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BLACK LIKE US
Establishing their identity in a male-dominated world is a particular challenge for women of color
By INGRID WALTER
Naima Ahmad, 26, is dedicated to her Muslim faith, to her roots in Somalia and to the life she can build in Toronto.
Toronto, Canada, Mar. 11, 2006 – At 10 years old, Naima Ahmad had already decided she wanted to be circumcised. A child of professional parents who lived in a an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, she couldn't understand why her mother said no, when all her friends were getting ready to line up for the big day that would usher them into womanhood.
"It was almost like a status thing — now your chastity has been protected," Ahmad recalls.
Today, she is 26, living in Toronto with two daughters of her own and grateful for her mother's stand so many years ago. Even so, Somali culture is a defining element of her identity.
I, too, am a woman of color living in Toronto, and I set out to show the struggle women of color share in expressing our identity in a society that is predominantly white and controlled largely by men.
I thought I would tell this story through the experience of four diverse women: Ahmad; Breanna Ellis, a Brampton high-school student; Afua Cooper, a University of Toronto historian and opera star Measha Brueggergosman. My roots are in Jamaica like Cooper and Ellis, who was born in Canada.
What I found was four interesting, articulate women who, if they struggle at all, are fighting very different battles — but there are some intersecting lines.
For Ellis, it's the black culture's embrace of gangsta rap and its denigration of women.
For Cooper, it's the failure of blacks to appreciate their own history and culture.
For Ahmad, it's not only the male-dominant assumptions of the expatriate Somali community, but also — and much more central to how she sees herself in the world — the negative view many in Canadian society have of Muslims.
And for Brueggergosman, well, there is no black-specific conflict. But this 27-year-old New Brunswicker, whose Afro-Canadian roots go back four generations, does believe that women have a responsibility to be more supportive of each other if they want to change stereotypical and negative perceptions.
"We're surprised when there is a woman pilot. We are surprised when there is a female cab driver and we are surprised when there is a female president .... We are so pleasantly uplifted by the fact that there is a female president anywhere," she says. "Then, at the same time, we vilify any woman who wants the job."
Statistics reflect the problem. Very few women, regardless of race, lead their countries, despite the fact there are far more women in the world than men. Of the 191 United Nations member countries, only 12 — or less than 7 per cent — are run by women, two who came to power only within the last couple of months, and one in recent weeks.
Brueggergosman feels if women vilified each other less, they could accomplish more. "Women can say they love to be women but they don't love other women," she says.
The others echo her concern.
Ellis, who is 17 and in her final year at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, says she sees this unpleasant side of women in bullying. A close friend was a particular target.
"When she just came to school, a lot of girls would hate her and make fun of her just because she had light skin and `good' hair and because more guys would talk to her than the other black girls."
Cooper, a 48-year-old professor of black Canadian history and Canadian studies at U of T, believes the anger and frustration we see in young black women is tied to an absence of black female role models, an ignorance about the history of black women's contributions to society and an unconscious assimilation of white western cultural biases that limit the development of a robust black female identity.
"Even in terms of beauty, we're too fat, our nose is too big, our hair is not long enough, we're not light enough," she says.
An immigrant from Jamaica when she was 22, she says no such negative messages warped her upbringing.
"My aunts, my grandmother, the elders, provided a road for me to follow. The way they spoke, the meals they prepared, the stories they told us, the kind of life they gave us, said you are important, you're special, you're worth something, you are a valuable person. The kind of life created for us built our self-esteem and gave us a platform we could jump off of and make a place for ourselves in the world."
Ellis feels black girls are getting a very different message because of the all-pervasive rap culture.
"It's negative. They don't treat black girls as beautiful people. They treat them like `bitches and hos.'" she says.
Other images of young black people in the media are similarly negative.
"In the news, you only hear about us if someone got shot. In the media, they don't show enough positive things. We are the ones in jail, we are the ones raping, and we're the ones getting pregnant at 14 years old ....
"I don't smoke weed, I don't skip class .... I take college and university classes," says Ellis, who works part-time and wants to be a writer. "I am serious about life."
Ahmad, too, worries about the overwhelming negative image of blacks in the media.
"Sex, violence and crime sells and we are losing a whole generation because we are selling too much of this crap to them."
An administrator at the Somali Immigrant Aid Organization in Toronto, she spends her volunteer hours helping Somali women deal with the conflicts they face trying to hold on to their cultural identities in a society where western culture dominates. She is grateful to Western women who have worked hard to fight the practice of genital mutilation, now illegal, but says being stuck between the two cultures is very hard for many Somali women.
Her work with immigrant women and her experiences growing up in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in Toronto's west end have taught her about how black Canadian women view their cultural identity.
She is happy about the advances women have made in Canada but, like many, is disturbed by the stereotypes that taint people's opinion of black women.
"We need to see educated black women on TV. We need to see more of Oprah. Where are the black women with PhDs? Why are they not on television? And the mothers who struggled and got educated after they had their children, why are they not on TV?
"We are not seeing the best part of reality, just focusing on the negative."
But Ahmad is even more preoccupied by a different negative image: the view many have that equates Islam with terrorism. She wears traditional dress, including a headscarf, and feels she is viewed negatively because of it.
"Since 9/11, the whole world issue of terrorism is at our doorstep. People think if you wear a hijab, you are a Muslim and you must be involved in terrorism. I have nothing to do with terrorism. Neither do the (other) Muslims here. I feel we are reluctant to trust western culture again."
For Ahmad, the stereotyping of Muslim women is particularly painful. She immigrated to Canada when she was 10, adopted western dress and went to high school and university in Toronto. Once she had children, Ahmad began to rediscover her culture and her faith. The attacks in 2001 changed everything.
"It is now so scary that we're going to be harassed because we are Muslim. It's a big fear that I have, but it will not stop me from celebrating or enjoying my religion or my culture."
The challenge for Ahmad bringing up her daughters in Toronto centers more on their faith than the color of their skin. The cultural trappings of their dress, their language, and their names are like ominous clouds following them wherever they go, she says.
"By just giving your name, employers know you are Muslim and you may not get the opportunity," she says.
And then there are the constraints that come from within Toronto's Somali community.
"We are from a very patriarchal society. As a Somali feminist, I want to have a relationship where my husband and I are equal, where I stand beside him and not behind him. It has got me into trouble a lot of times, but I want to live in a relationship where I am a partner with my husband, not someone my husband has to take care of.
"Most Somali men have a problem with that."
Even so, she sees attitudes changing.
"A number of the men who have been educated here want women as partners, too, so they can help pay off the mortgage quicker."
Just as Ahmad is addressing the problem of black identity by working with immigrant women and being strong in her faith, Cooper is using her academic career to fight ignorance about Canada's black history.
Her most recent book is The Hanging of Angelique (Harper Collins), the story of the execution of a rebellious black female slave. We're Rooted here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History (University of Toronto Press) is one of the first books she co-authored.
"That book was written out of frustration because (the) black women in terms of (her) role in history was not there," she says. "We asked questions and we were told there wasn't much documentation and that wasn't true. We went and found the documentation and wrote it, to put black women's voices out there.
"It is very painful to watch yourself being erased even as you are living."
Cooper says all women need to work together and find those commonalities that help to define a more global and less race-defined women's culture.
"Women all over the world still suffer from certain forms of oppression because of being female. I don't see my womanhood solely in terms of the oppression. I want to see it as something I celebrate."
Source: Toronto Star, Mar 11, 2006