In the late 1800s a woman named Nazla took a long ocean voyage from Beirut to America. Legend has it that she was from a moderately well-off family – that her father was a favourite of the Ottoman governor and raised camels as a livelihood.

She lost her voice due to some virus or trauma and had not spoken for months. When medical advice suggested that the climate in America would encourage her voice to return, it was decided that she would live with an uncle who had recently immigrated and settled somewhere in the mid-West. The voyage to America was a last resort. Doctors and specialists had already tried everything to cure her: from medications to burning her back with hot metal rods – trying to force her voice out with her screams.

Years later, her first-born daughter spent many nights rubbing the deep and painful scars with a soothing balm and listened intently as her mother spoke to her, trying to pass on a lesson she held tight to her breast: Take control of your own destiny.

Nazla was trapped the moment she arrived in America. Her uncle restricted her movements, withheld whatever money her father sent from abroad and never left her alone in the house. She soon made plans to escape. One afternoon after her uncle had gone to work, by chance his wife ran out for a quick errand. Nazla tore around the house looking for whatever cash she could find, grabbed her papers and left on the first train to Canada.

She settled in Indianhead, Saskatchewan.

While working as a seamstress, she fell in love with and married an Irish immigrant, but proudly kept her maiden name. They had children together and she lived a full and happy life, passing on her destiny-affirming lesson to her first-born daughter, and namesake.

This Nazla grew up on the Canadian Prairies and taught multiple grades in a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of the Saskatchewan Dust Bowl. Later during the War, she worked for the Department of Munitions and eventually joined a women’s rights group, moved to Ontario and started a campaign to support and encourage women to become self-sufficient through education and employment.

In the 1950s she helped put in place an annual career guidance conference that benefited nearly 10,000 Toronto high school girls over the span of 20 years. She made such an impression that a local newspaper described her as “the business girl who sits in on more women’s group meetings than any other Canadian woman.”

Nazla never forgot her mother’s lesson, and was quoted as saying that when women only buy into the stereotype that someone will take care of them, “they become neglectful of their own future.”

I was an impressionable and imaginative child when Nazla, my great aunt, sat down with me and told me stories of my great grandmother and of her own escapades. I’m no longer sure how much of the tale to America is true or how many facts are fantastical elements and embellishments. But recently, I have been remembering both women more and more often. How each positively affected their world through individual action.

My heart and mind feel heavy and I’ve started to seriously worry about the future of the Muslim community. Every day there’s yet another story illustrating a near-global movement to isolate, ostracise and condemn Muslims.

Belgium just banned the burqa and it’s so normal now, that protests against the ban went over with barely a peep from English media. This week, Rep. Peter King is holding his third congressional hearings on the radicalisation of Muslims in America – this time focusing on Somali Americans. Unfortunately, more attention will probably be given to how on one hand, the hearings villainize all Muslims and on the other, that they prove Muslims are extremists. I doubt as much attention will be given to the good work that Somali communities are doing to fundraise for the famine in Somalia.

The media and right-wing populists are so preoccupied with painting Muslims as evil and other, jumping at their own shadows to prove a creeping Muslim plan of global domination, that a local story about prayer in public schools becomes a debate on the agency of menstruating teenagers and results in protests with placards that read: Islam should be reformed or banned.

Anti-Muslim sentiments have reached a point that at the moment of great suffering, the world immediately assumes Muslims are to blame. And when the true perpetrator is found, he’s labeled a “lone wolf,” an extremist acting on his own accord instead of being a part of a larger underground right-wing conspiracy. In the meantime, a #blamethemuslims hashtag trends on Twitter and the media debates whether or not Muslims are still to blame, simply because we exist.

In less than ten years, the lines between Muslims, extremists and terrorists have disappeared.

So I’m holding tight to my family lessons. I do not want to be neglectful of my future thinking that someone else will pass a law to stop the misappropriation of Islam, nor do I want to let my destiny to slip through my fingers because of the negative actions of a few individuals. Now more than ever, I want to lift up our social activists, celebrate our heroines, and denounce those who twist belief for their own purposes.

Ramadan, the holy month of fasting starts next week. It is a month to improve one’s character by encouraging healthy, positive habits intended to last an entire year or more. It is a month of charity, thankfulness, empathy, and recognition that many do not have the privilege to break their fast at sundown. Fasting can be a very humbling experience. This month especially, I will work toward actualising goodness and positivity within myself and my community in the hopes that my individual actions will help dispel myths and misconceptions that many have about Muslims and Islam.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings