We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the role of Muslim who have been helping new Muslim generations in Canada especially and new Muslim generations in the west generally.
At this point Rukhsana Khan is going to speak about her views on the new Muslim generations’ role in Canada today.
Rukhsana Khan is an award-winning author and storyteller. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan and immigrated to Canada at the age of three.
She has appeared on television and radio numerous times, has been featured at international conferences in Denmark, Mexico, Singapore, Italy, and South Africa, and has presented all across Canada and the U.S.
She tells tales of India, Persia, the Middle East, as well as her own stories.
Rukhsana is a member of SCBWI, The Writers Union of Canada, CANSCAIP, and Storytelling Toronto.
Rukhsana's books have received/been nominated for the following awards:
Big Red Lollipop:
Chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best picture books of the year
Received the Charlotte Zolotow award for best picture book writing
Received the Golden Kite Award for best picture book writing (note that these two awards are the only awards in America for best picture book writing and I received both of them)
Selected as a Junior Library Guild Choice, 2010
Wanting Mor: (received a total of thirteen awards and nominations in North America)
WINNER of the 2009 Middle East Book Award (Youth Fiction Category)
USBBY Outstanding International Book list
IRA Notable Books for a Global Society
Illustrator Yunmee Kyong won Ezra Jack Keats award for best new illustrator 2006
A Resource Links Best book
Ruler of the Courtyard:
Nick Jr. Magazine (Dec. 2003) Chose Ruler of the Courtyard as the Most Suspenseful Story of the Year
Nova Scotia Hackmatack Award--shortlisted 2001
A Canadian Children's Book Centre 'Our Choice' Book
Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile:
Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Honour Award, 2001
Ruth Schwartz Award--shortlisted 2000
Red Maple Award--shortlisted 2000
The Roses in My Carpets:
Honorary Januscz Korczak Award from the Polish Chapter of the International Board on Books for Young People, 1998. Click Here to See Rukhsana receiving the Januscz Korczak Award in Capetown, South Africa at the IBBY Congress.
Rukhsana has received the following personal awards:
The Award of Excellence from the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP) Toronto chapter, 2008
The Communication & Leadership Award from the District 60 branch of Toastmasters, 2004
The Literature Award from the Canadian Islamic Congress, 2004
Q: I may be asked about the meaning of your name Ruhksana what does it mean?
Rukhsana Khan: My mother told me that my name literally means ‘girl with rosy cheeks’. And she also told me that it was the name of a princess. I’m thinking that the princess may have been Roxanne, the wife of Alexander the Great because Alexander the Great is so well known in Asia.
Q:You were born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1962. and immigrated to Canada with your family when you were three years old. How did you grow up in Dundas, Ontario and what about difficulties that faced you as a Muslim child?
Rukhsana Khan: When we came to Canada in the Sixties, racism was 'in your face.' We lived in Dundas, Ontario, which then had a population of about 16,000 people, and only two of the families were Indian. My father worked at a tool and dye company, and his coworkers used to call him 'black bastard' right to his face. They hardly ever called him by his name, and he put up with it because he had four kids to feed. My father had chosen to live in Canada because he wanted to get away from those cultural influences which said girls are expendable. He also wanted to raise us as Muslims, and he wanted a good neighborhood.
It turned out to be very difficult. Because we stuck out so much, we were persecuted from day one. If it hadn't been for that negative treatment, I don't think I would have become a writer because my growing up was so horrible that I went to books to escape. Having no friends, I spent my recesses among the trees. I used to think a lot, and that's when I really came to terms with what my beliefs are, who I am, and what my place is in the universe. I also read a lot, tons of books, and some have stayed with me.
When I went from grade six to grade seven, it was a different school, but the kids who'd been bullying me previously told all the other kids, and they ganged up on me there.
During these years I questioned my Islamic faith a lot. All the kids at school were always making fun of Islam, they’d ask me lots of questions and when I answered them to the best of my ability, they’d say, “That’s so weird.”
It’s very difficult to hold onto your faith when people are constantly putting it down.
At first I tried to be like everyone else but no matter what I did, they would not accept me because I was still a different colour. I spent a lot of my time during recess asking myself if they were right about me and about Islam.
Was I really as bad as they thought I was? And the conclusion I came to was, “No.” I thought basically I’m a good person. So if they’re wrong about me, maybe they’re wrong about Islam too. And I looked at Islam against both Christianity and Judaism, and no matter how I examined them all, I always came back to thinking that Islam was more complete than either of them.
