Cambridge’s Change Maker — Rubina Bilal—by Anneke van den Berg
“Life at home is important, but going out and engaging with the larger community, especially as Muslim women, is equally important.” Rubina is vocal about the importance of Muslim women fully participating in society; it this conviction that has driven her since she was young. As long as she can remember, Rubina has lived an active lifestyle and that did not change when she came to Canada.
“I always liked to be out; I don’t really like staying home.” When Rubina settled in Cambridge, she was out and about all the time. She regularly attended programs, gathering information and sharing whatever she knew with others. Later, she was able to turn her knowledge of the local community into her job. She is a Peer Health Worker, and sharing information and talking with others is now part of her job description. She also advocates for an active lifestyle. Rubina enjoys staying active, healthy and being outdoors.
Rubina grew up in Pakistan, and spent much of her childhood playing and exploring outside. Her father was an engineer at the Khanki Headworks at the Chenab River in Punjab province. Her family lived in a small settlement. It was home to those employed at the waterworks and their families, and everyone knew each other. Families with older children often chose to move away, as there weren’t many options for education for students in higher grades. There were plenty of kids for Rubina and her brothers to be friends with. For Rubina, it was a wonderful place to grow up, although she realized at a young age that she was often the only girl permitted to play with the boys outside. “I was the only daughter in my family, but my father raised me as a son.” Rubina is proud of her father for doing that. “My father had given my brothers two options. Either they would allow me to play with them and the other boys outside, or we would all have to stay inside.” The choice was easy for the siblings; staying inside was boring and going out was far more tempting.
Rubina felt close to her brothers, although there was sibling rivalry as well. The relationship with her middle brother, “an academic genius,” motivated her to excel in her studies as well. Rubina definitely has a competitive streak, but her mother encouraged all her children to study hard and take their education seriously. “She never wanted me to become a housewife only. My mother believes that a good girl takes care of her family in different ways.”
Rubina went to university, continued her professional career as a teacher and got married. Teaching had never been her goal, although she liked it well enough. During this time, her family gradually migrated to Canada. Eventually, she was the only one of her siblings left in Pakistan as even her parents had migrated to Canada. One day, her family contacted her to let her know that her profession, economic analyst, had become eligible for a Permanent Residence application. Her tight-knit family missed Rubina; Pakistan was far away. Rubina decided to apply and was invited for an interview after three years. On the day of the interview her mother spent the day in prayer. “She wished, prayed that I could join them.” The interview went well, and her application was accepted.
For Rubina, though, it was bittersweet. She loved teaching at Lawrence College, where she was working at that time. The scenic setting of the college in the heart of the mountains and valleys of Northern Pakistan made working there attractive for outdoorsy Rubina. “I was living close to the mountains and it was so beautiful. I really loved it there.” The spectacular surrounding, with all its options and activities, was definitely tempting, but ultimately, for Rubina, family came first. She and her small family packed up to move to Canada. A difficult decision, but one she has never regretted.
Rubina, her husband and her five-year-old son landed in Canada in May 2004. By June, Rubina started working at a Tim Hortons. It was a completely new experience for her but she dove right in. While she was eager to work and learn more about her new home country, her lack of Canadian experience led to interesting situations. Rubina had a hard time differentiating between the smaller Canadian coins. “Dimes and nickels were especially difficult. One day my manager was asking me if I had a roll of nickels. I had no clue what he was asking for. I knew 10 cents and five cents, but I had never heard of nickels or dimes. He couldn’t get how I didn’t understand that. He was in a rush and said: “You are giving Tim Hortons a bad name!” I will never forget what nickels are now.”
Figuring out coins is one thing, but pastries were a whole different ball game for Rubina. “I spent every free minute in the store trying to memorize the different names of the sweets. I learned that donuts are round, but that apple fritters are a kind of donut, although they are square and chunky. Danishes are completely different and often have nuts on top.” Looking back, Rubina finds these early experiences funny, but also necessary. “I learned much about Canadian work culture during that time. Back home, we refer to our managers as sir and ma’am. It was very difficult for me to call my managers by their names, but I had to learn that.”
Rubina had two more children. While she spent a lot of her time taking care of them, she also found time to get to know her new home. She went to every program and class available to her and was a regular at the Early Years Centre. “I needed to learn to communicate with the larger community. Our generation struggles to settle in Canada, but I wanted to protect the next generation, our children, from facing similar difficulties.” Education is important to Rubina. “I believe that we can get respect through educating ourselves and knowing our rights in Canada. We need to know what we are talking about, when we need to speak up about things that happen to us. That is how we, first generation Canadians, can make communication on difficult topics and issues happen.”
When the Boston Marathon bombings happened in 2013, Rubina was attending the Small Steps to Success workshop. “I was shocked by the news and immediately began praying that the perpetrators wouldn’t turn out to be Muslim. I knew that if they would be linked to Islam, that our Muslim community would feel victimized, again.” Together with her good friend Abiha, Rubina would often discuss creating a space to talk about these kinds of events, and their impact. It would be a safe space to discuss issues pertaining to Islamophobia and discrimination with other Muslim women to begin with, but in the future it would also be open to the larger community. “Unfortunately, there was no place for that back then.” The two friends would often revisit this idea over the years. It was more than a dream for both of them; it was their shared passion, their goal.
