It was only after reading Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz that I realized the hijab was a weapon of teenage rebellion. Or at least it was for the young Zarqa, who abandons her fight to become a Modern Muslim (tight jeans and short, uncovered hair) and decides instead to out-Muslim her parents by wearing a hijab – since her mother only wears a dupatta, a diaphanous loosely-draped headcover. “Some people think hijab is used to oppress people,” she says. “It’s true. I used it to oppress my parents.”
Nawaz’s humour is of the gentle, affectionate and kooky sort familiar to fans of her popular TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie. But don’t make the mistake of filing away this memoir as a light-hearted take on being Muslim in Canada. While there are plenty of hilarious anecdotes about misadventures and awkward moments, the sub-text coursing beneath the humour speaks to the conflicts and fears she sees in and around Canadian Muslim communities. This is a book that uses comedy to entertain, grab attention, and promote understanding.
A few days after 9/11, a neighbour calls the RCMP about a suspicious container on the driveway of Zarqa’s in-laws and the Mounties pay them a visit. It was a packing crate waiting for pick up by the moving company. Zarqa’s response is to throw a big open house for all the neighbours, with a secret agenda of smoking out the caller’s identity. It’s funny and heartbreaking. Her in-laws’ 40-year history of belonging to that neighbourhood suddenly counted for nothing. 9/11 made them far more vulnerable to hate crimes than their white neighbours to terrorist attacks.
When it comes to misunderstandings, Zarqa doesn’t confine herself to interactions between Muslims and white, non-Muslim Canadians. The Muslim community provides plenty of examples. Zarqa has stated during interviews that she wanted to dispel notions of a monolithic Muslim culture and show that not only are there liberal and conservative Muslims, but also that not all Muslims observe the same religious traditions. In a chapter titled ‘Behind the Shower Curtain’, her mosque puts up a curtain in the prayer hall to physically separate the men’s and women’s areas. This escalates into segregating the women in a prayer room of their own.
Yet the practice of segregation is cultural, not religious, says the Islamic scholar she interviews for a TV documentary. It came from countries and cultures where segregation was the norm, not from the Qur’an. When it airs, the documentary sets her at odds with her Muslim friends, who think it makes their community appear sexist. They feel such conflicts should be resolved in private.
When we get a look at the hostility she faces after Little Mosque on the Prairie, it’s frightening. Her husband phones her, warning her to stay in the women’s prayer room of the mosque. He is in the other prayer room, surrounded by angry men who are shouting ‘Shame, shame’, demanding that he divorce her. They couldn’t distinguish, Zarqa realizes, between poking fun at Muslims and making fun of Islam.
Despite such disheartening experiences, I never get the feeling that Zarqa doubts her faith or community. She comes across as a fearless advocate for both Islam and women’s rights, most notably when she is challenging literalist interpretations of Islam that justify sexist behaviour. If you want to be literal, she points out, the hadith (accounts of actions and sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad) gives women the same access to prayer halls as men. She just wants more Muslims to be educated about their own faith so they can differentiate religious mandates from tradition. Hers is a faith that isn’t threatened by discourse, but welcomes engagement and inclusion.
This book extends friendship and understanding to the fearful and the curious, the doubtful and the sympathetic – on all sides. Like Zarqa, I believe laughter goes a long way toward dispelling misconceptions. Her memoir will attract readers looking for a humorous read, and they’ll continue on to the end, learning and laughing all the way.