Why did you choose to be an advocate for South Asian Women facing discrimination?
Life circumstance has definitely led me to being an advocate. I have always been one to challenge societal and cultural expectations and those that impede on gender equality.
But as many advocates will tell you, we have to endure much to learn the lessons that life is trying to teach us. I have and continue to experience my share of challenges as it relates to society’s expectations of “what my role is as a woman” and the way I see myself to be “an agent of change”.
In my books I speak about my life, my attack post 9/11 that was hate-motivated – gendered islamophobia or my marriage which turned out to be immigration fraud. Be it witnessing abuse and/or experiencing it, I identify as a survivor of violence and realize at a very core/ deep level the importance of women’s healing. We heal when we realize that it’s time to put ourselves first. No one can do that for us, only we can do that. But it’s a choice we need to make.
How are you challenging your own community/ cultural norms and creating a new world for the next generation?
There are many norms that I have challenged over the years, but these days, my focus has been on faith and gender equality. In launching Canada’s first Women’s Mosque, I have taken a position to stand up for the rights of women in my faith.
I fundamentally believe that women have the right to be treated with respect, honour and love and that they should be valued and treated as sacred beings that have the right and the ability to connect with the divine creator.
Far too often women (across communities) are treated with disrespect and violence. In our case, our text has been misinterpreted to such a degree that many men choose to use these texts to perpetrate violence against women and it’s time to call them out on their actions. Enough is enough.
How can we create a better world for ourselves if we continue to live and reinforce the status quo?
Violence against women across all communities and faiths have to end and for me, the Women’s Mosque is not just a physical space in Canada, but rather it’s a movement of women that have decided that enough is enough. We are committed to ensuring that women are treated with respect, honour and dignity and that starts now.
You have been open about your weight loss journey on social media. Many brown women belong to cultures that don’t openly talk about a woman’s body goals, health or body image. What made you share this journey and how does it relate to your body?
For years I neglected my body. I would emotionally eat to try and “push down” the pain. Hoping that it would just some how go away. I was shamed by some of the closest people around me, for “not being beautiful” for “being fat” and would constantly being told that I had to lose weight if “I wanted to get married”.
I would always be told as soon as I was about to start eating, that “I ate too much” and that “ I would never be anything if I didn’t meet society’s and my communities’ expectations of what it meant to be a beautiful woman”.
But when it really hit me was when I got married and he married me for immigration. I was at my heaviest at the time. I was 475 pounds and I in many ways compromised by marrying him because I started to believe others around me when they said that I would never find anyone else.
What turned out to be a nightmare of a year, turned out to become the very reason why I realize that self-care and self-love was only as real as I wanted it to be.
And now that I had hit rock bottom for the 2nd time in my life, I realized that it was time to love myself first and foremost. So I did. I started going to the gym, created a fitness routine for myself, started making better food choices and slowly but surely the results began to show. I would say I’m still a work in progress even today. So far I have lost over 270 pounds on my journey and I would say I still have another 60 pounds or so to go, but I’m clear that I’m not doing it for anyone else but myself. Now that I’m fast approaching 40, as a single woman, I’m also doing it so that I continue to remain healthy, for I know that at the end of the day, I have to rely on myself and I don’t have anyone else I can rely on when I go home.
When I started to lose the weight, I took pictures more to motivate myself but then I realized that other women were finding inspiration in my sharing as well, so I continued to share.
In the end, I have come to love myself and I believe truly that investing in yourself whether it’s doing a workout, making better food choices or simply just taking the time to reflect, meditate or do whatever it is that brings you joy, is just a way for me to love and value myself.
Someone told me once that our body is a vessel for the Divine love and light. Then why don’t we treat it as such? That certainly shifted my perspective. And so I treat my body as I would treat anything else that is sacred, with love and care <3
In the mainstream media, body positivity is generally associated with women proudly showing off their curves and demanding freedom to express themselves in any type of clothing they want. How do you think a South Asian woman can create a space for herself in this “body positive” culture while respecting her culture?
There are many ways to express yourself and be beautiful. It begins with you. I know for me, I wear what I choose. It’s generally never conventional 😊 and that’s ok! I mix and match clothing all the time. Be it western and eastern styles or mixing and matching tops, jackets and pants with dramatic jewellery, I have found a style that works for me.
I personally prefer to wear clothing that covers me, some may call it modest wear, but I would call it clothes that allow me to feel comfortable so I’m able to simply be. There are moments where I give way to discomfort for fashion, like when I ran in the election in 2015, but these days, comfort usually wins, and I can still feel and look great!
So do you. Just be and enjoy yourself. There is a whole world out there. Be it in cultural wear or “mainstream western wear”, the world is your oyster. There are many jewels to uncover and enjoy.
Tell us a bit more about your new initiative called Ascension of Women.
