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An Interview with Dr. Katherine Bullock


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/10/09


Dr. Katherine Bullock is the Chair of the Islamic Society of North America-Canada and Lecturer at the University of Toronto. She discusses: family background regarding culture, geography, language, and religion; personal life and upbringing in the early years; first woman Chair of the Islamic Society of North America – Canada; the next generation of Muslim women leaders in Canada; Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes (2007); prejudice and bigotry; freedom of religion; the perceptions of the capabilities and roles of women; advancement and empowerment of women within the Canadian Islamic communities; prevention of those; some women Muslim scholars representative of the future and current leadership of Muslim women in Canada; and recommended books or organizations.

Keywords: Chair, Islam, Islamic Society of North America-Canada, Katherine Bullock, Lecturer, University of Toronto.

An Interview with Dr. Katherine Bullock: Chair, Islamic Society of North America-Canada; Lecturer, the University of Toronto[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background regarding culture, geography, language, and religion?

Dr. Katherine Bullock: I was born in Australia to an Anglo heritage. I was raised in the Anglican Church and attended the Presbyterian Ladies College for high school. In Australia, the PLC is part of the United Church. I think it’s different in the US/Canada.

2. Jacobsen: How did this build into personal life and upbringing in the early years for you? When did Islam become the proper way of life for you?

Bullock: The Church, and especially the all-girls high school, instilled some very important values in me, which I recognize today as also being Islamic – respect for others, commitment to excellence in work, the importance of family and community, being resilient and persistent through difficulties and hardship, and living an ordered and disciplined life. I converted to Islam in the 2nd year of my Ph.D. studies at the University of Toronto.

3. Jacobsen: You are the first woman Chair of the Islamic Society of North America – Canada and were its Executive Director of Education, Media, and Community Outreach. What tasks and responsibilities come with these stations? 

Bullock: I was the Executive Director of Education, Media and Community Outreach for a couple of years in 2004. That position no longer exists. As the Chair, the main task and responsibility are to see to the proper running of the board and to be the main point of contact with the Executive Director.

The board deals with ensuring legal compliance, setting the organization’s policies, strategic visioning and planning, and financial policies and budgeting.

4. Jacobsen: How might this inspire the next generation of Muslim women leaders in Canada? 

Bullock: Hopefully just seeing a woman in this position will inspire another woman to imagine that possibility for herself. Although we’ve been a bit busy with all the duties I previously mentioned, I hope to establish a women’s group that can contribute to leadership development before my term expires.

5. Jacobsen: You authored a number of books with some emphasis on Muslim women in particular. In Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes (2007), what were the main questions, the central thesis, and the answer to the questions within the framework of the thesis of the text?

Bullock: Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil was born directly of my experience of converting to Islam and starting to wear hijab. I received so many unexpected negative comments from people around me, from strangers on the subway, to colleagues in my department where I was pursuing graduate studies.

I couldn’t understand why my friends and I had such a positive view on wearing the hijab and yet it is viewed so negatively by the wider society. I decided to investigate the origins of the Western notion of hijab as oppression and to compare that with Muslim women’s own perspectives and opinions.

6. Jacobsen: Muslims and other Canadian citizens undergo undue prejudice and bigotry. At times, this can include scapegoating and becoming targets of cynical political rhetoric or disproportionately negative media coverage, as far as I can observe.

Ordinary religious and non-religious people of conscience, typically, are appalled by this behaviour by politicians and others to demonize minority sectors of the Canadian population. First question, what is the source of this xenophobia and ethnic-nationalist hatred of the other and, in particular, Muslim women (and men) in Canada?

Bullock: First of all, I want to thank you and others like you who can see through the smear campaigns and for reaching out to gain more understanding. Muslims really need allies like that. I believe that the source of this xenophobia is actually quite complex.

It involves a sense of fear of loss of status and place; some white/Anglo/Franco nationalists feel that immigration is pushing them out of ‘their” society, and will change its values for the worse.

Second, I believe anti-Muslim prejudice is deeply rooted in Western cultural discourses.  We can trace negative portrayals as far back as the eighth century when Christendom feared Islam as a Christian heresy.

Some thought Muhammad had wanted to be Pope and failed, then breaking off to found a rival and schismatic group. While we now live in a secular world, many of the early themes mentioned in these folktales are still around, such as barbaric men and oppressed women.

