A Talking Contradiction

Writer-broadcaster Irshad Manji admits that she's a radical, that she's a lesbian, that she's a Muslim reformer. But don't dare label her a radical-lesbian-Muslim reformer

Samra Habib
March , 2003 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

It's mid-September, the height of book-promotion season, and in a dark TV studio at Toronto's CBC building, freelance journalist Irshad Manji, stylish in leather jacket and spiky, highlighted hair, sits across from Salman Rushdie, renowned author and fatwa survivor, who is touring Canada to spread the word about his latest book, a collection of nonfiction called Step Across This Line

It's easy to imagine why CBC producers would choose Manji to conduct the interview. She's young, attractive, articulate, opinionated, feminist, lesbian, Muslim?in post-9/11 North America, she is a talk-show producer's dream. She has boldly stepped across a few lines herself in her 34 years, challenging everyone from mullahs to prominent feminists to right-wingers?anyone with an ideological agenda she questions. And she has done it vocally and publicly, in newspaper columns, books and on television. She's faced stark criticism from both left and right, and from conservative Muslims. As the lively interview unfolds, there's palpable warmth between the seasoned author and the provocative young interviewer as they explore a subject that sparks passionate feeling (and some pain) for both of them. When Rushdie expresses the thought that any meaningful Islamic reform will come from Muslim women in the West, it sets an enduring smile on Manji's face. 

You get the feeling that behind the scenes, publicists and producers must be smiling, too. The interview was a mutual dialogue, free of ideological tensions. Afterward, though, with cameras and makeup off, Manji looks not just elated but also exhausted. She is stretched thin with multiple commitments these days. She is regularly asked to host TV shows and be a guest on discussion panels. Jonathan Whitten,the CBC producer who approached Manji to interview Rushdie, has also asked her to host occasional spirituality segments on The National. Whitten agrees that the broadcastmedia tend toward what's "hot," and CBC is no exception. He adds that he's genuinely interested in Manji's views. "The National has made a commitment to significantly expand the diversity of faces, voices and views on our programming," he says. 

As well as coming on hot for the cool medium of TV, Manji has a book manuscript to complete, her second. When she's not in front of one camera or another, she spends a lot of time at University of Toronto's Hart House, where she is a writer in residence. Her professional dance card is indeed crammed full, which may be why her preferred after-work activity isn't dancing but cocooning at home with her partner of four and a half years, Michelle Douglas.Public iconoclasm, it turns out, takes its toll on even the feistiest of fighters. And while Manji still usually says yes to a lot of those requests for appearances, the iconoclast enjoys peace and quite. But will the ever-ravenous media, which groomed her after all, and her own ambition, allow it?

A week after the Rushdie interview, I visit Manji at home, the top floor of a modest house in Toronto's Riverdale. Manji takes pride in owning real estate (an old man's trait, a friend suggests). She gives me a warm hug after opening the door. Douglas has told me that it is unusual to see Manji out of her red pyjamas, and today she is indeed wearing a red fleece pyjama top, paired with Parasuco jeans. She is surprisingly pint-sized. Her signature short mane is flame-tipped. Dark circles around her eyes are continuing witness to her overly demanding schedule. She has just arrived home from interviews for her upcoming book. She walks me to the cozy living room, gestures me to sit on one of the blue couches and shortly excuses herself to make chai. Do I want a grilled cheese sandwich or anything else to eat, she asks, as dinnertime is approaching. I'm surrounded by portraits of the strong female side of Manji's family, with whom she remains close, although most live in B.C., where Manji was raised ? two sisters, mother, grandmother. No pictures of her father, though; Manji says he was abusive, and she has no desire to keep in touch with him. Manji encouraged her mother to leave him, throughout her childhood, which she finally did shortly before Manji enrolled at University of British Columbia. She had raised her three daughters without any financial support from her husband. She cleaned airplanes, working long shifts and on statutory holidays to earn the much-needed time-and-a-half pay to make ends meet.

There's also a picture of Douglas and Manji, taken on the day they met at the Metropolitan Church of Toronto. Before launching Queer Television, Manji wanted to make sure that she didn't ignore the spiritual side of gays and lesbians as she produced the show. For an entire summer in 1999, Manji would periodically go to the alternative church to witness the impact of religion on gays and lesbians. On a Sunday morning in August, Manji hurriedly walked inside the church and found a spot at the end of a pew. Douglas, who had known Manji from a previous speaking engagement, was sitting at the other end. Afterward, at the coffee and cookie social, Manji was introduced to Douglas by a mutual friend. She was ecstatic to find that Douglas was the same woman who had sued the Canadian military. She had praised Douglas in one of her editorials while she was at the Ottawa Citizen. Douglas gained a public profile in 1990 when she successfully sued the Canadian military for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She has a bachelor's degree in law, and now heads the Foundation for Equal Families, an organization that acts as an intervenor in precedent-setting cases for same-sex relationship rights. It also provides funding to aid individuals who are involved in such cases through fund-raising. Manji and Douglas's union seems solidly based on mutual respect and common goals. On their second date, they both confessed that they did not want children, an issue that had been a problem in Manji's previous relationships (though they are both huge supporters of choice). "And it was love from there on," she says. The couple has also chosen not to get married. Though both are involved with separate progressive organizations, the only groups they support together with regular donations are World Vision and Doctors Without Borders by making regular donations. 

Manji places the tea tray on the coffee table. Just as she's taken a sip of her chai, the telephone rings. She ignores it and goes on with the interview. When it rings for the second time she says, "It must be Michelle." It is. After a minute of chatting, she hangs up. I ask Manji how important her Muslim faith is to her. She pauses and then replies, "I don't think that I would be a Muslim if I lived in an Islamic world, because the only condition under which I will consent to observing a faith is if I have the freedom to ask plenty of questions. If I don't have that freedom, fuck religion."

Manji's career as an asker of questions began early. Growing up in Richmond, B.C., she attended madresa, a Muslim religious school, every Saturday. There, she says, she was taught appalling things: she was not to befriend non-Muslims,specifically Jews; if she was a bad Muslim, her coffin would be squeezed so hard that passers-by would hear her screams; reciting prayers in a "Canadian accent" was blasphemous. Manji would challenge the logic of these and other pronouncements. Her questions (and the fact that she dared to ask them at all) were not well received by the mullahs. At 15, she was finally expelled. "At that moment," she wrote in a Globe and Mail editorial in November 2001, "I had crossed the threshold into a wider world called Canada. Praise be to Allah."

"I"t was not the last time Manji would find herself trying to change the system from within, only to be turfed out for her trouble. In 1992, editors at The Ottawa Citizen decided they wanted a minority voice on the all-white, mostly male editorial board. Twenty-four years old, fresh out of university, and with a BA in history, Manji applied for and got the job as the Citizen's youngest editorial writer. But problems arose almost immediately: Manji couldn't quite accept the editorial-board convention of writing opinion pieces that express opinions the writer does not necessarily hold herself. It was difficult, in other words, to push a left-leaning peg into a right-leaning hole. After six months, Manji and the Citizen agreed to an amicable parting of ways. "What she really wanted to do was to be an opinion columnist and a commentator," says Manji's former boss, Peter Calamai, "where she could defend whatever position she had, and editorial writers, unfortunately, just do not have that kind of freedom. And never have." 

