silent meditation for 40 minutes and all you could hear in a huge hall full of people was the sound of breath in and out. It was exhilarating.
He told us that trying to do the impossible is a form of meditation. He spoke about chanting and shared studies that show people who chant have larger brains. He focused on the importance of sound and we chanted for a while.
He spoke about relationships and said that we tend to be readily angry but should use the 15 second challenge before responding to anything and anyone. Stop for 15 seconds before a knee-jerk response and it could change the response. (he teaches this to corporations in terms of response to emails, contracts etc and has been very effective). Instead of challenging others with an angry “why did you do that?”, he suggests that we change the sentence to a gentler “I wonder why/how you could do that?”
We saw a demonstration of the work Sri Sri does with youth in teaching them intuition. This program will be offered in schools very soon.
The next meditation we did was to the sound of water. He told us that since the body is 70% water, the spirit is connected to water so listening to water, rain, are all forms of meditation. We meditated for 30 minutes to the gentle sound of running water. It was also very inspiring.
Overall it was a very inspiring event and it helped focus on the inner self which is something we forget in our daily lives. I am very grateful for this opportunity and hope others will take time to learn as well.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.
Margaret Fuller

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On May 24, 2018 a violent mob of over 500 hate-filled extremists attacked and demolished a Mosque in the City of Sialkot in Pakistan. The Mosque belonged to the minority Ahmadi community.
Ahmadis make a tiny minority of the Muslim-majority Pakistan and are often targeted by Sunni militants who consider them heretics.
Pakistan declared Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974, and since then, the hate by the religious extremists has only grown with time. Former president General Zia-ul-Haq had made it a punishable offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims or to refer to their faith as Islam.
The community is also banned from preaching as well as from travelling to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. They are also not allowed to publish any material propagating their faith.
This violent act of destruction took place in the month of Ramadan in which fighting and violence are forbidden. Yet the hate-filled Sunni extremists who perpetrated this horrendous act disregarded an important tenet of their own faith. Reports say that local police and Municipal authorities were present at this attack but did not take any action against the violent mob.
The attackers argued that the Ahmadis cannot have a minaret on their Mosques which is why they destroyed it. Ironically these Muslim extremists do not know their own history. A minaret is not an essential part of a Mosque and was only added to the structure by the Omayyad’s.
The founder of Pakistan Mohammad Jinnah had declared at the inception of the country, that minorities would have full rights. Today we see that minorities are at risk of their lives.
I hope that all Pakistanis will come out on the streets and strongly condemn this appalling act of hate and violence in the name of the faith they profess to follow.

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Breaking News: Monday April 23, 2018
On this most beautiful sunny day after four months, Torontonians were out on the streets to enjoy the weather, when terror struck in the most horrific way. At Yonge and Finch Avenue which is a beautiful, peaceful and diverse area in Toronto where mothers take their kids for walks, older people stroll around and people bring their pets, a van ruthlessly ploughed down pedestrians killing 9 and injuring 16 innocent people (according to current statistics).
Our hearts and thoughts go out to the families of the victims and those injured. Our heartfelt thanks go to the first responders and the brave police officer who brought down the perpetrator without using his firearm although (according to videos) the suspect wanted the policeman to shoot him and said so. Heads up to brave Torontonians who helped when they saw trouble and those who are keeping their cool and continuing with life as usual.
Law enforcement are saying they don’t know the motive. It’s obviously difficult for them to deal with a situation which may be camouflaged in political correctness and cultural sensitivity.
Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale gave a statement to say “it’s too early in the investigation to say if the incident was a terror attack”. However intelligence sources that I know claim that the perpetrator was known to the police. I suspect the official stance will be “mental illness” or “lone wolf”, but the more important question to ask is “who recruited him?”
This attack has all the trappings of a terrorist attack.
• The van was used as a weapon. It’s not by accident that a van drives on a pavement full of pedestrians with whatever murderous intentions the driver had in mind.
• Terror was struck by killing of innocents
• The ideology that facilitates this comes from one of three sources:
o The Wahhabi/Salafi ideology
o The Muslim Brotherhood
o Khomenists
Added to this, the Canadian Governments mandate of not challenging extremism or unmasking the truth has allowed the virus to mutate within the country.
Whether or not we are ever told about the motives of the perpetrator or his ethnic/religious identity, mainstream Muslim reaction will be that they are the victims because the Canadian Government has facilitated this idea through the implementation of M 103 which allows no questioning, discussion or debate. But we must use this tragic incident as an opportunity to have honest conversations, uncomfortable as they may be, about key issues that impact our lives as Canadians.
While this horrific tragedy is unfolding, new to Toronto but seen happening in many International cities around the world, it was only a matter of time…….

