Providing Muslim Women with Support and Advice: Canada’s First Help Line for Muslim Women

Last week, the Toronto Star reported on the first helpline in Canada specifically for Muslim women. The project stems from the Women’s Resource Centre, which is part of the Mercy Mission organisation. At the moment, this program is only available in Ontario, specifically in the Toronto area.

Noor Javed, the author of the article, interviewed Sabah Kazmi, the centre’s program director, who describes that she realized that Muslim women were in need for someone to talk to. Despite the fact that one can find numerous help lines throughout Canada, Kazmi explains that Muslim women were looking for a space that respected and understood their faith and culture.

The helpline was launched last October and it is meant to be a peer-counselling service but not a crisis line.  The volunteers are women from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, who have received professional training in counselling. The program has been quite successful and receives numerous calls.

As Javed’s article explains, the idea of the program has received support from Alia Hogben, the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, who “says such a service, if done professionally, fills a vital need in a community where women often struggle to find support at their local mosques.”

Yet Hogben is also skeptical of the program, as she explains the centre should be very specific on its purpose, mission and values as they will have an impact on the kind of advice given and received. She points out,

“I think it’s important for people to know: What is their philosophy? Is it non-judgmental? People who are calling are already very hard on themselves.”

Nonetheless, Kazmi asserts that the program’s aim is to be there for Muslim women who need to talk, not to preach.  She explains that the line is there to support women and advice is not always part of the call; if callers specifically ask for “an Islamic point of view on a topic,” Kazmi explains that such a view will be provided, but always followed up with questions like “What do you think about that? How does it make you feel?”

An ad for the Muslim Women’s Helpline. Via Muslim Fest 2012 Facebook page.

Despite the challenges, I think the idea of a help line that is meant to address Muslim women’s concerns will be an asset to Muslim communities in Canada, and I am hoping for it to soon expand to other areas. A program like this may also support a broader fight to address issues of domestic violence in Muslim communities in Canada, which I discussed last December in another post.

Nonetheless, I also recognize the risks that Hogben has pointed out. Since there is not a lot of information regarding the kind of “Islamic” points of view that the organization endorses (Islamic precepts are often not monolithic and different opinions exist), I would be interested in hearing the kind of advice that volunteers offer to issues of domestic violence, same-sex-relationships, interfaith relationships, pre-marital sex, etc. I would also be curious about the kind of support that is available through the helpline for lesbian Muslims, abused women or Muslim women in interfaith relationships.

While I think that asking “how does that make you feel?” is an important question in the process of reconciling faith and daily life, I wonder to what extent this question brings along understanding and acceptance, instead of an attempt to hold women to normative ideas of “Muslimness” and gender.

Yet, I have hope. Although this is not completely similar, Canada has already seen organizations like Catholic Social Services delivering programs, support and advice not only to Catholics, but to a broad range of people of all faiths and ethnicities. However, organizations like this tend to emphasize their non-judgemental and pro-human rights approaches.

I believe that with a clearer mandate, a non-judgemental approach and a willingness to recognize a variety of opinions in regards to Islamic issues, this centre can fill a gap in our communities by enabling Muslim women to access advice and support networks in times of distress and uncertainty.

  • anneke

    Eren. I am a bit familiar with Mercy Mission, and I have found them to be, even though they try very hard to be open minded, to be a bit more on the conservative side. I am worried therefore a bit about the “Islamic advice”. While I agree that a helpline of this sort is an asset to this society, I share your concerns whether or not the more “challenging” issues concerning sexuality, domestic violence and interfaith relationships will be met with the same respect and support as, say, issues concerning prayers, finding the right partner etc.etc.

  • http://www.thesalafifeminist.blogspot.com The Salafi Feminist

    I have to say that the “skepticism” that exists regarding this helpline is most likely because Mercy Mission is a branch of the Al-Kauthar Institute, which is unashamedly conservative – and I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as the ‘conservative’ advice will be given with wisdom and by experienced experts.

    The stereotype exists that the ‘conservative’/’orthodox’/’Salafi’ organizations such as alMaghrib, alKauthar, etc. are just another facade for disapproving mullah-types, but the truth is that they are also working hard to address issues such as poverty, sexuality, domestic violence, and so on.
    Some may not be happy about the values they espouse (e.g. engaging in pre- or extra-marital sexual relations, as well as homosexual relations, is haraam), but that doesn’t mean that their genuine efforts to address major issues within Muslim communities should be criticized because of their conservative stances.

    I for one am quite happy that they have started this helpline, and pray that it is successful and beneficial for all Muslims who need help and advice.
    I also hope that they’ll be able to expand their program to include services such as those offered by SOLACE in the UK (http://www.solaceuk.org/).

    BTW Canada has another Muslim helpline as well, which originated in B.C. but is available nation-wide. It also provides international services depending on the situation of the callers. (www.ajyal.ca/ajyalcms/index.php?section=5)

    • Sobia

      I don’t think anyone said that there was something wrong with them being conservative – just that they need to make it explicit that they are approaching Islam from a conservative perspective so that callers know what they’re getting into when they call.

      I think the helpline is great for those who fall in the group of Muslims who would feel most comfortable calling them (i.e., conservative Muslims). For the rest of us, we may need to start another helpline.

  • http://muslimahwalkingaround.wordpress.com/ Eren Cervantes

    Thanks for your comment Sobia! As mentioned in the post, I am wondering myself where they fall in the spectrum of Islamic views. I think that’s quite important to clarify. Once that’s done, there might be a number of Muslim women who are interested in receiving advice and help in particular ways. I think that at the end of the day the important part is having a supportive and non-judgmental helpline. That way many more Muslim women will be able to use it. Conservative does not necessarily mean judgmental, and I am hoping the helpline is emphasizing this. Let’s remain hopeful!

    • http://www.thesalafifeminist.blogspot.com The Salafi Feminist

      “I think that at the end of the day the important part is having a supportive and non-judgmental helpline. That way many more Muslim women will be able to use it. Conservative does not necessarily mean judgmental, and I am hoping the helpline is emphasizing this.”

      I absolutely agree.

      I think it would be interesting to get a follow-up article on the helpline, say in a few months or so, to find out the response to it.

  • sharrae

    Eren, its great that you covered this new helpline. It would be interesting to know if they have a plethora of Islamic views amongst those who are providing supportive care to those who call in. I can imagine the harm that can potentially be done if women who identify with more progressive views of Islam as well as more conservative views to be shamed by the supporter. Both conservative and more liberal–two words I don’t think are very reflective of what I’m trying to say, should be able to have access to support that best fits their needs.

  • Saf

    In terms of Mercy Mission and Al-Kauthar, I don’t know if it’s too much of a leap to reference some really unfortunate and intellectually dishonest things I have heard one of their scholars purport (Bilal Ismail), although their website says he comes from a religious TJ family. A lot of the scholars are also trained at the University of Madinah, which exposes many conservative and anti-woman views. But yeah, it might be a leap to go from 1 dude in Al-Kauthar to this helpline. I pray it is beneficial and accessible but it’s definitely needed!

  • Saf

    *sorry espouses, not exposes!


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