Despite the early stumble, Manji's journalism career was up and running. Journalist Susan Riley, a member of the Citizen editorial board that hired Manji, and a confidante while Manji was on the job, calls her a great self-marketer. "I admire that about her. She invents herself, she's a true entrepreneur." Broadcast outlets vied to get her on their various shows; she was among a handful of women of colour who had served on major editorial boards in Canada at the time, and her opinion was eagerly sought by media looking to broaden their appeal to minority groups, and to better reflect the increasing pluralism of Canadian society. Enter Moses Znaimer, whose Citytv famously pioneered and championed diversity. Manji's appeal was obvious. In 1998, Znaimer offered her the position of host and producer of Q-Files, a weekly segment about "queer" life (gay, lesbian, highly alternative) on CablePulse24, Znaimer's all-news channel. The offer came after the success of her first book, Risking Utopia, a series of idealistic essays exploring the concept of exercising individuality in a democracy, and in which she made her sexuality known. Manji's cheeky, discerning editorials each week on Q-Files made her a local celebrity. Q-Files also became the top-rated show on CP24. The success of Q-Files, the world's first commercial TV show about the queer lifestyle, gave birth to Queer Television. In its first two seasons, the program received three Gemini nominations.

Despite her resistance to being recognized solely on the basis of her sexuality, Manji loved the spotlight that came with Queer TV. Wodek Szemberg, Manji's former producer on "Friendly Fire" (a kind of Canadian Crossfire, with Manji going head to head with right-wing writer Michael Coren, which ran from 1992 to 1994 on TVOntario's Studio 2) fondly recalls observing Manji during Toronto's Gay Pride parade several years ago, as she joyously waved from the Queer TV float to cheering onlookers. "I came up to her and said, 'Irshad, you just love being the princess, the queen, the star.' And she said, 'Of course I do!'"

Manji may have revelled in the lighter side of her role as media princess,but waving to fans from parade floats could never satisfy her more seriousaspirations. When Queer TV didn't get picked up in 2001, Manji said farewell with no regrets, to pursue other opportunities, which include developing VERB, a TV channel being produced to engage young people on issues of global diversity. Since September 11, 2001, she has been cast differently, and that's fine with her. In the days that followed the terrorist attacks, it quickly dawned on the western media that they had paid far too little attention to the Islamic world in general, and religious faith in particular.

Manji stepped forward as a uniquely well-informed crusader, without hesitation, and readily found her platform. In early November 2001, she wrote an opinion column for The Globe and Mail, urging Muslims in post 9-11 North America to embrace the pluralism that allows them to live in a democratic society, rather than blindly defending their faith, and to question the anti-Semitism that prevails in many Muslim countries today. Letters flew into the Globe, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, expressing both fury and support. Soon, Manji was approached by Random House editor John Pierce to write a book. It will be, she says, an open letter to Muslims everywhere to embark on a reformation ? to adapt the wisdom of the Koran to whatever culture they live in, instead of taking the teachings literally. In Manji's own words, "People in the Islamic world, particularly women, also need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves. So my book will outline a global campaign to publicize innovative approaches to Islam. I call it Operation Ijtihad [promoting independent thinking among Muslims]."

Manji is taking advantage of the current exposure to examine all of her contradictory beliefs and how she came to have them. She grew up "queer" in a Muslim household, and has had an impressive amount of practice in "reformation" as she reconciled her faith with her homosexuality over the years. In 1999, she delivered a lecture at University of Western Ontario entitled, "Queers and God." She explained that she had always felt that her homosexuality was a struggle. She added that diversity is conscious and deliberate in this world, which is why her sexuality should be celebrated. "I'm here to suggest," she said during her lecture, "that God and queers are not just reconcilable, but indeed compatible."

Her prepubescent experiences also included her first lesson in the oftenunhappy politics of finding a niche for herself. At school, she let her classmates address her by her nickname "Pinky" (given to her affectionately by her mother, who really liked the name) because it was easier for them to say than "Irshad." But the decision backfired; her nickname invited chants of "Ink, Pink, you stink, riding on a horse's dink." She soon volunteered to play lunchtime Santa ? taking snacks from home and selling it to students at cut-rate prices ? hoping to improve her chances of finding popularity among her classmates. And it worked; she soon learned that actively belonging was far more beneficial than passively assimilating. She writes in Risking Utopia, "To improve my chances of finding a niche, however fleeting, I could not allow myself to feel powerless."

