On the fault line: Reclaiming hybrid identities positioned at the boundaries of inside/outside


  • Momina Kahn University of Saskatchewan
  • Debbie Pushnor


Objectives: The barbarity in Paris, Sydney, and Ottawa has raised critical questions regarding the role of educational institutions in shaping an increasingly pluralistic society. Using autobiographical narrative inquiry methodology as a Muslim-Canadian parent raising four children, I examine the role of educational institutions in the lives of Muslim Canadian students. Why is it that whenever my Muslim Canadian children learn of inhumane incidents going on around the world, instead of their hearts beating in sadness and lament, they race in curiosity towards finding out who committed the incidents? Why does “who” matter more than “why” or “how”? How may this result from the “who” weighing heavily on the conscience of Muslims who feel they are expected to justify the actions of fundamentalists? My 20 year old daughter, who first set foot on Canadian soil at age three, asked me a question with angry tears in her eyes the morning of the tragedy in Paris, "What should we do as Canadian Muslims?” Will I have to answer this question alone, as a parent? What is the role of the school in this? Where does my knowledge as a minority parent stand on the school landscape? The main objective of this paper is to explore possibilities of shared hope and responsibility. How might we envision a future in which a more holistic approach to the inclusion of multiple narratives, identities, realities, perspectives, and practices is embraced in educational institutions?

Research Context: Since 9/11, Muslims in the Western world have been portrayed as dangerous, “ideologically represented as a threat” (Sirin & Fine, 2007, p.151). When religious identity and interconnected cultural identity is the subject of stereotypes and discrimination, adjustment to a new culture can be affected (McBrien, 2005; Mosselon, 2009). Learners whose “cultures had been discounted and marginalized” (Williams, 2008, p. 511) “often devalue their own experiences believing that their cultural and linguistic identities must be forfeited once they enter the classroom” (Griffiths, 2014, p. 107). Adolescence is a significant period in which youth negotiate their identities, situated in complicated power relationships and sociohistorical contexts of local and global spaces (Erikson, 1985). During this time, youth experience tensions between how they define themselves and how they are represented by their families, immediate communities, and the broader society (Ajrouch, 2004). As schools often fail to integrate critical understanding of religious diversity, they may be unwelcoming places for Muslim youth (Salili & Hoosain, 2014).

Discussion: A generation of students growing up in the 21st century is confronted daily with issues of cultural diversity, identity crisis, and acculturation conflicts. Extremism, a disruption of balance, and its link to Muslim identity has posed serious concerns about the role of educational institutions in the lives of Muslim Canadian students. Anti-Muslim voices are raised around the world, not only in European nations but North American countries as well. The reaction towards Islam, a misunderstood religion, and toward Muslims has been propagandized through media, movies, art, and cartoons. This increasing reaction and tension is leading to serious divisions in societies. The resulting identity crisis that Muslims are facing has presented some blatant challenges, particularly to Muslim youth born and raised in Western society. To understand the way in which immigrants, newcomers, and their children build their lives and identities in a new society requires a conception of integration as something more than a simple notion of a ‘cultural Mosaic,’ a notion predicated upon nicely fitting pieces of multiple sizes, colors, and shapes. In contrast, growing up between two cultures, balancing cultural identities and a sense of belonging, is a highly complex process. Sirin & Fine (2007) wrote that when one’s identity is fiercely contested by the dominant discourse, either through formal institutions, social relationships, and/or the media, one of the first places we witness psychological, social, and political fallout is in the lives of young people. Through examining the liminal nature of my children’s identity, I raise questions about who is represented in schools and who is marginalized, whose knowledge counts and whose knowledge is silenced. Responding to this identity crisis is a matter of narrative ethics; it is about attending to people’s stories, stories of personal identity and the complexity of a collective identity, as core curriculum in educational institutions.

Methodology: Through autobiographical narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000), I examine my stories of my Canadian ‘born and raised’ children’s experiences of identity struggles in ongoing attempts to integrate. Everyday my children live in intense liminality as holders of dual identities, languages, and cultures, juxtaposed against a social story of Canadian classroom teaching and learning. My children’s experiences with school challenge the dominant institutional narrative thus opening a space of inquiry. As a minority parent researcher, I tell and analyze my fluid and densely woven stories of my children’s growing up between two cultures in order to learn from these narratives and realize their educative potential for myself and for others.

Research Significance: Muslim Canadian students often deal with a ‘home culture’ and a ‘school culture,’ thus leading double lives which pose a serious threat to their sense of self and sense of belonging to the place and people. When educators employ “approaches that transcend local and national borders and recognize flexible ways of belonging” (Oikonomidoy, 2009), they are positioned to disrupt the dichotomies of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘home culture’ and ‘host culture,’ and create spaces that comfort a multitude of hybrid identities (Scente & Hoot, 2007). This research is critical because “the silence of thoughtful people creates a vacuum filled by extremists” (Wheatley, 2007). Through this research, I open channels for constructive dialogue between parents, educators, and community members to “begin to question underlying epistemologies, challenge the status quo, and value and build upon the funds of knowledge intrinsic to the home environments of students, in order to counteract the barriers to effective home-school relationships that plague the school system (Overstreet, 2014, p. 20).