A Woman on the Move — Aliaa Shakir—by Anneke van den Berg
Before coming to Canada from Egypt in 2010, Aliaa Shakir was a successful interior designer. “I had a good life before I got married and came to Waterloo, Ontario. I was educated and raised to be open-minded in a loving family. Many times, people would assume I am so open-minded because I had lived in Canada for a few years. However, I have to correct them. It isn’t Canada that has made me this way, it has to do entirely with my upbringing.” Aliaa lived in Waterloo from 2010 to 2014 and she was active with the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW) during this time. In 2021, Aliaa, her husband and two sons are living a good life in Al ‘Ain, United Arab Emirates. Her thoughts shift back to her previous experiences in Ontario. “Canada changed one thing for me: it is the place where I became a mother. I had my two sons while living there.”
Aliaa loves bright colours, flowers and butterflies. “Maybe it is because my home country is so hot, but I, as an interior designer, love colours.” Aliaa joined the Coalition in 2010. It was the same year she came to Canada and the first event she attended was the “Speak Up Speak Out, Sister” workshop series. During her time with the CMW, Aliaa was the chair of the External Events committee, as well as a board member. Her love for butterflies didn’t go unnoticed. The process of designing the flyer of her first major event, “Unveil the Fun with Muslim Women,” was overwhelming. It didn’t help that Aliaa was insistent on putting butterflies on the flyer. “Fauzia never understood my love for butterflies and flowers. The flyer was sent back and forth between us multiple times. I kept adding butterflies, and Fauzia would remove them all. In the end there is one butterfly on the poster on the hand of the female figure. I think, I won.” Not only did the butterfly make the poster, the booths at the event were decorated with butterflies as well. “It was a fun, light-hearted event. Butterflies matched the theme.”
Chairing the External Events committee wasn’t an easy task for Aliaa. She was the youngest one on the committee, making delegating hard. The older women often struggled with individual responsibilities. “There was so much discussion.” Nevertheless, Aliaa prevailed, and the 2012 event was a great success.
During that time, Aliaa’s husband graduated from his Ph.D. program, and started his post-doctorate. Aliaa decided to enroll in full-time studies as well, to ensure that family was eligible to stay in Canada longer. It wasn’t an easy decision for Aliaa, whose son was still young and she was breastfeeding. Aliaa was hesitant to send him to daycare, but later realized that he was ready and there was no way that she would have been able to complete her studies in Event Planning at Conestoga college with him on her side all hours of the day. It was difficult enough having the baby in daycare. “Many nights I wouldn’t sleep. I was always tired.” As part of her studies, Aliaa did a placement with the CMW.
Through her placement, Aliaa and her External Events committee organized the 2013 event “Muslim Women: Now and Then.” The event was more serious with a different vibe than the 2012 event. There was a play featuring many local Muslim women as actors, and a panel of Muslim women speaking on their experiences. There were no butterflies.
By the end of 2013, Aliaa found out she was pregnant again. After giving birth in 2014, Aliaa graduated from her program, and her family left Canada. “We left Canada, because my husband had found a position in the Arab region.” But there was more at stake than that. Aliaa and her husband missed their family, and looking after them was difficult from such a distance. Also, Aliaa wanted their children to grow up to love Egypt and to understand that part of their identity and culture. She knew that living in her home country wasn’t going to be easy for the young family. They were giving up some privileges by making this move.
But Aliaa persisted. “I remember meeting a young woman during a get-together in Canada. She had nothing good to say about her country of origin. She said that she felt no connection to that place. I didn’t want that for my sons. I know Egypt has its problems, but it is important for me that they feel like they belong there and that it is their home. If we stayed in Canada, I was unsure if Egypt would ever be an option for them.” While she often misses Canada, she doesn’t regret her family’s decision to move back to be closer to family. “In the end, I truly believe that I did what I had to do.”
Before she left, the Coalition organized a big farewell party for Aliaa. It was a large event, with a dinner and a beautiful heart-shaped cake. The cake was, of course, purple, and had many flowers on it. Aliaa was in tears, and her heart felt heavy and sad for leaving her sisters at the CMW. “My memories of my time spent with Fauzia and Fran are plentiful. They both made a big difference in my life at that time, and were a constant support throughout difficult times. I loved working with Fauzia and Fran. They made my time in Waterloo special.”