They passed on from Christian writers to missionaries, to colonizers, to secular publics.

7. Jacobsen: Second question, what can reduce and eventually – ideally – eliminate the rhetoric of division and hate? I realize some non-religious people want to eliminate religion altogether or stop the freedom of religion of others by implication.

I disagree with those non-religious people. I consider the freedom to religion and freedom from religion as equal rights for the religious and non-religious to mutually enjoy.

In particular, I note the emphasis among this sub-section of the non-religious population on hypervigilance on Islam as a set of beliefs and suggested practices, and Muslim communities and Muslims as individual citizens in their respective countries. 

Bullock: This obviously is a very big and important question.  It seems, most, unfortunately, that some forms of hatred will always exist as part of the human condition.

I have recently learnt how anti-Semitism in Canada has lasted for over 100 years.  I think the best we can do is try and make as many friends as possible amongst the different religious and non-religious groups, and take a “live and let live” attitude, as you suggest.

We should learn about each other through dialogue and shared activities.  We ought to be able to understand our differences with respect, remind ourselves constantly what we have in common, and work in solidarity on issues we share concern over, like the environment, good employment, affordable housing, and good education for our children.

8. Jacobsen: Now, within the Islamic communities in North America, what tend to be the problems in terms of the perceptions of the capabilities and roles of women? This links to larger issues within societies in the refusal to implement the rights of women, and the advancement and empowerment of women, in global culture.

Bullock: There is so much diversity in Muslim communities this question is hard to answer.  There are those that see total equality between men and women as being normal, those who favour a patriarchal attitude, and many shades in between.

There are those who think Muslim women should not lead, nor work outside the home and those who think the opposite.  Social workers, lawyers, women’s groups and community activists, both male and female, have raised the plight of women in situations of domestic violence, issues of mental health and parenting.

There are Muslim women teaching things such as self-defence, literacy, and know-your-rights to try and advance and empower Muslim women.

9. Jacobsen: What is being done to advance and empower women within the Canadian Islamic communities? 

Bullock: In addition to what I just said, there are many activities, projects, and education plans to advance and empower women, both spiritually and secularly.

To name a few, there are groups that teach Arabic, Qur’an and Islamic studies; storytelling and art to boost self-esteem; sports and good nutrition; and leadership development and volunteer recruitment to increase civic engagement.

10. Jacobsen: What is being done to prevent the advancement and empowerment of women within the Canadian Islamic communities?

Bullock: What prevents the advancement and empowerment of women in Canadian Islamic communities are cultural practices, customs, habits and religious interpretations that say a woman should only be a wife and mother, and not have any other role outside the home.

I do not mean to downplay these roles. I have children and I understand completely the special honour and role of these traditionally female roles. I also know the exhaustion that can come with multi-tasking “inside” and “outside” roles.

But it is quite clear that Scripture intended for women more than the “home-based” role only. Women have many skills and talents that can and should benefit society.

11. Jacobsen: Who are some women Muslim scholars representative of the future and current leadership of Muslim women in Canada?

Bullock: Dr. Ingrid Mattson is a much-admired Canadian Muslim scholar. In Critical Muslim and anti-racism studies, Dr. Jasmin Zine stands out, and in Muslim chaplaincy development, Dr. Nevin Reda is providing leadership.

As for the next generation, I know several very smart Ph.D. students who will take their place as leaders in the next decade.

12. Jacobsen: Any recommended books or organizations?

Bullock: One of my favourite books that I think most people would enjoy is the autobiography of Zarqa Nawaz, called Laughing all the Way to the Mosque. Zarqa Nawaz helped produce the first Muslim sitcom on Canadian television called Little Mosque on the Prairie.

She used comedy and television to try and give a better image of Muslims to the wider society. Her book is inspiring as it talks about her life journey and how she made it to that high point.

Anyone who wants an inspiring book about Muslim women scholars should read Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, by Muhammad Akram Nadwi.

It is a bit academic in places, but it is inspiring for how it reminds us of Muslim women’s scholarship in our history so that we can reclaim that role with confidence, and know that we are not innovating something, but restoring something that has been lost.

13. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Bullock.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Chair, Islamic Society of North America-Canada; Lecturer, the University of  Toronto.

[2] Individual Publication Date: October 8, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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