A portrait of Concordia’s communications professor, activist and author, Yasmin Jiwani. “[As an activist] you have to use whatever tools are available to you, and whatever access you have.” Feature photo by Mackenzie Lad.
Yasmin Jiwani is an activist, professor and author who advocates for women and marginalized communities
For over 15 years, Yasmin Jiwani has taught some of the most interesting classes the communications department has to offer; Media and Gender, Communication Colonialism, and Alternative Media, to name a few, bringing her colourful past as an academic and activist to the classroom. In fact, “activist” is a title she proudly holds, alongside a running list of distinctions she has accumulated throughout her career. But you won’t find Jiwani breaking windows or storming police lines, instead she prefers to harness the power of words to make an impact.
Jiwani said her research and advocacy on the subjects of intersectionality, media, and social oppression were motivated by her own experiences as an immigrant from Uganda, a woman and a person of colour growing up during a period of heightened racial tension in Canada. “I first went to a high school in Ontario where me and my sisters were the only girls of colour, and the racism was palpable,” she said. “We wouldn’t be included in anything, we wouldn’t be talked to.”
It was only after a cross-country move to Vancouver that Jiwani found the sense of community she lacked. “I ended up in a school that was 80 per cent immigrant kids, 60 per cent of those were the refugee kids that I had grown up with back home [in Uganda],” she said. “My school actually saved me, because there was all these kids that were people of colour, or marginalized, and who were also trying to find their way and so that became a kind of bedrock for me to build my sense of self on.”
She then began to channel her own experiences into a deliberate effort for social change. Jiwani got involved with a group called the Committee for Racial Justice, where she examined the way the media naturalized the racialized, gender-based violence she saw unfolding around her. “This became my way of countering the kind of racism I was experiencing. It became my sanity in an insane world.”
This initial act of personal empowerment was the catalyst to a career spanning over three decades. “Activism is the most powerful source of immunity against having a self that is constantly being eroded,” said Jiwani. In the years that followed, Jiwani earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of British Columbia, a master’s degree in sociology and PhD in communications at Simon Fraser University. A writer by trade and an activist at heart, Jiwani uses her personal skills and resources to address the gender and race disparities in the media, especially within the medium and industry of film.
Jiwani’s early media criticism took shape during her time working at the In Visible Colours Film Festival, a Vancouver-based initiative championing women of colour in film. “Seeing the kinds of stories that women who were marginalized were telling, those things gave me a lot of hope,” she said. At the 1991 Women in View festival, a non-profit organization supporting female filmmakers, Jiwani delivered one of her first lectures about the stereotyping of artists of colour in the media industry. “That’s how I got involved in that whole area,” Jiwani recalled. “Then commenting on films as well, and writing about them.”
From there, she held a position at the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada working for their Women’s Program alongside the renowned Studio D, the now defunct all-women filmmaking unit. “There were so many exciting things happening at that time,” Jiwani recalled. “Part of the women’s program was taking the films that were produced [at NFB] to all the rural nooks and crannies of British Columbia. So it was going into these places and organizing public screenings at the community centre or the public library, bringing filmmakers in, doing the media work around that.”
This kind of community outreach bridged the gap between her academic work and the communities she was writing about. She continued with her research at the Feminist Research Education Development and Action (FREDA) Centre. “My work in that place was to bring those communities in, and to work with them [while] doing participatory action research on how gendered violence takes a particular form in racialized communities,” she explained. “The dominant society confines this kind of experience and culturalizes it, instead of looking at its gendered dimensions.” After seven years at FREDA, where she eventually became executive director, Jiwani made her way back east in 2001 to share her expertise in media and intersectionality as a professor in the communications department at Concordia.
In 2006, Jiwani published her first book, Discourses of Denial: Mediations of Race, Gender, and Violence. “That project was actually the culmination of all the other things I had been writing,” she said. “It’s dealing with the denial of racism, and gendered violence. So each chapter looks at how this racist, gendered violence is evacuated, erased, dismissed, trivialized, [covered by the media], in each instance leading people to think they’re crazy when in fact they’re not crazy.”
Though the book deals with recent case studies of racial discrimination in Canadian media, including the 1996 Vernon massacre, the murder of Reena Virk, and the representation of Muslim women in post-9/11 news coverage, she begins with a personal experience. “Me and a colleague were presenting our work on the Gazette’s representation of Muslim women post-9/11, and there was a white male academic in the audience who said, “What’s race got to do with it?” Jiwani recounts. “So the book starts like that.”
Today Jiwani is the Concordia Research Chair on Intersectionality, Violence, and Resistance, where she runs the Intersectionality Hub. Her most recent endeavour, the Virtual Graveyards and Cyber-Memorials Project, explores the online spaces dedicated to housing the digital remains of people who have passed away and how this information is preserved over time.
Jiwani has co-written two other books and authored dozens of published articles, lectures, book chapters and journal publications. Her work has evolved with the changing media landscape, continuing to challenge the perception and representation of race and gender in the media. But what remains constant throughout her career is a steadfast dedication to advocate for the women and marginalized communities who inspired her to start writing in the first place. “[As an activist] you have to use whatever tools are available to you, and whatever access you have,” Jiwani said. “I use writing.”