The Mystic from the land of Sufis — Uzma Bhutto—by Zehra Nawab
Today clouds sway in the north like long black tresses
To signal the rain, flashes of lightning arrive like brides in scarlet dresses.
My beloved is far, but the rain has brought us close.
- Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
The moon hangs low. The stars are obscured by the glow of the terminal and before the floodlights bleed into dawn, a maynah bird fluffs up its magnificent charcoal plumage and opens its yellow beak to sing. Uzma Bhutto holds her passport tightly in one hand and her husband’s palm in the other. Karachi’s sky, a bluish-grey slate, watches over the glittering green domes of mosques, the sandstone arches of the cathedrals and the copper bells of the temples. Uzma says farewell to the birds and the spaces around her. To the spaces between her mother’s ink pen and her handwriting drifting on paper. Farewell to the spaces between the wooden ladle and the sweet aroma of kheer. Farewell to Karachi, to Sindh, to Pakistan, to the spaces she called her home. And greetings to a new space, a new land, to a new home; greetings to Canada.
Uzma Bhutto migrated to Canada in 2005 after her husband received a job offer from the University of Waterloo. They left their ancestral home with two suitcases each and an avocado green one for the baby that Uzma was expecting. She recalls her eyes being fixated on that one piece of luggage when they landed at Pearson Airport, and she knew at that very moment that she would make every possible effort to make their life as a family unit as comfortable as she possibly could. While she recognized the invariable challenges that lay ahead, Uzma was convinced that she would strive to become an involved and active member of her society in Kitchener-Waterloo, much like her mother had been in Karachi.
Uzma and her siblings were raised by her mother, Khursheed Bhutto, after their father passed away when they were very young. Her mother, who was a professor of economics, ensured that her responsibilities to her household never diminished her zeal for uplifting and bettering her community, and she would regularly spearhead fundraisers to help promote education in Pakistan. Even as children, Uzma and her siblings were encouraged to be involved in the pursuit of these social causes. She recalls making posters for various fundraising carnivals her mother organized. Despite her young age, Uzma helped her mother acquire financing for her projects, and on one occasion successfully convinced the representatives of a cosmetics brand to not only fund their endeavours, but to also give gift baskets of their makeup products to the guests. Many years later, this training would be of help when Uzma became involved with the Coalition for Muslim Women (CMW). For a fundraising event she convinced a well-known beauty brand to not only sponsor the event, but also prepare giveaway baskets for the attendees. The confidence instilled in her by her mother led her to take pride in her voice and to speak and to seek, wherever she may be.
Lets go to the palace
Where love blossoms
And there’s no other conversation but, of love
Where one is united with one’s beloved
-Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
Uzma belongs to the land of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, a towering name in Sufi traditions. She belongs to the land of mystics, of poets, of Sufis. She belongs to the land through which the river Indus flows. She belongs to the southernmost province of Sindh, in Pakistan. This culturally vibrant land caresses the Arabian Sea and cradles one the world’s oldest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization. The Sufistic approach to life that the people of this province embody is one imbibed from two of its greatest saints, Shah Abdul Latif and Shahbaz Qalandar, “who gave the message of serving humanity through love, equality and brotherhood,” she says.
Uzma firmly believes in the spiritual guidance from the saints of her ancestral land of birth, and it is their teachings of community building, tolerance towards different religions and celebrating multiculturalism that she was able to carry with her to her “vibrant adopted land of Canada.”
It is also this very province that gave Pakistan its first female prime minister. And if one were to receive advice from the first woman to serve as the head of state of a Muslim majority country, one would be inclined to listen; particularly if she happened to be one’s relative. When Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, met Uzma at the All Sindh Women Association event, she made Uzma promise that she would work towards becoming someone who cares for, supports and “uplifts the youth and women in need of help.” It was a commitment that Uzma did not take lightly. Uzma’s resolve was further strengthened in working for communities when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007. But while her relative embodied many of the virtues Uzma has strived to cultivate within herself, her early perception of the strength and resolve of women was truly forged by her mother, Khursheed Bhutto.
As Uzma navigated her way through school and then medical college, her enthusiasm on the communal front was underpinned and bolstered by a grounded environment at home. From an early age, a great regard for her cultural and religious identity was instilled in Uzma, along with an appreciation for her past in order to help inform her future. After moving to Canada, Uzma received her Master of Public Health degree from the University of Waterloo in 2009, which helped her gain a valuable understanding of global health issues, primarily female and mental health issues. While doing her Master’s, she worked on an under-researched topic completing a research paper “Domestic Violence against South Asian Women in Ontario,” and later utilizing the experiences toward mental health in diverse communities, particularly South Asian and Arab ones, while also travelling to give lectures at Chinese universities in Beijing and Xian.
Over the years, mental health evolved into a subject that became immensely important to Uzma. This young mother and new immigrant worked as a mental health navigator at Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre for “Strengthening Mental Health in Cultural Linguistic Communities.” She also volunteered at the Canadian Diabetes Association with the Speakers’ Bureau and has participated in the Internship for Leadership Programme with Catherine Fife, MP, as her mentor in March 2015, and she has also conducted mental wellness workshops in China. When Uzma speaks about her work, her eyes light up and her deep sense of service in this sector is palpable and inspiring.
