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youth worker Almas Rajwani-Rawji

by Penney Kome | September 14, 2000

“My mother was married when she was 12,” said Almas Rajwani-Rawji “and a mother by the time she was 14.” That was in Central Africa – what was then called the Belgian Congo – where her family were practically the only Ismaili Muslims in the area. After the upheaval following Congo’s independence, her family moved to East Africa, and a much larger Ismaili community. Almas’ mother had 14 children (“I was the eleventh”), before she was widowed at age 38.

In contrast, Almas married at the age of 35. She and her husband Shafiq met in the Calgary mosque parking lot one evening. She knew who he was because he was widely admired for singing hymns, and that was what they talked about. The second time they met to talk, “we both came to the conclusion that we should be married,” Almas smiled. They have agreed not to have children of their own. She now works in outreach to youth-at-risk in Calgary high schools, and spends her spare time volunteering to her community and various non-profit agencies.

When Almas was nine, her father died, and her mother sent her to boarding school in London, England. She was the only child who her mother sent away from home that way. “I felt abandoned,” she said. “But now I’ve come to think that my mother knew that I was a rebel, and that if I had stayed at home, my brothers would have forced me to be submissive.”

Almas’ mother followed her faith as well as her heart in giving her daughter more freedom than most Muslim women achieve. In the early 1900s, Aga Khan III decreed that women of the Ismaili Muslim faith should have more freedom and more opportunity to express themselves. He decreed that they should be free to wear shorter, western-style clothes, and to leave their heads uncovered.

“Our mothers and grandmothers wore long dresses,” said Almas. “I remember when my mother started to wear shorter dresses, because the Aga Khan said she could.” Almas was further exposed to western ideals in London, where she gained a good education and qualifications in social work.

Meanwhile, dictator Idi Amin’s persecution of Asians in Uganda prompted many Ismaili Muslims to leave East Africa. Almas’ sisters married and emigrated to Canada, to Calgary. “I came to Canada in March, 1978,” she said. “I was almost 25, and quickly found a job in administrative support. In those days we were able to get jobs much faster, and even jobs at mediocre levels paid better.”

Almas gave me a private tour of the main Calgary Ismaili “Jamatkhana” (community centre), including a respectful walk through the prayer hall, or mosque, in one wing. Upstairs are the classrooms where recently immigrated children learn English. The new, main jamatkhana – one of five in Calgary – was built mostly by volunteers and serves as the heart of the community. Every day, Almas estimates, some 300 or 400 people come for morning meditations or evening prayers. “On Fridays, everybody comes,” she smiled.

As the annual Aga Khan Award for Architecture attests, Ismailis view architecture as a vital form of religious expression. Their jamatkhanas are works of art. So, Ismailis across Canada are fundraising for the new high-profile jamatkhana, proposed for Eglinton and Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, to be the largest jamatkhana in Canada.

Inside and outside, the Calgary jamatkhana, however, is intensely practical. Here, committees work on immigration sponsorship to bring Ismailis out of global hot spots; decide how to house and employ newcomers; and what to teach their children to help them adjust to the new way of life. Here there are classrooms for teaching children English and for women’s classes in reproductive health, among other things. Here the Ismaili’s own arbitration board meets to resolve internal family law questions, including divorce mediation.

“We consider ourselves to be the most advanced community with respect to empowering women,” said Almas. yet she is only too aware of how culture – not religion, culture – can militate against equality. When Almas ran for school trustee, Ismaili clerics did not try to stop her, “but they didn’t support me either,” she said ruefully.

Not long ago, she said, she received a call from a group of young women who were recent immigrants. Over the previous weekend, a family in their community had tried to marry off their 19-year-old daughter to a man who lived in Montreal and who came to Calgary to complete the arranged match. When her family would not accept her refusal, the 19 year old called the police, and asked them to escort her from her home. Her horrified family scrambled to save face. They gave the Montreal man her 16-year-old sister to marry instead.

“So this group of girls called me,” said Almas, “because I’ve been part of their lives since they arrived seven years ago. They range in age from 16 to about 25. And they asked me to talk to their fathers. They said, ‘Tell them we want to choose our own husbands.’”

Central Asian girls have already brought changes to the local community. Most of the leadership roles within the mosque are held by women and men together. Couples serve as clerics. Ushers are young people, girls as well as boys. “Girls used to have to wear skirts,” said Almas, “until one day, a Central Asian girl asked why she couldn’t wear pants, and the clerics couldn’t think of any good reason not to let her.”

Almas encourages Ismaili women to reach out to the larger community. For instance, she persuaded women at her mosque to raise funds to help finance the Global Perspectives on Personhood: Rights and Responsibilities conference at the University of Calgary in October, 1999, and encouraged participation by Ismaili teens and young women. The conference “simply wouldn’t have happened without the financial and volunteer support of the Calgary Ismaili Muslim women’s community,” said Lee Ann Tunstall of the University of Calgary’s Gender Institute.

Ismaili women have come a long, long way in Almas’ lifetime, and Almas is a leader among Ismaili women who are building bridges towards full gender equality.

more to consider

Ismaili Muslims are led by Imams, spiritual royalty directly descended from the prophet Mohammed. Queen Victoria gave the 46th Imam the hereditary title of Aga Khan. Mawlana Hazar Imam has been Aga Khan for 43 years. His wife, Begum Inaara, and their daughter, Princess Zahra, also play high-profile roles within the Aga Khan Foundation and the worldwide Ismaili congregation.

We tend to think of Islam as especially repressive for women. But not all branches of Islam are the same. The Ismaili leadership have made educating women a primary focus of their charitable work in developing nations. The Aga Khan Foundation of Canada declared in 1999 that, “women’s empowerment is central to overall social and economic development across the globe.”

resources for this story
  • The Ismaili, Canadian magazine, suite 786, 789 Don Mills Road, Don Mills, ON M3C 1T5 (416) 467-0199
  • The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough And Time, with a foreword by W. Somerset Maugham, Cassell and Company Ltd. | 1954

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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