The following is an excerpt from the interview I did in 2004 with Shahina Siddiqui, a long-time activist who has focused on building capacity within Muslim communities, on working against Islamophobia in Canada, and on opposing war. This excerpt is about her initial forays into community development and into public education work around Islam in Canada.
SN: Usually the way that I start these is by asking the participant to talk about how they initially became politicized and then going backwards or forwards from there, depending on –
SS: How I became active, you mean. [laugh] It has almost now been twenty years, close to twenty years. It all started when my older son was diagnosed with a condition that was very rare. I spent five years looking after him and progressively it got worse and he passed away. At that time, I came to realize how few services were available in the community, how little was available for handicapped people, [people] with challenges, disabilities. And also, I’d learned a lot about the system, about the healthcare system, about social services – what was available, what was not – and I vowed to myself that if I could make a difference, I will. And what I went through, if I can ease it for anyone else, I would do my best to develop services within the communities that would address those needs, God willing.
SN: And in the experiences with your son, what did you particularly notice just wasn’t there?
SS: I think first of all the initiative within the community to be proactive. And then in the community at large, the lack of understanding of the particular needs of the Muslim community, the uniqueness of it, the lack of information about the Muslim community. I think that got me involved in the other aspect of my activism, to actually start educating the community at large about Islam and the Muslim community, which then took me into the direction of media and freelance writing and getting involved with the peace movement. It just mushroomed from there. I thought I would just be concentrating on social issues and social services and healthcare, but it seems that I am going in all and every direction. It seems things just keep coming up, more and more demand on my time and my resources.
SN: Tell me a little bit more about the detail of how you started bridging that gap between your experiences and being out in the community.
SS: The first thing I did was a series of brochures focusing on service providers and, of course, from my experience with my son, healthcare workers were my first focus. I remember being invited to speak to nurses. It started my speaking career. I’ve been speaking now for sixteen years. One after another, it just multiplied, invitations to speak. Then I did a brochure on schools – Muslim students in the public school system – because I was getting a lot of cases where people were concerned. The third one I did for social workers on Muslim family because we were getting cases from Child and Family Services. I felt that if we could give them education and give them, “OK, who can we call for information?” I started getting calls – gradually started, slowly, but then it increased dramatically – from people from Child and Family Services asking me to mediate or help facilitate or provide translation, help find foster homes. That became an opening. I started doing a lot of speaking engagements and developed my skills. It’s been all on-the-job training. I’m not a qualified social worker; I mean, a licensed social worker. I just felt the need and just got in there. On the way I just took informal workshops and stuff.
SN: When you first started out writing those initial brochures what were, for example, some of the issues that you had become aware of to do with schools?
SS: For example, Muslim girls not wanting to participate in co-ed gym. I was asked by parents to write letters to the teachers. Some didn’t know that they could get such a letter and so the girls had lost their credit, for example, or were forced to participate. The other was girls who were wearing hijab, for example. I had cases where, in one school, a secretary had pulled the scarf off – and the pin on the scarf scratched her. The father called me, very, very upset. I mediated that. They couldn’t understand why last year she wasn’t wearing it and this year she is. I explained that the girl had gone into puberty and now she was required to. So issues like that. Issues of curriculum for example. When my son was going to school – he was born and raised here – he brought me books from his library which were still referring to Muslims as Mohammedans, which is offensive; which implies we worship Mohammed, and we don’t. And I thought, oh my God, in the 1980s we still have books and teachers [which] were teaching that. Those are the things that I wanted to address.
SN: In the early speaking engagements that you did, what kind of responses did you get from people?
SS: Very guarded. I remember a few of them: very tense before I walked, thinking that here’s a priest or somebody coming in to give us a sermon and then, very quickly, relaxing. The questions were very superficial at that time. People were very careful not to offend. So, very polite but very superficial. As I got better with my presentation, I started to encourage more and more. As knowledge grew – and it depended. There were three areas – one area, actually that was always. No matter what the topic was, [they] always came back to women in Islam and to this day it has been the case, no matter who I am talking to, what I’m talking about. They have to know about women in Islam. I started catering my presentations accordingly. I was filing it in my head. I wasn’t writing it down but it was all filed. I knew what they needed to know. There are some places where I would ask the host to have the people write down three stereotypes they thought about Muslims and Islam before I came in, before they knew who the speaker was. Then I would read them out and respond. I found ways to be interactive. I had to improve my language skills, of course, in the sense that, yes, I was educated in English media but the English that I was taught and the English that was spoken differed. So to know the language of the culture that I was speaking to.
Then I started writing. I think my first letter – actually it was in response to something – was published in ’93. You can see all those binders there, they’re all my writings and media work. That I found to be a good venue to reach out to the larger public, telling them. And then the faith page editor invited me to write about Islam on the faith page for the Winnipeg Free Press. I thought that was a great opportunity. I started writing and when people started reading – and I think this was the first time they were being exposed to hear about Islam from a Muslim – the invitations also started coming in.
SN: Tell me more about the transition from doing the speaking and the presentation to getting into doing a lot of writing.
SS: My father was a journalist and so was my great-grandfather. Writing was always in my family and I was very much encouraged to write. Being schooled in a Catholic convent school, we had to write so many essays. [laugh] I thoroughly enjoy writing, actually. When my first letter received so much feedback, and when I was asked to write, I took on the challenge. There’s a saying of our Prophet Mohammed who said that “the ink from the pen of a scholar in pursuit of justice is more sacred than the blood of a martyr” to bring about change. I realized that writing was a very, very strong tool to use. And now I’ve been published both nationally and internationally. I started writing mostly on social issues because I was being asked to give workshops and training programs and lectures all across North America, and started realizing that something that I considered was common sense, people really were hungry for it. A lot of old wisdom from my grandmother, who I think was a modern day marriage counselor, and trying to write down what I had learned, what I had observed, started to come very easy, really. As I said, I am a writer that only writes when I’m moved. I’m very passionate about what I write and what I speak about. Now, lately, I’ve been asked just to write on particular topics. That I find very difficult to do, [laugh] especially something like this, talking about myself. It’s just very difficult because in our culture, to talk about one’s self is seen as immodest. But people have been prodding and probing. I guess I’m old enough now to not worry about it! [laugh]