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(My brother’s daughter Maliha lost her young husband many years ago. Her daughter Mariam wrote the following essay for her University admission. I found this so compelling that I want to share. )

“But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah (God) Knows, while you know not.” [Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 216]

I know my father (Abba) through stories – stories of him almost missing his own wedding or the time he dropped a droplet of water on a lit bulb just to “see what would happen.” My memories of him are not mine.
People felt sorry for me when my father died: a father is an essential figure in any young girl’s life. But though Abba died, three ‘fathers’ raised me.

Baba (maternal grandfather): Voice and Joy
“For Mariam and Hana
Written and maintained by
Farooq “Baba” Hassan”
I open the large leather-bound volume. My history lines its pages, memories documented by Baba. Childhood pictures punctuate the text.
“Here is a picture of me with Mama. We are having a great time in our front garden! Abba took this picture of us.”
I did not write those words, but they’re written from my point of view (“It’s so when you’re rich and famous you can sell it as an autobiography or memoir” Baba has told me conspiratorially). A two-year-old me, held in the arms of my significantly younger-looking mother, stares up from the glossy photograph—a true Madonna and child. Our hands clasped together, flowers bloom bright and vivid behind us. If you asked me to picture joy, I would conjure this image.
I feel gratitude for all the memories Baba has kept alive— in so doing, he gave me a voice that contributed to who I am today— opinionated, friendly.

Abbu (paternal grandfather): Gratefulness and Giving
Within two years, he lost his mother, younger sister, older brother, his wife and only son. But I’ve never seen a person who so appreciates the smallest things in life. It’s mango season? He’s out the door at 6am to buy the best from the passing thela (cart). There’s a beehive in the backyard? Abbu calls me to come look at it, and takes it down for me to eat the sweet honey. Abbu gives me jewelry he designs himself to shoes he says reminded him of me. The nurturing he always gives has helped me thrive. Watching Abbu be happy in spite of everything taught me to be grateful for all I do have.

Bevan (step-father): Patience and Hard Work
My project is due tomorrow and my brain is fried. I can’t think of any ideas.
There’s a knock on my door. A gruff, Caribbean voice calls, “Can I come in?”
Bevan comes in and sits beside me. He heard from Mama I was struggling, and came to help. And he did. It was the middle of his workday, his phone ringing every few minutes, but he stayed, endlessly patient.
Bevan’s gentle heart taught me getting frustrated never helps any situation. He taught me by example patience is a virtue.

Mama (mother): Sacrifice and Strength
Mama is the strongest person I know.
When Abba died, Mama took my sister and me abroad, leaving everything she knew, so we’d have a better life, a better education and live in a safer city. I learnt from her to be strong and persevere even when the ground seems to be taken out from under my feet.
My village of father figures wove a wonderful tapestry to support and raise me. And Mama was always at the center helping define the person I am today.

I will never know why I lost Abba. What I do know is that losing him has played a huge role in defining me: it has made me a combination of the people who helped fill the hole he left, making me joyful, giving, hardworking and strong.

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The buzz word; stuff that op-eds are made of; twitter chatter ad-nauseam; a depressing amount of balderdash and on and on. Have we nothing better to focus on?
Now I have to invoke my brown, Muslim woman, South Asian heritage privilege to say “give me a break”!
This generalizing of white people as though they are the scourge of the earth and responsible for most of society’s ills, doesn’t jibe with me.
Granted that racism, bigotry, inequality, gender bias and all of these societal ills do exist and have been there since time immemorial. But they have a context. It’s not always the white person who is the perpetrator. I can tell you about many black and brown people who are also guilty of the very same infractions. But we never hear of brown or black privilege.
Most people regardless of their color, caste, nationality, ethnicity or gender have at various times in their life used “privilege” for their own benefit. So where does this become a ‘white’ thing?
What this new backlash is doing is creating an atmosphere in which white people need to shut up, sit down and take the crap. It’s bad enough that we are being choked by political correctness, but now the term ‘white privilege’ is being used to stifle even more speech and its not acceptable in a country where freedom of expression should be the first mantra.
I believe we, as adults, are capable of fighting our own battles and dealing with people on our own turf without being told that there is a monster out there called “white privilege”!

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