Islamic History Month: An Interview with Dalila Awada

Monday, October 24, 2016

I first met Dalila Awada in the spring of 2013. She had participated in a project called Ce qui nous voile (What Veils Us) that is featured in our Actions Count gallery. The project talked about women who wear the hijab – a head-covering veil or scarf. I had the chance to talk with Awada about her role in the project and her experiences as a Muslim woman born and raised in Montréal.

Awada is a fascinating woman: intelligent, well-spoken and possessed of a strong desire to make the world a better place. Since our first interview, that intelligence and determination have made her something of a public figure in Quebec. Later in 2013 she appeared on the popular television show Tout le monde en parle debating Quebec’s proposed charter of values, which would have banned the wearing of religious symbols such as the hijab by public service employees.  She has continued to speak about these issues, including through her blog. This time, when I spoke to Awada, we discussed a variety of topics such as tolerance, discrimination, Islamophobia and feminism.    


A young woman wearing a hijab poses in front of a wall that displays head-and-shoulders pictures of different women wearing vei
Dalila Awada standing in front of the Museum’s exhibit about Ce qui nous voile. Photo: CMHR

How is Islamic history important to you?

If I had to answer that quickly, I would say that I believe there’s a history there that’s important to remember – especially today in a context where there is so much Islamophobia, so many misunderstandings around Islam and so many negative images associated with Islam and with Muslims. So, this particular history is very important because it reminds us that the present political discourse does not characterize Islam – and that Islam has a history that is richer and more complex than the one that people attempt to pin on us.


When speaking about tolerance, you have said, “I don’t want to be tolerated.” What do you mean by “tolerated?” Instead of being treated with tolerance, how would you like to be treated?

Tolerance, to my thinking, is a kind of obligation. It’s an undesirable state to be in, because when we tolerate, it’s a way of saying we feel obligated because society is pushing us to do it. Ideally, we need to move beyond tolerance and move towards more understanding, more mutual respect, more inclusion and less hatred.


When speaking to me in 2013 about your decision to wear the hijab, you told me that you are not defending the veil – rather, you are defending individual freedom. Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by that?

Yes, it’s still what I think. Often when we condemn Islamophobia, we condemn stereotypes surrounding Muslim women. People think that we are defending the veil and those who wear the veil, but that’s not the idea. Myself and other activists who struggle with these issues, we aren’t here to convince people that the veil is a good thing, but to explain that if women choose to wear it, regardless of the reasons for their choice or of what we hear about it, it’s nonetheless their choice – it’s their free will. Put simply, we have to respect their autonomy and their choice.


You’ve become a public figure in Quebec through your participation in discussions against discrimination and racism in all ethno-cultural communities. Why do you choose to speak out about these issues?

Why… Well, , first of all, for the simple reason that it affects my day-to-day life, since I am a racialized person in the eyes of others, who experiences discrimination, who experiences racism in many different ways. By default, I find myself in this struggle because it deeply affects me – I experience this struggle in a way that is very personal and very profound. So, I can’t stand by and do nothing. It also seems to me that action is urgently needed. We’ve been going over the same questions and experiencing the same struggles for a long time now – things are changing so slowly. So that is what motivates me.


You identify as a feminist and were a co-founder of the Paroles de femmes (Words of Women) foundation. Can you tell us a little about your feminism and the goals you had in mind when creating Paroles de femmes?

When I created Paroles de femmes, it was just after 2013. At the time there was a lot of violence towards Muslim women and toward racialized women in general – lots of verbal violence. We even had situations where there was physical violence and lots of blatant racism. When I created Paroles de femmes, it was with the goal of offering safe spaces where women could express themselves, could take action and could share their experiences without feeling threatened and without feeling anyone would tell them to shut up or misrepresent their words. So Paroles de femmes came to be to create safe spaces where women could feel protected and secure. So that was one part. Another part is that yes, I call myself a feminist, but I think there are several types of feminism and it’s for that reason that I often clarify things about my feminism. I identify as a Muslim feminist because my reality as a Muslim can’t be dissociated from my feminism – it actually shapes it in a way. Being Muslim influences me and influences my views on relations between men and women.