on academic lectures

Over the past year and a half, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to organize some of ASSU’s academic seminars. From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Desmond Cole to Wab Kinew to Ben Wizner, seminars are part of our mandate as an academic union. Learning exists beyond the boundaries of the lecture hall, and we want our members to engage critically with the world and the topics presented. Ask questions, start conversations and take action. Intellectual engagement and academic curiosity is a key part of ASSU’s mandate.

But academia has its limits. We can take social justice classes where our classmates say cringeworthy things. We can take classes where the professor or a course text says things rooted in discredited ideas, long since abandoned. As bell hooks says, the classroom is not paradise. As great as speakers like Wab Kinew and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, and as honest their material is – I do acknowledge that these events attract progressive intellectuals and the middle class. There is a privilege inherent in attending lectures like this, and the danger is if we attend these lectures thinking “that was a good talk” but don’t critically engage beyond that. Our speakers have much to contribute, but we must make sure that we are getting as much as we can out of it, or we face a real risk of basking in the spectacle of academic lectures.

As a union, we have long believed that the academic experience and the lived experience are one and the same. The topics that are up for discussion are very much real, and not just interesting areas of academic inquiry. As a union, (that this year happens to have a majority POC executive) we believe in academic inquiry, but we also believe in grounding academia in the lived realities and experiences of people. We believe in anti-oppressive action, in using academia as a tool of liberation and social justice.

As you attend our lectures and events in the next few months, keep this mind. Ask yourself what can I do to take the speakers words and put them into action? This will be esp. relevant as we discuss the outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

I leave you with one of our favourite quotes at the union, on our website, from bell hooks:

“The academy is not a paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The Classroom, with all of its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”

i stand with you

By now, we all know of the horrendous attacks that hit Paris last week with over 120 dead and countless more injured. We were all horrified by these attacks on innocent civilians.  President Meric Gertler has conveyed his deepest sympathies to the victims and any students who may be affected by this tragedy.  I echo his sentiments.  To our students who may be affected by this tragedy, to our students who have family in France, may have lost loved ones, or who are in a study abroad program — I stand with you.  However, I’d also like to take this opportunity to reach out to some of our students who may not be feeling safe on our own campus this week.

Following events in Paris, there has been a string of hate crimes that has hit the Greater Toronto Area.  This past weekend, a mosque in Peterborough sustained damaged in an arson attack (thankfully, the amount needed to repair the damage was quickly raised).  A family woke up to find “Muslims go home” scribbled on their door.  A Muslim woman donning a hijab while walking to her local school to pick up her kids, was viciously attacked by two men.  She had her hijab ripped off, was repeatedly punched in the stomach as the assailants yelled “terrorist go home”.  A video has also surfaced in Quebec where a man threatens to “kill an Arab a day”.

These horrifying attacks, coupled with the hate that has been circulating on the internet — has some students, especially those students who are Muslim feeling vulnerable and afraid.  Seeing hate is one thing, having people you trusted all of a sudden be exposed as islamophobes on Facebook can be quite traumatic.  This type of hate has existed before the tragedy in Paris however. Muslim women who don the hijab will tell you of all the stares and quiet whispers they get on the subway, or the comments about a barbaric religion and its followers made in the lecture hall.  However, the tragedy in Paris has amplified some of this hate.

To all those students who may be feeling a heightened sense of fear, or are afraid for the well being of their families — I stand with you. I am a student and I am a Muslim. But this has nothing to do with being Muslim.  It is about standing in solidarity with our fellow students against the forces of bigotry and hate.  This week has been exhausting for many of us.  Take care of yourself my friends.   The world can, at times, feel like a depressing place with mass murder and acts of bigotry being broadcasted to us daily on the evening news.   It’s okay to turn off the news.  It’s okay to cry.

But know that our university community is here with you.  Universities are supposed to be bastions of human rights — in reality, they do not function as well as they should in that capacity.  But we, as students, as faculty members, as staff – can demand better. Just as we came together to say that U of T is a feminist campus when we were under threat, let us come together to say that we are a campus that does not tolerate the forces of hate, bigotry and violence.

