Aima Warriach, also known as @NiqabaeChronicles, is a Toronto-based activist and artist. The 21-year-old arts and contemporary studies major has been featured in the Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, The Sisters Project and on TedxTeen for her work fighting gendered Islamophobia. Warriach sat down with the Ryersonian to discuss feminism and what it’s like to be a visibly Muslim woman in today’s political climate.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you share your personal journey with the niqab?
We came to Canada [from Pakistan] after my parents divorced. My mom raised me as a single mother. On the fifth floor, there was this Muslim couple, and the wife wore a niqab. Through that, my mom became more religious, because they had a teacher-mentor relationship. Her name is Sister Khadijah. She helped my mom navigate her depression and after-marriage blues and made her get a stronghold on her faith. My mom registered us at the local mosque, and over there, all the Muslim women wore their hijabs. Not out of spite, but it was something they were empowered by. They were all educated women. They all had degrees, PhDs, all in diverse subjects. Growing up, I never associated it with anything negative. At the time, I wasn’t using social media and I didn’t really pay attention to the news. I didn’t even know 9/11 had happened until I went to Islamic school, where they talked about Islamophobia.
A year ago, in your Globe and Mail interview, you said you sometimes feel unsafe on transit. Has that changed?
Actually, it’s gotten worse. You can look at [hate crimes against Muslim women] as sexual assault as well, since they’re trying to rip clothes off their body and see what’s underneath. That’s sexual assault and an invasion of privacy. I personally haven’t had a physical attack yet but there has been verbal abuse. There’s the stereotypical, “go back to your country, you’re a terrorist.” The other day when I was getting off at Dundas, these two girls were calling me a terrorist. It’s becoming more apparent. I just disassociate. I don’t care how people see me. I just listen to music or listen to spoken word and calm myself down. People don’t sit beside me on the subway.
It’s called gendered Islamophobia, and it targets visibly Muslim women. [The niqab] is my choice. This is what I’m empowered by. I’ve never tried to push it on someone else. If you see my Instagram, you see I’m all about sisterhood for all women, not just Muslim women. There’s always so much division when it comes to feminism that’s a result of white feminism. White feminism completely disregards social, cultural and economic backgrounds of women. It’s not a shared struggle for everybody and empowerment looks different for everyone.
Do you feel safe on campus?
I mostly feel safe. There’s the Racialised Students’ Collective, a prayer room, and Muslim Womxn at Ryerson and the Women and Trans space. I’m able to chill and eat in peace. I have a lot of friends from diverse communities that offer their allyship with me, so I feel very supported and very included. Sometimes in the classroom, I do feel like professors don’t want to choose me [to participate] because they have an assumption that I’m not articulate, or maybe I don’t know how to speak English properly. I feel like some professors are a bit ignorant about what it means to be a veiled Muslim woman. We are educated people, even though you can’t see us.
Tell me about your feminism. How does it interact with the different aspects of your identity?
I’m Pakistani, so I’m a brown Muslim woman. I am a niqabi woman, so I’m a minority within the Muslim community. I’m Canadian and grew up here, so most of my cultural identity is based here. My feminism supports a woman’s choice. It’s intersectional. Depending on your social, economic or cultural background, whatever empowers you is going to look different.
If I took off my niqab and hijab, my body would still be policed. It doesn’t matter what black, brown or Indigenous Muslim women dress like, because they’ll still be policed. They don’t want you to take up space, because if you do take up space, you have to do it on their terms.
Why did you decide to pursue activism on social media?
It was more of an outlet because I was so depressed about the things I was seeing about Muslim women online. I wanted to create something that would act as a buffer to the negative representation we see [about Muslim women]. At first, it was only for my friends and family, but then it grew. Even non-Muslim women have come up to me and told me they really enjoyed my perspective because whenever they looked for information about Muslim women, it’s not done by Muslim women. I also wanted to let people know that I’m not homophobic or transphobic. People have this assumption that if you dress like me, I’m [bigoted]. I’m not here to impose my views on anyone. If someone passes the mic to me, I’m happy to share my own lived experiences. I have to tell my own story because if I don’t, someone else will write it for me and it’ll be misinformed. It was out of necessity.
What role does Muslim Womxn at Ryerson play on campus?
We’re not sect-based. It’s a safe space for people to have fun, be accepted and included. Nobody has to talk about the politics of their religion, they can just be themselves. We also wanted to tell people about the resources here at Ryerson that can help them if they face discrimination. Our main theme is that we want to do this from an LGBTQ-affirming, intersectional lens. We wanted to provide a place for historically marginalized Muslims to come and discuss their issues and to be able to integrate more into the community. We wanted to collaborate more with people.
Tri-Mentoring, for example, when they found out about our group, told us they needed a club like us to mentor visible Muslim women who were trying to navigate Islamophobia. Those are the gaps we’re filling. It was ratified on Muslim Women’s Day [last spring] and it’s important because in the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), nobody really talked about our issues. There weren’t any events that would have catered to Muslim women who faced gendered Islamophobia. We wanted to create a healing place for women to decompress. We wanted to provide a sisterhood.
Did you experience any tension or backlash after the group was ratified?
I don’t think the MSA had anything to do with this, but one studentin particular, who was a part of the MSA at the time, asked us how we would protect our community. Susanne Nyaga, who was RSU president at the time, said it wasn’t the job of a student group to prevent harm from coming to their members. So that wasn’t a question we had to deal with. Because I wasn’t that informed on the matter at the time, it felt like he was trying to show that our group was incompetent. After the meeting, [the same student] came up to us and said that he didn’t mean [to upset us], but based on his own religious beliefs, he couldn’t support our group. We provide a space for LGBTQ Muslims and we support them, and because of that, he didn’t want our group to be ratified. It was funny because Muslim women, who need a space, were having the hardest time that day trying to convince this one guy why we should exist. It’s a prime example of men policing our structures and telling us what we need.
Are your needs as a visibly Muslim woman at Ryerson being met?
Not entirely. I’m just talking from my lived experiences, but I’ve had a hard time interacting with my professors because they don’t know how to engage with me. I always take the first initiative. One time, I had this class where the professor would mock me every time I tried to ask a question. I left that class. I didn’t make a complaint about it because I felt like I was being paranoid, but I didn’t know what I was doing in that class. Every time I tried to engage or participate, I was laughed at. I think a lot of Muslim women face anxiety like that. I was studying biology in my first year and these guys I was working with [insulted me] and mocked my niqab when I was trying to get serious about our assignment. That was part of the reason why I switched programs. There was no decompression space. What Muslim women pursue in our degrees or education is something we’re very passionate about. When we face Islamophobia, we question if we have to suffer to pursue something we love. We feel that we won’t be taken as seriously as someone else. I wish I advocated for myself a bit more, but I thought it was just me.
Based on your social media, I feel like your style of activism focuses a lot on sisterhood and open dialogue. Was that a conscious decision?
That was a conscious decision. I have an open channel of dialogue with my followers because the more people I have a connection with, the better. My followers look to me as someone they can reach out to as someone who can provide solidarity or support. Some of them are struggling with the decision to observe the niqab. Some of them are struggling with feminism and Islam and want to know how I resolved that. I feel the two are compatible. Every religion has a misogynistic side because most interpretations have been done by men. Most prominent Islamic scholars are men. I provide resources for Muslim women to feel more comfortable in their skin. They can look at me and see that yes I’m covered up, but I still speak my mind and hold educational workshops and have my art travel. Seeing things like that motivates them to do the things they love regardless of how people perceive them.