By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Women’s voices and their participation in every aspect of society are more vital than ever. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, is a female-only group formed in the US in 2010. The Toronto group formed after Trump’s inauguration of November 8, 2016 to address the expected threat to religious minorities in Canada.
Led by Cynthia Levine-Rasky, a sociology professor at Queen’s University, and Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a doctoral student, the mission of SOSS is to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish Canadian women.
The Toronto group received an overwhelming response and in less than a year, it grew to around 100 active members from both faiths. They are from all walks of life, diverse in age, religious identity and practice, as well as political outlook. The group’s members commit to working together to limit acts of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. They stand up to hate against one another and engage in social action work to benefit their communities.
Group Gatherings and Activities
In monthly gatherings held in members’ homes, these women talk about issues of shared concern: experiences, challenges, and recent events. They also plan activities of mutual interest.
Tamara Rebick, who with Tazeen Alam co-leads the North York circle, shared her experience. For Rebick, SOSS is a place where passionate and exceptional women sit together and “have authentic, meaningful and complex conversations for the purposes of learning and fostering respect, understanding and friendship.”
The women do not share the same degree of religious knowledge. In fact, many describe themselves as secular and as not particularly knowledgeable. As a result, there are opportunities for sisters of both faiths to teach one another about each religion's teachings, customs, culture and traditions.
In their sessions, the host sisters create an opportunity for all sisters, Jewish and Muslim alike, to learn about important customs within their faiths. Last year, Jewish sisters hosted a Women's Seder during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The Muslim sisters hosted an Eid Brunch featuring regional culinary foods, and one of the sister's sons built a model version of Al-Masjid al-Haram while Muslim sisters taught the group about the customs and background of Hajj.
This year, the group will be celebrating the Moroccan Jewish custom of Mimouna. (A Moroccan Jewish custom, Mimouna demonstrates the close relationship that existed between Jews and Muslims in the region early in the 20th century).
Since most Jewish sisters currently involved in the Toronto area are from Ashkenazic (Eastern and Central European) descent, they have never celebrated Mimouna.
As a result, this year's event is being hosted by a team of Jewish and Muslim sisters who are learning about the custom together and preparing an experience where everyone will commemorate this beautiful celebration of neighbourliness.
Connection with Intentionality is Natural
Talking about the historical antagonism between Muslim and Jewish people and the idea that they may be “natural enemies,” the group leaders disagreed. “This is nothing but a spurious assumption…there is nothing natural about hatred towards someone you do not know,” says Ghaffar-Siddiqui.
“What is more natural is how quickly people will find things in common and become friends, despite religious or cultural differences, if put in the same room together,” she adds.
“Connection and camaraderie are more natural than antagonism, and simply require intentionality and opportunity to flourish,” says Levine-Rasky.
Rebick believes that fear and ignorance feed much of the silos that exist in our communities. “There is more we don't know about one another than what we do know, and that leads to dangerous assumptions and unfounded and erroneous conclusions,” she explains.
Tying back to exactly why she wanted to be a part of this group and has become so committed to it. “I love learning about what I don't know, from someone who might be considered as, ‘the other,’ ” Rebick states.
According to both leaders, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom represents the power in building strong bonds between Jewish and Muslim Canadian women. Simply standing together makes a powerful political statement for change, they say.
“When the opportunity arises, we stand together to fight anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred in public spaces, in our public institutions, and wherever the need arises” says Levine-Rasky.
Modelling for Future Generations
The emphasis is on allyship and learning what actions and qualities create meaningful, effective and lasting allies — in the good times and bad. Rebick is encouraging her daughters to become familiar with the group. She wants them each to glean important values and lessons from a group like this one — about growing up as strong and accomplished women in their community, how to identify, manage and address adversity and ignorance, about the need for community and friendship, and about living beyond one’s comfortable and familiar bubble.
Levine-Rasky confirms that there has been a long-standing interest to create a SOSS circle for members’ teenage daughters. They are currently seeking qualified co-leaders for this initiative.
“The potential impact is extraordinarily positive since youthful relationships may continue well into adulthood, shaping decisions and values that are established at this critical age,” she added.
Ghaffar-Siddiqui believes, “The youth circle will be essential to ensuring this interfaith movement continues to grow and have a positive present and future impact on society.”
As Ghaffar-Siddiqui explained, “In whichever role a woman operates — mother, entrepreneur, teacher, community worker, etc.— she has a unique ability to spread light and awareness to whomever she interacts with, whether children, co-workers, employees, or community members. This is why the Sisterhood is so important. Each sister brings a unique and important perspective to gatherings and conversations. What is even more important, however, is how far and wide our message of love and humanity travels, as each sister spreads it in her own unique way”.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Joyeeta Dutta Ray in Toronto, ON
As Toronto evolves into the world’s most multicultural city, so does its colourful communities, rising as a collective force to overcome challenges. This time, it’s the women who are initiating change. Meet a few dynamic South Asian immigrants who have stepped forward to pull up others in the community in various ways.
