Non-Conferenced December 9, 2014

Normally, I jump at the chance to speak at women’s conferences and participate in any way that will allow me to speak about my advocacy and organization around Women in sport. As a Muslimah living in the Toronto area, I have been very fortunate to be in a region that is bursting with female scholarship of varying degrees and community initiatives by intrepid women. There are tremendous organizations and groups that give nods to Muslim women and their expertise in journalism, health and wellness, social work,education, business, food– just to name a few. So much wisdom and experience masha’Allah.

Unfortunately, I had to respectfully withdraw from a conference that I had originally committed to. This post is in no way an attempt to shame organizers but continue a much-needed  conversation about communication, professionalism and expectations of ourselves and the wider community. I still believe that the organizers had good intentions but the manner in which the event was carried out was subpar.

This particular conference was advertised as a “Women’s Expo” with a a fashion show and bazaar with local vendors. I was contacted during the early summer and was given at least 3 months of notice and happily agreed to speak with a close friend on “Muslim women in sport”.

My contact was an acquaintance and was very excited and determined to not make this a “typical” conference. After one conversation with her, and her mentioning other potential and brilliant female speakers, I signed on.

As the date approached, I was asked for a bio that could be attached to conference materials and they sent out e-mails and e-flyers with our names and faces on them.

Understandably, conference organizers were using the brands of local women who were associated with the conference to draw in more women. I shared this information widely through my social media accounts. Their Facebook page announced ticket sale upwards of 800. I looked forward to the event and coordinated with my husband to accommodate our busy family schedule.

The first and most obvious issue for me arose with the announcement of the ‘Keynote Speaker’. As one of the presenters, I was less than thrilled to discover that at this conference for women the Keynote Speaker was…*wait for it*… a man.

Before I am accused of being sexist, I will explain why this is baffling. As mentioned, I live in Toronto. Point being, was it really necessary to invite a male speaker to a conference advertised as ‘for women only’?

I decided not to judge harshly until the conference was over. I had some friends email me and ask about why this was happening. My reply was simple and honest; I was not the organizer and that perhaps there was an element of expertise that they felt the Keynote Speaker had and could share.

But really?!? This area boasts some incredibly kickass Muslimahs and a multitude of female-run organizations and learning centres. In fact, a good chunk of the Muslimah Media Watch team lives in this region or only a few hours away.

The topic of highlighting Muslimah speakers and scholars  at Muslim conferences and spaces is not a new one. Krista wrote about the RIS conference a few years ago. In the five years since that review, there are now at least four female speakers presenting at this year’s RIS conference. Out of twenty.

Another factor contributing to organizational failure is ineffective communication.

Leading up to the conference weekend in November, my presentation was ready and although I was not given a specific time to present, I had my part all set up. I was presenting with a friend of mine who is a magnificent sports coach and healthy living educator. We spoke a few times and ironed out some things and were feeling confident.

As the conference dates drew closer, my excitement diminished and I began to realize that what I thought was a very well organized event would probably not end up being that. I only shared my opinions with a few close friends. But I decided to stay on board. The organizers were all women with families and obligations. Surely, I could offer 70 excuses!

My point-person called me and shared her frustrations. There was a group of female organizers and unfortunately, people’s opinions and ideas were getting lost. Voices went unheard. I can’t confirm that this is power politics but the old adage of “too many cooks spoil the broth” comes into mind.

Not only were the speakers (myself included) not provided with any tentative schedule, our contact person chose to walk away from the event herself due to constant frustration.

I consoled this woman who had invested so much time and money. I also suggested that perhaps, we could try again on a smaller scale.

Three days before the event, I received a frantic email from the “Conference Organizer” asking me to call or contact another organizer to find out my presentation time. I started laughing.

I replied to said “Conference Organizer” (whose name I still do not know)- and said due to the extreme delay and lack of communication I would not be able to participate. At all.

In my email, I also mentioned that I was extremely inconvenienced by the lack of information. I added I was even more disappointed with the fact that there were three male speakers.  I requested that they remove me from any marketing materials immediately. They did not.

Still, I wished them well on their endeavor.

To my knowledge, none of the speakers were being paid. I certainly was not. We were investing our time and energy, taking it away from our own families and treated with what I consider is disregard. We deserve clarity and organization for our time.

The conference went on. I heard negative reviews from almost everyone I asked. Vendors told me it was a waste of their registration and that there were hardly 50 participants. Some vendors are demanding some of their money be returned.  At the end of the weekend, the organizers were nowhere to be found.

Moving forward, I hope that the ‘conference organizers’ understand that the need for prioritizing female speakers is central, providing a schedule to participants ahead of time is necessary and communicating realistic attendance numbers to vendors is important so they can prepare adequately.

The conference was definitely not a disaster such as the now-famous International Muslimah Fashion Week debacle that my MMW colleague Afia wrote of.

But the once very-active Facebook page has not been updated since two days before the event. Nor were there any postings afterwards.

I am not writing this as a grand exposé. But I think offering support for ideas around organizations and planning is fair. Setting reasonable goals for ourselves is not a bad thing.

I applaud the women who attempted to put together a grand expo but I also will hold them responsible for the event. Perhaps, hearing the feedback from the attendees and speakers might not be a bad place to start next time. If there is a next time…

Having 70 excuses for fellow hardworking sisters is not the issue. We are a gifted community but those gifts are precious and not to be mistreated.  We should expect more from ourselves and each other. It is only by starting out on an efficient small scale and crossing all our “t’s” and dotting all our “i’s” that we can move forward.


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