Living Like a River — Fauzia Mazhar—by Zehra Nawab
There is a great river that flows from the Himalayan peaks through the agricultural plains of Punjab and ends at the Arabian Sea in Pakistan’s province of Sindh. The sheer length and volume of this river is romanticized in its ancient name, Sindhu, meaning an ocean. The Greeks in their literature refer to it as Sinthus, the Romans in their history as Sindus, the Chinese in their documentation as Sintow, and the British in their books as the Indus. It was the city of Hyderabad, along the banks of this mighty river, that a young Fauzia called home. The vast knowledge, history, and civilizations that the river had witnessed she learned about from her parents; observing and adapting to the turbulence of the mighty river and its frequent changing waterways she learned from her family elders, especially her grandmothers. Like the waterbody along which she grew up, Fauzia learned to flow, to surge, to make a path for herself — from Pakistan all the way to Canada, from Hyderabad all the way to Kitchener. And like the mystic waters of the magnificent Indus river, she too learned to care for all the spaces she journeyed through, to foster the communities that she was surrounded by, and to celebrate the confluence of cultures that make her Fauzia Mazhar.
In 2000, Fauzia, with her husband and four children, immigrated to Canada. She had a bachelor's degree in Education and Economics, in addition to a diploma in Computer Programming, when she set up base in Kitchener, on the behest of her relatives, and in hopes for a better future for her children. She was taken in by Kitchener’s hazy winter light, the history enveloped within it, the backyard aviary blooms, the arched trees, and the warmth amidst the greens; the town reminded her of the city she had grown up in. Fauzia was determined to make Kitchener home, similar to her parents making Hyderabad, Pakistan home when they migrated there from Lucknow, India in 1947. After her marriage in 1983, she moved to Bahrain in the Middle East and 15 years later she and her family decided to shift to Canada. Moving, flowing, adapting ran through their veins, seemingly in their DNA.
As a young bride, when the expected request for a present from one’s spouse was usually jewellery, Fauzia stunned her husband by asking for a Sony Walkman. She could now listen to her favourite musicians on her headphones plugged into the portable hand-held player, cocooned within a personal soundscape, which spooled on analog cassette tape. On it she would enjoy crooning to the music of Shehki, Almagir, Michael Jackson, and Boney-M. Soon a bright red Nintendo Tabletop Mario gaming console, a Scrabble board, and table-tennis equipment were added to the presents she received, which the young couple enjoyed together. Now, having been married for many years, Fauzia and her husband continue to revel in their shared passion for listening to music, watching Pakistani television drama series, and enjoying sports. “There are these Cs that I love in my life: children, computers, cricket, and community,” she adds.
Service to community is one of the foundational pillars on which Fauzia was raised. Her parents were both educators and political activists. The first time her father encountered her mother was when she was giving a political speech to an all-female gathering, he did not see her, but he heard her from the outside and decided she was the one he would like to marry. The home that they established for their children was infused with conversations on politics, society, writing, poetry, literature, and oration. Fauzia's foray into community service and running for public office in Canada perhaps comes as no surprise. It too flows within her veins.
When growing up in Hyderabad, Pakistan, Fauzia was encouraged by her family and teachers to balance extracurricular activities along with her studies; thus, debates and sports were part of her fascinating universe as a child. After her marriage, Fauzia moved to Bahrain with her husband, where she worked at a private school teaching sports and Mathematics while raising their four children.
At the turn of the new millennium, Fauzia, as a new immigrant to Canada, valued the chance to be able to give back to the country that had welcomed her. She and her husband had brought enough capital with them to invest in setting up their own business. The souvenir shop that they ran and owned allowed them to get to know their new city and interact with its people. During lunch breaks, Fauzia recalls stepping out and exploring downtown Kitchener. It was during one such walk that she came across City Hall and attended a talk taking place there. Her frequent visits to City Hall prompted an interest in the conversations and events conducted there, leading Fauzia to soon begin volunteering at the Working Centre, at the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre and at the Pakistan Canada Association.
Like flower seeds scattered by the wind, taking root in unfamiliar soil but forever nurtured by a familiar sun, Fauzia gradually began to settle into and become an integral member of the community that she belonged to. By 2005, she had completed the highly regarded community leadership development program: Leadership Waterloo Region. Around the same time, she became a board member of the Pakistan Canada Association and was elected president of the organization within a year. As she connected with the Muslim and South Asian communities in the Waterloo region, Fauzia began to notice a gap in their integration within the fabric of Canadian society and the lack of representation of their voices in public discourse. This is what led Fauzia to set up the Muslim Women's Network in 2005. The aim was to have a group that empowers the women by ensuring that their perspectives are valued and recognized. “This group was very focused on internal development through, what Paulo Freire calls consciousness raising or conscientization. The main purpose was to engage Muslim women in discussions to inspire critical thinking around what it means to be a woman of Muslim faith in the contexts of the cultures that we belong to,” explains Fauzia.
