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adventure at the museum

Routine. Home. Pleasure – though yes, the minute I got home, it turned cold. I put away the last of the warm weather things and started sealing windows. It has begun – though today, cold in the morning, and chilly but very sunny later.

And what a day – an outing, with the Regent Park English conversation group, to the Royal Ontario Museum, organized by the indefatigable Ashrafi, the most mesmerizingly cheerful person I know, and privileged I am to know her too. We gathered at CRC, fourteen Muslim women and three small children plus me, Ashrafi and Zara, a CRC volunteer, and walked to get the streetcar. The face of the old man sitting at the front, as this crowd got on, like a flock of colourful birds, chattering in Bengali … sheer incomprehension. What is happening here? Then the subway to Museum, and into the ROM.

That’s our unscarved volunteer Zara in the middle of the streetcar – only she, Ashrafi, and I headscarfless.

The new ROM ‘shard’ is a Daniel Liebeskind building and therefore, I know from visiting his Jewish Museum in Berlin, utterly and wilfully confusing. Ridiculous. We were always lost. But still, we managed to find the Islamic artifacts to start with, then the whole Middle East, a First Nations exhibit, Egypt and the mummies, the dinosaurs to the joy of the small ones, the gemstones to the joy of us all – all women, it seems, are attracted to sparkling things – finally, ecosystem diversity and endangered species … It was quite a visit. Mostly, the women gathered in small groups jabbering to each other, but still, there they were, taking it all in. Most had never been there before.

A few stellar moments: Before we left, I was chatting with one tiny woman, who was trying to explain why she wore the veil, which she had flipped up to talk to me. What I understood her to say was that she’s not afraid of anything except her god, and she wears the veil for him – for her god. I thought, that’s as good an explanation as any for something that’s very hard for us to understand.

Then, at the museum, Nurun was thrilled by an exhibition of basketry from the Philippines. “This I do!” she exclaimed, pointing. She makes baskets, apparently – Bengalis also use baskets for fishing, for serving and carrying. She promised to bring some of her baskets to the group to show us.

And finally, in the diversity exhibit at the end, there were all kinds of taxidermied animals. One woman, standing in front of a window, pointed and asked me, “This is cheetah?” “No,” I replied, “that’s an anteater. The cheetah is up here.” It was funny that she thought an anteater was a cheetah, but mostly what it showed was that she had read the panel in front.

It was unforgettable. I ran into a friend at the Y who is fiercely feminist and rages against the veil – sexism, patriarchy, the subjugation of women. But with my new friends, I do not see subjugated women. I see women who despite the extreme disapproval of the society they live in, are obeying what they think are the dictates of their religion and their god. I wonder, though, if their daughters, the little girls in the expensive shoes who were with us today, will also obey. I have to say, I hope they don’t.

Centre front, with the smile – Ashrafi the wonder.

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4 Responses to “adventure at the museum”

  1. Anonymous says:

    These uneducated, illiterate women (your new friends) come to the generous West with all their tribal and traditional baggage. They will pass these backward customs onto their children for the simple reason that a culture has a right to preserve itself. Their daughters will be kept in a tightly-controlled environment until sent back to Pakistan or wherever for an arranged marriage. Their daughters will be taught to obey and certainly not question the teachings of Islam.

    These women will not integrate into Canadian society, but rather keep to themselves in clan-like cliques. They regard you – a towering, privileged white woman – with incomprehension. "Why on earth is she doing this?" they wonder.

    There's something fundamental that you don't understand: these women are not subjugated. In the Muslim home, women rule. But how would you know? You don't spend time in Muslim homes, nor do you know the culture. You skate superficially and frivolously over its surface while calling these women "my new friends."

    As an aside, you realize that FGM is performed on small girls by women, not men. Why not bring up the topic of Female Genital Mutilation during your next conversation class? I'm guessing that the majority of your new friends have had their clitoris' chopped off (and might plan the same for their daughters.) Google "FGM in Canada in 2017".

    The funniest line in your post, while referring to the ROM, was "Most had never been there before." LOL!!!

    Juliet in Paris

  2. beth says:

    Thanks for your kind comments as always, Juliet. Happy autumn to you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My intention is not to be mean or nasty, Beth. You post this on your blog, I respond. I think my intention is to prod a fellow Canadian to open her eyes. Another subject you could bring up in your conversation class: honor killings. Today, in 2017, my Iraqi ex-fiancé, Kaiss, cannot divorce his Jordanian wife for this very reason. (Their marriage was forcefully arranged.) The second volume of my book is all about Kaiss and the life he left behind in Iraq.

    "Every year, 15 to 20 women and girls in Jordan are burned, beaten, or stabbed to death by family members because they are seen as having transgressed social codes of “honor.” An increase in such killings in 2016 may have prompted the authorities to finally take action."

    From The Washington Post, 2015 – "Honor killings have widespread appeal. Eighty-three percent of Pakistanis support stonings for adultery according to a Pew survey, and only 8 percent oppose it. Even those who chose modernity over Islamic fundamentalism overwhelmingly favor stonings, according to Pew research."

    Juliet in Paris

  4. beth says:

    Juliet, as I've said before to you, there's no question that there are vile, terrifying aspects of Islam, perhaps even more vile than other religions, which have vilenesses of their own. There is in Islam an intolerance and a propensity to insane violence – toward everyone but particularly women – that is appalling. I am not glossing over these things. But when I go to chat with my neighbours, I am not going to tackle them about FGM or far-away honour killings, I am doing my best simply to show them who I am – the product of an open, inclusive, tolerant western society. I have made sure to tell them I'm an atheist, half-Jewish, divorced, living alone – incomprehensible to them, as you say. And yet there we are, talking like friends about our children, the food we cook, the lives we lead. That's what I came up with to try to solve this enormous and intractable problem of Muslims in our midst, a large group of people whom we do not understand – to try, in obviously a very limited way, to get to know them, to invite them to get to know me. Many women I know react with extreme horror to the niqab, as I used to. I loathe any institution that restricts and denies. I recently watched an Orthodox Jew at the airport, bent over his Torah, muttering and swaying, completely unaware of his surroundings; that's what this kind of devotion does, it cuts its adherents off from the world, and I think that's wrong. But the women I meet in the group are not cut off, even those who wear the veil; they have strong family and community connections, and they make time to come to the group to learn English and to get to know me and Linda as Canadians. It's not much, but it's a start, and to me, it's a hell of a lot more sane than fear, hatred and condemnation.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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