ANNISAA Organization of Canada began in 2012 doing grassroots empowerment education for Muslim women and girls’ and today is a national organization with members across Canada. The vision to grow from local to national was born in a responsive effort to expand our local work. We wanted (all) Muslim women and girls to have access to the resources and support to achieve their potential and contribute fully to society.
“These women are not just victims. Their potential is endless. If Muslim women are given the tools and the chance, they can change the world,” Cindy Dagenais, ANNISAA’s network member in Calgary.
Our work was inspired by a clear gap in leadership, empowerment, and education for Muslim women and girls. While in the research stage, we saw inequities in leadership, education, continued issues of violence (relational, sexual), mental health issues like low self-worth and depression, and others. We also saw a need to contextualize systemic barriers including poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination in the lives of Muslim women and girls. We wanted to provide a safe space where the dots could be connected; their experiences and realities could be shared and then deconstructed through critical thinking in order to discover ways forward. We believed Muslim women and girls were not victims, but agents of change in their lives and their communities.
Today, ANNISAA inspires new Muslim women and girls programs, delivers a local training program for leaders, and facilitates a local and national network where programs, practitioners, academics and supporters can exchange knowledge, learning and practices. Our goal is to spread Muslim women and girls programs across Canada and to advance the thinking, analysis and action on Muslim women and girls’ issues.
Our approach is rooted in the belief that Muslim women and girls are the experts in their lives and that each community is the expert in their community. We do not prescribe one way to deliver programming, rather we believe this must be determined and lead by local communities. We also create spaces where local communities can learn from one another, exchange skills and knowledge, understand diverse contexts and issues in order to build solidarity and connection across different communities.
In our approach to Muslim women and girls’ programs, we engage and inspire by starting with where they are at; they lead the way. They know more than we do about the issues and challenges and brilliance in their lives. A popular education methodology starts here and builds a process that exchanges realities and knowledge; builds skills and critical thinking, and then moves into action.
According to Toronto network member Violeta Magureanu, “Women have an innate ability to be change-makers. They just need a strong support system, willing and respectful peers to work with, and the freedom to take space to be seen and heard.”
It doesn’t take long when you create a space for Muslim women and girls to start sharing, for someone to take a risk and go to places that they never get to share. Once this happens, the rest of the group chimes in and relates. The secrets are out and in our programs, we hear over and over again that Muslim women and girls break isolation and discover they aren’t alone. They then lead and create action.
A program participant in Toronto shares, “I am not afraid to share my views anymore. Actually, now I’m a motivational speaker in my job! Last week I spoke to 600 people at a high school to encourage them to get involved in global issues.”
Yet, we don’t prescribe that Muslim women and girls should have all the answers and ANNISAA also believes that there are many ways to create systems change. Popular sisterhood discourse needs to find a balance where we don’t hold Muslim women and girls as only victims, and at the same time, we don’t make them responsible to save the world. Woman power discourse all too often holds a woman responsible for everything.
In our work, through collaborations and network building, we keep our eye on emerging opportunities to influence change. We believe that convening across sectors and across difference/diverse communities can spark important learning and innovative actions.
Our work can support advancing Muslim women and girls in some key ways:
- Advocate for and innovate/generate funding and resources. Programs are underfunded and under-resourced.
- Continue to practice and share anti-oppression practices and methodologies. This framework recognizes that Muslim women and girls’ experiences of life occur in multiple and connected spheres. It is critical that this approach and analysis inform practice and policy.
- Influence the education system; there is an amazing opportunity to bring violence prevention, anti-racism, health promotion. Leadership and education more systematically into school systems.
- Research. There is a huge gap in research on Muslim women and girls.
Our vision is rooted in a long-term view; girls grow up into women and we need strong and empowered women to lead the way for change locally and globally and across all sectors. Women and girls programs can plant seeds, change lives and arm a woman as she walks through adolescence into adulthood. Most importantly, these programs move issues they face from internalized problems to socio-political issues that can be challenged and changed.