Nilofer Faizal recently moved to Auckland and has travelled and lived in India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Morocco. We talk about Nilofer’s travels, culture, sense of belonging as a Muslim woman, her work with New Zealand Muslim Association and how Nilofer’s headscarf makes her feel empowered.
Nilofer: It's so wonderful actually to be here. It feels so much like being a part of the community when you can talk about all these themes with people. Yeah, it just means a lot.
Elina: Tell me a little bit about Nilofer growing up. What were you like? Where did you grow up?
Nilofer: I'm from India. I was born there, I did my schooling there, I worked there for a while. I'm very, very introverted as a person, so I always was that kind of a quiet person, but also very proper, trying to make sure everyone's happy with the way I am, not stepping on anyone's feet sort of thing. Back in India, I did my majors in Psychology and English Literature. And I did my Montessori training as well. So I'm always looking at myself and kind of seeing ‘OK, what are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?’ [laughs]. Learning psychology kind of helped me make sense of who I am as a person I think.
Elina: Cool, and what was that like after? So you finished the degree, did you do any work in those fields in India?
Nilofer: Well, I wanted to do my Masters in Counselling. And that's what I was very keen on. But, I think, culturally, we normally don't tend to give that much importance to… You know, when it comes to family and marriage, and on the other side, you have your education, if you want to really go forward and pursue it, it's a bit more difficult. I understand where this is coming from culturally so I don't want to push it. Like I said, I'm just wanting to be proper and not ruffle any feathers sort of thing. And instead, I started working. I did my Montessori training at that point. And I said, OK, because I do like the idea of teaching, and that was something I've always been passionate about.
At the same time, I think with the regular education system that we normally have, putting everyone in a box and just expecting everyone to perform the same way, have the same interests, be exactly the same, you know, copy of each other - it didn't make sense to me. And that's where I felt like Montessori made so much sense. Because that's a kind of education system where you let each child decide their pace, you let them decide their interests, and you basically create that environment for them to learn, right?
I remember once my Arabic teacher said this - that he wouldn't answer, he wouldn't explain certain things to us unless we posed a question on it, right? So he'd say, ‘OK, when you ask the question, that's when you're ready to accept the answer.’ And I think Montessori kind of plays into that, where you're there as a teacher, and you sense when children are ready - when that particular child, actually, not even as a group, but that particular child - is ready for that particular lesson.
Elina: You worked with the Montessori system, and you said you've taught in other countries. So did you get married and then go travelling? What was the travelling life? How did that start?
Nilofer: Well, OK, so what happened was, I started working for about a year in India, after my Bachelors, and that's when I met my husband. We met through mutual family, and you know, it just clicked. We met, and we barely spoke - I think, slightly less than an hour. And by the end of the hour, we were both pretty sure that we want to spend the rest of our lives together. I don't know if it was stupid or if it was impulsive or what, but that's just how it happened [laughs]. We met and we got married. And at the time he was living in Saudi Arabia, so I moved there with him. And I actually remember asking him, you know, ‘Well, what if I had taken up my Masters when we met, and we wanted to get married? Would you have waited until I finished it and then we could have gotten married?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, of course I would have. Why would I not?’ And that just felt good. I think I was, ‘Oh, OK, you know, I've got the right man.’
Medina in Saudi Arabia, that's where we started learning Arabic. And it was supposed to be like, ‘Oh, we're gonna do this for two, three months. And, you know, see.’ Because, I mean, the Quran, the holy book for Muslims is in Arabic, so we thought, ‘OK, this is our opportunity to learn the language so we understand’, because we believe it is the word of God, right? If we believe that, if you genuinely believe that, we should try and understand what he's trying to say, you know? I think we did it for like one or two months, and we were so blown away by the language.
There's so much depth to the language. It's nothing like I've learned before. And for me, I think for both of us at that point, it was just like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to do this more, we have to spend more time with the language and understand it as a science, the language itself.’ And that kind of took us to Egypt.
We lived there for three or four months, where we were classmates. We studied at an institute and we were both learning Arabic full time.
In India, and again, I don't want to generalise because it's not true in everyone's case, but a lot of times it is: ‘Oh, your family, your kids, your husband, your children - all of these things, they are your priority.’ And yes, it's very much true that your family is a priority, but it doesn't have to be a choice, right? Your career or your education and your family, they need not be a choice you have to make.
‘Oh, I can only have one of the two.’ Why? I mean, my husband has been so supportive for us to actually go to class everyday in the morning at 9 o'clock, and sit down there until like, 3 or 4 and like, run home for lunch and get back. And it’s just been, I think, a great experience, not just from the language perspective, but also from a personal point of view.
