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Raheel Raza: Not Afraid of Getting into Trouble

Helping Liberate Islam from Extremists

Raheel Raza is used to getting into trouble. The Pakistani-born Muslim woman, author of Their Jihad … Not My Jihad!, lives with her husband and children in Toronto and acknowledges that she was always considered “a rebel” in her family and by Pakistan society. In many ways Raheel – a filmmaker, journalist, interfaith activist, and public speaker lobbying for gender equality and women’s rights internationally – continues to be considered “a rebel” by her own Muslim community, often for her open support of Israel.

As a child Raheel was criticized for “asking too many questions,” she remembers, bombarding her parents with too many whys and why nots? She wanted to learn how to swim, to ride a bicycle, to play cricket, like her older brother. But she was informed that girls cannot do those things. “Why not?” she would demand to know.

Fortunately her father was an egalitarian person, and he inspired her. “He taught me how to swim, to ride a bicycle, and he believed I could do anything. My mother, however, would protest, saying it was unseemly for me to do those things as a girl.”

Even in her choice of mates, Raheel rebelled. Brought up in a Sunni family, she caused a great scandal when she married a young man from a prominent Shi’a family, six years her junior. “In those days, that just wasn’t done!”

She met him, Sohail – whom she says is her greatest supporter – when they were both taking a course in the travel industry in Pakistan. As social activists, they had a great deal in common, including wanting to leave Pakistan. “We were ignorant about our faith, we were ignorant about world politics, and we were ignorant about the rights we had as human beings. We couldn’t find a way to express our spirituality there, even though both of us resonated deeply with the Sufi path.”

Their union was a marriage of love, not an arranged marriage, she emphasizes. “In order to survive emotionally we had to leave Pakistan. Our families were very upset when we left, but we had decided to make a life for ourselves. We knew we were not doing anything wrong and that we had the right to see the world and pursue our dreams. Fortunately, we were both risk-takers.”

Raheel RazaThey continued to work in the travel industry, she for Scandinavian Airlines and her husband for Air Canada, for 25 years.

“My journey through life has always been about expanding my horizons, learning from others, not being afraid to experiment. The more I learn from others, the stronger I become in my own spirituality,” she underscores. “And one of the most beautiful things the West has given me is free choice. I have choice. I am blessed to be a Muslim woman.”

Raheel has visited Israel four times, first as a tourist and three times as a speaker for the “Israeli Presidential Conference – Facing Tomorrow.” The fourth time was also for Shimon Perez’s 90th birthday celebration. When asked if she is pro-Israel, she answers honestly. “I’m not pro-Israel and I’m not pro-Palestinian. I love Israel with all of its flaws just as I love the Palestinians, despite their faults.

“I am amazed at the freedom and democracy I experienced in Israel,” she continues. Even when addressing the current dilemma of Jewish women in Israel who are protesting to be able to pray at the Western Wall and read from the Torah, Raheel cites important differences between the women there, where they can protest, and in the rest of the Middle East, “where women are oppressed and they have to live with it.”

Do her attitudes about women, gender equality, and her position on Israel place her in jeopardy? Is she afraid of what might happen to her because she is so outspoken?

“I am asked those questions all the time – in fact, every time I speak publicly,” she acknowledged.

“I was speaking to 100 men yesterday and this question came up again. I’ve had my share of threats and hate mail and ‘fatwas’ (Islamic religious rulings) placed on my head,” she admitted. “My family is more concerned about my safety than I am. My two sons, when they were young, used to stand as bodyguards at the door of the auditorium when I spoke. Even then they understood there was potential danger.

“In the larger scheme of things, in the work I am doing, in the global crisis we are facing, in the crisis of humanity, my fear is very miniscule,” she says. “I don’t have time to think about my fear, but there is another reason as well. If I were to give in to my fear, the extremists win. They are basically cowards,” she enumerates. “I live my life with confidence, and aside from my protective sons, I’ve never had a professional bodyguard. In truth I have the biggest bodyguard possible,” she says with a broad smile, pointing to the sky.

“No matter how toxic your environment, no matter how difficult the situation, when you're speaking the truth, you are not afraid. Unfortunately, there are many organizations, many institutions, many individuals who would not like me to speak the truth.

“I’ve had my conversations with God, and I’ve said: “Look, I’m doing my work but you need to protect me.”

She is not an outspoken critic of Islam, she says, but laments that her religion has been “hijacked” by extremists, pointing to what she calls the “terror triangle”: the Moslem Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda (whom she described as descendents of Saudi Wahabism), and Khomenism from Iran. “These three prongs of terrorism are engulfing the Muslim world today,” she notes. Raheel sees her task as that of helping to liberate Islam, a religion she cherishes, from the extremists. Recently she founded a new organization in Canada called The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow. “We want to help our youth understand what it means to be a conscientious Canadian-Muslim and to lobby against terrorism.”

One of the greatest challenges she encounters is the ignorance Muslim women have about their own rights, rights clearly outlined in the Koran. Many Muslim men don’t want women to become familiar with the Koran, she says, because it would limit their power over women. “They prefer to keep the women ignorant. But at the same time, some of the biggest hostility comes from Muslim women themselves,” Raheel admits. “They claim they are happy the way they are. Take Malala, for example, the young Saudi girl who was shot because she wanted an education. After she spoke at the U.N. on behalf of education for all girls and boys, there was tremendous backlash against her, from Muslim women as well as Muslim men,” she points out.

Here is the trailer of the new movie, Honor Diaries, which features Raheel Raza. It tells the tragic story of the tradition of ‘honor killing,’ where family members are violated and killed because of a loss of ‘honor.’

When Raheel’s younger son got married in a Shi’a mosque recently, an imam presided. Raheel called him a “visionary imam,” because he told the bride that she was not obliged to live with her mother-in-law, a well-accepted custom among Muslim families. Many of the other Muslim women present crowded around Raheel later and wanted the imam’s telephone number. “We want to have him at our wedding too,” they chimed.

Raheel says although she raised her sons as Muslims, her family is now interfaith. One son married a Catholic girl from Mexico. The other son married a woman who doesn’t identify with any particular faith but is searching for her own spirituality. “I have two Mexi-Paki-Canuck grandsons,” Raheel says playfully, describing the diverse ethnicity of the Mexican, Pakistani, and Canadian branches in her new family tree. Her interfaith family is a great source of strength for her because it’s probably the only place in the world where Raheel Raza doesn’t get into trouble.

Raheel Raza’s “How a Native Elder & a Muslim Found Spiritual Friendship at a Christian Celebration” was published in TIO, November 2012.