Shattering Glass Ceilings: Q&A with Farheen Khan
In light of recent events, it has become more apparent that we live in a world where minorities are often discriminated based on the simplest of qualities: gender, image, dress, skin colour. So what happens when you’re a hijab-clad woman of South-Asian descent running for MP? You make something out of yourself.
As an NDP candidate from Mississauga for the upcoming federal elections, Farheen Khan opened up about her past experiences and what led her to where she is now:
How did you get into the political world? What motivated you?
“I have always been a social democrat. I have always been someone who believes in wanting to make the world a better place for other people. A lot of that has to do with my personal experiences. Growing up, we were a family of 9 and I started working at a young age. My family and I lived in subsidized housing. There were times when my father would grow ill, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom with four toddlers running around. Quite frankly some days we didn’t have a lot to eat — there were a lot of difficult times.”
I’ve heard my fair share of stories about families living abroad who faced poverty, but it hit close to home hearing about Farheen’s experience.
Khan continued, “When I was 16 I thought, maybe it’s more important that my baby siblings have milk to drink than me pursuing an education so I made that decision very early on in my life and started to work full time. All of that made me realize there’s so much wrong in our society, we need to make change happen. As I grew older and began wearing the hijab, I began to face discrimination and started to realize what it means to live in a world where racism really exists. People treat you differently.”
How did that drive you to want to make a change and become a political figure?
“After 9/11, I was attacked. There was a lot of backlash and it was extreme — that’s when my journey started. I began to question: ‘How do we create positive images of Muslims in society? And how do I support women who are going through these types of experiences so we can shift the way women are being treated?’ Those became my two major goals.”
Prior to politics, Farheen worked as a Senior Manager at a women’s shelter and as a Fund Development Consultant. She’s also worked at sexual assault and repressed centres and found herself getting into work regarding violence against women. She soon became a community organizer and strove to bring the community together on key issues that she believed in.
“A lot of people told me that politics was natural progression but I never really thought about it that way. I was critical of the process but I was invited to think about it and realized this is what I need to do to take my community organizing, advocacy, and activism to another level.”
Farheen’s approach to life and in accomplishing her goals despite the adversities she has gone through as an individual is inspiring. However, I couldn’t help but think how her experience differs as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab.
The media frames stories in such a way that people hold ignorant or false views and perceptions about Muslim women. Does this reflect on your campaigning and canvassing?
“It’s one of those things I was questioned about in the beginning. In being a politician appearance does matter. People told me to wear my hijab in a more modern style, but I made sure I told my team we aren’t doing that. I am staying true to who I am, it’s part of my identity. If I am the only hijabi a person ever meets, I want them to know Muslim people are good people. In the political realm, I am the only hijabi running federally. In light of all that’s happening [around the world] people are very curious. It’s about challenging people’s misconceptions. When you see all this stuff in the media constantly, you are bombarded and there’s nothing they can compare it to. Not everyone meets people who wear the hijab — so I see it an opportunity to educate others.”
I nodded in absolute agreement. Wearing the hijab comes with many challenges but it also encourages you to be a better person to those around you, especially those who have never met another Muslim before.
What about people in our own South Asian community? People can still carry very outdated mentalities about a woman’s place, how has this affected your goals and ambitions as a politician?
I have faced some barriers where people will ask, ‘Shouldn’t you be married? Why are you single? You should focus on your family.’ The role of what a woman should be doing gets displaced. It’s been interesting, but I have gotten a lot of media exposure because I wear hijab whereas many people are finding it difficult to get media attention.
A lot of south asian communities also hold a view that is almost like an obligation to vote Liberal. Why have you chosen to run for NDP?
I’ve always had a soft spot for NDP. I didn’t feel like I belonged with the Liberals. My dad like many immigrant fathers said we owe it to the Liberals because they brought in immigration and we have to vote for them. We have been exposed to the Liberals for a long time and I think a lot of people, including myself, believed Justin Trudeau would bring a fresh new perspective to the Liberal party. Unfortunately, the Liberals values have started to fall in line more with the Conservatives.
Why do you have a soft spot for NDP and why should we as a community vote NDP?
“I chose the NDP because my personal values align with the NDP’s goals and mission statement. Tom Mulcair focuses on wanting to make Canada more affordable, improve the economy and create safety [access to justice] where the safety of all people is being questioned right now. NDP focuses on living affordable lives and not having to worry about making ends meet. Statistics show that 900,000 Canadians are accessing food banks every month. That’s concerning and should not be happening in Canada. NDP is talking about affordable childcare and housing — things that should already exist but unfortunately don’t because so far, the government has focused more on helping corporations than people.”
What are your goals for your campaign?
“My main goals are to raise awareness about these issues and who I am [and who Thomas Mulcair is] so we can get the NDP government to come into power in order to make necessary changes. Canada has always been a peace-keeping nation and we have fallen from the global stage as a peace-keeping nation, so I would absolutely want to reinforce that.”
— In addition to running for MP, Khan is a social worker, activist and an author of two books on overcoming adversity. She’s also a well-renowned superwoman.