Maryam Monsef Came To Canada As A Refugee. Now, She's A Cabinet Minister.
Maryam Monsef is sworn in as the minister of democratic institutions on Wednesday.
Canada’s newest democratic institutions minister is a 30-year-old woman who fled Afghanistan with her widowed mother and two sisters when she was a child.
Maryam Monsef is the new MP for the bellwether Ontario riding of Peterborough–Kawartha. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elevated her to his 31-member cabinet — making her the youngest minister and the fourth-youngest ever.
Monsef was born in Afghanistan and raised in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border. She lost her father when she was a toddler and both her sisters were under the age of two. Her mother was in her 20s. No one knows for certain what happened to her father, Monsef told The Huffington Post Canada Tuesday in a phone interview from Peterborough.
“The most we know is he was caught in a crossfire between the border of Iran and Afghanistan,” she said.
Years earlier, before she was born, she said, her uncle had been abducted from his dorm room at Kabul University. A third-year pharmaceutical student, he was politically vocal and had been heard making anti-communist remarks on a bus, she said.
“That night, his dormitory was invaded, and he and his housemates were taken and never to be seen or heard from again,” she said. “I think that was an important wake-up call for the family.”
Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef flanked by her sister Mehrangiz and mother Soriya Basir on the left and sister Mina on the right.
Monsef’s childhood was spent moving between Afghanistan and Iran.
“That is why the opportunity that I have now matters so much more. Because you can come from such a history … [and] have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process that affects people’s lives so deeply. What a great honour that is, and what an incredible privilege.”
The Soviet invasion had ended up on Afghans’ doorsteps, and, like many others, Monsef’s family crissed-crossed the border hoping the conflict would end, she said. Her mother made a living cooking, cleaning, sewing and knitting, with some support from Monsef’s uncles.
“It’s not a dignified way of living,” the new MP told HuffPost. Her mother also taught English in their home and sometimes in a school, she added. “But that wasn’t enough to sustain her, because the Taliban didn’t support women or their education.”
'... brought up with so much love'
Her mother tried to “make life work” while in Iran, but her family wasn't welcome there. Other kids teased her and her sisters. As illegal refugees, she said, they also lived under the constant threat of deportation.
“I will tell you that we didn’t know that we were poor. We didn’t know that we didn't have a future. We were brought up with so much love and so much support…. We thought we had it all, and we didn’t feel a void of a father figure, because my grandfather filled that role for us.”
In 1996, her mother chose to leave her support system and her culture behind to come to Canada. The journey, Monsef recalled, involved donkeys, camels, and airplanes. It took her through Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan, she said, and all the while, she and her sisters had chickenpox.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef and her mother Soriya Basir during the federal election campaign.
The family claimed refugee status when they arrived in Canada, ending up in Peterborough, where Monsef’s uncle lived. She was 11.
“The grass is green, there are 40-something of bodies of water surrounding Peterborough, and people were nice and smiling, and there were robins out. I’d never seen a robin before.”
She described it as a “hardship” adapting to the new country. She was homesick and didn’t understand English. Everything was culturally foreign — even the housing. She laughs when describing going through puberty and trying to fit in her new home.
Several community groups and social services helped her family integrate and provided a safety net, including the food bank, the Salvation Army, the New Canadians Centre, Casa Maria Refugee Homes and the YWCA. She still volunteers at Casa Maria and the Y, she said.
“The volunteers and the neighbours … came into our lives and made us feel like we weren’t alone … that we had a community … that it was going to be OK, [and] that we belonged there,” she said. “Twenty years later ... that kindness stays with me, and I hope that as a member of Parliament, I can repay some of that through my service.”
The single politician likes to joke that she’s “married” to Peterborough.
Maryam Monsef poses on Parliament Hill on Oct. 27.
In 2014, at 29, Monsef ran unsuccessfully to be mayor of Peterborough. On Oct. 19, after knocking on 70,000 doors, she rode the Liberal wave and was elected as a first-time MP.
But her big job begins Wednesday, after she is sworn in as a Privy Council member, and attends her first cabinet meeting.
Monsef didn’t ask for the democratic institutions portfolio and seemed surprised to be given it. In an interview, she spoke more passionately about women’s issues, pay equity and violence against women than she did about changing the way senators are appointed or reforming the electoral system.
“Living in a democratic system is a gift,” she told HuffPost. “Democratic reform is a big and ambitious agenda that goes across many policy areas,” she said, promising to speak more about it later.
For now, Monsef is content to represent Peterborough federally. And her mother is very proud of her.
“All that hard work, all that sacrifice; it’s meant something.”
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Katie Hnida fought plenty of battles when she made history as University of Colorado Boulder football's first female place kicker in the early 2000s. But the most enduring match of her career took place years after she left the gridiron and came out as a sexual assault survivor.
"It was a different world in terms of social media, and I think it was a good thing for me," Hnida told Mic of her playing days, which ended in 2004. "When I spoke out about being assaulted and my rape at CU, it was just unbelievable backlash I faced."
Hnida said the rape occurred in 2000. She transferred to the University of New Mexico a year later. But she went public with her story in 2008, at a moment when social media companies, notably Twitter and Facebook, exploded in popularity and she was exposed to unprecedented online harassment. But that growth also saw something more pernicious grow alongside it: more gendered harassment faced by women online.