Today, Manji picks and chooses her compromises carefully, and freely admits to her contradictions. For a feminist who once sat on the editorial board of This Magazine, capitalism sits rather well with Manji; certainly the profit margin on many of her career decisions has been larger than that of most left-wing activists. And she is well aware that demand for what she supplies has gone up since September 11. "She wanted to earn her happiness," says her mentor Wodek Szemberg, who went on from "Friendly Fire" to work with Manji again on Big Ideas, another TVO program. "She is a doer, not a whiner. In a deeper sense of the words, she wants to be rich and famous and influential. She wants to be God's messenger." Manji doesn't agree that she is motivated by materialism in any way; she insists that the sole drive behind her work is enriching others. "Where some see problems, barriers and impossibility, I see opportunities for growth. I guess that's why I'm often accused of being an 'opportunist.' I plead guilty."

Not surprisingly, Manji has faced much criticism from people on the left when it seemed she was abandoning activism in favour of personal career growth. In the feminist magazine, Herizons, she has persistently challenged older feminists to stop imposing outmoded ideas and labels on younger feminists. Naturally, some of them have not been amused. Judy Rebick, who doesn't agree with many of Manji's ideas, is also a Herizons columnists. She says, "Maybe part of the reason that she doesn't define herself as left anymore is because her notion of what left is is very sort of dogmatic, and kind of combative, and she has chosen not to be that way anymore."

The response she has garnered from members of the Muslim community is also complex. Manji's efforts to encourage Muslims to reform Islam stand in contrast to the stance of other Canadian Muslim journalists, who often blame the West for misunderstanding Muslims. Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star, for instance, unapologetically recites tales of how the West continues to oppress Muslims. He wrote in his editorial on November 3, 2002, "We cannot be prescribing democracy for Muslim nations while violating the basic rights of our own Muslim citizens. That sense of injustice partly explains willing recruits for Al Qaeda and other groups." Manji begs to differ. "If everything can be blamed on somebody else," she says, "then we're never going to have to look at the internal problems that are also keeping us down."

Many Muslim activists have vehemently rejected Manji's opinions. Wahida Valiante, vice president of the Canadian Islamic Congress (who refused to be interviewed for this story), indignantly refuted Manji's reconciliation of her faith with her homosexuality in The Report, the 29-year-old conservative bi-weekly newsmagazine. She told writer Peter Stock that Manji is "not an authentic voice for Islam." She believes that Manji "doesn't know Islamic history, and she has only the most basic knowledge of the faith. The Koran clearly states that sexual relations are between men and women." Valiante speaks for a constituency of Muslims for whom that is the end of the discussion. But Manji is unfazed by her many detractors, and continues to form her own interpretations of what it means to be a Muslim. "It's often said that in addition to meaning peace, which it doesn't, Islam means submission, submission obviously to God ? if I'm going to be a Muslim by that definition, then I must submit to God. But what does it mean to submit to God? It's not about what sect I belong to, it's not about programmed pieties, it's about how I conduct myself, and most importantly, to me, the accountability I have to explain why I do what I do. If I can't explain why I do what I do, then I'm not submitting to God." 

Watching her in action as she prepares for three tapings of intros and extros for Big Ideas, it's clear that Manji takes great pleasure in explaining why she does what she does and believes what she believes. And she's good at it. She's sitting around a meeting table with Szemberg and an intern, with a barely touched cup of tea in her hand. They're discussing one of the show's pieces, on the subject of branding. Manji thinks that York professor of marketing's Alan Middleton's reaction to Naomi Klein's book, No Logo, is shallow. He argued that branding is a profoundly historical phenomenon that addresses human needs. "I remember thinking that he isn't being fair to her, and surprised that a professor of marketing who presumably had all the facts at his disposal and could come up with something a little more intelligent, didn't," she says. "He was preying on the ignorance of his audience." 

