Dr. Parin Dossa envisions social justice from the margins

The President’s Faculty Lecture event looks at social justice through the lens of Muslim women around the globe

Image courtesy of SFU Public Square.

Written by: Emma Jean and Dev Petrovic

Content Warning: Discussion of war, islamophobia, racism

Living in a Western country in the Global North, it is often difficult to view social justice outside of the walls of our familiar political system. Envisioning Social Justice From the Margins was an eye-opening educational event that discussed viewing social justice as a collective aim. The lecture was conducted through dialogue about the divisions between the Eastern and Western fronts of the World.

Hosted by SFU Public Square, the event featured lecturer and professor of anthropology Parin Dossa. Dr. Dossa’s research centres on topics of migration and diaspora, with a focus on gender, health, and the circumstances of Iranian and Ismaili Muslim communities. She takes on an ethnographic narrative (examining stories) to foster a more intimate understanding of the impacts of war and its structural violence.

Dossa explained that her lecture would consist of diverse stories from her research participants, primarily those of Muslim women living on the margins and residing in Canada, Afghanistan, Kenya, Uganda, and India. She shared with participants that through the combined power of stories, we can collectively re-envision social justice. 

“The stories of people who are in the margins of society are not easily heard. They are buried,” said Dossa. She went on to describe each individual story as a thread in the tapestry of history. 

The first section she covered from that tapestry was Afghanistan. Dr. Dossa’s experience in Afghanistan centred around two key sources: interviews with several Muslim women who live there, and her own Canadian basis of reference. As she flew into Afghanistan, she noted the parallels of geography and the differences caused by invasion. She noticed the rocky mountains gracing both landscapes, as well as the differently utilized gated communities representing wealth disparity and disconnection, which Dossa noted impedes social justice. 

While she was there, she interviewed Muslim women and observed their lives as a guest and an anthropologist. Surrounded by constant reminders in the form of American and Soviet war helicopters among many other remnants, the impact of proxy war and invasion is all around Afghanistan, Dr. Dossa noted. “If the world has entered into political amnesia, the women of Afghanistan remember.” 

The three stories that she shared in response reflected how each interviewee experienced that manifestation. The first, a woman named Hamidad, described how her house was burned down in 2001, around the same time as the US’s War on Terror attacks began. The trauma had long-lasting impacts on her children. 

The second story featured how life for many Afghan Muslim women has settled now. This was further supported by Dossa’s observations of her hosts which she said included a constant, dawn-to-dusk cycle of childcare, exploitive work, and family obligations resulting in very busy days, all done with “strength and resilience.” Dossa elaborated, “Despite social justice having entered into the inner recesses of their lives, they also work for themselves as better mothers, better wives, better daughters.” 

The third centred a woman whose “every wrinkle has a story to tell.” Now living in Canada, she fought for a Canadian citizenship for years after her racialization prevented her from obtaining it. 

Each of these stories demonstrated that same “strength and resilience,” as well as a deep need for structural change that Dossa emphasized throughout the lecture.

Dossa’s second-case story looked at Muslims in India — which is where she indicated that she wanted to do research because it is her home country. She explained that the Muslim community has been disenfranchised due to the legacy of British colonisation, where the Hindu community was favored, and then after India’s independence, the Muslim community remained a minority. 

“What I found was the houses behind this dump are the places where Muslims reside. There is just garbage thrown outside their homes. The women [ . . . ] informed me that the children fall sick, but there is not much they can do. They have been deprived of sedition rights [right to rebel against established order], citizenship rights in terms of livelihood, health sector, and religion,” said Dossa while showing pictures of a family’s home. 

She described how despite their living environment being impoverished, “the Muslim women are, in fact, sustaining their everyday lives.” She provided examples of how they sustain themselves by waking up really early to prepare lunch because there is hardly any clean water or electricity. Dossa added that “one reason why they survive is because of interconnectivity because of cultivation of social networks.” 

The Muslim women in these poverty-strucken communities take on jobs like weaving fishnets, embroidering, or buying large stocks of food and reselling them in order to make some income, as minimal as it may be. The income from this is their daily budget, allowing them to survive. Dossa also explained that women with disabilities, who are not able to work, have to rely on social networks and help from the community to survive. She noted that “people are helpful to the extent that they can [be].”

It was eye-opening to hear about communities that are living on the margins due to systemic injustices, and how people are forced to learn to utilize what they have by connecting with other community members. It begs the question: if a small impoverished community can survive purely on collective aid, why can’t Western countries do the same? 

Dossa’s third and final case-story focused on the continent of Africa — specifically Kenya and her birthplace of Uganda — and the lasting effects of British colonization. A specific phenomenon she came across was the unexpected ties between the African care workers in the country and the elderly Asian people they took care of. 

Both groups, she described, are uniquely oppressed and disregarded in both Kenya and Uganda, where the imperial social system saw Asian people as lower class citizens, and African people even more so — something that didn’t change once Kenya established their independence. As many Asian families sought to move abroad away from the counties, many of their elders were left behind. The African care workers ended up being the ones to take care of them, and as a result, Dossa observed a social community that was formed and built “with loyalty, with warmth, and with what is referred to as fictive kinship,” a sociological term for friendship formed not out of convenience or need but affection.

Given the sentiment of community that grew out of it, a deeper examination on what drove the “Asian exodus,” to use Dossa’s words would have been enlightening. The political effects that events like Uganda’s expulsion of Asian citizens in 1972 (including many Muslims) as well as the other factors she described like “the global rise of capitalism” all shaped the phenomenon. Learning more about them could have contextualized those relationships more, but that was a lecture for another time. 

After Dossa’s lecture, a series of questions erupted regarding the dialogue on Muslim poverty. Many participants noted that the Muslim community was not the only population in India that experience disproportionate poverty, and that Hindu women and communities also face impoverishment.  

“I do recognize that there is diversity,” acknowledged Dossa. “Some of the very poor Hindu families reside in the same area as Muslim families.” 

Another participant called on Dossa for being “biased” as a Muslim woman herself. However, considering her research is focused on the Muslim experience, it was not surprising to that she did not get into explaining the experiences of other groups. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to hear her response and outlook on this disagreement. 

“I am not at all overlooking the fact that there are Hindu families that are poor, struggling, and have been short-changed by the rise of our neoliberal global capitalism,” explained Dossa. She mentioned that even though there are other communities that face challenges, Muslim communities face intergenerational, systemic poverty based on their religious identity. 

It was interesting to hear Dossa explain this, while also holding space to discuss the inequities of other communities when prompted.  

The final slide of Dossa’s presentation created a final vision of the tapestry she described — this time, with her path to social justice informed by the women Dossa encountered. 

The first thread was Alternative Pedagogies, or taking steps to fulfill your “obligation to work towards transformative change.” The second was Margins — looking towards the stories like those of the women featured who “embodied experience of injustice, rendered invisible” and making sure their stories are truly heard. In relation, the final thread was Journeying, where “striving for alternative knowledge beyond normative discourses and practices” can be achieved. 

With all of those principals in mind, Dossa continued, social justice that is centred around and works from the voices of the ignored can be achieved. 

Hosted by President Joy Johnson, this lecture was a part of The President’s Faculty Lecture Series that shares some of the research that takes place at SFU.


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