The last few days have been tough to deal with.  Take care of yourselves friends.  If you do not feel safe on campus, you can contact Campus Police or the Community Safety Office. If you need someone to talk to, my ears are open.  You can reach me at president@assu.ca.

in solidarity,

Abdullah Shihipar


Statement from ASSU President

Racism is still a thing fyi.


Statement from ASSU President on Passing of Bashir Osman

Statement from ASSU President Abdullah Shihipar.

Inna lilahi wa ina ilayhi rajioon.

I was saddened to hear of the tragic loss of FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies – the equivalent of the Muslim Students’ Association in the UK) President, Bashir Osman yesterday and offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends and FOSIS. Bashir, was a committed activist and advocate for Muslim students in Britain. He will inshallah be remembered for all of the good work he did for his community, for his fellow students and for humanity.

As a global community of students, the work one does in one country has a far reaching impact on us all.  Students and Muslim students in particular have lost a great friend and advocate.



On the Ali Saeed Memorial Award

This week, we awarded our inaugural Ali Saeed Memorial Award to an international student who has accomplished a lot. It’s a busy time of year with the strike and all, but I just wanted to write down some thoughts about Ali. Ali served with me on the ASSU executive last year from 2013-2014. He was an international student from Pakistan but that description does not do him justice. From the moment he walked into the students’ union office, he instantly lit up the environment with that radiant smile of his. I legitimately cannot remember a time when Ali was angry. He put his time and effort into various projects of ours, including the syllabi project we compiled last year but his real passion was with working with international students.

Being an international student himself, Ali knew the challenges they face. A population that contributes so much in cash to the university yet does not get its fair share in return. I’m pleased that we were able to take steps this year to begin to address this with our survey – something Ali I’m sure would’ve appreciated.  He had a passion for photography and I recall just weeks before he passed, arranging a time with him for a photoshoot for the new executive.

Ali sadly passed away nine days into my presidency. This year especially, but also during the past few years, I’ve noticed on campus that people especially online can be particularly harsh. Often times dragging people through the mud for the sake of politics, or how its popularly phrased “to do what’s right”. This is what makes Ali even more special, he never resorted to that. He never had anything bad to say about people, never sought to put people down. He just smiled. Nobody had anything bad to say about Ali.

Today, I congratulate the winner of this year’s award and future winners, for you exemplify everything Ali stood for. Service and compassion to one’s fellow students.



on tragedy, on campus, on lived experiences.


Trigger warning.

What a difficult week it has been. When I first heard the news that three Muslim students were brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – I was finishing an assignment/onFacebook (the lines are blurry) late at night.  First came the stream of tweets from local community members, demanding media attention. By morning, #ChapelHillShooting had become a trending topic and by then – we knew the gruesome details.  Three students – shot in the back of the head, execution style in their own homes. When I heard this, my heart sank.  When I saw the images of the victims, I was devastated.

Here were three bright young individuals, who had made contributions not just to the Muslim community but to their country and the world at large.  They volunteered at home and abroad, they were successful students and they were active members of the Muslim community, always giving back. This is what the friends and family of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha and Razan Abu Salha have to say about them.  Every interview, every facebook post, every tweet is a testimony to their kindness and generosity.

As a Muslim student around their age, this tragedy affected me deeply and more than I expected it to. Many in the community, myself included have expressed a sense of loss akin to when one loses a close friend. We all feel like we’ve lost someone we’ve known.  When I look into the faces of the victims, I see my friends and my family.  I see young Muslims, from the MSA, from the mosque living life to the fullest and giving back to their communities.  I thought of my brothers friends’, who like Yusor and Deah, are young Muslim professionals, who just got married in December – I had the privilege of being at their wedding.  But, most of all – we see ourselves.  And then we ask why – why were these beautiful individuals, murdered so senselessly? And if it can happen to them – can it happen to me?

