Many Hats, One Path — Fran Pappert-Shannon—by Anneke van den Berg
Throughout her life, Fran Pappert-Shannon has worn many hats, hats she exchanged for hijabs after becoming a Muslim. But whether she was “Miss Fran,” the host of CTV’s Romper Room television series, or Sister Fran of the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW), Fran has always just been Fran. Loving life, humankind, and always interested in those around her, she has had an impact on the lives of many. Fran's voice and commitment to the CMW, along with the vision she shared with other founding members, have helped to shape this organization into what it is today.
Fran embraced Islam in early 2009; it was a decision that truly changed her life. In Islam, she found a religion of belonging and of peace, but also a lot of joy. It was a natural choice for her, as Islam just really made sense and answered all her big life questions. Fran also chose to visibly be recognized as a Muslim by making the bold decision to wear the hijab, the headscarf. This commitment to her new religion wasn’t understood or appreciated by everyone. Fran met the negativity she received with patience and many clear, but kind words.
Fran always had a knack for words and language. Well-spoken and outspoken, Fran’s voice is distinct and clear on a wide variety of topics. She was first introduced to the Coalition when they were planning their first event, the community forum “Let Us Talk,” on the negative impact of Bill 94 in Quebec. She immediately began to help the talented women with the press conference before the actual event took place. While this was the first time that Fran would help the Coalition with communications and media relations, it would not be the last.
Fran was excited and felt energized after the community forum. It had been a great success and had brought many members of the community together, in addition to receiving a great deal of media attention. “I was so impressed by the organization of the event; I couldn’t believe how professional this first event was!” Among these enthusiastic and talented women, Fran felt a sense of belonging. She had found sisterhood at the CMW. Never one to do things by halves, Fran jumped in fully, joining the Coalition without hesitation.
That summer, Fran’s home was the site of one of the first meetings with her Coalition partners, or sisters, as they referred to each other. Fran vividly remembers this first meeting and the names of the women gathered in her home. Around her kitchen table and with the aid of many refreshments — after all Fran is a fabulous host — they shaped the CMW together.
At that same meeting, the women also started planning one of Fran’s favourite events of the Coalition: “Speak Up, Speak Out, Sisters!” This series of five workshops took place in October 2010 and featured some particularly prominent speakers. Fran was among these speakers and she facilitated the communications session, bringing her experience to the table. She also helped to secure the funding for this important project.
Waterloo Region had not seen an event like this before. Muslim women of different backgrounds and sects came out from across the region to attend “Speak Up, Speak Out, Sisters!” Remember, this was in 2010. Events were not shared on social media yet, and the Muslim community in Waterloo was smaller, and less connected than it is today. Many participants of the workshops didn’t know each other, which brought an extra dimension to the whole project. “It was validating, that we, as a new organization, were able to draw all these people out. And we received funding for this important workshop series.”
Fran felt invigorated being part of this dynamic, new organization, and truly felt a sense of belonging. She made some lasting friendships among the many sisters of the Coalition, and quite a few are still present and important in her life today. “I was thrilled to be a part of all this and I truly benefited from everything.” Group initiatives and the strong leadership were key to the success of the CMW Fran discovered. The Coalition achieved many significant goals and was able to build bridges of understanding with the larger community. Through the Coalition’s many training sessions and events, local Muslim women were given the opportunity to enhance their skills and capacities.
Fran, too, was given many opportunities to utilize and practice her skills during her time in the CMW. At the Coalition, from the early days onwards, it was clear that all the media relations and communications work would be predominantly Fran’s domain. Of course, Fran’s role went beyond being writing many of the Coalition’s statements, pieces, and such. Within the Coalition, Fran often represented the voice of the “opposition,” to ensure the position of the CMW and the language used was well thought through. Fran, familiar with the mainstream Canadian viewpoint and a creative wordsmith herself, was the right person to lead these often difficult conversations. “Even though these viewpoints were often not my own, I felt that we needed to be prepared in all circumstances.”
There is one other event that Fran recalls with joy. “Breaking the Fast with Muslim Women” took place on June 12, 2017. It was a community event, where non-Muslims were invited to join the traditional fast breaking — the iftar. The event started at 7:00 p.m., although the fast breaking wouldn’t take place until after 9:00 p.m. The program was wonderful and challenged many stereotypes that the public might have had about Muslim women. Fran was especially enchanted by the wide variety of sumptuous dishes served. As a staunch vegetarian for many years, Fran often had a difficult time finding foods to meet her dietary needs at Muslim events. “I never ate that much rice and salad in my life!” This event, however, provided all the good food and company that make an event a success. Fran enjoyed it all. “But to be honest, it ran a little bit late for me!”
This was the last major event by the CMW that Fran would attend. By the summer of 2017, Fran began to notice that many of her beliefs and ideals weren't shared by some of her Coalition colleagues.
Fran had continued her spiritual journey after embracing Islam in 2009. She had become inspired and touched at her core by the work of the El-Tawhid Juma Circle Unity Mosque in Toronto, and El-Farouk Khaki, its charismatic and openly gay imam (leader), in particular. The Unity Mosque challenges traditional Islamic gender roles and divisions in spiritual space and practice, and advocates for women and non-binary folk to lead prayer and perform all religious rituals in mixed settings. It is a place of inclusion, love, and acceptance for all, whatever your religious sectarian background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Believing in these principles, Fran felt she had finally found her spiritual home.
Toronto is quite a distance from Kitchener-Waterloo, and Fran’s dream was to start a Unity Mosque in the Waterloo Region — and so she did. Of course, this ruffled quite a few feathers among the Muslim community. While the Unity Mosque aims to create a safe space for religious practice and gathering of all Muslims, it felt threatening to some in the community. Fran was vocal and never wavered in her belief that all people have roles to play in religious practice — that it is incorrect to deny this right to those who do not identify as men. Some of these critical voices were present within the Coalition as well.
Fran, always striving for authenticity, realized that her calling was now elsewhere. In October 2017, Fran announced in the form of a beautifully written letter that she was leaving the CMW. It was a decision that surprised many members, as Fran had been such a visible and active board member of the Coalition for such an extended period of time. Her exit felt sudden to some, although others had seen it coming.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Fran. During her seven years with the Coalition, she had experienced so many wonderful moments, and Fran had been intensely involved, committing much of her time and energy to the CMW and its work. But it was also an opportunity for her to focus on the work she wanted to do as a spiritual activist and to broaden her spiritual horizons.
When Fran left the CMW, the Kitchener-Waterloo Unity Mosque was still in its early stages. Fran knew that this was the path that God willed for her. With a lot of persistence and patience, Fran, with the help of some others, nurtured a small community of about a dozen members into a vibrant community of nearly 70 diverse folks today.
Fran has found her spiritual home. Home is the place where she, and all women and men, can equally perform all spiritual rituals and worship God surrounded by people that value her; it’s the place where her beliefs in gender equality and LGBTQ+ affirmation in Islam can be expressed. It’s a warm, safe space that Fran has long yearned for. “The Kitchener-Waterloo Unity Mosque is a space where people can be authentic to themselves and authentic to God, and I love that profoundly.”
Fran’s voice helped shaped the Coalition in many different ways, and her voice continues to shape the region’s Muslim community as the imam of the Unity Mosque. A spiritual activist, Fran will always use her voice and her words to bring people together, to challenge them and also to spread the kindness that is inherent to her being. Fran has found her way, and there is no stopping her.