If Women Move Forward, the Whole Community Moves Forward
Shiuli Akhtar* (*name changed) stands as a symbol of pride for Sultana Jahangir, Executive Director at South Asian Women’s Rights Org. (SAWRO). She defines what Toronto’s grassroots member-led non-profit organization stands for: helping South Asian women, Bangladeshis in her case, come into their own in Canada.
Shiuli migrated to Toronto from Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2013, two small kids in tow. She had a degree in Chemistry but no work experience to talk of and little English skills. When she approached SAWRO for help, she was first enrolled in an English learning class, followed by a computer course. When her skills grew, so did her confidence. She got a break in a cosmetics firm in December 2014, only to be laid off 8 months later.
Not one to leave anyone stranded in the middle of the road, SAWRO pulled her into COSTI to switch lanes as a medical lab technician. Shiuli rose to the challenge, volunteered in a clinic for 3 months before she was absorbed into a full-time role. 4 years later, she lives her dreams in the same clinic with pride.
Sultana Jahangir, originally from Bangladesh, moved to Toronto from the USA in 2005, where she lived for about 7 years. Having faced injustices as a new immigrant under the Bush Administration, she understood the plight of her people in Canada.
“(Low-Income) women in the Bangladeshi community are very isolated. They are not familiar with writing resumes or Ontario’s employment process. It is hard for them to sustain precarious jobs as they are not protected by working rights. We have policies from the 1930s which do not apply in today’s environment.”
The work environment in Canada is going through drastic change. Full-time employment supported by good wages is giving way to temporary contracts that pay pittance. Women at the lower end of the job spectrum are hit hardest with little benefits and lesser job security. SAWRO helps them by working with labour rights and employment organizations for “systematic change”. Once these women sustain themselves, there is a profound difference. “They first get their voice and recognition in their own families,” says Sultana.
Today, after 5 years of service, SAWRO supports over 2000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghani and Indian women. About 346 were assisted with jobs. Plans are on to reach other marginalized groups now. “Every ethnic group has their own characteristics,” Sultana says. There is no one solution for all.
Driving Change by Giving Back
When Harpreet Sodhi migrated to Canada from India in 2001 to seek better opportunities for her family, little did she know that she would end up offering greater opportunities to others in the process.
A computer teacher for seniors back in India, Harpreet was used to training the mentally and physically challenged. Since she was “lucky to be gainfully employed”, she set about helping others through “Women That Give” - a non-profit group founded in 2016 by Fawzia Khan jointly with like-minded South Asian volunteers. The mission was to offer weekly workshops to help financially distressed and mentally disturbed women stand on their feet.
One of their greatest victories was Carol Mckeon, a mentally disabled woman under their care, who rose to take part in the 2017 International Paralympics Softball team, held in Toronto.
“Social isolation is a big factor that leads the disabled, abandoned and physically abused to depression and financial distress”, says Fawzia. “WTG uplifts these women by building their capacity and helping with job placements.”
“This land gave us the opportunity to grow so it’s important for us to give back,” says Harpreet. “We wanted to combine efforts to make a stronger impact as a unified force”, adds Fawzia.
Helping Women Professionals Fly Higher
For Bhuvneet Thakur, life changed with WINGS (Women’s Initiatives to Nurture, Grow and Support), a Mississauga-based non-profit organization. A student who arrived in 2016 to study at Humber College for a Business Accounting Diploma, Bhuvneet faced a roadblock once she finished her term. It was hard to find entry level jobs in her specialization.
“I realized the importance of connecting with professionals and carrying credible references,” she says. But for newcomers like her, networking is a challenge. “It’s hard to know who to talk with and how to start.” That is where WINGS steps in.
Started by Sanjukta Das, a Humber College Business Placement Advisor and Social Activist, who came to Canada less than a decade back from India, WINGS took flight with an enterprising board of women directors in 2014, to provide networking opportunities to empower women.
Bhuvneet secured a co-op placement with WINGS, and connected with other professionals, “magnifying her self confidence.” Shortly after, she got the much-needed break at Humber College itself. “I will continue volunteering at WINGS to help others reach their goals,” she states.
WINGS now plans its first Trade Expo on March 18th, 2018 as a tribute to International Women’s Day. It aims to bring together the rising number of South Asian women entrepreneurs and professionals at the Grand Convention Centre in Brampton. Funds from the proceeds will go towards a homeless youth shelter.
“Volunteering gives the chance to not just change one’s own life but also someone else’s”, says Bhuvneet. Good to see the baton pass on to younger hands.
