This is a story about Muslim intolerance. It’s also a story about how dangerous it is for Muslim women to step out of line. Sooraya Graham wasn’t targeted by her parents or her brothers. Unlike Malala, she wasn’t living in a dangerous part of the world. Instead all this took place at a Canadian university.
Sooraya Graham wasn’t trying to criticize Islam. She was trying to criticize Western perceptions of how Muslim women live. And the behavior of Muslims proved those perceptions were right all along.
Unfamiliar pill bottles have become all too familiar to Sooraya Graham. Anti-depressants and anxiety medication have found a home in her life where they were previously unwelcome and unneeded.
Graham sits at home, wondering what she ever did to deserve such a fate.
Kamloops, the city she once called home, is now just a memory. While Graham wishes it were a more distant one, this memory remains very much at the forefront of her life. Living more than 800 kilometres from Kamloops is enough to remind her on a daily basis. Citing safety reasons, Graham requested her specific location not be revealed.
Apart from being uprooted and reliant on medications just to get by, Graham is also slowly giving up her religion, that until the past year, was an integral part of her.
All of this is a direct result of one innocent but provocative piece of artwork.
In March 2012¸Graham went through one of the most trying experiences any budding artist can experience.
Graham — a Canadian Muslim — was, at the time, a fourth-year fine arts student at Thompson Rivers University (TRU).
After composing a breath-taking photograph intended to foster a societal discussion about women — particularly Muslim women and the niqab, or face veil — Graham put her artwork on display as part of a class project for TRU fine arts professor Ernie Kroeger.
“I was trying to create a discussion point for Muslim women, for veiled women and to kind of just show light of how we are just normal women,” Graham said in a March 2012 interview in The Omega.
The reaction that followed was beyond anything she had ever imagined.
According to Graham, her artwork was stripped down from its display and taken away by then TRU World international student advisor, Sahar Alnakeb.
“They weren’t willing to give it to me if I was going to put it back on the wall,” Graham said in March 2012. “They were holding it hostage, I guess you could say.
“We’re always told that our voice is important and that we can say something with our art. It is shocking when someone tries to silence that.”
Alnakeb, also a female Muslim, left her business card on the wall in place of Graham’s work. She would eventually return the work to Graham, after which it would was put back on display. TRU also compensated Graham for damage to the piece.
Alnakeb would issue an apology to Graham via email.
“As an International Student Advisor I do apologize for removing your picture, at that time I was aiming to support my female Muslim students who have found it offensive [to] students but now I see it was a mistake. Sorry for the inconvenience,” was all that Alnakeb wrote to Graham on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.
That last part is very important. The offensiveness here did not come from Terry Jones. It came from a Muslim woman. The entire scam of Islamophobia is there to restrain criticism of Islam from both inside and outside Islam.
That is the most important thing to understand. Islamophobia and the constant claims of offensiveness are there to censor not only criticism of a religion but any behavior by members of that religion deemed offensive by Islamists.
“You know, that 15 minutes of fame, I wanted it to be literally 15 minutes and done,” Graham said. “I wanted the injustice to be solved because when Sahar did that, she pushed so many boundaries.”
After the story quieted down within the media, things did not follow suit in Graham’s life. She received death threats via email, hate messages were stuck on her car windshield and the front door to her home, the tail light on her car was broken and she was followed around campus by other Muslim students who disapproved of her art. She wasn’t comfortable going to, from or within school without travelling in a group.
“I didn’t feel safe on campus. I went to a counsellor and told her about it and I was stressed,” Graham said. “I tried to express it. But at the same time, I had no proof. They just said, ‘Oh, you’re just being paranoid.’”
Would the college have dismissed Graham as being paranoid if she were being threatened by Canadian conservatives? Unlikely. She would have had 24 hour protection.
Eventually, Graham’s parents would convince her to pick up and leave TRU and Kamloops. Not only was she leaving behind her city and her university, she was leaving behind four years of studies towards her fine arts degree, which she has still been unable to complete. Now she doesn’t even know if she wants to finish her degree and has come to the conclusion that she certainly does not want to pursue a career as an artist, as she once did.
As a direct result of the incident, Graham has found herself slowly losing touch with her religion, something that was once so important to her. She is no longer allowed to travel to places in the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Dubai due to the danger she faces after her artwork and story circulated the international Muslim community.
“As a Muslim, what do I do about Mecca? That’s gone for me now. Permanently,” Graham said. “It’s an R.E.M. song. I’m losing my religion. It’s changed me. At this time, maybe it’s a good thing.”
Left unsaid in the story is how big that controversy became and the Mecca connection and the Saudi presence on campus.
The Saudi Education Centre in Kamloops, which is funded by the Saudi Arabian government and provides support to Saudi students and their families, is taking issue with the photo.
“The artist didn’t approach the artwork let’s say in a very professional way that can state and can clarify the information and clarify the idea behind the picture,” said centre president Trad Bahabri.
The question is how deep the Saudi presence at Thompson Rivers University goes and how much that connection influenced the treatment of Soraya Graham.
A year ago Soraya Graham was talking about Niqabi rights.
Graham wears the niqab as a personal choice.
She believes that some people in Canada have the misconception that women who wear the niqab are somehow oppressed or forced into doing so. That is a part of what motivates her art.
“In a lot of Western media, you often see the veiled woman as oppressed, or as a fundamentalist, or this pacifistic woman,” Graham said. “And that’s not the case. I think it’s something that needs to be broken as a stereotype.”
But now Graham has discovered that there is no personal choice in Islam.