by Gloria Elayadathusseri
On Meeting Raheel
by Terry Weller
An untiring struggle for gender equality and world peace
by Zubair Masood
Raheel Raza is a freelance columnist, a public speaker, a media consultant and a committed pacifist. She is actively engaged in promoting diversity and interfaith harmony in Canada.
She was born in Pakistan where she received her secondary education in some prestigious Convent schools run by the nuns. She then graduated from Sind University, Karachi with major in Psychology.
Because of her late father’s job with the Pakistan army, she moved around quite a lot and developed a craving for travel, and to satisfy this desire, she did a tourism course and joined the Scandinavian Airlines. In 1979, she and her husband Suhail moved to United Arab Emirates. Because of her tourism background, Raheel was invited to work for the Ruler of Sharjah to tap and augment the tourism potential of the Emirates. This work involved extensive travelling throughout Middle East, Europe, Far East and even North America.
After spending eight years in the Emirates, she along with her family moved to Canada, where she has worked for Ontario provincial government in the Ministry of Culture. Currently she is engaged as a freelance writer and has contributed articles to some prestigious Canadian newspapers on diverse topics including politics, religion, business, life styles, gender, diversity and cross-cultural harmony.
Raheel has all along been an outspoken advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. She is the first Muslim woman in Canada, who led mixed gender prayers and officiates on weddings. In the year 2000, the City of Toronto bestowed on her Constance E. Hamilton award in recognition of her work towards equitable treatment of women.
Raheel has done lot of volunteer work to bring communities together; and to this end, she is currently running a Forum for Learning to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between people following different religions.
In addition to print media, she has often aired her radical views on electronic media as well. She also writes poetry. More recently, she has authored a book titled ‘Their Jihad – Not My Jihad’.
She lives in Mississauga with her family. The News on Sunday recently interviewed her there. Some excerpts:
The News on Sunday: Would you like to tell us something about your childhood and early influences?
Raheel Raza: I was influenced by my father who was a visionary and thought that education would make a difference in a woman’s life. He taught me to read and research at a young age. I was also moved by the poverty and class differences I saw around me. I was perturbed to see that children from well-off families went to schools, while the poor ones worked as domestic servants in rich households. I started questioning the status quo at an early age.
TNS: Would you like to say something about the importance of family life?
RR: My priorities are faith, family and friends. Family life is very important and I never adopted a career where my family would be affected. Though I travel a lot, there is always someone home. We are four generations under one roof and this is a blessing. Family life grooms us for giving, tolerance and respect for elders. Most of all, it teaches us that love and companionship are very important for human relationships.
TNS: Do you think that Muslims have to sacrifice their family values for surviving in the West?
RR: Nobody has to sacrifice family values, either in the East or in the West. In some ways, despite working full-time, we spent more quality time with our kids in Canada, as opposed to them being brought up by nannies or maids. It involves sacrifice, because you cannot juggle social life and children’s needs. However, all good deeds require sacrifice and it’s all about priorities.
TNS: What are the main activities of Forum for Learning?
RR: Forum for Learning was created as a safe space between the mosque and the mall for youth, regardless of who they were. It is a non-judgmental space where people don’t have to wear their faith on their sleeves or give credentials at the door. We provide forums for open and honest discussion, resolve controversies, and discover points of convergence. Instead of sermonising or preaching, we believe that learning is a life-long journey and, thus, try to learn from each other.
TNS: What made you take interest in people and social work?
RR: I was always fascinated by people. Perhaps it is the ‘Aquarian’ in me, because they are social animals. I can see the pain behind people’s smiles and I want to reach out to them. My social work is primarily for those on the fringe: young people who are dysfunctional and dislocated, women in need, etc. My heart reaches out to them, so I end up adopting a whole lot of people. My home and heart are always open to all.
TNS: You spent eight years of your life in Dubai. What are your impressions about life there?
RR: Let me be honest. The Dubai you see today is not even a replica of Dubai when I lived there 20 years ago. Even then, it was a place where double, even triple, standards existed: different for the goras, who were the most privileged, the locals and the South Asians. However, there was still some heritage and culture. Today Dubai is the playground of the rich and famous. It has become a concrete jungle where no one is pushed about human values. It is an artificial oasis with the jingle of tax-free petro-dollars. That is why we moved to Canada, where I have more freedom as a Muslim woman. I can write and speak freely, be critical of the mainstream, and yet be respected for who I am. Now that I know the value of freedom, I cannot even dream of living in Dubai again and be a slave to other humans.
