After Quebec's Bill 62, Muslim women find new resolve to fight discrimination

As some of Canada's most influential Muslim women gather in Toronto this weekend, the group says there's lots of work to be done fighting discrimination, and they're up to the task.

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women is celebrating its 35th anniversary

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women's 'Women Who Inspire' of 2016. (CCMW)

As the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) gathers to celebrate its 35th anniversary, the group says it's found new resolve in the wake of Quebec's recently-passed religious neutrality legislation.

The CCMW wraps up its weekend-long celebration Sunday in Toronto with the Women Who Inspire Awards, which will honour eight Muslim women from across the country in a variety of fields.

"It really does highlight the work that Muslim women are doing out there," said Tahmena Bokhari, a Toronto-based social worker who is among the winners. "We're touching the lives of so many people in the various professions and fields that we're in."

But just days after Quebec's National Assembly passed the controversial Bill 62 — which would effectively force Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa to uncover their faces while using public services — organizers say the talk at this year's gathering is likely to focus on the challenges still facing Muslim women.

'I think it’s showing the diversity of what it means to be Muslim,' said Tahmena Bokhari, one of the award winners. (CCMW)

"We know that we are in a very special time and we're playing a special role," said CCMW spokesperson Nina Karachi-Khaled. "We understand it's a big responsibility to be a voice for Muslim women in Canada."

Karachi-Khaled's mother was a CCMW member when the organization was founded in 1982, and she's watched the challenges faced by Muslim women evolve over the past 35 years.

In many ways, she says the issues facing her community today are more challenging than ever, including racism, U.S. politics, and what feels like a disproportionate targeting of Muslim women by a small but vocal minority.

"There are bigger problems and much more heartache and hardship in our community," Karachi-Khaled said.

"I think definitely as a Muslim community we are in a struggle," Bokhari added.

"We're fighting to be recognized, we're fighting to be heard, we're fighting for equity."

Winners showcase diversity

Part of that fight is taking shape in the form of events like Sunday's award ceremony, through which the CCMW is hoping to showcase the contributions of Muslim women to Canada.

In addition to honouring Bokhari's accomplishments in social justice and anti-racism, the awards will also honour an Ottawa Police officer, a doctor and activists — all of them Muslim women.

"I think it's showing the diversity of what it means to be Muslim," Bokhari said.

For Mississauga, Ont., artist Hana Shafi, 24, another of the award winners, the group represents only a tiny fraction of the Muslim women making important contributions across Canada.

"I'm not an exception or an outlier to my community," Shafi said "It shouldn't necessarily be framed like a successful Muslim woman is this rare story."

Artist Hana Shafi is one of eight women to be honoured at the 2017 ceremony. (CCMW)

Dealing with the 'burnout'

Given the difficult news out of Quebec this week, the women participating this weekend say the event will also be a chance to rejuvenate themselves and prepare for the work that still needs to be done.

"When you're able to spend positive time celebrating with your community, it helps you deal with the burnout of the fights that you feel like you've lost," Shafi said.

Bokhari agrees, and says she expects to leave the event with a much-needed positive boost to her outlook.

"I think when we are connected to one another we are always more hopeful," she said.