So I figured that they were wrong about Islam too.
In high school, I turned myself around and became very outgoing. I went up to all kinds of people and learned how to make a buffer zone around myself. I had some friends and wasn't alone any more. I was still a target, but not such an easy one. In grade 11, there was one boy who'd always come after me. He called me 'lice-mobile' in the hallway, and I'd try not to turn around.
I was about sixteen when I made my first Muslim friends at an Islamic camp in Toronto. They were the ones who told me about hijab. Growing up, I’d read the Quran so many times in English and yet I had never really noticed the ayat 31 in Surah Nur, about hijab.
I wanted to wear hijab right away. I was afraid that now that I knew of this injunction from Allah subhanahu wata ala, if I died without obeying it, I would be accountable. But my father prevented me from wearing it.
I got married at seventeen, while I was still in grade eleven. I was still living under my father’s roof but now I was free to do what I wanted. My husband supported me wearing hijab, but somehow now it became difficult for me. I was leaving that school and Dundas in a few months. I thought I would wear hijab fresh when I moved to Toronto to be with my husband. But somehow I couldn’t stand it any more and two weeks before school ended, I began wearing it. Even though that same bully called me lice-mobile and said I wore the scarf to keep the lice in. I didn’t care any more. I’ve been wearing it ever since.
When I did move to Toronto, I changed so much. I was outgoing and confident. I was 18 when I graduated, and then I went on to two years of community college where I became a biological-chemical technician. I'm still married to the same man, and we have four children, three girls and a boy, and now four grandchildren, three girls and a boy.
Q: I wonder what do 2nd Muslim generation suffer from in Canada.
Rukhsana Khan: As I got older, I noticed more and more second generation Muslims leaving Islam, getting into trouble with alcohol, drugs and partying. It seemed to me that a lot of them did so because they believed all the negative things people were saying about Islam. They thought that perhaps they could find happiness and acceptance in a different lifestyle.
Some turn their backs on Islam without ever knowing what it really is. And of those who abandon it, some eventually make their way back.
I wanted to write stories that would show what it feels like to be Muslim, not just for those vulnerable youth, but stories that would appeal to a cross section of people.
You need to understand that many people use literature to experience another culture vicariously. Literature is a very powerful means of overcoming racial and ethnic obstacles.
The fact that my characters in my stories are Muslim, is often just part of the setting. Their faith influences the characters’ actions, and yet the characters act in ways anyone can relate to.
And in writing such stories, perhaps Muslim youth, who are struggling to forge an identity for themselves, can see themselves reflected and validated, and perhaps they will feel strong enough to maintain their Islamic identity.
I do know that Muslim kids who’ve read Muslim Child have found in that book stories they could laugh at and relate to, and often, they will reread the book over and over and over again.
Q: You presented a speech titled "Freedom of Speech Versus Cultural Sensitivity: Balancing the Right to Create Freely vs. the Need of People to be Respected" at the 2008 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) World Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, could you elaborate on IBBY?
Rukhsana Khan: IBBY stands for International Board on Books For Young People, it’s a worldwide organization that celebrates children’s literature and has members from over 65 different countries.
Every two years they hold congresses in different countries in the world. I was fortunate enough to present at the South African congress, and then when I heard that the congress would be in Copenhagen, I thought that it would be an excellent opportunity for me to address the whole Danish cartoon incident to an audience of representatives, that tend to be more open-minded.
I think that Muslims do themselves a disservice when we rant and rail about offensive things like the Danish cartoon incident.
Non Muslims, used to the ideas of freedom of speech, find it alarming to see violence come out of such outrage.
What that does is it confirms in their mind the stereotype that Muslims are a bunch of violent barbarians.
Instead it would be wiser to address such offensive actions with a calm and rational approach, and it doesn’t hurt to add a bit of clever humour.
That’s what I did with my plenary speech “Freedom of Speech vs Cultural Sensitivity: Balancing the Right to Create Freely vs. the Need of People to be Respected”.
The speech was so well received that I was asked to give it again at a conference in Vancouver, and again at the Canadian Library Association convention in Edmonton. In addition to the increased exposure, it was condensed and reprinted in the most prestigious journal of children’s literature in North America: The Horn Book.
In the speech I presented exactly how hurtful such attacks on the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are to ALL Muslims in the larger context of the expectation Western cultures have regarding the cultural assimilation of their minorities.