The Ascension of Women is just that. It’s an opportunity for women to come forward and to travel with me, to receiving coaching and really start to examine what may be holding them back from being all that they need to be. In some cases, it’s simply a way for them to step out of the box and really start to see themes differently. To start to take time out to love and honour themselves and to realize that they have all this untapped potential which is just waiting to be unleashed.
We have a trip to Banff, Alberta where we will explore the mountains at the end of March and then in August we will be going to Quebec for Whale Watching in the Atlantic.
In speaking to many women, most women have rarely had the chance to travel and experience such things on their own.
I was no different. It’s taken me years to come to a place where I would consider myself to be fully independent, enough that I can live on my own, travel alone and simply just be – i.e. experience joy by myself. So in my mind, the big question is why not?
Now is your chance to really take that step forward and know that anything is possible and we are here to support you through it. <3
The brave journey you have chosen may come with some challenges because not everyone in the community is open to adapting to change. How has this affected your personal life and what sacrifices have you had to make?
Well, it has been quite the journey so far. The announcement of the Women’s Mosque of Canada immediately caused a separation in my life as they say – like oil and water. There are many who believe that what I’m doing is unconventional, untraditional and even borderline blasphemous.
Others have come forward, from other communities primarily, to show their support for the courage it has taken to take a step forward and advocate for space for women within our faith and within our community where women are truly elevated and treated with the respect, honour and love that they deserve.
What we see in scripture and what we see in actuality, sadly like in many traditions, are quite different. We have a history of strong empowered women from the starting of revelation yet it seems that so much of those traditions are hidden or left unspoken. Women are often pushed to the side or to the “attic or basement” in the mosques, simply reiterating how devalued they in the sign of leadership and men in our community.
I’m redefining what it means to be surrounded by family and friends. My support system is certainly not whom I thought it would be, but I’m grateful for their support.
And like many times in my life, going against the grant will inevitability mean that you lose friends, you lose family and even confidants. Your circle becomes smaller and only those who are truly willing to stand by your side during the difficult times remain, the rest wither away as is expected. But when things turn again for the best, then all return as if they were present from the very beginning.
I have come to terms with this process now, it was a lot harder to absorb and to process in the past, but I’m grateful again for my support network of friends “my spoken family” that continues to stand with me no matter what.
Who are your role models and why?
Great question! I don’t know that I have one specific role model. What I can tell you is that there are many who inspire me to be who I am.
Whether they are people from the past, from history or people in my life currently, each day I learn something new and continue to keep my mind and heart open so that I can continue to feel inspired to be all of who I need to be.
There are incredible women and men from the past that I admire, many from the civil rights movement, people from my own tradition of Islam and those that have dedicated their lives past and present to human rights and justice while upholding non-violence as a way of life.
What are your words of wisdom to brown women on this International Women’s Day?
International Women’s Day is always bittersweet for me. It’s the day we celebrate how far we have come and remembered how much further we need to go in the fight for gender equality.
My advice to you on International Women’s Day is this:
Live your dreams. It’s ok to be courageous. It’s ok to go against the grain. Surround yourself with supportive people, if you aren’t feeling supported by a circle, then redefine who you choose to associate with. Love yourself and treat others as you expect to be treated. Exemplify love, compassion and nonjudgement towards yourself and others. It’s not easy as you think it is. Really stop and reflect on how we speak to ourselves.
Misogyny is real and its inherent impact on us is real.
Racism and all forms of discrimination are real and they can take a toll on how we see ourselves and our self-worth. So take the time to nurture yourself, find and connect with the land and find ways to rejuvenate yourself.
For only you can love yourself and take care of yourself, no one else can and will.
Our actions have the ability to influence others and we being our journey from within and then outward.
If you see a change that needs to be made or an issue that needs to be addressed, speak your heart and find like-minded allies. And finally, be safe. This work isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. That’s why that support system is key <3
As the Principal consultant of her own firm FSK Associates, Farheen has held several leadership positions working for and providing oversight in the areas of capacity building, community engagement, fundraising, marketing and communications to organizations of varying scales. To date, Farheen has raised over $27.5M for local and global causes. Currently, Farheen’s focus is working on building the capacity of non-profit & charitable organizations from organizational redesign to strategizing and generating new revenue sources.
In 2015, Farheen ran in the Federal election as an MP candidate and became the only Hijab wearing woman to run during this 11 weeks federal anti-muslim, hateful divisive election campaign.
She identifies as a survivor of violence and has worked in the anti-violence and anti-poverty sectors of the last 15 years.
Farheen is also the Lead coach of Ascension of Women, a coaching and mentorship organization designed for women to break through barriers and to live up to their true potential. The organization takes trips, hosts workshops and provides 1 to 1 coaching sessions. Details can be found at womenascend.ca
Edited by Sharmila Sivasankaran
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