While Aliaa is convinced her choice to return to the Arab region was the right one, she still has many vivid memories of her time in Canada, and with the Coalition in particular. Thinking in retrospect about the CMW is satisfying for Aliaa. “It is reviving something within myself, something that I was missing. Being part of the Coalition left footprints inside of me, it is a big part of my Canadian experience. I really didn’t want to leave the Coalition behind.” As a former board member, Aliaa tried to convince more Egyptian women to join the CMW. She wonders whether she has been successful in doing that.
By 2021, Aliaa has made a comfortable home in Al ‘Ain, in the United Arab Emirates. “This place reminds me of Waterloo; it is very quiet and family oriented.” She is now a fitness instructor. She recognizes such a role might come as a surprise to some. After all, it isn’t an obvious choice for someone, who is both an event planner and interior designer. It was, however, always her dream.
“Back in Egypt, I used to be a synchronized swimmer from age seven to 13. I won several medals as a swimmer. I really am an athlete.” Young Aliaa used to train on weekends and holidays for 12 hours a day, and almost seven hours a day on school days. Training days would usually end by 11:00 pm. The pool was outside, and all practice happened in that pool. “Egypt’s climate is wonderful for swimming outside year-round, but I remember one occasion that we were swimming while it was snowing. Imagine, it was snowing in Egypt!” On that day, the swimmers were allowed to leave half an hour earlier.
During her time in Canada and after two pregnancies, Aliaa had not been able to put much focus on her health. It was not until her youngest son was ready to go to daycare that Aliaa finally had the opportunity to focus on her own health journey. “I understand my body, and I realized then that I needed physical exercise.” Aliaa’s journey was a gradual one. She took two years to lose twenty kilos. “I was in no rush, I knew I had to do it slow and steady in order for the change to last.” When Aliaa started exercising, she wasn’t in the best shape, but that didn’t bother her. “I knew my body had the flexibility, and recognized that, as a synchronized swimmer, I had great coordination. I was convinced I had everything I needed to make fitness my career.”
Zumba, with its upbeat music and fast movements, held an appeal to Aliaa. As a former athlete, her muscle memory made it easy to create and memorize choreographies. She spent hours educating herself, and enrolled in Zumba courses. “After the boys went to bed, I started to dance. I learned choreographies and rhythm.” Aliaa joined the Zumba International Network, with the full support of her husband. “He had to pay my fees, after all.”
Aliaa checked with local gyms to find out what she needed to have in order to teach Zumba classes. “Becoming a personal trainer would have been much easier, but that is not what I was interested in. I wanted to teach classes.” Aliaa did encounter some obstacles. Gyms are big businesses, and the people in charge of them have their biases. “They didn’t think that I, as an Egyptian woman, would be any good as an instructor. But I wanted to prove them all wrong. I wanted to teach Zumba.” Gym clients in the Emirates often seemed to prefer Western instructors over Arab ones. “I don’t really care about what people think, I know I am good at what I do. I work now both in big gyms and small gyms as an instructor.”
Teaching Zumba was a lot of fun, but Aliaa wanted to add something to her classes — belly-dancing. “I am now teaching choreographed belly-dancing as a class. It is something not all people are used to, as I am not a show-off and I want you to participate in my class. I am the not the kind of teacher who gives a show and where you can bring out your phone to film me.” Aliaa takes instructing seriously, and asks her participants to join the class. “I want people to enjoy moving with me and burn calories while doing that. It is okay if my classes are not for you, but a large group of women here like me.” Recently, Aliaa has decided to branch out from dance-based classes to HIIT classes, high intensity interval training. Aliaa had already obtained several certificates to become a successful GX (Group Ex) instructor. “I want to prove that I can do more, and that I don’t have to look like a muscle woman in order to be a great HIIT instructor.”
What is next for Aliaa? “I wish to go back to interior design, and maybe even go back to Canada. It always was my dream to be an event planner at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference, held annually in Toronto, so I might pursue that. And of course, I want my family to do well.” Whatever Aliaa decides to do, it is certain that we haven’t heard the last of her. Her zest for life, expressed steadily in the passion she puts in all her projects and plans, will make it impossible for the world to ignore her.