Finding Truth — Nazneen Zaidi—by Seemab Zahra
A mother’s love is unfathomable. She will do anything for her children. But when she is not there, God takes her place. Nazneen lost her mother when she was young, a circumstance that changed things forever for her. No matter how hard it was for her to navigate this world, as Nazneen grew and took steps in the world, she was always on a quest. She constantly felt a divine energy surrounding her, guiding her, shaping her story as an active journey to find the truth about God.
Nazneen Zaidi was one of nine siblings. The family came to Newfoundland, Canada from Pakistan, in the early 1970s. Nazneen was raised with her three brothers; she became accustomed to climbing trees,playing football and other sports activities with them. Their house always echoed with laughter in the early years of their stay in Newfoundland. During this time, Nazneen says she had no idea that while she was enjoying a good life with her siblings, her parents were experiencing difficult times, making efforts to integrate into a completely new society.
Nazneen’s parents set a strong religious foundation for their children early on, and in the choices that they also made in Canada. In 1976, Nazneen’s father went to Montreal to see the Olympics, and found a Muslim community living there. He thought that Montreal would be a better place to raise his family. They moved to Quebec in 1977. Nazneen’s mother was deeply religious; fasting and praying were regular practices in their house. In Montreal, Nazneen began to develop her understanding of her beliefs as she learned more about the historical events that gave birth to Shia Islamic thought, when her parents started to hold Majlis (a form of religious commemoration in Shia Islam) regularly in their home. Acquiring a sense of this history was significant. Nazneen was particularly moved by the pain that was inflicted on the Prophet’s family through persecution, increasing her affection and deep appreciation for the Prophet and his family through all that she learned.
When Nazneen was just eight years old, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her father lovingly took care of her mother at home, preparing meals, and offering food to an increasingly sick spouse. At the age of 10, the unthinkable took place: Nazneen lost her mother. Her mother’s death in the midst of the large family was harrowing, but their father tried his best each day to take care of his children. As the years went on, older brothers and sisters left the house to marry and to move on with their lives. In the years that followed, it was just Nazneen, her father, and two younger brothers in the house. Although she was only 12 years old, she suddenly became the big sister to her two younger siblings.
Exasperated with the notion of dating and the unsolicited attention from men during her high school years, Nazneen became eager to marry. She yearned for a suitable match. After some time, her elder sister introduced Nazneen to her friend’s brother-in-law at an Eid dinner. Their families liked each other, but a marriage could not take place. Nazneen’s elder sister lived in Saudi Arabia and came for a visit to Canada, recommending that Nazneen and her sister move to Saudi Arabia for a time, so that they could spend time with her, and connect with a significant part of a Muslim way of life. There, in Saudi Arabia, she saw women covering themselves from head to toe. This was a strange sight for her, and Nazneen naturally became curious about it.
“Why are these women covering? Why are men not covering? Why am I not covering?” she asked herself. She found the answers in the Holy Quran, in the chapter titled “Women” (Sura Nisa). Those Quranic verses sounded logical to her; in her life experience, she had become aware of the fact of unsolicited attention from men. She started covering her head, but her family opposed it. The opposition from the family was so strong that she eventually gave up, but she quietly told herself that she would return to covering her head when she was able to.
Nazneen returned from Saudi Arabia with a richer understanding of Islamic thought, now appreciating that there was more to know that she had been aware of through her Shia upbringing. The person she wanted to marry was a practicing Sunni with a connection to Shia Islam through his mother, who was Shia. Nazneen and her future husband agreed that he would embrace Shia Islam while keeping some of his Sunni practices.
Nazneen was 17 at that time. Although she got married, she had strong inner hopes that she needed to test out in life. Bit by bit, changes in her career path followed as Nazneen got to know herself better. As her family wished, she entered chemical engineering studies, but did not like it and quit. She could not pursue her dream to become psychiatrist either. Her husband was a full-time student at that time and was close to graduation, so Nazneen changed her plans and decided to continue her education part-time. Within two years, Nazneen graduated from college in pure and applied science, a foundation for more specialized scientific education in the future. She continued to improvise creative new skills, constantly proving that any new circumstance pulled out dynamic hands-on talents from her. This hands-on side of her led to a small business of interior decorating while she continued to study and work.
Before long, Nazneen became a mother of two sons. Becoming a mother transformed her; she loved children a great deal, but she had dreams of her own as well. She began educational courses as electives, along with history, to help her son who faced challenges at school. She was pleased to complete her double majors in history and education with religion and psychology as minors. After volunteering at her son’s school while completing her own degree, she was hired as a teacher’s assistant. Her career life began to blossom in many directions; she also taught at a Sunday madrassa, where she had volunteered for many years. Life was good!
Nazneen and her husband’s ecumenical marriage became an impetus in their search of truth. The religious discussions between them impelled her to study different sects of Islam deeply. She read widely about Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, and turned to many diverse sources to compare and contrast historical and religious questions in Shia and Sunni Islamic thought. Her study opened a Pandora’s Box for her initially, but she was determined to find Sirat e Mustaqim — the right path that leads to God — and, while enlightening herself, she felt that she grew closer and closer to God in her explorations. In working hard to answer her husband’s many questions, it seemed that Nazneen was starting to find answers to her own questions.