From there we heard about this place called Mauritania, which is one of the African countries. What's really unique about the place is that they have these villages which are in the middle of the desert, right? A few years ago, they didn't have water or electricity or any of that in the village, so it's really hard desert life. And in these villages, they would have teachers who have immense knowledge, basically. And you go there as students, you learn with them. The teacher’s the head of the village and you learn with the teacher. They're not using the internet, they don't have Airbnbs or whatever. So you just kind of have to go there and knock on the door and be like, ‘Oh, we’re here, we’ve come all the way from somewhere else and this what we want to do.’ And, you know, we kind of had that.
I really didn't think we’d survive there. Because it's so harsh, it's in the middle of the desert and, you know - no lights, no proper water. We don't even know if we have a place to stay. And then my husband said, ‘OK, you know what, let's just give it a week and review. If we feel after a week it’s not for us, it’s fine. We've got nothing to lose. We’re just gonna pack a bag and go back.’ But we stayed there for a week. And within the week, I absolutely fell in love with the place, the people, it was so amazing.
Elina: I love how many different journeys and countries you’ve lived in: India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Mauritania. For you being in all those different countries, what was that like in terms of culture, and maybe religious culture or ethnic culture? Was it quite different, quite similar to where you grew up? How did you navigate the differences?
Nilofer: Actually, I think when you go to a country at first, the things that you'd normally see, ‘Oh, they’re so they're so different from us,’ or ‘they eat different food and the clothes look different, and this is different and that is different.’ But actually, even within a few weeks, I think, or sometimes maybe a few months, you kind of start to see the people behind it, what's beyond the labels and cultural differences. I think you just realise that we're all the same, you know? As much as we have our differences, at the core of it, we're still just human, right?
At every place, I made these connections, met these amazing people, and I still keep in touch with them. And to be honest, you know, this in the background of me as a Muslim, right? As a Muslim, you don't feel home in a lot of places, especially with the hijab, the head covering that I wear: people find it hard. Again, I wouldn't say I will be the last person to generalise, but it just that people find it difficult to see beyond the hijab sometimes. For you to feel home in a place, you need to feel like you belong, you need to feel like you are valued or appreciated, you know, and that's very crucial, right? And I think as a Muslim, many times it happens that it's hard to feel home. A lot of people are fighting the hijab, or want to ban the hijab, and, I mean, it's just a piece of cloth, you know? What harm can it do to anyone? But apparently, it does. And then people just thinking that, ‘Oh, you know, she wears a hijab, so she probably needs to be saved from the oppression, quote, unquote.’ So I think dealing with that has always been a challenge, because I think you just don't want to be saved. I don't need anyone to save me. I'm happy the way I am. Perfectly happy. Just let us be, you know, that's it.
Elina: And coming to New Zealand, which is out of all countries you’ve lived in, is probably the most Western influenced - firstly, how did you end up coming to New Zealand? And how was that experience?
Nilofer: We came here from Morocco where we'd been living for about two and a half years. We decided to move here in the middle of pandemic, somehow we got here to New Zealand.
At the airport, when we first came, I had someone at the counter, who saw me and said, ‘Oh, Salaam alaikum.’ That's a Muslim greeting, right? And for me, I couldn't believe it, I honestly couldn't, because we're not always used to that… You don't get that, you know, as a person of colour, and I'm very visibly Muslim, so it's very much part of my identity, and it's a part I’m really proud of, but at the same time, I know that there's a lot of nonsense you have to deal with.
I remember I had this conversation with a friend recently. She's really highly educated, and she had her education here in New Zealand as well. And she wears a hijab, the head coverings. So what she said was: With the hijab, it's as if you are dumb until you prove otherwise. The default is they just think that, you know, you are stupid or you're not as smart as everyone else just because you're wearing a scarf over your head. For me when I think of hijab, I find it very empowering because I look at it as I don't want you to be focusing on how I look physically and my appearance, and I want you to be looking at the person I am beyond that - my thoughts, my feelings, you know, my knowledge, all of those things. That's what I want everyone's focus on and not so much on my face or the way I look. That's what it means to me. And that's why I cherish it. But at the same time, you have to constantly deal with prejudice. You feel kind of helpless in a way, because there's not much you can do, what do you do? You can't just keep going around talking to each and every person about your faith and your hijab. I would think it would be common courtesy, right? You see someone, no matter how they're dressed, or what they’re wearing, you respect them for who they are as a person and not so much of the way they look or the way they don't look.
Elina: Yeah, 100%. And I'm thinking about one of your posts on Instagram where you talked about how being a Muslim man and Muslim woman are different. I would love to hear your thoughts on that, and especially what carries in Western society?