You can read the speech in its entirety here: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com/articles/Freedom%20of%20Speech.pdf
Q: You are a children's author and storyteller, How can stories help 2nd Muslim generation?
Rukhsana Khan: Stories are vital for second and third generation Muslims. They provide validation, information and entertainment, and they encourage the cross-pollination of ideas that I talked about in my Denmark speech.
Also, when second generation Muslims see literature that reflects themselves being validated in the form of awards and literary recognition in larger mainstream society, it helps to diffuse some of the anger and resentment they might feel from racial tension and bias they may have experienced.
Stories basically bring Muslim identity and culture into mainstream consciousness and consequently it helps to de-marginalize and hopefully de-radicalize Muslim youth by creating a more inclusive environment.
At the same time, for mainstream audiences it helps to demystify Muslims and promotes understanding.
Like it says in the last stanza of my title poem Muslim Child:
So then Muslim Child
Child of Peace
What do your bright eyes see?
I see that we’re each a piece of the puzzle of humanity
I’ll try to understand you, if you try to understand me.
Q: in your opinion how can stories help create some cross-cultural understanding?
Rukhsana Khan: When you read a really good story set in a different culture, you tend to immerse yourself so much in the story, so much in identifying with the main character, that as a result you can never look at people from that culture in the same way again.
Basically stories reach past the superficial differences of gender and race and religion and touch the humanity in each of us.
Q: What about the most important subtle reminders of how assimilation is transformed from generation to generation?
Rukhsana Khan: I remember a teacher once telling me that no matter how hard an immigrant community tries, by the third generation they will be completely assimilated.
(I talk about this incident in my Denmark speech.)
I really resented it when he said that. Like it was assumed that we’d just abandon our principles as if they were useless in light of Western wisdom and ideology instead of adapting our principles so that they made sense in Western context.
I do see second and third generation Muslims as different from their immigrant parents.
They do often have a sense of patriotism towards their nonMuslim homeland. I know I do, and I’m not even second generation. Technically I’m an immigrant because I was born in Pakistan, but I have a deep abiding love for Canada.
Canada has been very kind to me.
What has been happening instead of this idea of assimilation for many Muslims like myself is that it has caused me to reexamine what Islam really is. And in this reexamination I discovered that a lot of the worst stuff that Western media picks up on, such as the rampant misogyny in Muslim cultures, actually isn’t part of Islam at all. It was introduced as part of cultural baggage, something I call patriarchal corruption.
I went back to the source of Islam and took a hard look at the Quran and sunnah and found that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was very kind to women. Yes they do not have the same place and role in society as men, but they are respected and treated with dignity and equivalence, the prayers and ibadat of women is just as valid as men, and that meant a lot to me.
Coming from Pakistani culture, with its inherent superstitions and such, I was able to discard these and instead adopt what I like to think is a better representation of Islam that the Prophet (peace be upon him) actually preached.
If I were still in Pakistan I might never have bothered to learn from the primary sources. I might have just taken the word of some maulvi sahib who’s spouting off what he thinks and doesn’t know.
So my Islam has changed, and in the change I find no basic conflict with Canadian principles of law. I can be a good Muslim and a good Canadian.
And the good aspects of Canadian culture are something I can adopt and incorporate in my life and the negative aspects are things I can leave.
Basically being an immigrant has made me a more conscious Muslim.
Q: "Muslim Child is a collection of short stories and information designed to introduce children to Islam. Every story begins with brief writings from the Quran, or sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and is designed to teach the basic tenets of the faith. In each tale, a child copes with a conflict or problem related to the faith . . ." could you elaborate on Muslim Child?
Rukhsana Khan: I wrote Muslim Child to basically answer a lot of questions that non-Muslims might have about Islam but were too shy and polite to ask.
I decided to design the book so it covered the five pillars of Islam and the other basics. I didn’t do a story about the first pillar of Islam Iman/belief, because that would be too preachy. I wanted the stories to be non-preachy and more informative. Yes the children in all the stories are Muslim but I’m not out to proselytize.
So the first story is about the second pillar of Islam, salat/prayer. I wanted the stories to be funny and engaging even as they informed people about the religion so I made the story about a boy who’s praying Fajr prayer and in the middle of the prayer he’s got a big problem! He’s got to fart!