TNS: How did you get involved with diversity and interfaith harmony?
RR: With about half of population comprising immigrants from across the world, diversity is an essential part of the Canadian mosaic. It is, by all means, a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. Wherever you go, you come across people of different nationalities and faiths. Interfaith understanding and harmony are prerequisites for smooth functioning of such multiethnic societies. Seeing that Muslim immigrants to Canada were facing difficulties in adapting to the values of their host country, I felt the need for encouraging interfaith dialogue and diversity, which involves the acceptance and respect for differences.
TNS: Do you see any truth in the allegation that the people of other religions are conspiring against Muslims?
RR: Since time immemorial, Muslims have loved conspiracy theories. For Pakistanis in particular, any mishap is a Zionist, an Indian or an American conspiracy. It is arrogant to think that the whole world is conspiring against us; it has better things to do. We need to become humble and reflect on where we are going wrong, instead of constantly blaming others for our self-created misfortunes. Muslims have all along been their own worst enemies.
TNS: Do you think that poetry has any relevance in the modern world?
RR: Poetry is my spiritual outlet. We live in a time where we have burdened our souls with materialism, consumerism and technology, but the human spirit needs nourishment. People find spirituality in different ways. I find it in poetry. Before I could write prose, I wrote poetry. Even today, when something touches me deeply, I express it in poetry.
TNS: We all whine about the status and condition of women. Don’t you feel that men in developing Muslim countries like Pakistan are just as much oppressed?
RR: I don’t think so. Pakistan is a patriarchal society where men have power due to their physical strength. Women are given a lower status due to unequal laws and the general psyche of men. Gender discrimination is a worldwide phenomenon. However, in the West, women have made some progress due to modernisation and education. But we still have a long way to go.
TNS: Don’t you agree that most women themselves militate against their empowerment, because it brings with it more responsibilities?
RR: I would not say most, but I do agree that some women are their own worst enemies; they avoid empowerment because it brings with it more responsibilities. But with rights, there have to be responsibilities. Elite women in all societies like the status quo. And why would they want change when they enjoy the best of both worlds?
TNS: How can we empower women?
RR: This depends on which women and where. In the Third World countries, women still need basic amenities, such as food, clothing and shelter. Only then we can think about educating them. Women need to think for themselves; they should not be constantly told about their rights. Education is a great liberator. With knowledge, women can make informed decisions about what they want to do with their lives.
TNS: Burqa is viewed as a symbol of oppression against women. Do you agree with this perception?
RR: It depends. In old days women wore burqas, but it was a different time and place. If they are forced to wear burqas, then it’s a problem. It is important that women know it is not an Islamic requirement, but a cultural norm. Then they can do whatever they like. It’s a free world.
TNS: Islam and the West are said to be worlds apart. Are there any intrinsic differences between the two?
RR: The world is now a global village. Technology has connected us in ways we could not have dreamt of before. Samuel Huntington’s theory of ‘clash of civilisations’ is based on the idea that Islam and the West are two separate entities. However, when you have third generation Muslims in the West, then it is not ‘Islam and the West’; it is ‘Islam in the West’. We are here to stay. So let’s make the best of it by getting to know each other. The Holy Quran says, "We made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another"; obviously not to slaughter and revile, but to understand and respect, each other.
TNS: What is the importance of dialogue in bringing about interfaith harmony?
RR: Dialogue and discussion are the cornerstones of interfaith harmony. How will I know who my neighbour is if I don’t communicate with him or her? Communication is a two-way street. We want a dialogue, not a monologue, which many people think is the only way to lecture others about ourselves while not taking the time to listen to them. There are many paths to God and we need to respect all of them if we want respect for ourselves and our faith.
TNS: Do you see any prospects of peace in today’s highly polarised world?
RR: I am an eternal optimist. Peace is a human construct and there will be peace when we work towards it. Famous theologian Hans Kung says: "There will be no peace among nations unless there is peace between religions." I work for peace between religions as best I can. The world right now is in turmoil, but there is more and more emphasis on ‘live and let live’.
Demystifying Islamic Beliefs
by Chris McGregor
Local News - Islam is not just a theology, it is a way of life, and writer Raheel Raza states it suffers from damaging misconceptions and stereotypes.
A native of Pakistan, Raza came to Canada in 1989 with her husband and two sons to settle in Toronto. She is an acclaimed freelance writer with the Toronto Star and presents frequently as an advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. Raza spoke Saturday night at Park Street United Church.
