Sisters' Circle: Connecting Muslimahs to Community During the COVID LockdownWritten by Chelby Daigle
Staying connected in the context of physical distancing is presenting challenges for many Muslims who long for the social interactions with their fellow Muslims that pre-COVID life had to offer.
Although Muslim organizations have been creating dynamic online programming with religious scholars and community subject matter experts, the opportunities to exchange experiences and ideas with ordinary Muslims have been scarce. That's where the Sisters Circle, a weekly online discussion forum for Muslim women launched by Toronto-based Muslimahs Gilary Massa and Timaj Garad, comes in.
Tell us about yourselves
Gilary Massa: I am an Afro-Latina Muslim. My mother moved to Canada when I was about 4 years old from Panama. She converted to Islam a few years after immigrating. She was soul searching and struggling as a single mother. I suppose the challenges of immigration and single motherhood really had her craving for a closeness with her creator. She met some Muslims in her English class, and that was her introduction to Islam. I now live in Toronto with my husband and my two kids, and work as the Human Rights Outreach and Engagement Officer for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). I have a long-standing history in community engagement, public education and activism related to equity, human rights, and social justice. With roots in both the Labour movement and Student movement. Before joining the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in 2019, I worked as the Advocacy Coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) where I spearheaded their efforts in engaging school communities on issues related to better supporting the needs of Muslim students and their families. I enjoy creating space for marginalized communities to have a voice, that is the motivation behind everything I do.
Timaj Garad: I'm Timaj - an Ethiopian, Harari Muslim living in Toronto, Canada. Growing up in Toronto, as a third culture kid navigating my "otherness", I was inspired to tell and witness stories from the margins, stories that create spaces to belong in. I'm now a multi-disciplinary storyteller & performer using the mediums of poetry, theatre, and music. My art is autobiographical, working at the intersections of a Black Muslim woman challenging injustice, unearthing truths, and healing. As an award-winning Artist, I've had the honor to perform on over 300 stages. As an Arts Educator, I also facilitate arts-based workshops, series, and events, including Luminous Fest - Canada's first Black Muslim Arts Festival. I also work as a Program Manager for a Bridge training program for internationally trained media & communications professionals. In addition to my The Sisters' Retreat work, I'm currently working on my debut album "Blooming at the Mouth", to be released later this year, God willing. I believe in the transformative power of artistic expression to build capacity for individuals and communities to flourish.
Tell us about your collaboration on the Sisters Retreat
We started the Sisters' Retreat out of the desire to create space for Muslim women to have space where they could connect and engage in self-care. We started in 2019, right after the horrific Quebec mosque shooting. It was a heavy time to be a visible Muslim woman in Canada. It felt lonely. We just got to thinking, if we were feeling the heaviness of being a Muslim woman there must be others.
Our flagship event is a International Muslim women's retreat in Panama. We really wanted to create an all inclusive vacation experience that prioritised the needs of Muslim women. Often we go on vacation and can't take advantage of all the vacation has to offer. If you are a Muslim woman who wears hijab, or is a bit more modest in what you wear, pool-sides or beach vacation can be a challenge. Our trip takes care of all that. We take care of the need for privacy and hijabi friendly activities. We take care of making sure we have halal food at all of our meals. Plus the week is packed with wellness programming curated by Timaj, for our guests to enjoy.
We also host a number of Toronto-based events, spa days, ladies only parties, yoga and brunch events. We are always trying to find creative ways for Muslim women to connect and unwind.
Why did you decide to use the Sisters Retreat platform to launch the Sisters Circle during the COVID lockdown?
The motivation behind Our Sisters' Circles was really to find a way for us to continue to connect as Muslim women even in a time where physical distancing was being mandated.
We had all of these plans for local events this summer- so we just decided to take it online.
Initially it was designed to be a simple self-care check in. We understood that many of us were struggling with our new normals, trying to find ways to manage it all, and we just wanted to create a space for people to be able to talk.
Very quickly we began to get requests for our sessions to focus on different topics. Faith and identity, love and relationships. So that is what the Sisters' Circle has become, a community of Muslim women from all over the world, spending 2 hours together, every week, talking about the issues that are most important to us.
Why do you feel women participate in the Sisters Circle?
There are so few spaces within our communities (Muslim or otherwise) for Muslim women to just come as they are. We think people are drawn to the Sisters' Circle because we create space for people's doubts, challenges, joys, and insecurities. We make space for it all. We don't pretend to be perfect Muslim women. But together we are working towards being the best versions of ourselves in all of our spaces, in person and online. It's beautiful to see how complete strangers from diverse backgrounds can come together and share so openly.
How diverse are your participants?
We have had participants from Europe, the United States, South America and all over Canada. We share space with women born into Islam, are newly converted, or are second or third generation Muslim. Wear hijab, don't wear hijab. New moms, married women, single women, Sunni, Shi'a. It really is a diverse group. Every week, every event, and retreat is so beautifully eclectic.
What are some of the topics you have explored?
Faith, Identity, Religious Plurality, Love and relationships, Hijab, Challenges in Deen (faith), Self-Care, Community Care, World Issues, Racism, Sexism, Islamophobia...
You were interviewed by CBC in a segment about Faith going Online in the midst of the COVID lockdown. You were the only non-male and non-religious professionals interviewed for the segment. Why do you think it is important for just regular Muslims to be creating community spaces to connect during the pandemic outside of those created by religious institutions?
There are so many voices in faith-based communities that are chronically ignored and unheard. Being Muslim, we often feel societal pressure to perform our 'Muslimness' in ways that are acceptable to the Ummah /Muslim community-at-large leaving little room to be our flawed imperfect selves. The weight of these expectations and the judgement that often follows them has deterred many Muslims, young and marginalized Muslims especially, from traditional spaces of worship, leaving many 'unmosqued'. It's important to have safe spaces where Muslims feel comfortable to be themselves in a community where they feel a sense of acceptance because that is what fosters a sense of belonging and feeling loved. This is why we are seeing a number of 'third' alternative spaces emerging that focus on inclusivity for Muslims, The Sisters' Retreat being one of them. The Sisters' Retreat was born from an understanding that Muslim women experience erasure and, although we are the pillars of our communities, we rarely are given much consideration in them much less a platform. We, therefore, need to create our own spaces - to heal, to grow, to just be, especially in times like this where we need each other the most.
Upcoming Sisters Circles:
Sunday May 3rd - pt 4: Where my girls at? Ramadan check-in
Sunday May 10th - Keeping Faith: exploring identity and its impact on our faith
Sunday May 17th - The Last 10
Sunday, May 24th - Break
Love & Relationships
Friday, June 5th - The Swipe Life - pt.2
Friday, June 12th - Love & Intimacy
Friday, June 19th - Writing workshop on self-love
The Sisters' Retreat
Muslim Women's Retreat in Panama, Jan 2-9 2021.
For more information visit www.thesistersretreat.org
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