It's easy to see why Manji would be particularly perturbed by this kind of tactic, as well as by ignorant audiences. "The only thing I ask is that those criticisms be backed up, be based in context, be reasonable. Back it up!" Manji says the criticism she got from viewers when she debated Michael Coren on "Friendly Fire" was often racist: "That Manji woman couldn't help herself," a viewer wrote. "Arrogant immigrants are being more and more vociferously noticeable."

Manji may have every intention of remaining vociferously noticeable, but the toll her work takes on her is evident. Meeting her at Hart House last December, I immediately notice the already tiny woman's dramatic weight loss since October. She cites the stress of writing a challenging book ? due out before the September 11 anniversary this year ? as the reason for her waifish appearance. We walk toward the caf? with our drinks and find a place to sit. She signals me to turn on my recorder. "I'm making a contribution to honest journalism," she says, "the public conversation that is uncensored and needs to be had. My role is to speak the truth about what I know and let the chips fall where they may." The truth that she speaks of has taken a different tone since the beginning of her career. Szemberg says Manji is a different person from when he first met her in the early '90s. "Irshad no longer claims to be on the margin. When I met Irshad, she was demanding for the world to become just," he says. "Irshad today is a woman who wants to do her bit for justice. And that's a big, big, difference."

Manji doesn't enjoy being profiled, she has told me. Perhaps she fears that the complexity of her ideas will be lost in sound bites and limited word counts. She tells me that she was surprised when the factchecker for a Toronto Life story asked her if she'd said that she's "Muslim, South Asian, leftist and a lesbian-feminist." Manji told the checker that she doesn't identify herself as a leftist. She was disappointed when the article described her as a "leftist and a lesbian-feminist." To Manji, labels imply that a person is static. They are loaded with connotations that one doesn't necessarily choose for oneself. Her concern with these labels seems to be that other people's definitions are not her own. Many of her beliefs are radical in the context of mainstream and certainly Muslim society. She does consider herself a Muslim, but not one who accepts everything about the religion at face value.

And in some self-defined way, she will even admit she is a feminist. Radical, Muslim, feminist. As long as she can define the terms, stamp them with her own personal experience, Manji might accept them, warily. She often cites her experiences as an abused child who grew up being called a "Paki," but says she doesn't want to use these experiences as the focus of her arguments. "To appreciate that gift of citizenship," she wrote in a National Post guest column last year, "we need to spring ourselves from the enfeebling habits of victimhood. It won't be easy." 

Manji interviewed exiled Bangladeshi feminist Taslima Nasrin for Herizons when she was in Canada late last year promoting her most recent book, a powerful memoir entitled Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood. Nasrin, who is 40 years old, has been living in exile since 1994 in Europe, after a fatwa was issued against her in 1993. She caused riots among men in the streets when she criticized verses in the Koran that treat women as sexual objects, and faces imprisonment or even death if she returns to her native country. The sharp-tongued radical feminist told Manji that it's impossible to be a feminist and a practicing Muslim. "Actually, I don't understand how women can be religious because religion is made for men, for their own pleasure." Manji's response was interesting. While she admires Nasrin's bravado, she later tells me that "Nasrin believes that Muslim reformation is impossible to pull off. I don't think she's right." Canadian-raised Manji, free to express her opinions, retains a kind of hope that Nasrin, faced with far more severe curtailments and threats, perhaps cannot.

As she finishes her manuscript and gears up for the coming round of promotion, Manji ultimately pins her faith on Islam's tradition of gender equality. In a recent Herizons article, she wrote: "Prophet Muhammed's wife, Khadija, was 15 years his senior and a wealthy, self-made merchant ? who proposed to him!" 

Salman Rushdie may be right: Muslim reformation will begin with Muslim women in the West. If it does, one of those women will surely be the self-made, very tired Irshad Manji.

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