In December 2007, Toronto teenager Aqsa Parvez was murdered by her father and brother. The media coverage of the case was intense, throwing a harsh spotlight on the Muslim South Asian community in Canada. The voices missing belonged to young Muslim and South Asian women: the same groups whose rights and personhood were being defended publicly by organizations and institutions claiming to speak on these young women’s behalf.
In response, a group of Muslim women founded AQSAzine to create a space for their voices deliberately left out of mainstream conversations. One of the co-founders of AQSAzine was Farrah Khan, whom was named one of Toronto’s “People to Watch.” She works as a counselor/advocate at a violence against women agency in Toronto, supporting women who have experienced violence. As a grassroots activist, she has been involved with a number of community groups including the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the South Asian Legal Clinic.
Currently, Farrah is working on two publications that seem quite different, but have the same aim at their core: creating more avenues for girls and young women to express themselves and have their voices heard in the ongoing conversations about violence against women in racialized communities. The first publication, Heartbeats: The Izzat Project, is a series of short stories in comic book format; the second publication is an academic text focusing on “honor”/shame-related violence in South Asian communities.
I recently interviewed Farrah, and she explained the origins and ambitions of both projects, the processes in creating both, and her own position with regards to the narratives expressed in the mainstream.
Nehal El-Hadi: Can you describe how Heartbeats: the Izzat Project came about?
Farrah Khan: In Canada, there were high-profile murders of young women of color, specifically South Asian women. There was a lot of media attention and politicians interested in talking about these young women’s bodies and these murders in very specific ways. We formed a group called the Pomegranate Tree Group with a number of people – lawyers, community workers, researchers, professors, academics – who were interested in issues around racialised communities and gender-based violence.
In this project, young South Asian women explore the power of storytelling, illustration and theatre with counselors, expressive arts therapists and illustrator Somya Singh to create their own stories. I just wrote the second part to the project, which is about ways to support yourself and others when facing violence. It will be illustrated by Selena Wong.
Izzat means honor in many languages, and oftentimes it can feel like you’re told that the honor of your household is within your body. And that’s a large thing to carry as a young woman. So what impact does that have? How do we experience that as young women? As racialized women? One participant’s story is about holding an invisible water pot all the time on her head to carry that family honor – any time that she does something that steps outside family codes of conduct, then she tips it and hurts her whole family.
NE: How do you envision Heartbeats expanding?
FK: There are a couple of things that are happening. We’re creating a script from the stories that we hope to use when we do a book tour in the New Year, 2013.
Also, it’s been a really amazing journey to conceptualize this as a multigenerational project: I think if we’re going to talk about family violence, how do we talk about it in a way that engages the community? We have an open letter to our community in the book; it’s with the intention and hope of opening up that dialogue and having conversations that are difficult for both young people and for parents and grandparents and peers. This project is going to grow as it moves with us.
NEH: Along with Amina Jamal, an Associate Professor of Sociology, and Mandeep Kaur Mucina, a PhD candidate in Adult Education and Community Development, you recently put out a call for critical research on “honor/shame” related violence in Canada. The call for submissions asked for work that explored the following questions: “How can we begin discussing the complexities of violence in South Asian and other racialized communities? What are some ways to do this without reinscribing colonialist assumptions that violence lives in racialized cultures? Indeed how do we talk about violence within and with our communities outside of the parameters of dominant discourse? How do we demand accountability for gendered violence within our communities without serving the interests of institutional racism, economic exploitation, Islamophobia and hetero-national imperialism?” Can you describe the stimulus behind this project?
FK: That project came about after many conversations with people that I know that are working in the field of violence against women. Violence against women services don’t get a lot of money in Canada, yet when high-profile murders happen of these young women there’s a call for change. We really wanted to create an opportunity for people who are doing work on this, specifically academics, community members, and frontline workers.
When I look for literature that’s specifically on counseling or about prevention, a lot of it is saying the same thing. Or the literature is not recognizing the long histories of violence prevention work being done. Women have been fighting against violence globally in lots of different ways – how do we harness that and look at those interventions?
A lot of the interventions have been focused on a very binary system, where it’s the perpetrator that is the problem, and the victim needs to be separated from that, not recognizing that sometimes it can be multiple people involved in violence, and that’s not just within South Asian communities.
There isn’t a nuanced conversation happening around when young women are murdered, and what can be done. The conversation is very much focused on the specific racialized communities where these women are from. And [related to that, that the] immigration border should close down, that we should not be allowing “these people” to come into “this country.” A lot of the outcome of these murders has been really focused on vilifying a community and feeding into certain narratives around who belongs in Canada and who doesn’t and immigration policies and practices.
NEH: What happens after you receive the abstract submissions?
FK: What we’re hoping is by February or March, we’ll be able to get some funding so that we can bring together all the people that are chosen to be in the book, and actually people will present their draft papers and workshop them together as a group. It’s my first time editing a book, so that’s really exciting – I’ve done AQSAzine before, but this is a different piece.
I am really interested in participatory democracy, especially Ella Baker’s approach of rather than having one person as the leader of a movement, building people’s capacities so that we can all lead movements. I’m interested in how to share skills, knowledge and space. And this might be an opportunity to collaborate, too.
NEH: How do you see the relationship between this research-driven project and the visual storytelling approach used inHeartbeats: the Izzat Project?
FK: They’re both speaking to concepts of honor: I feel that the first book is speaking to young women’s experiences and stories, and I feel like that grounds the second book. I really believe that survivors’ voices have to be centered in any decisions made – there are lots of different ways of doing this work, but the survivor stories have to be central. I want to have those conversations, and I want to have them in an academic setting, but I know those conversations need to be in other places too.
As a survivor too – not only as a survivor, but someone who works in the field – I think it is important how these conversations happen. There’s more to it that’s happening right now and we need to re-frame it for our own selves.
NEH: And after these projects, what’s next for you?
FK: I’m working on a third short digital stop-motion film about reconciliation in the winter (Farrah’s two earlier films, Walying and Cab Ride have been screened in Toronto, New York and the United Kingdom), hopefully to be completed by February.
I’m also working towards my certificate in Expressive Arts therapy. And I just found out that a theatre group I am a part of – the Beekeepers – received a grant from ArtReach Toronto to write and stage our short play about young Muslim women!