Nilofer: There's one thing in terms of what people perceive that there are certain things that a Muslim can afford to do and things that a Muslim woman can’t afford to do. It just makes me so emotional sometimes thinking about it, like, the moral compass itself. So basically, OK, you have a religion, so you believe in a religion. Naturally, there are certain things that are acceptable, certain things that are not, that's how any kind of belief system works, right? I think what happens a lot of the times is people don't realise that they end up putting women on a much higher pedestal. Women usually tend to be in situations where they cannot afford to make mistakes. If we believe in God that does not judge, that's not how… That's not what we believe in about women not being allowed to make mistakes. That's not our religion. And I think, you know, Islam talks a lot about forgiveness, it talks a lot about… that's the nature of human - to make mistakes, to slip, and then to kind of get back up.
The word for human in Arabic is 'iinsaniun. So ‘iinsaniun comes from the word nansaa, which is to forget. Humans are forgetful. So we forget, we mess up, we get back on track. And that's just a cycle, right? We believe that God actually acknowledges that human-ness. But I think society does not acknowledge it as much, especially when it comes to women. You can't just call a woman a Superwoman for balancing education, work, family and then just expect her to handle and take care of everything. It doesn't work like that. No, we are not Superwomen. No, we are very much human. And that's why we need, you know, that kind of support from home.
If I'm working outside, you know, I need support from home as well to kind of be able to balance and nourish and do both. So thank God I have my husband who is that way as well, so we share our responsibilities at home so that we can both grow together, you know? So we're doing stuff at home together, and we're both working.
And if I can add one more thing, I think being in a more Western country, I think with the hijab, a lot of times I think I can sense it: when I go out, even if people are not looking at me weird, I notice people are looking at my husband weird, because I can almost see them thinking, ‘Oh, he's oppressing her.’ You know? And what they don't know is that I have been wearing hijab years before I've met him, right? I always feel bad for him, because he has nothing to do with my choice of hijab, but people are looking at him weird and thinking, you know, he's like, some crazy guy who's put this thing on my head.
There's so much that people interpret and misinterpret and kind of add to the religion. And, you know, it's sad, because for people who are genuinely believing in something to see it so misconstrued in the society, it's just very disappointing, because it has got nothing to do with what you believe in or what you stand for.
Elina: This is such a big topic Nilofer and I’m so glad we are talking about this. We live in a world where we place people in boxes and don’t give ourselves a chance to get to know them. Even you sharing these stories about hijab is something that I haven’t heard before and I’m so grateful for our conversation. We’ve seen so much violence committed in the name of religion or against it and I think it’s such a valuable point of view around looking at this through a lens of insitituion and society and religion - trying to see how they intertwine and where improvement and understandings are needed. Nilofer, how do you feel about being a New Zealander for a year now? We are discussing the feelings of belonging and home - how have those shown up in Aotearoa for you?
Nilofer: I have no affiliation towards a particular piece of land, like ‘this land is what makes me feel home.’ It's not so much about the land, but the people that are on that land, so whether it's my family, and my community and my friends back home, or even here, I think just making those connections with people, getting to know people. I mean, I'm very much an introvert, but at the same time, I really crave for that human connection. And I think for me with my work with New Zealand Muslim Association, especially, I have had the chance to get to know a lot of people, to talk to people and to run projects and events.
Which makes me feel like, ‘OK, I'm doing something productive. I'm contributing something, anything, no matter how small or big to the society.’ So when I feel like I'm able to contribute to the society, I think that's where I feel like I belong.
The organisation itself, New Zealand Muslim Association - they've got five mosques, and five community centres within the organisation. Currently, one of the things we're doing is trying to provide food support for people who are in isolation. And especially as Muslims, you need the food to be halal, so there is a dietary requirement there. We also we've also done things like digital inclusion programmes for senior citizens - making sure that they're safe online, and especially now, because they're not able to meet people in person as much, this is the opportunity to make sure that they can connect online. One of the things that I have personally been really, really excited about is we're trying to put together a project in the social community needs sort of area. We're looking at mental health services, we're looking at providing all kinds of support and care that's needed for people who are victims of domestic violence or any kind of family violence, trying to create a space where they can access everything that they need: counsellors or psychiatrists, or lawyers or doctors or even accommodation. For me to be a part of all that even in a really small way, I think it really means a lot.
Elina: Oh, that's so wonderful to hear about your work and that you’ve been able to feel like part of a community here too in such a short time! Through your work and just general observations, what do you think we are still missing in that representation, diversity space? It’s a big question but I thought maybe you have something on the top of your mind?