In some of my presentations I relate the Fajr story to audiences from the age of seven years old to eighteen and adult. Universally the audience whether they’re kids or adults find the way that Jamal, the boy in the story, tries so desperately not to fart, hilarious.
So while they’re enjoying the story, the audience is learning that Muslims pray five times a day, that before we pray we have to make wudu/ablution and if we fart or go to the bathroom it nullifies the wudu/ablution and we have to go back and pray again.
It is actually a story about spiritual awakening and is probably the funniest story in the whole book.
Muslims love it and non-Muslims love it!
The second story is about Islamic dress. The third story is about sawm/fasting, the fourth story is about Eid. The fifth story is about zakat/charity. The sixth story is about halal and haram (what’s lawful and prohibited) and I dealt with this where a kid buys some candy that has haram/unlawful ingredients in it. The seventh story introduces the idea of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the historical aspect of Islam by relating the story of Abraha and the elephant. The last story is about a boy named Bilal who gets lost at Hajj.
One mainstream reviewer referred to Muslim Child as a primer on Islam because basically after reading it, you get an idea of what all of Islam is really about.
Q: Muslim Child provides a useful and interesting introduction to Islam for non-Muslim children, have any of non-Muslim children read it?
Rukhsana Khan: Absolutely! I often sell copies to non-Muslim parents and children who are interested in learning about Islam.
Q: I know now you seek to engage youngsters in learning about Islam and the everyday lives of Muslim children around the world for the purpose of teaching greater tolerance and understanding. Could you tell us some about you great efforts?
Rukhsana Khan: One of the best things about being a Muslim author and storyteller is that I get to visit about eighty schools a year.
Not only do I make a good living doing what I do, but alhamdu lillah, my work is something that insha Allah will earn me reward for the next world and when I am in my grave.
My intention is not to convert, but to entertain, inform and also to teach. All of my stories have a good moral and lesson in them, but I try to incorporate the lesson in a gentle way so that it’s part of the story, not tacked on in a didactic manner.
Q: In one of your great stories, a young American Muslim grumbles about having to wake before dawn for the morning prayer and then spends a good deal of his energy during the prayer trying to suppress a fart, which will render the prayer ritually unclean. How can you explain Islam to non-Muslim children?
Rukhsana Khan: I talked about that earlier. This is an EXCELLENT story to share with non-Muslims!!! Everyone in the world knows what it feels like to suppress a fart, so everyone in the world can relate to the boy’s dilemma! It humanizes Muslims and pokes a little fun at ourselves while at the same time elucidating a major part of Islam—the prayer.
Q: How should Prophet Muhammad be shown to others in west especially in Canada?
Rukhsana Khan: I think the best way to show Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is by really embodying his teachings and not just giving lip service to them.
Then when westerners might ask you why are you so kind and patient, you can say that I try to be like the Prophet (peace be upon him).
What Muslims have to understand is that westerners do not judge Islam by what Muslims say. And they do not judge the Prophet (peace be upon him) by what we say of him, but rather they judge Islam and the Prophet (peace be upon him) by how his followers behave.
If we behave like a bunch of violent lunatics they will assume that this is what Islam teaches and what the Prophet (peace be upon him) taught.
It’s not fair. But that’s the way it is.
Christianity is not judged by what Christians do.
Judaism isn’t judged by what Jews do.
But then look at both of those faiths/cultures and you’ll see it’s because there are plenty of stories about them so that we know intrinsically that there are good Christians and bad Christians, good Jews and bad Jews.
We need more stories to show that it’s the same with Muslims and Islam.
Q: Could you elaborate on sacrifices, tolerate and all kinds of insults that still face Muslim?
Rukhsana Khan: I’m sure every Muslim in the west can relate a story about being insulted and the challenges that still face Muslims.
There are places in America where Muslims are downright scared to display any aspect of their faith.
Instead I prefer to focus on the positives.
The fact is when I was growing up I never imagined that I could be published and win awards in Canada and elsewhere as a Muslim author and travel around the world and have all kinds of people enjoy my stories! The Canada I grew up in was not that open-minded!
When I’m in any airport and it’s time to pray, I feel no fear whatsoever in just spreading my jacket or sweater and praying in a corner of an airport lounge.
Nobody’s ever disturbed me or bothered me in any way.
Canadians and many Americans too, try to be tolerant and I find that most of them are genuinely interested in living peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.
That’s what I try to focus on.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much. It is so interesting.
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