By: Margaret P. Bonikowska in Toronto
Women from virtually every continent arrive in Canada every day, but few go on to set up their own businesses or other enterprises. As part of our ongoing Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario’s Immigration Story series, we profile the entrepreneurial journeys of three women from different continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. Sandra Awuku, Maggie Habieda and Shirley Wu share their stories and keys to success.
Shirley Wu is Chinese, of Hakka descent, and lived in Pakistan until the age of 24. She came to Canada in 1991 with extensive experience in the beauty industry. Multilingual (in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Chinese, and English) and familiar with the Indian and Pakistani communities, she became a sought-after makeup expert. Now her booming Beauty Concept Salon in Mississauga employs twelve, including several freelance makeup artists and hairstylists. They work on weddings, cultural events and film shoots. Shirley also collaborates with accomplished photographers and popular magazines. “There are some who schedule weddings based on my availability”, laughs Shirley. She also gives back to the community by organizing workshops for aspiring makeup artists, teaching beauty skills and how to start a successful business.
Shirley cannot overemphasize the importance of asking questions, talking to those who are experienced, being positive, and ensuring high quality of one’s work. “Be grateful, work from your heart, keep healthy to have the necessary energy, invest in yourself to give to others, and stay positive and happy.”
Immigrant women are more likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to have completed a college degree, though some must first overcome a language barrier and deal with re-certification regulations. Then they face a difficult choice: find a job or create one. Even though the vast majority (90 percent among those 15 and older) are wage earners, some choose the riskier but also potentially more rewarding path of self-employment. In fact, this option is becoming increasingly attractive to immigrant women.
You’re not alone- there is a wealth of resources available from government agencies, libraries, business organizations. Many associations, some aimed specifically at immigrant women, welcome new members, offer networking opportunities and resources. It is in our society’s interest for immigrants to be well integrated, successful, and professionally active. Canadians are open and ready to share their experience.
Building a Reputation
Sandra Awuku immigrated from Ghana at age 19, went back to high school, graduated from Queen’s University and entered the corporate world. She developed her business, management and leadership skills and was quickly promoted in her jobs. She took a risk and gave up her safe salary, wanting to make a difference in her community. Driven by a unique idea for her company, House of Teams. Aimed at promoting team-building, she designs customized events outside the work environment. House of Teams also supports those in need: on March 10th it is sponsoring the Artists Expression for Autism show in Collingwood.
For Sandra it is all about the impact you make on the community. “Know your market, keep working on your brand and your reputation, understand your goals and your clients”, she advises. Build a network and take advantage of all available sources of support. Having a mentor is invaluable. Be prepared for long hours, but when all goes well, one’s sense of satisfaction is enormous and well worth the effort.
Canada’s unique cultural mosaic comprises over 200 ethnic groups, with over one-fifth of Canadians born abroad. The immigrant share of the country’s labour force, currently at nearly one-quarter of the population—and one-half in Toronto—continues to grow.
None of these women reported any direct experiences with prejudice and discrimination. Being from elsewhere may indeed be an asset. Immigrant women bring ideas and experiences that may be less known here but are willingly embraced. And Canada offers opportunities unavailable “back home”.
Fulfilling a dream
Maggie Habieda immigrated from Poland when she was 16. She was accepted into an art high school, graduated with flying colours and pursued studies at Toronto’s prestigious OCAD University. In addition to illustration and design, she learned photography, which became her passion. She began photographing weddings, primarily for Indian customers and soon became a highly regarded photographer in that community. Four years later she opened a high-end studio “Fotografia Boutique” in Oakville. She now photographs celebrities and makes “timeless portraits” of individuals and families, creating exquisite albums. Her former college professor has become her studio manager, part of a large support team. Maggie’s work has earned numerous awards. She is also dedicated to community involvement by organizing seminars and multicultural concerts.
For Maggie, it was always about fulfilling her dream to be an artist and capture beauty. “Don’t believe when they say you won’t succeed. Persevere,” she advises. When one bank turned her down, she went elsewhere to get her business loan. “Then I hit the library,” devouring materials about business. And she asked questions to pick other people’s brains. Her way has always been to maintain a wide range of contacts – she attends events, meets people, forms friendships and partnerships. “I started from scratch. When you don’t have money, you need to be smart.” One way to find support is to join business groups, like the Oakville Chamber of Commerce.
Women’s labour force participation is also increasing, having risen from 41 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 2016. In Canada’s major urban centers, nearly 50 percent of the female population are immigrants. 57 percent of them are employed (77 percent among those between 25 and 54 years of age).
Of course, challenges persist. Canada still has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but the government is increasingly recognizing this problem and taking active steps to address it. Considering plans to significantly increase annual immigration levels, the number of immigrant women entering the workforce will continue to grow in the coming years. Many will continue to be at the vanguard of innovation and business development, leading the way for other entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. It is essential that our society continues to encourage their initiative and creativity.