“Aniqa’s research speaks to a vital issue: how to live well together in a diverse society. By drawing our attention to the impact of the pandemic on death rituals of Muslim communities, Aniqa has deepened our knowledge about both the impact and innovative responses to it. Aniqa is a talented researcher who brings her curiosity and commitment to evidence-based knowledge and social justice to questions about equality, diversity and inclusion. I am privileged to work with her.” Dr. Lori Beaman
Aniqa Sheikh recently won the first place in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program Symposium (UROP) for her research on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on Islamic funeral rites in both Canada and the U.K.
In this Q&A, Aniqa shares her primary motivation to conduct this research, which identifies the major challenges and the adaptive strategies undertaken by these communities and examines the impact on the traditional grieving process.
Tell us about yourself and your personal and academic journey that brought you to the where you are today.
I recently completed an honours BA in religious studies after completing an honours BSc in biology, with a minor in psychology, both at the University of Ottawa. I am currently a student in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) under the supervision of Professor Lori Beaman.
Following some recent health challenges, I took the time to re-evaluate my academic and professional goals and decided to pursue a path in spiritual counselling and psychotherapy. My academic journey in religious studies has really broadened my knowledge in this field and has helped me realize the interdisciplinary aspect of religious studies in general, as well as the importance of research in this field.
How has the pandemic affected you and those around you?
As has been the case for most, the pandemic has had a significant impact on me and my family. To say that it has been super stressful would be an understatement.
Since the onset of the pandemic, I had lost several relatives to COVID-19. I have also borne witness to the deaths of many members of my community and family friends over the last year.
The past year has been challenging, with “normal life” changing in so many ways. In many cases, Canadian and British Muslims engaged in positive religious coping strategies, including a positive reappraisal of their crisis situation, like the death of a loved one. Therefore, when adopting religious alternatives and following government guidelines, many Muslims turned to their religion to cope with these pandemic challenges.
Tell us more about your research and the reason you chose this topic.
My firsthand experience on the impact of COVID-19 influenced my decision to choose this research topic. I must give a significant amount of credit to my supervisor, Dr. Lori Beeman, who first approached me with the prospect of doing a Europe-focused project on the pandemic’s impact on the death rituals of minority religious groups.
After doing some preliminary research, I quickly realized how little has been done on death rituals of religious minorities, let alone the impacts of such traditions during a global pandemic. After lengthy discussions and some guidance from my mentors and supervisor, I decided to focus my research on the impacts on Muslim communities specifically.
I decided to choose Canada and the U.K. as my case studies, as they were the first two countries in the Western world to provide extensive guidelines on funeral and burial procedures for Muslim victims of COVID-19. Muslims have constituted a significant percentage of COVID-19 deaths in both countries and there has been a significant disruption to Muslim death rituals.
This has been a subject of growing concern with respect to the rituals associated with dying and death, as they are both an individual and communal duty for Muslims. Apart from the religious obligation of honoring the deceased with a swift funeral and burial, there is significant importance attributed to the rituals for the bereaved, as they are gatherings that offer them healing and comfort. With varying degrees of COVID restrictions in place, these communal gatherings for healing have been disrupted, which has, in turn, deeply affected the families of the departed, as well as the Muslim community at large.
My research focuses on two major points: to identify the major challenges and the adaptive strategies by our resilient communities in both Canada in the U.K., and to examine the impact of public health directives and government restrictions on various aspects of the grieving process.
You won first place in the University of Ottawa’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) Symposium for your research. What impact will winning this award have on your research and academic pursuits moving forward?
This award has certainly been a source of motivation for me and has given me confidence in conducting research.
Before this project, I did not have any formal research experience, nor did I think that I possessed the skills or qualities for conducting academic research. Dr. Beaman believed that I could do a good job and provided me with the appropriate amount of guidance and direction to keep me on the right track. This gave me the confidence to pursue graduate studies and continue to address some of the questions and limitations that arose from this research project.
Do you intend to expand your research to other religions and the impact of the pandemic on their burial rites and traditions? If so, which ones.
I do believe that research is important for the other immigrant populations. There are other communities with similar challenges to the Muslim community, notably the Jewish community. I would like to conduct comparative research with other communities and compare and contrast the experiences.
I want to dedicate my time to exploring the causal relationships that I couldn't accomplish in this project. We are living through a period with heightened instances of Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism and the like. The impacts of COVID-19 are not an isolated phenomenon. They’re in conjunction with these other social movements, particularly during the past year. I feel compelled to delve further into this subject and hope that, through my work, I will inspire others.
Where do you see yourself in five years? How will you be a change agent?
I will be starting a master’s degree this fall at Saint Paul University in their counselling and spirituality program. My hope is to become a psychotherapist specializing in care for marginalized communities, more specifically, the Muslim community.
I hope to continue my research at the graduate level and look at possible causal relationships and the relationship between possible stressors emerging from the pandemic, mediating factors and outcomes from the grieving process. There is limited data available but it is critical, as global statistics illustrate that Muslims from largely racialized backgrounds are overrepresented in the number of infection and mortality cases. It is particularly important here in Canada, as Muslims are the fastest growing population and the second largest faith community.
I want to gather the necessary data to inform policy-making decisions of bereavement professionals and health care specialists. I also hope to become an advocate for mental health in Muslim and immigrant communities, wherein mental illness is often stigmatized and misunderstood. It’s important work that needs more attention, especially with the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, which is expected to have significant effects down the road.