Another councilor may be joining the Dal Student Union (DSU) next year: Muslim cultural community rep.
The motion approved by DSU council at the Feb. 13 council meeting will send the idea to the unions annual general meeting. If the proposal is approved at the Annual General Meeting, the DSU will have its 27th councilor.
Ramz Aziz is president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). He presented the proposal to council.
“The main idea of this position is to serve the needs of the Muslim population on campus,” says Aziz. “There’s a huge population that needs to be serviced. They’re underrepresented—there is no representation, actually, at formal levels.”
However, some have reacted strongly against the formal inclusion of religious representation in the union’s constitution.
Shiva Nourpanah is a PhD student studying social anthropology.
“I am very much against any form of formalization or institutionalization of religious groups in a secular society,” she says.
Nourpanah voted against the proposal at DSU council. She is a émigrée to Canada, arriving 5 years ago. Prior to coming to Halifax, she worked as a UN staffer in Iran, where most of her family remains.
“As someone who comes from a theocratic regime, where religion is mandatorily enforced, I just found myself almost viscerally reacting against somehow institutionalizing religion in campus life.”
But Aziz says that a ‘Muslim community rep’ already exists, albeit informally: he is often the point man for issues important to Muslim students on campus.
“If there’s an issue with prayer space in the computer science building, I’m the one who gets an email about it,” says Aziz. “People are aware that I exist, and they contact me—but this is informally.”
Aziz says that the creation of the position is pragmatic, and that this position wouldn’t be anti-secular. He points to the multi-faith centre on campus as a precedent.
“It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” says Aziz. “No one is saying, ‘incorporate religion into the workings of the university.’ But to a certain extent, you have to recognize that there is a huge population of students who recognize Islam as their culture and religious identity.
“No one is going to force you to say a Muslim prayer before DSU council meeting. I do not care about that. The point is that these students comes here and feel at home.”
Aziz says there still exists discrimination against Muslim students at Dal. Aziz says that leaders in the Muslim student community are occasionally contacted by the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service (CSIS).
“In a post 9/11 world, it isn’t easy to be Muslim all the time,” says Aziz, “There’s a lot of stigma around it—and a lot of Islamophobia.”
Currently, the DSU has councilors representing different faculties, residences and societies on campus. There are also councilors for aboriginal and black students as well as DalOUT, representing LGBTQ students. Supporters of the proposal at the Feb. 13 council meeting compared the Islamic community rep to these potions.
Nourpanah disagrees, pointing out that Dal has an office of human rights, equity, and harassment prevention to deal with specific incidents.
“To claim that Muslim people face the same kind of discrimination that black people and aboriginal people have historically, in a legalized systemic matter, faced in Canada and Halifax, in its local variations—to claim that it’s the same? To me that is an absolutely false, outrageous claim.”
Aziz says that the position would also help ensure that an otherwise disengaged community is kept connected. He worries that without the position, Muslim students may become less engaged with the DSU should there not be a council representative position.
Gaidah Khashmel is the women’s committee chairman in the MSA. She says the DSU has been engaging with Muslim students at events, citing the ‘Cheque it out’ event held in September, but that more needs to be done.
“It was a really great event,” says Khashmel, “but for us to have to wait for these really rare events to voice our concerns is not really convenient.”
Nourpanah is disappointed that council chose to send the motion to the AGM.
“People who were not necessarily supportive of the motion, or had nothing to do with the motion, it’s like they just become so paralyzed by fear of giving offense, or fear of not buying into this victimized Muslim trope that they just can’t think critically,” she says.
“This supposed to be a place of free thought, free enquiry, and challenging each other. This is not supposed to be the place where we continually keep parroting buzzwords: ‘diversity, tolerance, student representation.’”
Khashmel is pleased that students will engage with these issues.
“For me it’s not just to get to a resolution, it’s to get these things to be heard.” she says. “Because a lot of people were really surprised, like ‘really, you’ve been treated unfairly?’ Yeah. There is discrimination.”