"The rape threats are always the worst, the ones where somebody says to you, 'You deserve to be raped' or 'I would rape you too,'" Hnida said. "Being a survivor, that's the tone a lot of these trolls will take with women, and it's very disturbing to see that that's the route they often go."
The online harassment women face is a well-told story. In 2014, it bubbled to the surface of mainstream media with the GamerGate controversy, in which several high-profile women in the gaming industry spoke out about sexism and faced a barrage of coordinated online harassment, including rape and death threats. More recently, the popular music festival South by Southwest canceled two panels focused on talking about online harassment in the gaming community after receiving "numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming." The decision prompted outrage and an exodus of participants and sponsors, including BuzzFeed and Vox Media, which led festival director Hugh Forrest to quickly reinstate both panels. "By canceling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry," Forrest wrote in a statement.
But the sports world is an altogether different beast, according to the women who depend on it for their livelihoods. It's a male-dominated space in which even the best female athletes are openly body-shamed and subtle sexism is the norm. Legendary University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemmasuggested in 2012 that women's basketball might be more entertaining if officials lowered the rims. That was roundly criticized by female basketball players. "When we're done making all those changes to 'improve' women's basketball, we'll end up with a product that looks a lot like it did in the 1950s, when women played a half-court game in skirts inside empty gyms, trying desperately not to sweat," ESPN's Kate Fagan wrote at the time.
But online, the harassment faced by women who dare to speak out about anything deemed remotely political is venomous. When WNBA superstar Brittney Griner came out as a lesbian shortly before being drafted in 2013, she was subjected to repeated online threats and charges that she "looked like a man." The abuse was so bad in college that her coach pleaded for it to stop in the media. (It's remained bad as Griner's private life has become public; she was arrested earlier this year for domestic violence after an altercation with her then-fiancée Glory Johnson.) The abuse is just as bad for women journalists who cover sports, as Julie DiCaro wrote recently inSports Illustrated, who described repeatedly being called a "whore" and "skank" by trolls.
Hnida, who is now a public speaker and advocate who speaks out about violence against women, knows all too well how bad the abuse can get. "From what I can see from females who work in sports media, there's definitely a specific kind of harassment," she told Mic. "I do think that it's a special brand of troll who targets women in sports and is uncomfortable with women being in sports and takes it out in really terrible ways."
Why online abuse happens: Online abuse happens because offline abuse does. Deanna Zandt, a digital strategist and author of the bookShare This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking, told Micthat online experiences can often mimic those in everyday, offline social interactions. "People think that we've got this blank canvas that's the Internet," Zandt said. "But instead of using it in these super transformative ways, we're just painting existing structures onto that canvas."
Human brains aren't build for handing the nuances of digital communication, Zandt said. Social neuroscience is an emerging field, but one that's already discovered some important clues about why people say things online that they might never actually say in offline life. When humans physically interact with one another, they're able to pick up on nonverbal clues — tone of voice, facial expression — that help them situate another person's words. When those clues are missing, the brain automatically processes that information in the amygdala, which activates our body's fight-or-flight responses. "If you see something on the Internet that doesn't quite sit well with you, your brain reacts thinking it's being chased by cheetahs," Zandt said.
Of course, not everyone responds with sexist vitriol, and the root causes of that hatred are deeply rooted in society. But on some level, there are answers. "Where the intervention can happen is to train one another, in the same way we've all been trained in phone manners," Zandt said.
Staying sane: Today's athletes walk a thin line between building their brands and staying safe online. Layshia Clarendon is a professional basketball player for the WNBA's Indiana Fever who is openly queer and deeply Christian. Her signature look — a multicolored mohawk and an assortment of bowties — is conspicuously not gender-normative. "It was just me being who I was," she told Mic of her look entering the league in 2013.
In August, Clarendon wrote a widely praised op-ed for the Player's Tribune on learning to reconcile her faith with her sexuality. "I identify as black, gay, female, non-cisgender and Christian," she wrote. "I am an outsider even on the inside of every community to which I belong. My very existence challenges every racial, sexual, gender and religious barrier."
She and her partner initially worried about the negative feedback, but it wasn't nearly as bad as they expected. "Religion and faith are the one issue where people get crazy and lose their minds," she told Mic. "But I was shocked at the amount of positive reactions I got."
She credits that to being very careful about how she engages online. "Because I carry social weight as an athlete, I may text friends if I'm really angry about stuff," Clarendon said. But whenever she engages online, "it's always trying to start a dialogue."
The experiences of female athletes online are as varied as the women themselves. But each one navigates cyberspace like a dark alley: carefully, methodically and, at times, reluctantly.
That's put pressure on social media companies to better protect their users. In 2014, Twitter unveiled a form that people could fill out to report online harassment. (The move was made in conjunction with Women, Action and the Media, of which the writer and Zandt are board members.)
"We have to recognize that there is no such things as a neutral platform," Zandt said. "We like to think Internet software is neutral because it's code, it's a machine and it's unbiased and these things just happen, but the code that we write is as biased as we are."
Jamilah King is a senior staff writer at Mic, where she focuses on race, gender and sexuality. She was formerly senior editor at Colorlines, an award-winning daily news site dedicated to racial justice. Prior to Colorlines, Jamilah was associate editor of WireTap, an online political magazine for young adults. She's also a current board member of Women, Action and the Media (WAM!). Her work has appeared on Salon, MSNBC, the American Prospect, Al Jazeera, The Advocate, and in the California Sunday Magazine. She's also a music junkie and an avid Bay Area sports fan.
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