Followers of the faith are not all radical extremists and suicide bombers, as the majority are more interested in being model citizens, she said. “There are stereotypes that Muslims are all terrorists and fundamentalists, which they’re not. It’s maybe less than 0.1 per cent that are, but unfortunately they speak louder than the rest of us,” Raza said in an interview with The Chatham Daily News.
She said the common perception of Muslim women is suppression and oppression in their homelands.The belief that Islam propagates violence is unfairly connected to those acts by the media, she added.
“Every faith has had people at various times who have done acts of violence but we don’t associate them with the faith,” Raza said. “Unfortunately in the case of Islam and Muslims, they seem to be under a microscope and every time there is a violent act it’s associated with the faith.”
She said similar uneducated beliefs damage the reputation of the Islamic faith, especially for Muslims living in North America. Raza enjoys speaking in communities where the knowledge and understanding of Islam is not as widespread. She regularly speaks out against television media who in her opinion present only a skewed view of the Islamic faith.
“People in Canada, especially those in small towns like Chatham, who are not exposed to Muslims on a day-to-day level, learn their Islam, unfortunately, from things like CNN.” She said television media like to focus on the downside of society as they present the negative view which makes for good news.
“Tell me when have you last seen the image of an educated Muslim woman. The images you mostly see are dark and dreary, you see images of terrorists. You very rarely see progressive upper-class people on media.”
Ultimately, what Canadian Muslims are looking for is acceptance in their adoptive Canada, while being free to follow traditional Muslim teachings.
“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not at odds with our Muslim teachings,” Raza said. “Islam teaches us to be good human beings, to be kind, to be civically conscience, to be involved in social work, to look after our neighbours.”
She said it is important and empowering to be good citizens and Canadians, and therefore good Muslims. Raza outlines the similarities between Islam and the Jewish and Christian faiths, because “we are from the same roots.
“I think that we have more in common than we have differences but unfortunately there are people — politicians, clergy — who prefer to divide us rather than unite us.”
Raza talks about those qualities which connect people as human beings.
“I build bridges between not only the faiths, but between the cultures as well.”
CANADIAN LIVING SALUTES Raheel Raza
for forging bonds - and friendships - between faiths
by Christine Langlois
Humanity is one community." It's a line from the Qur'an that Raheel Raza holds dear. And it's a belief that drives this Muslim woman's mission, which is to start a conversation among people of all faiths so we can understand and respect the beliefs of others. Raheel's day job is at the Ontario Heritage Foundation in Toronto, but she's also a passionate volunteer who calls herself an "interfaith advocate."
To get people talking, she writes for newspapers and magazines, and speaks across Ontario.
Facing tough audiences
Raheel has put herself in front of some tough audiences. But an invitation to speak at St. Paul's Catholic High School in Niagara Falls, Ont., was particularly daunting. The gym was full of Grade 9 kids. "I know what a challenging stage this age is, and they were such a large group," she says.
"I was so nervous I took my older son Saif [then 19] for moral support."
Raheel talked about the main beliefs of Islam and some of its similarities to Christianity, then she told the kids they could ask her absolutely anything. After a long silence, she appealed for questions again. Finally a boy at the back raised his hand: "How many wives does your husband have?" he asked.
Dumbfounded, Raheel felt her son bristling at the boy's ignorance and the challenge in the question. Realizing that if she didn't keep her sense of humour, she was finished, she laughed gently and said: "One, as far as I know. But if I hear of any more I'll get back to you." The kids laughed and the teachers' jaws unclenched. In the Qur'an this rare practice of marrying more than one woman, she explained, had been deemed permissible during times of war as a way of protecting the widows and orphans. Comfortable that they really could ask anything, her audience peppered her with more questions.
Building interfaith relations
As a child in Pakistan, Raheel had little notion of other faiths. Then, when she was a young married woman, she and her husband, Sohail, moved to Dubai and got to know people from all over the globe. But it wasn't until the family immigrated to Toronto in 1989, that she discovered people of different faiths working to share ideas and build understanding. Raheel dived right in.
She fired off a piece to the Toronto Star newspaper, in favour of keeping the Lord's Prayer in the local public schools. The city was embroiled in the debate, so the headline above her column -- Muslim in Favour of the Lord's Prayer -- got attention. Soon TV and radio stations were calling, asking Raheel to talk about her beliefs and her views on why all religious expression should be encouraged.
