Outreach, Representation, Reconstruction and Relief — In Conversation with Senator Mobina Jaffer on Paving and Lighting the Way for Muslim Women
By Zahra Khan.
From the halls of Ottawa to the streets of Ontario, Canadian Muslim women have always made their presence known within the socio-political space. They are involved not just as members of Parliament and decorated senators in the House of Commons, but as independent actors prepared to stand up for what they hold dear in the face of targeted violence.
Canadian Sen. Mobina Jaffer is one such individual. Sen. Jaffer was the first South Asian woman appointed to the Upper House. Born to an Indian family living in Uganda, Sen. Jaffer became a Canadian Senator in 2001 after her work as a lawyer. Drawing from her experiences of being a lawyer, she is all too familiar with the consequences that come with building a foundation for Muslim women in the face of adversity. Through her work in the House, with the Liberal Party and as an advocate for her family and the community she holds dear, uplifting the voices of Muslim women has been central to Mobina Jaffer’s work.
“It was so important to make people understand this point of view; to understand where I came from, my background, why I say these things and take this stand—as a storyteller, I have to tell lived experiences,” said Sen. Jaffer over a phone call with Voices of Muslim Women. Bringing in lived experiences to the fight for justice is at the centre of Sen. Jaffer’s work as a political figure and as a Muslim woman.
“Many of my colleagues tell me that it is just who I am. I bring my family in and I am happier for that. My family, my friends and my community make me who I am. For me, it’s just natural,” said Sen. Jaffer. “For one, I love my African sisters in the House, I don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night to talk to them! And my family… I am very blessed, so very blessed. My father was a Ugandan MP, and my mother was the first Asian woman to go to University in Uganda. They had studied all over the world! I was so incredibly blessed to have their support—and that of my family, then, today and at every step of the way. When I get pushback at the front, I am blessed to all my family to fall back on.”
Sen. Jaffer was sworn into the House of Commons a week after 9/11. In her early days in the House, Sen Jaffer’s committed herself in working towards recognizing racial profiling in the Canadian public at the level of Parliament as targeted violence against Muslims and Muslim women shook the Canadian community to its core.
“I cannot take a clinical angle,” she said about her continued work to stand up for her community. “My big fight was to get the government to recognize that there is racial profiling—because outright, some would just say no. And because I was there every week, just standing up and talking about racial profiling, everybody knew that was exactly what I’d always talk about.”
The climate in Mobina Jaffer’s era as a Senator was as hostile as it is today—and even more so for the values she spoke to. But even in the face of ignorance she remained unafraid.
Sen. Jaffer's biggest fight was educating the House on concepts like terrorism; while making sure her voice is heard in the house. Sen. Jaffer created space for Muslim women by empowering them at the community level. She recalls facing resistance from her own community in her early days of being a lawyer.
“When I became a lawyer, I never thought that was going to be my job in life; to make my Muslim community understood. I was fighting them inside for the rights of women. So it's very difficult,” said Sen. Jaffer. “But now things are different. There’s no longer that vacuum of diversity in the Parliament, and I’m able to work with my colleagues to make a difference for everyone."
Sen. Jaffer recalls that there were 29 per cent visible minorities in the House of Commons and 15 per cent visible minorities in the Senate in her early days. Much has changed since then.
Lately, Sen. Jaffer has been looking into the issues Muslim men and women face in the Canadian prison system. Sen. Jaffer and her team hope to acknowledge the special protections that Muslim women offenders may need while serving their sentences.
“We’ve been looking to make a difference in basic things,” she said. “We have to make sure; is the racism policy up to par? Is the staff trained? There’s the issue of Black Lives and the movement for their safety, has that been addressed? There are so many areas to make a difference.”
Sen Jaffer highlights that she wanted to make sure she had a voice — but more than that, her bigger job was to make sure that other Muslim women had voices. Sen Jaffer used to be with organizations like Voices of Muslim Women, and her continued work as an inspiration for young Muslims in politics speaks to her dedication to empowerment. Sen. Jaffer continues to fight for the voices of Muslims to this day.
“I’ve been sitting at the table and making decisions. But that’s just in the political field,” said Sen. Jaffer. “There are so many places, different places, like schools where we are all working to educate people about these issues. It cannot be done by one person.”
For Sen. Jaffer, representation for minorities and for Muslim women stems from the love and support of her community. She also stresses the importance of coming together in order to lift each other up.
“We have sufficient numbers, and unity is important to speak for the needs of our community and ourselves,” said Sen. Jaffer.
“We can be a cohesive group, and we can build unity up amongst ourselves, making sure not to divide ourselves into categories—whether we are Shia or Sunni, or whether we are Muslim men or Muslim women. That, I think, is the biggest thing we need. Unity.”