Prior to the shooting, recent events and conversations that I had in my life dealt with the omnipresence of Islamophobia. One of my friends was terrified after somebody started to repeatedly threaten them, remarking that they were a “terrorist” who rejected those who did not practice Islam.  Following the tragic shootings at Charlie Hebdo, many took the internet to offer supposed critiques of Islamic theology.  In reality, they questioned the intelligence of “blind savages” who were following an 8th century text. Hate justified under the auspices of “academic critique of religion”.  This spread to the U of T Confessions page, shortly thereafter and I soon saw comment and flame wars.  I brought this up to my two friends (who happened to be Muslim) as were leaving class one night, headed to the subway station.   One of my friends soon told us, that her mother who can often pass for white, got comments one day when buying curry leaves at the grocery store.  A woman approached her and asked “why are you buying that? It smells. Only those dirty brown people buy that.”  We had that conversation – Tuesday night.

Later that night, I would find out that Deah, Yusor and Razan had gone back to God.  All of Wednesday, I was emotional and consistently on the verge of tears. Three people had been brutally murdered in their homes and people rushed to clarify that “it wasn’t a hate crime, it was over a parking dispute”. The wife of the accused came on TV, again saying it was over a parking dispute. She neglected to mention that the spot in question was a visitor parking’s spot but that’s besides the point.  I’m not here to provide evidence that this was a hate crime – any interview given by members of the Barakat and Abu Salha families makes it clear what happened and why.  Rather, I want to tell you what was going through my head that day.

I was angry, I was sad, I was on the verge of tears.  Sad at the loss of their lives, angry at the lost potential and the refusal of some to acknowledge their deaths as a hate crime.  Being constantly on the verge of tears is a weird feeling – because you feel like you have to cry, but the tears never come out.  So there I was, on the train headed to class, in class, in the ASSU office – with this void. At times, you see the images of the innocent victims.  Other times, you see the door being broken down, the gun in hand.  It is with these feelings in mind, that ASSU released its statement that Wednesday morning.

I know there are some students who disagree with students unions’ putting out statements like this, arguing that they are political. I disagree – when we put statements out like this, we do it in solidarity with the students on our campus who may be going through a tough time and experiencing thoughts like the ones I did after a major tragedy. It’s never to “look activist or be edgy”.  Having been through this week, I can tell you the best thing that helps lessen the pain is knowing that there are people who care, who are listening.  The worst feeling – is wondering if anyone is listening at all.

Before I end off, I want to touch on something else. Lately, student societies and the U of T administration have been talking about mental health. This is a positive first step – though we have a long way to go.  We have to remember that mental health isn’t just about having a lot of stress, having a tough time with academics or even dealing with traditional mental illness. Students lived experiences can often intersect with how they are feeling mentally.  Racism, islamophobia, sexual violence, financial issues are just a handful of things that can cause students to experience mental trauma.  We need to consider this and remember that because all students’ have a different lived experience, tackling this issue will require a variety of voices and it will require tackling difficult related equity issues – like race. But I’m confident we can do it.

Deah, Yusor and Razan lived beautiful lives and have left us with their legacy.  I like to think that they are saying “Asslamalikum” to my friend Ali Saeed right now.  In honour of their legacy, I hope we can take steps to inshallah make our campus a safer, more positive place for all students.



burn out sucks ass-u

drake-sad-gold-king_article_story_mainWhen you attend a university like U of T – it’s easy to feel intimidated. Everyone you hear about is leading major research, juggling a job, president of their Jane Austen appreciation club and also is producing a new record with Majid Jordan – all at the same time. So, it’s tempting to want to do a billion things at the same time, run at 545445436 miles an hour. Until we burn out. We crash. We cry.