A lot of the work that the Muslim Women’s Network had been doing, and the training that Fauzia had been receiving through her continued engagement with the community over a decade, was put to a test in 2010. In March of that year, news organizations across the country were announcing that Bill 94 had been proposed in Quebec. The bill demanded that the face-veil be banned when requesting service from the government or when working in a public-sector workplace. This deep sense of surveillance, masked in the language of ethical conduct sent shockwaves through the Muslim community, as many women observe face covering as part of their religious practice. This news deeply troubled Fauzia and she, along with women whom she had become acquainted with through the Muslim Women’s Network and other joint community initiatives, galvanized to draft a response to the bill. This group sat together one evening and were all of the opinion that if such a proposal was passed by the Quebec government it would isolate Muslim women, as opposed to helping them integrate and feel accepted for their cultural and religious beliefs.
A month later, this group of women presented their response to Bill 94 at Kitchener City Hall in an event titled Let Us Talk. This was the group’s first public gathering and had over 150 people in attendance. The event included a press conference, a panel discussion, and round-table talks. The message being communicated was a simple one: all women should have the right to freely choose their attire. The initiatives taken “received a warm reception, there was genuine curiosity, an interest in knowing the Muslim-female perspective, an eagerness to learn more about them, their faith, and about their everyday experiences,” Fauzia relates with her characteristic wide bright smile.
As this small band of women found the courage to raise their voices publicly, they were surprised by how quickly an email sent to 50 friends grew into a full-fledged discourse and helped them solidify into a group of motivated, focused, and passionate women. All of these women, holding one another’s hands, looking into the rivers that they had each trudged through, these waters now reflecting the skies, multiplying with the flow of gratitude at this achievement, and the thrill of seeing a movement bloom under their touch. This movement became the Coalition of Muslim Women Kitchener-Waterloo (CMW).
Fauzia became the first chair of the CMW and with the other founding members led it to become a federally incorporated not-for-profit organization. A celebrated flourishing community service body, the CMW is made up of diverse and dedicated members and volunteers, consisting of both men and women, of Muslims and non-Muslims. The CMW empowers Muslim women to be leaders and change makers, organizing programs to address stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslim women through community outreach, cultural events, and bridge-building conversations. The organization works in partnership with numerous not-for-profit and community groups in the Waterloo Region.
Fauzia’s near 20-year experience in leadership and management roles in the local non-profit sector has helped her play a key role in the growth and evolution of the organization as she kept a very keen eye on the strategic planning, program coordination, financial budgeting, funds development, and alliance building for the CMW. Her contributions were recognized and celebrated by the Service Award she received at the tenth anniversary gala of the CMW in 2020.
After more than two decades in Canada, Fauzia is a bona fide grassroots worker with a master’s degree in Social Work and a specialization in community, policy, planning, and organization, along with a postgraduate certificate in Leadership and Management from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a businesswoman who, with her husband, ran a souvenir store from 2000 to 2005 and grew their other business, the Continental Driving School, to the extent that it was the recipient of the Waterloo Region Reader’s Choice award. She has also taught a post-graduate course in community development and citizen engagement at Conestoga College.
Fauzia is a community builder and an engaged citizen who plans for the future while being firmly rooted in the present. This approach and attitude has enabled her to press on into mainstream politics.
In 2018, the radiant smile of Fauzia Mazhar in a teal headscarf graced flyers and posters across Kitchener. She was a candidate in the municipal election to represent Kitchener on the Waterloo Regional Council based on her “strong belief that the council must represent the diversity of the community that it serves," she said. During her campaigning process, those close to Fauzia discouraged her from putting her picture on her posters and flyers, in fear of any hate speech, vandalism, or racial comments she might have to handle. “I carefully considered (this suggestion), but the advantage was that people of racialized origins will be visually represented and that to me outweighed any of the risks (that came with) having my picture on boards across the city.” Fauzia was thus particular of the colour, posture, and expressions that she chose, “I wanted the photograph to portray assertiveness plus also friendliness and approachability.” And she was successful because she received nearly 10,000 votes for her campaign, which was one based on “cultivating a welcoming, inclusive, and safe community,” with active work being done to create economic opportunities, to develop higher education institutions, to invest more in the tech sector, and to work towards reducing the city’s carbon footprint. These votes were an ode to her dedication to the work and the support she has garnered over the years. Although she lost her bid, she hopes to run municipally again.
Like the sun sets on the waters, light rippling orange-gold on the waves, skirting each movement, soaring with each high and adding colour to the lows, Fauzia’s growth-focused mindset allows her to keep moving forward and enables her to passionately bring individuals and groups together to create a welcoming, inclusive, and safe community. Fauzia is a spirited, jovial, and focused visionary who continues to flow, to surge, to make a path for herself and a path for the community around her.