Collaborating to Break Barriers: A UBC Student’s Webinar Series

Posted by Katia Fawaz & filed under Current Affairs, Life.

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‘Bila Answar’ is an Arabic terms that translates to ‘Breaking Barriers,‘ and University of British Columbia student Lina Zdruli is currently doing just that. Of Albanian ethnicity, Lina has resided in Italy and the United States. Speak with Lina and you’ll quickly learn she’s an insatiable traveler, which makes sense considering her International Relations background and her aspirations for post-graduate studies in International Law. Having had the opportunity to visit 27 countries, she has translated those experiences into a recently-launched initiative related to her most recent travels in Pakistan, Oman, and the Arab Emirates.

Prior to leaving, she took note of the trend in responses to her travel plans to specific destinations. When she would say that she was going to Japan, she would receive awe-struck reactions of “oh that’s so cool!” On the other hand, when explaining that she was going to Pakistanpeople were generally taken aback, asking her: “Do you want to live?” It was such reactions combined with her first-hand experiences in Mid-East family culture, Sharia law courts, shrines, and academic leadership conferences that gave her the idea to create a space to put the preconceptions upfront, as a means to encourage the confrontation of stereotypical schemas.

Curious as to where her inspiration stems from? Lina is  passionate about creating a platform for collaboration to allow cultures to ideologically clash in a positive and constructive manner, and shift towards a new form of problem-solving where knowledge and ideas come before names and appearances. She will not only be speaking on behalf of her experiences, but will be featuring six webinars streaming from the Middle East, East Asia, Europe and the US to UBC, followed by a discussion  and a session of Q&A. Featured below is an interview with Lina and some insight into her current thoughts on the project!


How many webinar sessions will there be?

6 in total – 5 more now. First was an intro into why this is even happening. Next is Female Perspectives, third is Islamic Banking, fourth is Sharia Law – a scholar in the US will be speaking. He helped the government of Iraq form their new constitution in 2009 – as well as a Sharia Lawyer. I interacted with 18 speakers in total.

How did you come up with the topics that you did?

I kept topics as broad as possible. In science there’s this really amazing professor and he’s part of something called A Thousand and One Inventions. So what they do is try and explain the role of culture in science, and how even in the hard sciences there are so many cultural influences.

What they tried to show is many scientific, technological and humanitarian developments shared by the Islamic world and the West, and attempt to eliminate prejudice through science. This professor, he’s a mechanical electrical engineer, but is also passionate about showing how Islam helped people develop a certain theorem, for example. As hard as science can get, he explains the role of culture in it. So I thought okay, if I keep it broad, touch upon every subject, then maybe an engineer will get excited about their own field and want to a webinar. 20/30 minutes is not enough, but it gets people it gets people excited, then they connect, get their friends interested and it develops like a dialogue pyramid.

So, your first topic for instance: Female Perspectives, will it cover feminism?

Not so much feminism, but explaining that women do have an impact in society, in politics and economics. Which [will be] a huge myth buster, because many think that women are always confined in their households in the Middle East. Why? Because of 5 sentences that the Taliban said? That’s been playing on and on Fox news. You can’t take 5 sentences the Taliban says and apply that to the life of every single women in the region. Pakistan had a female prime minister

Can you envision the ‘clashing of perspectives’ presenting itself in this project?

For sure, but that’s the whole point of it. I got the chance to speak with Timur Qur’an, who is a renowned economist well-versed on the subject of Islamic Banking and is based in Duke University. Essentially, he says Islamic Financing doesn’t work, it’s just a form of renaming, and is more geared towards the Middle Ages economy – it doesn’t apply to a modern economy. On the other hand, Ahmed Ali Siddiqui from Pakistan in Karachi is the executive Vice President at Meezan Bank,  thinks that’s the  largest Islamic bank in Pakistan. Ahmed is directly responsible for Sharia compliance.

Views will be as opposing as it can get, but that’s the point. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I just want people to get exposed and to start talking about stuff.  If people are just bombarded with one-sided information – oh Islamic financing is fantastic and everybody should jump on board, and on the other hand they only hear oh no it’s terrible – then they don’t get a balance. But, if they get both, then they can pick whatever is good from this one and whatever is good from that one, and then can start thinking of ways to improve. Or even just talking, I mean we’re not trying to fund a new Islamic institution or a new economic way of financing things. It’s controversial, but it’s taking the two opposite sides of the spectrum.

Have you yourself spent time familiarizing yourself with Sharia law and the diversity in perspectives?

