Black Muslim women empowering each other to break stereotypes — within their own communities

Oumalker Idil Kalif, a Somali Montrealer, says she does not feel welcome in many Quebec mosques and, at times, has been outright ignored. Her experiences led her to co-found Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Québec.

New collective creates safe spaces to discuss sexism, racism and Islamophobia

Oumalker Idil Kalif, right, co-founded Femmes Noires Mulsulmanes au Québec to create safe spaces for black Muslim women to discuss their experiences with sexism, racism and Islamophobia. 'It's validating,' says Mubeenah Mughal, who has participated in the collective's events. (Kamila Hinkson/CBC)

Oumalker Idil Kalif is a proud Somali Montrealer who says she loves and nurtures her religion but rarely worships in a mosque.

"I avoid going to the mosque in Quebec because it is a very painful experience for me," she said.

Kalif, a master's student in sociology at the Universite de Montréal, says as a black Muslim woman, she does not feel welcome in many Quebec mosques and at times, has been outright ignored.

"Anti-black racism is a thing in Muslim communities, in racialized communities," she said.

It's a sensitive subject but Kalif says it's a reality she has experienced in Quebec since childhood, one she knows others share and one she's ready to face head on.

Her experiences — in academia, as a community worker, as a black woman and as a Muslim in Montreal — led her to co-found Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Québec.

It's a collective, with a $10,000 grant from Toronto-based Inspirit Foundation, that aims to create safe spaces for black Muslim women in Montreal to discuss their experiences with sexism, racism and Islamophobia.

Racist experiences 'not heard'

Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Québec has held some of its events for black Muslim women at Espace Mushagalusa, an African art gallery downtown. (Safa Chebbi)

The collective has held three conferences since last fall and at the outset, received criticism from non-black Muslim women who felt excluded.

"The pushback was real. A lot of people didn't understand why only black Muslim women," Kalif said.

The reason? When black Muslim women talk about racism they experience within the Muslim communities, they're not heard, Kalif said.

"We have to create these spaces where they feel comfortable voicing that — that is a valid experience," she said.

'Felt good to be validated'

When Mubeenah Mughal heard about the first event at Espace Mushagalusa, an African art gallery in Montreal, she was determined to take part.

"It just felt good to be validated.… Other people feel the same way," she said.

Born and raised in Montreal, Mughal grew up going to the mosque but rarely feels comfortable going now.

After the two mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, where 50 worshippers were killed and dozens were injured, Mughal says she felt a strong need to go to a mosque in Montreal but once again it was a negative experience.

"As I was leaving, a woman grabbed me and said, 'Did you pray dressed like that? You can't pray like that,'" Mughal said.

She says that because she is black, some Muslims assume she doesn't know about her own religion.

Mughal says she's also had to deal with racist comments.

"I am also lighter skinned so I can only imagine what a darker skinned black Muslim woman would experience," she said.

Empowering women

Mughal appreciated the first Les Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Quebec conference so much, she decided to lead a workshop, helping woman assert their boundaries in various relationships, at a subsequent event.

"The goal is to empower women and to make them understand that you know they really have the tools to navigate this world, no matter how harmful it tries to be to them," Kalif said.

Mughal said, as a mother of three sons, she fears for her kids' safety when she sees the way some security guards react to her 15-year-old son, who is quite tall.

The Femmes Noires Musulmanes au Québec collective has held three events since it received funding from Inspirit Foundation last year. A fourth event is planned for April 20. (Safa Chebbi)

It's an extra worry in the wake of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting, the recent mosque shootings in New Zealand and the introduction of Bill 21, when many Muslims are concerned about safety.

"It really bugs me when some, many Muslims turn to the police for protection," she said.

"How much value are you giving my son's life when [police] are part of the systematic racism that people experience — black people in Quebec but also in North America."

The collective sets out to create spaces where women feel comfortable to share these experiences.

Building bridges

Kalif says it helps make communities stronger and she says the collective wants to build bridges with all Muslim women.

In response to criticism that non-black Muslim women were excluded, Kalif says the collective opened its third event to all Muslim women but after dozens signed up, very few actually showed up.

The disappointment brought back painful childhood memories.

"[From] when my father was sending me to the school to learn Arabic, to learn to read the Qur'an … and I was the only black African girl surrounded by people of colour — Muslim, but non-black — that were treating me a certain way," Kalif said.

"I wasn't expecting that coming from grown activist Muslim women. But it's a reality," Kalif said.

Despite that, Kalif says the collective will try opening an event to all Muslim women again at some point.

It's also trying to address the sexism many women face.

Kalif says 30 to 40 per cent of messages sent to the collective's Facebook page are coming from men looking for wives.

We're perceived a certain way "by men and by people from our own community who really believe that our goal in life … is to get married, which is not the case for most of these women," she said.

Need funding

Kalif says the collective wants to "shake things in our own community so that women can really live outside of the stereotype."

Her focus right now is on their next event on April 20. It'll be an informal opportunity for black Muslim women to gather at Espace Urbain Montreal, located at 5926 Rue St-Hubert.

Future events will depend on the collective's ability to secure more funding.

"We're wrapping up a beautiful year and we're looking for more funding in order to continue that journey." Kalif said.


Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.