Whether it is her focused attention on arts and humanities at the Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society School (PECHS School), or the exposure to students and faculty of different faiths and backgrounds at St Joseph’s College or the sense of duty that her medical education at the People’s University of Medical and Health Sciences for Women instilled in her, or the pluralistic Canadian society whose values she absorbed, Uzma’s sense of service to Canada, to her city, to her community, is infectious.
Uzma is the embodiment of life is about serving society, caring for family and achieving personal goals, and she is a perfect balance of all three.
I am blessed with the ability to feel,
Then why do you inquire about my creed?
Whatever comes from the beloved is accepted
-Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
In March 2010, Uzma heard that Bill 94 had been proposed in Quebec. The bill demanded the faceveil to be banned when requesting service from the government or when in a public-sector workplace. This regulation was jarring for the Muslim community, as many women observe face covering as part of their religious practice. This incident became a catalyst for women from the Muslim community in Kitchener-Waterloo to come out in large numbers in order to draft a response to the bill. The group of women that sat together and said 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. Thirty grueling days later, this group of women presented their response to Bill 94 at the Kitchener City Hall at an event titled Let Us Talk. It was their first public gathering and it had over 150 people in attendance. The event included a press conference, a panel discussion and round-table talks. The message communicated was a simple one: all women should have the right to freely choose their attire. This event was the inception of the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW).
In June 2021, the world mourned the horrific murder of a Muslim family out for a stroll in London, Ontario. Eleven years since its inception, the CMW continues to take centre stage to address incidents of discrimination and hate, becoming a platform to voice fears, concerns and solutions. They hosted a vigil on June 8, which was attended by 800 people including the mayors of Kitchener and Waterloo, city police, MPPS, MPs, councillors and leaders of the Muslim community. As conversations were underway on the digital video conference platform, the event was interrupted by miscreants hurling abusive, racist, hurtful remarks. That day Uzma was in charge of the technical aspects of the vigil; she acted swiftly by muting and then removing them from the event — a reaction that was lauded by attendees and later journalists.
A heartwarming initiative announced at this event by the CMW was the free counselling support being offered to members of the community to help them process, express and grieve this horrifying hate crime.
The information about the free counselling and support was disseminated at the event. Afterwards Uzma sat down to type out tax receipts for funders and notes of gratitude for the generous donations, all the while hoping that one day she would witness government-level changes, policy and awareness regarding religiously motivated hate crimes and Islamophobia.
In this decade-long journey with CMW as the operations coordinator, Uzma recalls when the office operations were run and coordinated with volunteers and then just one part-time staff with a private cell phone, to the organization evolving to buy its first laptop to now having a full-fledged set up.
During this time, Uzma has specifically enjoyed organizing the Tea and Tales event that was curated as an inviting, women-centric event aimed at bridging cultural divides by sharing a delicious meal and inspiring wholesome conversation. Stories would be exchanged, and questions asked as the guests sat around tables that corresponded to a specific country, with their customs, cutlery and culinary ways. Tea and Tales has been hosted at the Femme Folk Fest, a performance art event by Pat the Dog Theatre, which is an important and far-reaching platform. Uzma looks forward to hosting such an event again soon and helping the CMW reach out to new segments of society through such avenues.
For her community work, Uzma has received numerous awards: The Leading Women/Leading Girls Building Communities Recognition award that celebrates women and girls whose volunteer work has improved the lives of others in their community; The CMW’s Five and 10 Years’ Service Awards; andthe prestigious Madam Anita Ghulam Ali Award in Pakistan, for working toward the schools in rural areas of Sindh, and educating young girls on self-care and hygiene while she was in her second year of medical school.
I have been sitting here waiting for you forever
God knows where you are and only God will bring you back
I am devoted only to you, even though there are many others around
-Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
In 2005, Uzma left a Pakistan that had suffered deeply in the aftermath of the neighbouring Afghan War. Her family embraced Canada as a place that provided security and peace. It therefore visibly moves Uzma when she speaks about the hate-motivated incidents that have inundated Canadian news recently because that is not the Canada she knows. “While hate has no frontiers, love and tolerance also have no boundaries,” says Uzma. Today, more than ever, “we need the message of love and dignity. I believe that harmony and dialogue is the resolution to conflicts.”
As the mystical Shah Jo Raag, Song of Saint Shah Latif Bhittai, plays in the background, Uzma is transported to the tomb of this great saint where this fervent dedication has been sung by devotee musicians for the past 275 years. The verses remind her of Dharti, which in her languages Sindhi and Urdu means earth. Dharti, the earth, where every living being was born and to which every living being shall return, and after perishing there will be no hate and no divisions on lines of colour, creed or backgrounds. Uzma turns mystic herself, “Should we wait to perish to acquire peace and love? Or should we create harmony while we are alive? Where will we find reconciliation?” She ponders these questions as she closes her eyes to the mystical rhythm.
Uzma exudes an incredibly attractive energy; she is calming, she is vibrant, she smiles the brightest smiles, she feels the deepest emotions — the moon smiles at her and lessens the spaces between the earth beneath our feet and the storms within our hearts.