Azeezah Kanji; Toronto
Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?
I serve as the director of programming at Noor Cultural Centre, a Muslim educational, religious, and cultural institution in Toronto. At Noor, I organize lectures, panel discussions and film screenings on issues related to Islam and Muslims in Canada. My grandfather started Noor as a space for women and men to exercise equal spiritual authority, and I am one of several people who delivers sermons as part of the Friday prayer service (jumah). I am also a community and academic legal researcher, and write an opinion column for the Toronto Star focusing on issues of race, law, and national security.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I did a bachelor of health sciences at McMaster University, a juris doctor at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and a master of laws specializing in Islamic Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)
My first paid job was organizing the programming at Noor Cultural Centre.
What was your BIG break? How did you land it?
My first significant event as a commentator on public issues was being invited to deliver the 2016 Hancock Lecture at University of Toronto’s Hart House. My talk focused on how national security in Canada relies on deeply-entrenched racial stereotypes about Muslim and Indigenous communities as uniquely dangerous and inherently violent. Being asked to do the Hancock was an amazing surprise, and an opportunity that I have been grateful for ever since.
Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a moment like that! Particularly now, with the resurgence of very overt forms of white supremacy, the work of challenging racism in mainstream media and other forums feels especially precarious—while at the same time being more important than ever.
What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?
I’m constantly being confronted with the limitations of my own knowledge and analysis—the way that it often overlooks or excludes the experiences of those who are most marginalized. This isn’t something that can be “bounced back” from. I’m trying to address it by cultivating an attitude of humility and openness to critique towards my work.
Name one piece of career advice you always give.
Don’t acquiesce to the pressure to advance your career at the expense of others, especially other women of colour.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Go into corporate law. Legal education often pushes students towards futures in corporate law—a pressure that is only intensified by the significant amounts of debt that many new lawyers graduate with. But I think a legal education can provide an opening to many different types of careers, including justice-oriented ones in areas outside the practice of law.
Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?
Women, especially women of colour, are seriously underrepresented as opinion columnists in Canada. It’s been a challenge, as a Muslim woman, to find spaces to articulate critical perspectives, especially those that don’t simply reinforce dominant stereotypes about Muslim women oppressed by “barbaric cultural practices.” We face a similar problem with the way our work at Noor is received. People tend to focus almost exclusively on our work on gender justice — but for us, the struggle for women’s equality in Muslim communities is inextricable from the struggles against Islamophobia, racism, poverty and other issues that affect Muslim women. I do think the space to tell more complex and nuanced stories about Muslim communities and Muslim women is opening up in mainstream media, including at the Toronto Star.
Do you get paid a fair wage?
Yes, overall I get paid fairly.
What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?
That millennials are a bunch of “snowflakes” for being sensitive to systems of privilege (like white privilege or male privilege) that are the result of long histories of inequality.