In 2015, Rubina began to work as a Peer Health Worker. She found out about the position from her activities at the community centre she attended and was encouraged to apply. Rubina was, and still is, running programs on nutrition and staying active in the community. That same year, she met the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW) at a leadership training course at KW Counselling. The Coalition gave a presentation to those attending the training session. Rubina was impressed by both the presenters and what was presented. “I was fascinated, so inspired.” She had had no idea that an organization like the CMW existed in Waterloo Region.
Rubina knew that she had to become part of the Coalition; she felt very excited about it. Volunteering was an obvious choice for her. She already volunteered in a variety of places. Rubina participated in many programs with the Coalition, such as “Tea and Tales” and “Taste of Ramadan.” The Salaams Canada campaign in February 2017 was one of the events for which she has the fondest memories. Together with many other volunteers, she baked dozens and dozens of cookies, and handed them out to the public on a bright afternoon in February. “The faces of people shone with gratitude, when I gave them a cookie. Seeing that reaction truly changed my inner life. Such a small action, but such a huge impact.”
Rubina was inspired by the work of the Coalition, and she would often talk about it with others. “I shared at my job about the work that the Coalition was doing in Kitchener. I let them know that I wanted to change the image of Muslim women in Cambridge as well.” At that time, Rubina’s supervisor and community services manager at Kinbridge Community Association was Amy Slack. Amy listened attentively to Rubina’s ideas and passion, but her response surprised Rubina. “She simply asked me: “So what do you want to do here?” When I explained that I was thinking of creating an empowerment program for Muslim women, she asked me to get the names of 25 women who would support the program idea.” Without much effort, Rubina got the names of 30 women. “It was very easy; the women were so enthusiastic.”
For a while, nothing seemed to happen and Rubina had almost forgotten about the conversation she had. Then Amy came to Rubina and she shouted: “Surprise! Guess what? You have been approved for a grant to do a workshop series.” Rubina couldn’t believe it! It was March 1, 2017. On March 8, four women from Cambridge — Sadia, Abiha, Amy and Rubina — met with Ghazala and Fauzia to discuss how the CMW could support the new program. In October of that year, the first workshop series was launched with the help and mentorship of the Coalition. “Investing in Women” was a five-week series of workshops, with speakers from the Muslim community and the larger community. “Remembering how we started really empowers me. That workshop series is where and when the Muslim Women of Cambridge started.”
After the success of the workshop series, Rubina and a team of women from Cambridge started organizing different events, and also an exhibition. In 2018, the “Day in the Life of Muslim Women” event was launched at Kinbridge Community Association. Between 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. people could visit stalls with information on a variety of topics affecting the lives of Muslim women, from hijab and weddings to prayer, struggles and home décor. The exhibition covered almost everything. It had been exhausting, but worth it.
Rubina and the team started to have regular meetings with other Muslim women, but the meetings brought new challenges. “We didn’t have a dedicated space for us back then. We had to meet at food courts, at the mosque, in a room at the Kinbridge Community organisation… We met wherever we could get together, wherever we were welcome.”
The group was growing, and Rubina and the team realized that they needed a name and an identity. The group decided on the name Muslim Women of Cambridge (MWC). Amy Slack had, once again, helped out by supporting them with coming up with a voting system. Rubina and her friend Abiha were voted to become co-chairs of this new organization. It had been a long time coming, but the two women felt a sense of accomplishment and determination.
With this new name, the MWC wanted to come up with a new event as well. “Together, we thought about the question Muslim women were asked about most.” The group came up with an answer: Ramadan. In 2019, the MWC hosted an “About Ramadan” event at Cambridge City Hall. It was a huge success, and the YMCA invited the MWC to host a similar event for their staff on Ramadan. Another organization approached them as well to do a training series for their staff on a variety of topics, but the MWC decided it was too early for them to organize something like that at that time. “We were just not ready.”
And then the pandemic hit. The MWC had their last seminar on March 10, 2020, . They had so many plans for the future, but the lockdown made everything very complicated. It was impossible for Rubina and her organization to simply do nothing, and soon they started to organize themselves to make face masks for the community. The initiative took off, and volunteers from the larger Muslim community joined as well. They made 1,400 face masks and raised $1,300 for the Cambridge Memorial Hospital. The MWC proved that their organization was here to stay.
In 2021, the MWC received a sizable grant from the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation. This made it possible for them to hire people to help them continue on their journey and get registered as a charitable organization. On March 8, 2021, they launched their website. “International Women’s Day remains an important day for us.”
“I never imagined this journey would take me here. Abiha and I have worked very hard, but so have many other women in the MWC. We are truly a great team.” Rubina is very excited about the future of the Muslim Women of Cambridge. “We look up to the Coalition of Muslim Women. We hope to get the same recognition in Cambridge.” Getting the Rogers Women of the Year Award one day, just like the Coalition did in 2019, is a dream for Rubina. “We were nominated in the same year, I don’t know by whom. It was such an honour to see our sisters, the Coalition of Muslim Women, win.” With her drive and persistence, it would not be a surprise for the Muslim Women of Cambridge — and especially Rubina — to one day be celebrated in a similar fashion.