A lecturer, educator, and mentor, Khadija Haffajee is seen as a pioneering figure in the Canadian capital Ottawa as well as around the world.
Born to child bride in South Africa, she grew up during apartheid, a factor that still weighed heavily on her daily interactions.
In the 1960s, she left South Africa for England, where she worked as a schoolteacher. A few years later, she decided to move to Canada in 1966 as a government sponsored immigrant.
As she arrived in Ottawa, she worked as a housekeeper with an extremely well-off and beautiful family.
“I thought, I have to be busy, what am I going to do from April to September? So I went and I became a live-in housekeeper, with an extremely well-off and beautiful family. It was not the usual trend, because I was not married when I arrived here, young and adventurous,” says Haffajee.
Reflecting on her past Haffajee says:
“It’s who I am, I’m not just this person in Ottawa who everybody knows, they all don’t know me really, they just see me (as) I’m a public figure,” says Haffajee. “The other aspect of it is was (when I first came here) I disliked Muslims. I did. I didn’t like Muslims at all because of my own personal experiences in terms of South Africa.”
In South Africa, it was typical for Muslim families to forbid their girls from attending school, a practice Haffajee calls un-Islamic but unfortunately commonplace.
“I was the only Muslim girl in my class, I had no Muslim friends throughout high school in South Africa because there weren’t any in school. And so I wasn’t comfortable with Muslims, and then I left so I still didn’t have connections, I couldn’t connect at all,” says Haffajee.
A turning point
In 1968, the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) held a conference in Hamilton at McMaster University. By then Haffajee had slowly become friends with a few Pakistani families, and was invited by one of them to come to the event. After her previous negative experiences, Haffajee was hesitant to attend.
“I went and Subhanallah, that changed my life. Because it was the first time in my life that I heard highly educated—this means Western-educated—Muslims speak positively about being Muslim. I’d never met them before. My father was one of them but I didn’t know him, he died when we were young. So this was the first time, and I thought there must be something in this religion that I missed out completely,” said Haffajee.
After conducting a survey of Muslim women across Canada, Haffajee found that for most females who were socially active in their Muslim communities, they were only active on a comparatively minor level in the Canadian community at large.
“I wanted them to go out, and not just do madrassa stuff. That was my big aim, and that’s what I did when I went to speak all over, to encourage them to become involved in the community at large,” says Haffajee.
Over the decades, she was invited to Malawi and Zimbabwe to train young Muslim women and worked on location with Afghan refugees in Peshawar during the Soviet War (in 1986) and within Afghanistan with an interfaith organization in 2003. As is evident in her work, the main focus of a lot of Haffajee’s efforts has been trying to make Muslim women become more involved with the general public.
“I really would love to see that we have to have Muslim women’s voices in all mainstream organizations,” says Haffajee.
As a testament to this sentiment, Haffajee herself has served on the board of the Children’s Aid Society, was one of the founding members of the interfaith organization Women for Peace, was a board member of the Multicultural Advisory Committee at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, provided spiritual care in secondary schools and the Multifaith Housing Initiative, as well as belonging to the Religions for Peace-Canada movement.