Hmm, I got exposed to this in Dubai: one of the leadership simulations we did was a Shari’a court case on whether the children are going to be assigned to a mother or the father. It was a completely different practice, and it helped me understand a bit more about the dynamics. There’s a Shari’a scholar, a judge, and a lawyer and they’ve gone through at least four to seven years of training. My exposure was more practical and in no way can I claim to know much of it. Yeah, or a real life simulation. We had to understand what defines a custodian, what defines a guardian in Sharia law. The technical aspects for something as small as child custody.

You’re not at all hesitant about any seemingly ‘controversial’ situations that may arise?

Essentially, in all of these types of debates – there might be someone who gets offended by what the speaker is saying. Actually, what I’m really trying to prevent is that the speaker gets offended! Because the point is, they’re there to tell us their perspective. And they’re not attacking anyone. So they shouldn’t be attacked as well. In the end, what is controversial? Someone from the audience asked if they could ask a hard question to the speaker. There’s no such thing as an easy or hard question, there’s only a respectful or disrespectful question. You can ask anything you want, even amongst yourself, but it’s how you say it and how you present it. If you’re asking a question, but actually making a statement, that’s not cool. So, controversial? What defines controversial in the end? On one hand, it’s controversial to say oh women should be covered, on the other side of the world, it’s controversial to say let’s allow everyone to walk around in a bikini. So which one is a controversial side? This is already hard to define.

Ideally, the atmosphere serves to foster collaborative dialogue and understanding?

Yes, it’s to talk. To clear your mind, to ask all the question you have in your head. If you talk, then it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. There’s no such thing as controversial. A lot of my friends have actually, told me – oh you’re so brave for doing this. And I asked brave for what? Why brave? It got me thinking why that many people were telling me that same sentence. That never crossed my mind before, but it’s crossed other peoples mind. Talking should not be an act of braveness.

In all your own experience engaging in dialogue with diverse peoples of the Mid-East, have you always felt respected for your own beliefs?

Up till now yes. In the beginning it was a conscious process for me to dress a certain way, then not even two days later, it was as if it was internal for me to want to dress a certain way when I was there. If that makes sense. So I would ask my friend, what I should wear today. She said, just wear your jeans. I said no I don’t want to wear my jeans, I want to wear your shalwar kemeez. So, the whole time I was in Pakistan, I literally dressed with her clothes.

What was that experience like for you?

It was fantastic! It was so cool, I kept saying, you get to wear this, it’s so loose and comfortable. But, but. I will say, because I always grew up in this culture – and Albanian culture is slightly similar to the Middle East for a lot of things, but my whole life was between Italy, Canada, and the US. Sometimes I did feel that I would want to walk out in the street, but I’m not allowed to. Because in a caring way, my friends parents wouldn’t let me.

That was sort of a form of repression, but in a caring way. But no one was out in the street telling me, oh you can’t walk. That should be really clear, there was no police, no one outside there telling me, no you’re not allowed to walk, go back home. Never. It was my friend’s parents who were very cautious, and very receptive of this thing. And I thought, well, I’m 23. And not even my own parents, they don’t tell me ‘don’t go to Pakistan.’ And now my friend’s parents are telling me, ‘no you can’t go out and bus to another city.’ So things like that, is when I got conscious of cultural differences.

I like how you framed that, “they were receptive to you.”

It was not because of any form of repression, it was a matter of trying to make sure the guest was safe at all times. You can’t just categorize. It’s one thing to say, you can’t walk on the street, or you shouldn’t walk on the street alone because that means you’re a bad girl. And it’s another thing to say, well you are not from here and don’t know this area like we do.It’s only when we are receptive to the small things that you’re only able to catch when you’re thrown there.

For example, one day my friend told me, oh I can’t be with you this day because I have to be all day at school. So she said, you’ll have to stay home. I said I have to stay home? I’ll just walk around the streets, like its fine. She said, no no, you don’t get it. No you can’t really do that. And I was thinking in my head that’s unfair, I feel kind of repressed. And, I went there, and just living with her family and understanding different dynamics, you start to understand, no its not because you want to keep me locked like little princess in the house. It’s because I don’t know the environment. It’s really about understanding certain differences that really make all the differences in the world.

Lina’s Zdruli’s webinar series will be held at UBC’s Global Lounge and is open to essentially anyone keen to challenge the constraints of their potentially biased perceptions: ‘students, academics, business- owners, artists and working professionals,’ alike!

The location can be found here.

Upcoming dates include:

March 19th: Shari’a Law in Practice

April 2ndth: Terrorism and Everyday Life

April 9th: Cultural Roots of the Arts and Science​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​