Guess what U of T – that’s happened to me. I’ve burned out, and it’s only Tuesday. Shit.  Not only are you not working on things, you’re feeling shitty for not working on things.  But I’ve learned over the years, after spending thirty minutes in my bathroom toilet crying over an exam in first year — that it’s okay to burn out. It’s okay to cry and get angry.  It’s okay to listen to overdramatic Taylor Swift songs and lament for the days of high school.

But it’s also okay to grab a bunch of pillows, cookies and watch that episode of that trashy reality TV show you’ve been putting off.  Despite the strong image that we all project (and you are all strong, fierce individuals), we all occasionally burn out.  Every superhero has their kryptonite. Even myself, the high duchess emir of ASSULANDIA burned out.

We work too hard, so let’s all engage in some self care.  I know I am.

You do you.


Executive Report

And so, we begin another semester.  A new beginning, time to start fresh. We wish you the best this semester. Watch out for more things from ASSU this semester.  Attached here is our executive report from the summer and fall term, in case you’re interested in seeing what we did these past few months.

Once again, all the best.

Rest in peace, rest in power.


In the last twenty four hours, it has come out that the 43 students missing in Mexico are now thought to be presumed dead. Suspects in the case of their disappearance apparently confessed to brutally murdering them and then burning their bodies. News like this ordinarily is gruesome and tragic, however – it sticks with me further because these were students and not just any students. These were students who decided to take charge of their education and demand better quality and better access. For this, they were shot at, captured and murdered.  Our heartfelt condolences goes out to the families.

Of course – these students are not alone. Historically, the student movement has been one that has challenged governments and the status quo, seeking a change not only for themselves but for society in general.  In doing so, they put themselves in harms way; peaceful protest often suppressed by a gunshot, a police baton and imprisonment.  As a student activist, I have an immense privilege to be able to do my work in peace without the threat of violence. Many activists around the world do not have this luxury.

We often like to romanticize the student movement, the protests, etc. But remember, that often, standing up for what you believe in comes  with an immense cost in many parts of the world and indeed, in Canada as well.  Families are affected, people get injured and jailed – it’s not an easy struggle and tonight 43 families mourn the loss of their loved ones. Strike actions and protests often are not choices — but a means to an end, the only way to get things done in some places.

Tonight, I remember those students and commend them standing up for what they believe in while facing a threat, that I will never face in my days of student activism.

Reflections on Mental Health Week

Mental heath is a persistent issue at the University of Toronto.  This past week, as part of U of T’s Mental Wellness Month, ASSU hosted a Mental Health Week. Cupcakes, laughter yoga and free coffee – all of that good stuff. While our week consisted of de-stressing events, it’s important to remember that mental health is a systemic issue – not an individual one that will be corrected by telling students to take more breaks, or to relax more. When students have four midterms in a week, taking time out to attend a meditation session is not necessarily feasible.  Before our week began, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities announced $12 million dollars for mental health initiatives and services for universities.  This is a good start, however – it’s time we stop approaching mental health through service implementation perspective and look more broadly at what exacerbates these issues in the first place.

U of T is chronically underfunded and as provincial funding continues to drop, tuition fees continue to go up.  The yearly enrolment goes up, students are placed in larger class sizes and have less resources available to them. The educational experience becomes impersonal and out of touch for some and extra pressures are placed on the shoulders of students. Financial pressures, academic pressures as well as anxiety over one’s future all serve as stressors that can worsen an individual’s mental health.

ASSU Executive, Ariel Charney is involved in a group, Unite U of T – which seeks to address mental health concerns on this campus through the medium of creative expression. Students were invited to write their concerns and “how U of T made them feel” on a piece of paper and post it on a board. The results were telling, students overwhelmingly felt depressed, out of place, stressed, etc.  Since then, many creative solutions have come up to solve these problems and I encourage you to check them out here. But what is clear is that for things to change at the university, for pedagogical practices to advance , for us to get a truly high quality of education – our university must be adequately funded.  While providing funding for mental health initiatives is good, the Government of Ontario should know that they are merely treating the symptoms of a larger problem of chronic underfunding – a problem that the government has created and can easily rectify.