It is impossible to define Raheel Raza as anything particular. She is an author, a journalist, a public speaker, a filmmaker, a diversity consultant and an interfaith advocate. For the more than the two decades she has been living in Canada, she has been a champion of peaceful coexistence among the diverse communities of this country. In a presentation to Members of Parliament and international diplomats at the House of Commons, Raza received a standing ovation for her speech called “Celebrating our Differences”. Generation Next recently spoke to this versatile creative activist.
GN: Tell us about your educational and professional background.
RR: I have a University degree in English and Psychology. In Canada I have taken writing courses. I worked for an airline in Pakistan, later in UAE I worked for the ruler of Sharjah in Tourism. In Canada I first worked for an eye specialist at the Toronto General Hospital and later joined the Provincial Government from where I retired five years ago. In between, I freelanced as a journalist, did public speaking, took courses, taught courses, wrote and produced a play, made a documentary and so it goes on and on. Life is a journey of learning.
GN: When did you come to Canada and why? What has been your Canadian journey like, so far?
RR: My family and I came to Canada in December 1989 for a better future for ourselves and our children. Pakistan, my land of birth, was just beginning to get embroiled in religion and politics so it seemed practical to leave. I came for a visit to Canada in 1988, and it was love at first sight. We were lucky – I found a wonderful lawyer on Bay Street; he took our case, and we were here within six months as landed immigrants.
The journey has been with its ups and downs as with all other immigrants. What helped was the positive attitude of Canadians and our own resilience. The first winter was hard since we had never seen snow, but we weathered it well. Our boys (they were 2 and 4 when we came) adjusted first – knowing the language was a big help. We came with the attitude that we will adapt to all Canadian norms that are positive (and there are many) and embrace them, while sharing our own heritage and culture in a positive way without imposing it in the public sphere. The freedoms in Canada – liberty, equality and democracy—are like a breath of fresh air and we have never looked back. Canada is for us the best country in the world and it’s home.
GN: What are you most passionate about?
RR: I’m passionate about many things: Faith, family and friends are very important; women’s rights and activism; my grandchildren; dialogue; learning and knowledge; reading and writing.
GN: You have been a leading voice for women’s rights in Canada. In your assessment, how do South Asian women fare in this country?
RR: According to a current G-20 survey Canada is the best country in the world to be a woman, and I agree. Canada has given me a voice and the freedom to express my views, regardless of how controversial they might be. In Canada I am free to pursue my faith, wear my ethnic clothes, a ring in my nose and be equal. South Asian women have many opportunities in Canada – it depends whether they embrace these opportunities because not everyone does. There are people who have lived here for decades and never travelled the public transit system or seen a movie in a theatre or a hockey game or tasted maple syrup. There are South Asian women in Canada who have risen up and done a lot while others have just enjoyed Biryani parties and done nothing to educate or empower themselves – to each their own.
GN: What are three of the biggest challenges facing the South Asian community in Canada?
RR: a. Sometimes when we migrate to a new country, we bring excess cultural baggage with us, including those tribal and ancient customs that are not even being practiced in our native lands.
- The gap between youth and their parents is creating some challenges. South Asians are usually controlling of their children, and issues such as forced marriages, not marrying outside the culture etc. are creating a rift between parents and kids. Both adults and youth need to educate themselves and also chill a bit. We can’t force our kids to follow our cultural heritage as long as we teach them good universal values. Also many youth are inter-marrying so the taboos on caste, creed and culture need to be discussed and debated in open forums.
- South Asians sometimes bring old enmities with them and then end up fighting turf wars here in Canada i.e. the tension between India and Pakistan or among Sri Lankans, Sikhs etc. I would like to remind them that we are now Canadian and need to leave behind old enmities and forge new and positive relations with each other.
GN: Tell us about your work with interfaith dialogues. What makes you so passionate about this? What have been some of your most rewarding moments in this regard?
RR: I started interfaith dialogue as a way to build bridges of understanding in a country that is diverse and has a multi-faith mosaic. I believe that racism and discrimination is born of ignorance which breeds fear. It’s been a very rewarding journey with amazing feedback. I find it inspirational and challenging. I travel to remote areas of Ontario where the community is a monolith. Once when I was in Grand Bend, a woman came to me and said with tears in her eyes “Thank you for taking away the hate.” This is profound. As a Muslim after 9/11, it’s been an uphill task, but I am inspired by a line from the Quran that says “Humanity is but one community.”
GN: How do you view Canada’s claim to multiculturalism? What should be celebrated? In what areas is inclusion still lacking?
RR: Multiculturalism is not something that can be legislated or forced from the top down. It can only be organic because you can’t force people to like each other. As well, under the umbrella of MC, some communities continue to wallow in cultural practices that are problematic, and the rest of Canada says nothing because they say it’s MC. Political correctness keeps ordinary Canadians from critiquing imported customs like honour killings and FGM. Canada can only be as inclusive as the people coming to Canada are willing to try. It’s a personal effort and a two-way street.
GN: What are some of your current projects?
RR: I’ve just participated in a documentary on Muslim women. I have speaking engagements and write on a regular basis. I am President of a newly registered not-for-Profit called The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow (MFT). I promote my multi-faith music group called SAMA – Sacred Arts and Music Alliance as another way to build bridges – this is music beyond borders.
GN: Tell us a bit about some of your future projects.
RR: I plan to go to UNHCR in Geneva in September. I plan events and a conference for MFT. I would like to write and produce a play. I have a new series called Documentaries and Discussion which is to show films about Muslims/Islam and invite discussion.