Nilofer: You know what’s happening with the whole Russia-Ukraine situation, it's really sad. We feel for the people who are suffering, the Ukrainians who are living through the war right now. And, you know, it's very, very disheartening. But unfortunately, there is a but, and the but is that it's a lot of times when, for us as people of colour, whether it's black communities, or even the Middle Eastern community. All these wars have been happening in all of these places as well, right? They're going through all of this, even right now. Even as this war is going on, there are other wars that are also taking place. And, you know, you feel so much faith in the humanity of people when you see the support that's being given to Ukrainians. And that's amazing. But at the same time, I think I wish that people would kind of give that same sympathy and that so much of heart for other people as well who are living through the same hard, sad situations.
Elina: Yeah. And I mean, you’re right. Seeing what's been happening in Palestine, Israel, Uyghurs in China, so many other places and how little coverage there is. What's happening with Uyghurs in China is terrifying, and yet, we haven't imposed any of the sanctions that we are imposing on Russia.
Nilofer: Exactly, exactly what I'm saying. Yes, absolutely. You're right. And for us we think ‘What's the best thing you can do?’ You can just talk about it, that's the most you can do. You can share about it.
And I feel like we keep sharing and saying: OK, look at this, feel for them, like, see them as humans beyond their religion or their skin colour or whatever, you know, see beyond that, and see that they're also human, and this is what they're going through.’ And it's almost like, you can feel the silence, right? And then suddenly, you see all of this outpour of love, and, you know, of concern and sympathy. And it's amazing, it's absolutely wonderful. I do not want to discredit that, absolutely, but it's really, really sad to see that, in contrast with, the kind of reaction or the kind of response others are getting.
Elina: 100%. And it's been a big thing of, definitely on my social media, with a lot of people who are of colour or ethnic people saying, ‘You can’t keep propagating these racist narratives during war. Yes, we are happy that you have empathy. Great. Keep having it.’ But don't be selective, as you said, with how you use privilege. Nilofer, thank you. I feel like I can talk to you for 40 more hours and ask you 40 million more questions. I feel like through sharing your stories, you’ve opened up a whole new part of me and how I see the world. Thank you. I wanted to close off our space with some quickfire questions.
Nilofer: Just before that, thank you so much for actually having me here, and you know, having this conversation with me. I think it's it feels therapeutic in a way, releasing all of those feelings and things in my head and emotions which are just sort of like, you just end up feeling really heavy when you can't really have these conversations openly, you know?
Elina: It feels healing. Yeah, I was saying that to my partner that recording this podcast in the last three weeks have been like a personal healing journey, in a way… OK, well, let's jump into quickfire: what’s your favourite dish?
Nilofer: It's simpler if I just go with India and in India, we have this thing called panipuri. Oh my god, I love it. I crave for it. It's like a street food. So usually it's the first or second day when I'm in India. It's like, I have to go there, you know? I have to go and have it.
Elina: Do you have any recommendations here of restaurants, either Indian or any, like African cuisines, maybe, that you've tried here?
Nilofer: Yes, I actually recently tried Moroccan food at the restaurant called Casablanca. So yes, they had tajine. Tajine is a Moroccan dish. It’s slow cooked meat. My favourite one back in Morocco is the one with glazed honey prunes, and they kind of sell it with almonds.
Elina: I’m salivating… Second question is, if you were the main character in a movie or TV show, what would it be?
Nilofer: OK, so basically, I asked my husband this question in preparation of the podcast, and what he said was that I would be Hermione from Harry Potter [laughs[. I think that's saying a lot about me. But I think for me, personally, I think I would go with Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice. I loved her, you know, just her attitude, just who she was. It's just so badass. And I just really like that about her.
Elina: Oh, I should reread and rewatch it. I haven't seen in a while. Yeah, awesome. And if you could propose one policy change to New Zealand Parliament or to New Zealand organisations, what would that policy be?
Nilofer: I didn't know this about New Zealand until we moved, but I think this is something I learned after coming here that, you know, in order to have your parents here with you, you need to have a certain amount of… a salary bracket. You have to earn so much to be able to bring your parents here. And I think that culturally speaking, from our Asian cultures we have that sense of responsibility to our parents. They take care of us, we take care of them kind of thing. We pride in being able to take care of our parents. I would say, just by way of policy, I think, for migrants or anyone to be able to, you know, actually take care of their parents and bring them here.
Elina: Yeah, yeah. Oh, you're right. There's so much cultural aspect to it as well. You're right. And last one is my favourite question is, what makes you feel like a badass?
Nilofer: I think it is the hijab. I think it definitely is the headscarf because, for me, I think I look at it as a kind of, especially in the current world, a kind of a rebellion. You're rebelling against boxes that people are trying to put you into, you’re rebelling against, people wanting to objectify women. It's a rebellion in so many different ways and just saying, ‘This is who I am, and you'll have to accept it the way it is,’ you know? When I see the resistance, and when I see people, you know, having these prejudices and things like that, the more I feel strongly about the hijab, that yes, I'm doing something right by standing up for this and yeah, definitely that.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.