3 Jun 2019

Muslim activist honoured for promoting diversity

6:53 pm on 3 June 2019

The first Anjum Rahman heard about her Queen's Birthday Honour was in a letter in her mailbox from the Attorney General.

Anjum Rahman

Anjum Rahman Photo: Sally Tagg

The Hamilton woman did not realise she had been nominated until she got confirmation she had been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to ethnic communities and women.

The award comes after years of tireless work to support ethnic women in New Zealand and raise awareness of the human rights issues they face.

She said she felt incredibly honoured - and conflicted - over the award but accepted it because her mother wanted her to.

"I feel a little uncomfortable about accepting an award because we believe you should be doing things because they need to be done and because it's your responsibility in the community."

Ms Rahman was just 5 years old when her family moved to New Zealand; establishing themselves as the first Muslim family to settle in Hamilton.

After struggling with her identity through childhood, she looked to her parents as role models as they led a growing Muslim community in the area.

"Both my parents were community leaders and our house was essentially the first mosque in Hamilton because that's where congregational prayers started; the first Eid prayers happened at our house ... I feel like I'm walking in their shadow really."

Ms Rahman was the first secretary and a founding member of the Islamic Women's Council, which has brought Muslim women together on an annual basis since 1990.

But it was the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that elevated her role to public advocacy.

Ms Rahman said it was a frightening time, as people adopted a narrative that violence was inherent to the Islamic faith and there was no space in the media to tell the world the Muslim community was equally as horrified by the tragedy.

"At that time it just turned the spotlight onto the Muslim community that was hugely negative and very damaging for us. It was at that time I realised it was important to move beyond the Muslim community and have a voice in the wider community."

Since then she's spoken out about hate speech during visits from controversial speakers, such as that of far-right activists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, and highlighted the Muslim communities' repeated attempts to flag rising levels of discrimination before the 15 March mosque attacks in Christchurch.

"All of these debates get wrapped around freedom of speech and every other human right is discarded and ignored and never discussed or debated; the right to life, the right to freedom from discrimination; the right to practise or not practise a belief.

"None of these rights ever get discussed in those debates and the impacts of hate speech on communities that are targeted is never discussed."

Ms Rahman is a qualified Human Rights Commission facilitator and travels around the country speaking about issues affecting Muslim women to promote diversity and inclusion.

She is a founding member of Shama and the Hamilton Campaign of Consent; a member of the Accident Compensation Corporation Expert Reference Group, the Waikato Interfaith Council and the Ethnic Police Group with New Zealand Police, among other commitments.

She said her Queen's Birthday Honour went some way towards acknowledging and validating her story and the stories of many other women in her community.

"It reinforces what the prime minister said after the Christchurch attacks about our community being New Zealanders and being part of this country. So in that sense it really is an important recognition and I do feel absolutely honoured to be receiving it."

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