Early in their marriage, Nazneen’s husband did not approve of hijab either; instead, he wanted her to wear modern dresses. Nazneen herself had always loved fashion, so she started dressing up as well. But at the back of her mind she knew that it was not what she wanted. While reading a book called God and His Attributes, she read a verse from the Holy Quran, “When you take one step toward God, He takes 10 steps toward you.” Nazneen absorbed these words as a sign and decided to start covering her head; this time she vowed that she would never take it off. She started wearing modest clothing every day to the university. Her colleagues and professors would ask her why she started covering herself, but she continued on with her modest ways.
In 1999, while Nazneen was in her Master’s at Concordia University, she became pregnant again. She prayed to God to make her child a true Muslim and servant of God. She would read the Quran every day and ask God for forgiveness and mercy. God gave her a daughter this time. She named her Safa. Safa was a miracle child from the very beginning. When Safa was born, Nazneen left her Master’s program and stopped working; she wanted to stay with Safa and give her baby her full attention.
Nazneen was very content with her life as a mother. But her search for the truth about Shia Islam still unfolded in nuanced steps. Her quest for God intensified when she started experiencing a divine presence around her, affirming for her that God had indeed taken 10 steps toward her when she had taken just one. She found answers to her questions, and her faith became stronger than ever. She started wearing an abaya (a long loose gown many Muslim women wear when in public) along with her hijab after that experience.
When Safa turned four, Nazneen enrolled her in a Shia private school where she was soon hired to teach French. In June 2006, Nazneen and her family moved to Waterloo, Ontario, as her husband accepted a job offer at Research in Motion. Finding work as a teacher in Ontario was arduous, so she began teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) first as a volunteer at the YMCA, and later as a professional, after she successfully completed her post graduate program in TESL (Teaching English as Second Language) from Conestoga College. During this time, she also became involved with the Kitchener Mosque (a Sunni mosque) at the executive level, opened her own Islamic preschool in her basement, and started volunteering at Shia Imambargah. These choices reveal Nazneen’s confidence in reaching out to those who are different from her, while she remains firmly grounded in her beliefs.
While Nazneen was an executive at the Kitchener Mosque, she learned about Bill 94, aimed at banning all kinds of religious head coverings in public offices in Quebec. This was disturbing for Nazneen who had just moved from Quebec. She knew that there were likely only a very few ladies in the entire province of Quebec who covered their faces. Meanwhile, she received an email to join a meeting at the local Kitchener Mosque whose agenda was to stop Bill 94 from coming into effect. Together, a group of women wrote a statement for the press to focus the attention of authorities on Bill 94. The group chose Nazneen to read the statement to the press because of her connection with Quebec. This group of women later evolved into an organization called the Coalition of Muslim Women Kitchener-Waterloo (CMW). Nazneen did not join the organization right away, but attended their events regularly. Later she joined as a member.
In 2011, she took part at a Coalition event called A Day of Dialogue organized by the CMW. Nazneen narrated the facts of how Islam protects a woman’s rights contrary to the idea of women being oppressed in Islam. In her remarks, she highlighted that the rights European and Western women were claiming today had already been given to Muslim women 1400 years ago.
The Coalition was formed on the basis of taking initiatives to bridge gaps between Muslim women and the larger community. Nazneen played an important role in making these bridging steps possible. She became an integral part of a project whose primary agenda was to defy hate crimes in Waterloo Region, and then assist people impacted by them. Nazneen and her team sent out surveys to find out the number of people who had experienced hate crimes in Waterloo region. Once the team had data, the next step was to educate people. Nazneen and her partner visited various schools and women shelters in the Waterloo region to deliver first-hand and direct knowledge about hate crimes, as well as ways to overcome them.
Prior to joining the CMW, Nazneen had stereotyped some immigrant individuals around issues of English language and their intellectual abilities. But when she met a wonderful diversity of women and actively worked with her new friends, she realized that these women had a great deal to offer, despite their challenges with the English language and their education. The Coalition enlightened her, and gave her a stimulating new angle of looking at people. She appreciated how women of the CMW strived to educate the public around their diverse religious and cultural traditions. The time she spent with Coalition impacted her in unexpected ways; much of what the members did together created a positive public image. It was amazing to see how far they had come. The CMW treasured Nazneen’s dedication and loyalty, and also offered her the responsibility of a chair lady, but she declined due to her various commitments at that time.
Although the Coalition broadened her view and helped her evolve, Nazneen felt a thirst to do more. Her core quest in life was tied to religious questions. She wanted to invest her energy in jurisprudence, belief and Asool e Deen (Fundamentals of Islam) and start her own full-time Islamic school, but that could not happen. However, in 2017, she opened her own non-profit organization called the Al-Mahdi Charity. Its main objective was to help women in distress, educating every individual who needs help, regardless of religion and faith. Currently, Nazneen is dividing her time between managing her granola business Nature’s Mix, leading the Al-Mahdi charity and teaching ESL.
It has been a long time since Nazneen’s mother passed away. For many years since that momentous event in her life, she maintained a diary, addressing it with the simple title “Dear God.” In her diary, Nazneen recounted the joys and sorrows of her life, as if she were talking directly to God. Today, she no longer needs that diary as she steadily feels the unceasing connection with God that appeared after she decided to embrace the the hijab.
Nazneen’s search for truth reignited the fire that was once lit by her mother long ago. It was a fire that continued to blaze steadily for her, guiding Nazneen along as she discerned a rich path of meaning in her life.