As a woman and an immigrant I stand with the women on this one

I am an immigrant. In fact twice-an-immigrant. The first time I migrated with my family from Iran to Canada was in the early nineties. The second was from Canada to Europe – first to Spain, then to the UK a year ago. As such, I am a big advocate of immigration and multiculturalism. Growing up in Canada provided me with the opportunity to live harmoniously within a mosaic of diverse cultures. Studying in an international institute in Spain allowed me to make friends from all over the world. More importantly the West afforded me opportunities as a woman that my country of birth would not have.

Last September, after pictures of the four-year-old Aylan Kurdi were published, I, an ordinary citizen, pleaded with friends on social media – the only medium to which I had easy access – to write letters to their elected officials in the Canadian House of Commons urging them to take in more asylum seekers from war-torn Syria arguing that Canada has a responsibility to lighten the burden of European countries in dealing with this mass exodus.


Yet I was shocked, like so many others, when we started 2016 with reports of women in the hundreds being attacked and robbed during the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and Hamburg by groups of men – allegedly from North African and Middle Eastern origin. We now have confirmation that the vast majority of the detained are migrants with a considerable portion being asylum seekers.


The common thread running through these incidents is that the police and other authorities are being accused of making light of the attacks, even covering them up, at least initially, in order to refrain from racial profiling and in all likelihood to prevent a backlash against immigration. This thread goes backwards to last summer where at a music festival in Stockholm numerous teenaged girls made complaints about being harassed allegedly by newly arrived Afghan refugees but were ignored by the police and media. And the thread runs even further back to the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, which came to light last year. In Rotherham too, it was revealed British officials had downplayed or ignored complaints from a large number of vulnerable girls who had been sexually abused at the hands of a gang of Pakistani origin “for fear of being thought as racists”.

As an immigrant and a woman, I find this outrageous. As uncomfortable as it is we cannot shy away from stating the obvious. Different cultures have different attitudes toward women. Street harassment in Iran and Egypt, to name just two, is pandemic. In Iran sexual harassment both verbal and physical is a daily reality for women. The authorities do not pursue perpetrators but they have endless advice for women. Everything from maintaining eye contact for more than two seconds to smiling to wearing “provocative” clothing has been blamed for unwanted attention. Everything except rampant misogynistic attitudes in the culture itself.

In the West, some Islamic leaders have put the responsibility of unwanted sexual advances on the shoulders of women. I personally heard a lecture by prominent Islamic scholar Zakir Naik during the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto where he decreed that observing the Islamic dress code or hijab protects women from unwanted sexual advances. He went as far as stating that between a girl in a miniskirt and a girl in hijab, the former is more likely to be raped. Yet we know that at least in Egypt hijabi women, constituting a significant portion of the populace, are as likely to be harassed as non-hijabis. A survey in 2014 showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being harassed verbally or physically. Zakir Naik is not alone in dispensing this kind of advice; the mayor of Cologne also stirred controversy by sharing a code of conduct with women to help them avoid sexual harassment.

We have to stop laying the blame on women for these attitudes but instead critique the patriarchal attitudes that exist in some communities among us. To offer real solutions and tackle these issues we need to have a discourse. These recent developments have remained rather under-reported by media outlets on the left. Harping on about “a few bad apples” is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. Hundreds of perpetrators hardly qualify as a few. The left is so preoccupied with being labelled racist and xenophobic that it is doing a great disservice to women’s rights and society as a whole. If the left does not engage in the discussion, the resulting vacuum will let the right highjack the debate for its own political gain.

Integrating millions of refugees economically and socially into the fabric of Western society will be a challenge. It will not happen automatically or rapidly. However, brushing problems arising from culture shock under the carpet helps no one in the long run. Numerous things can be done to alleviate these problems. Here are some solutions we can employ.

First of all, precedence should be given to families seeking asylum over single men. Canada is employing such a policy already arguing that this policy will curtail security risks. Secondly, lessons in how the new host society works can be provided along side language and job training for newcomers. Perhaps even more specifically, lessons on the history of women’s struggle for equality as well as acceptable social norms when it comes to the opposite gender can be beneficial. This may appear colonialist at face value; however, we know such educational campaigns can be highly successful. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, the administration undertook a campaign to educate students as to what constitutes consent in a sexual encounter. In the eighties and nineties most Western governments undertook extensive campaigns to educate the public about safe sex in order to stop the spread of the AIDS pandemic. And if having mandatory training for refugees may stigmatize them, then let us educate all men over the age of 15 as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour towards women in our societies. Finally, once a newcomer has been well informed about the laws and the accepted code of conduct in his host nation, should he still break the law, he should get deported.

Bottom line is that we cannot regress on hard-fought women’s rights and freedoms (right to free movement, to dancing and celebrating in public, to owning one’s own body, to being in charge of one’s sexuality) for the sake of political correctness.



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