A Winner Among Us

Muslim Canadian author Monia Mazigh receives the 2021 Ottawa Book Award for her novel “Farida”

By Shima Khan (BYLINE)

September/October 2022

 Monia Mazigh, a Muslim Canadian academic and author, was awarded the 2021 Ottawa Book Award for her novel “Farida,” the story of a Tunisian woman’s struggle under her homeland’s patriarchal system. 

Her work is a refreshing change of pace compared to other forms of activist novels. The story follows Fatma and Jouda and their perspectives as the timeline moves forward. It’s a statement of women who have rarely been portrayed, but nevertheless explains how the domination of men has evolved and changed over the last 80 years. 

Tunisian-born and -raised Mazigh, an extremely passionate human rights activist and educator, writes about life there, how women are treated and what they want. “I started writing in 2008. This is where I began writing a memoir about what happened to my husband,” relates Mazigh, speaking about her history with writing and how she began. “After I published my memoir [“Hope and Despair”], I started writing my novels. I wrote my first memoir: ‘Mirrors in Mirages.’” 

Her husband, Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual Syrian-Canadian citizenship who has resided in Canada since 1987, was detained during a layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Sept. 2002 on his way home from a family vacation in Tunis. U.S. officials claimed that he had links to al-Qaeda. Arar was later “rendered” to Syria, where he remained incarcerated under extreme conditions until 2003. He returned to Canada in 2004.

For “Farida,” she wanted to write something that reflected different realities. Mazigh maintains that women don’t have to be submissive and wants the world to know this fact. Thus, she wants to paint a different picture. 

Currently, the book is only available in French. It will be available in English in 2023. “I want to appeal to the general public,” she states. “I don’t write for a specific group of people. I have a story I want to share. Once it is out there, anyone can read it.”

“Farida” tries to “open the window” on Muslimas. “I don’t pretend to represent Muslim women as they are. However, I want to bring that perspective to my stories — the diversity of Muslim women and being who they are. Most of the time they are put in a box.” She aims to change people’s view of Muslimas and show their strength. Her pride in Islam, as well as in the people alongside her who want to end patriarchy’s unfair rule, pulls her writing together into a beautiful story. 

Her book changes perspectives and has a generational jump after part one. When asked about her fragmented writing style, she says that as an author, she “would like to test something and discover a new style.” 

She enjoys the idea of different narrators approaching a story, as the same event can be described completely differently by each one. Depending on each individual’s situation, his/her perspective changes. Viewing the same story through different lenses is something that she likes to explore. As for the generational gap, she likes to see the impact of time psychologically on her characters. “To see the change is amazing and beautiful. The evolution of society is very important to capture.”

While an ambitious novel, it does carry important messages and opportunities for people to see inside and understand the mind of a Muslima being held down by patriarchy. This tale, which subtly delivers these ideas while clarifying the line between culture and religion, depicts the breaking of a traditionally patriarchal world as it shifts into a new world through the narrators’ thoughts and imagery. Showing the world that there is more depth and fluidity to Muslimas while confirming that Islam isn’t ruled by a patriarchal mindset, Monia Mazigh truly opens the window into Islam and a Muslima’s mind. 

Talking about the significance of the Ottawa Book Award to her, she says it is a “great encouragement” to her writing.

 As an academic, university instructor and human rights activist, she finds it extremely symbolic that her hard work is being recognized appropriately. “To be recognized for some sort of merit and what I’m doing — for me, it’s a great support to continue working and bring more stories.” When asked if she’s looking forward to winning more awards, she replies, “Absolutely. I think I really work hard to improve my writing and reach new readers. However, I am not writing for the award. I am writing for the readers. If it comes, it comes.”

Reham Fahad is a student at Naperville Central High School, Naperville, Ill.

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