Returning Home for Women’s Rights
Any first-generation Canadian knows the difficulty of reconciling our ancestry with our daily lives, and that process becomes even more complex when the homeland in question is as hotly contested as Iraq. Born in Canada to migrants fleeing the conflict with Iran in the 70s, Samer Muscati has most recently assumed the position of Director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, but his commitment to equality and social change has taken him to many countries in many roles.
Muscati describes his career as a constant pursuit of advocacy and engagement, beginning with an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and working as a journalist before graduating from U. of T.’s J.D. program in 2002. “Growing up I’ve always felt a need to fight for justice,” he explains, “And I think part of that is my family’s background, having been in Iraq and seeing what happens in authoritarian society, but also… having grown up in Canada with the privileges that I’ve had.” Journalism served as a stepping stone, “a vehicle for engaging with public opinion and changing minds”, and an education in law seemed like the next logical step as a means of social change. Originally intending to pursue environmental law, Muscati eventually gravitated towards human rights and from there to a focus on women’s rights and the unique abuses and issues therein. “Women’s rights have always been a very important part of the struggle, and I’ve had a very strong influence from my own mother, in terms of her fighting for gender equality.”
Much of Muscati’s work in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion dealt with preserving “space” for women in society, as gender issues were not a major priority amidst the prevailing destabilization. As the first male researcher in the 12-year history of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, he was understandably nervous to take on such a role, but was eager to leverage his privilege to take the message to men who would otherwise be resistant – “we’re part of the problem, we have to be part of the solution – all over the world, and in Canada as well,” he explains.
Returning to Iraq to engage in such critical work was daunting for Muscati, but also difficult for his parents, who had never returned since they immigrated to Canada. “I think they were proud that I was trying to make a difference, and for them of course they understood why I wanted to go back – but the whole point of coming here was [so that] I wouldn’t be at risk.” Despite past work in similar areas of instability such as northeast Nigeria and East Timor, Iraq resonated more strongly as a place of both nostalgic attraction and of danger, weighted with Muscati’s family history. And his work now, with the IHRP, is helping to prepare the next generation of human rights activists to pursue their passion for justice. His advice to Canadian Arab and other diaspora youth looking to follow in his footsteps? “The best way to do it is to focus locally first; in our community in Canada there’s an enormous amount that needs to be done, if you look at what’s happening to indigenous women and girls… Charity begins at home first.”
Muscati and his wife, also an advocate for human rights, and their two newborn girls will be calling Toronto home for the immediate future, but he recognizes the inevitability of a return to Iraq both for himself and for the twins. “Based on their genes, if they’re anything like me, they’ll probably find their way back there – it would be my wish to take them back, I just hope that by the time they’ve grown up we find the peace and the stability we so desperately need in that region.”