Now the director of interfaith affairs for the Christian organization, SnowStar Institute of Religion, Raheel searches out people from all faiths who will get out there and talk to others, as she does. This kind of discourse is the only path to true peace among nations, peoples and religions, she believes.
"Everybody has a story to tell and I find those stories fascinating," she says.
Raheel's work has taken on more urgency. Five days after the World Trade Center fell, Raheel stood in St. James-Bond United Church in Toronto facing a "very quiet, very reserved" congregation. Her topic: When we come to Canada as immigrants, should we bring our battles with us? She knew the traumatized parishioners wanted to understand what it meant to be Muslim and, as she spoke, her audience thawed and the questions flowed.
Two Faiths Unite At One Pulpit
by Christian Cotroneo
It was a marriage made in mayhem, from the glowing embers of senseless violence. But yesterday, two faiths united to fight one fear: terrorism.
They made an unlikely pair, standing at the altar. One a Protestant reverend bedecked in long white robes, a cross dangling from his neck; the other a practising Muslim in flowing traditional costume. It was the first time such a disparate duo addressed the congregation at Westminster United Church in Whitby. And for Raheel Raza, it
was about time.
"We as Muslims need to open ourselves up to the mainstream," she said. "It shouldn't take a crisis to make something like this happen."
"It doesn't do anything to solve the problem of terrorism, but it certainly improves understanding between people of faith."
Rev. Christopher White invited Raza to speak at the Sunday service and cast light on popular misconceptions about Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States.
"I thought it was really important that we hear the voice of Islam - to reach out as a faith community," White said. The sermon, he added, was all about building bridges across a dark divide of ignorance.
To dispel those myths, Raza told congregants what Muslims do believe in: "Above all we believe we have to love one another to make the world a better place."
Jihad, she said, has many meanings; not one of them amounts to murder. "Jihad is a word that has been mis-used and mis-represented by a few wrongly minded people," she said, calling it an oft-used cloak to "legitimize criminality."
Battling misconceptions and stereotypes, she added, "is actually a form of jihad."
Raza moved quickly beyond "everything you ever wanted to earn about Islam but were afraid to ask" to everything you heard about Islam that made you afraid.
Terrorists didn't just hijack planes on Sept. 11; they hijacked a faith. By using Islam as a cover for murder, the terrorists cast a cloud over all of Islam.
"Osama bin Laden is part of a trend in contemporary Islam that is far from mainstream," she said. "The people that committed this ghastly crime were definitely not people of God or people of any religion."
The message of terrorism is one of "violence, fear, anxiety and distrust." To those terrorists she sent a message of her own: "You have lost. We will not be afraid."
During the ceremony, she had to field some tough questions from the dozens of children that clustered near the altar. "Do you travel in the desert?" one asked. "I have traveled in the desert. I don't travel in the desert any more."
Born in Pakistan, Raza came to Canada in 1989, working as a media consultant and freelance writer. Her passion for issues facing the south Asian community has led her to forums, conferences, seminars and now, congregations.
"I like your shoes," said another child."Thank you," she said. "At my age I need comfort." She wasn't the only one.
"We're living in times of great anxiety. She was a calming presence and a voice of hope," said White. "I'm really glad we did this. It was a rich experience for everyone here today."
Raza's sermon included a passage from the Qur'an in Arabic. Although few in the congregation understood the words, the sentiment was sublime - with the lilting chant lifting hearts as high as the rafters. And it became clear that this was not a handbook for terror, but a book of spirituality and love.
"She was absolutely wonderful," said Clarence MacPherson after the service. The 15-year member of the Westminster parish added efforts like Raza's help everyone become more aware of the challenge the Islamic community is facing today.
"We need to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in that faith community."
The brief binding of faiths brought congregants closer to understanding the wrenching events of Sept. 11 and to God.
A God, Raza said, that is the same, no matter whose heart petitions it. And a God that exists even "in the ruins and in our broken hearts."
That same message was expressed yesterday in an inter-faith open house at the International Muslims Organization of Toronto on Rexdale Blvd. Close to 200 people heard a panel of speakers that included Mayor Mel Lastman and police Chief Julian Fantino on the need for greater understanding and communication to end ignorance and hatred.
"We need to educate those who fear what they don't understand," pleaded Lastman. "And for those who can't understand, there's no room for them in this great city."
Fantino urged those in the Muslim community to report any acts of hatred or prejudice, urging them to come forward.
"Don't be afraid about bothering the police, this is our duty."