I’m inspired by Inspiring Women

Saturday night, more than 75 women gathered at a Bedford restaurant for an incredible evening of award presentations, finger food and dancing.  Rana Zaman, the CEO of IWANS (The Inspiring Women’s Award of Nova Scotia) started what she hopes will be an annual event of women celebrating women who inspire them.  What was remarkable was that it was all women and mostly racialized women.

It was all women and racialized women

Full disclosure: I was one of the women honoured. And I am honoured.

Not one of the women at the party had been tapped for the Order of Canada, and maybe never will. None had been awarded the Order of Nova Scotia.  Few had recently won academic or professional accolades.  The women ranged in age from 22 to 82. Some wore saris, or hijabs, or headscarves; two wore ball gowns. One wore a red dress to symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, another wore a business suit. Some women wore glittery shawls; others stood in high heels. 

Below (clockwise): Rana Zaman (centre) presents “honourable mentions” to Ikram Siddiqui (left) and Sudesh Bhalla at the Inspiring Women’s Awards; celebration cake on the buffet table; Zainub Beg, Halifax Operations Manager of Nisa Homes, the first shelter in Atlantic Canada to serve immigrant, refugee, non-status, or Muslim women and their children fleeing domestic violence; Rana with Cherryl Oake of Dartmouth who helped furnish and equip more than 80 homes of government-sponsored Syrian refugees; Dr Sura Hadad (left) and her daughter volunteered in Kenya in 2018 where they with other women carried litres of water every day (photo submitted)

Rana herself dressed in a wonderful evening gown and jacket.  She took her emcee duties seriously; there was an amplifier and a microphone, plus seven award plaques and goodie bags distributed as Rana introduced the seven award winners. 

  • Dr Sura Hadad, whom I sat beside, is a dentist, and likely one of the first women of colour to have graduated from Dalhousie’s dental school.  She has also earned a Master’s in Education from Acadia University.  She raised four children and is a part time instructor in dentistry at Dal.  In 2018, Haddad and her daughter traveled to Kenya to build the foundation for a dormitory for a girls’ college and a hospital.  Joining local women, they lugged 10 liters of water four kilometers that had to be boiled for daily use.  Since then she has provided sometimes life-saving dental care to people in Africa.
  • Cherryl Oake was a clerical worker at Canada Post when she first heard that Syrian refugees and their families were coming to Halifax and Dartmouth.  The refugees, sponsored by the federal government,  came with little and were housed in virtually empty apartments and townhouses.  Though the government paid the rent for a year, there was no furniture, no pots, no pans, no tables, chairs  and no beds.  Cherryl put out a call on Facebook and through donations alone helped to furnish one home for a family of eight. The need increased because most of the refugees had come from years of living in tents in refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon—they came with no belongings.  Cheryyl Oake and volunteers she coordinated, furnished more than 100 families’ homes, top to bottom, and got to know and help many families. 
  • Munawar Ahmad immigrated from Pakistan to Halifax 52 years ago.  Though she had a Master’s degree in English literature, she was not considered “qualified” to be a teacher.  She returned to university and took a BEd at MSVU so she could better help her own three children in school, plus teach ESL to girls and women. She helped newcomers.  In 1969, along with her husband Siraj,  she helped fund and build the Dartmouth Mosque in 1969. This was a needed community centre for Muslims. She continued her work to help build the Kearney Lake Masjid, which also provides a safe space in HRM
  • Though unable to attend last night, Dr Simardeep Hundal, a Halifax dentist, won an award for Inspiring Women.  Now president of the Maritime Sikh Society, Hundal immigrated from India in 2009.  She speaks out against racism.  Recently there has been a spate of Indian students who have died in NS – and racism may have played a role in at least one death.  After Hundal’s son died tragically in 2013, she started an annual  scholarship and bursary fund for senior high school students entering university who are committed to making a difference
  • Joan Smith was awarded her award posthumously.  A year ago to the day, Smith – a tireless peace activist and a Mi’kmaw rights organizer– died suddenly.  A beloved member of the Nova Scotia Voice of Women (VOW), Smith was a community singer and a drummer.  One of her actions was to protest the thousands of dead Yemeni children – killed by armaments supplied to Yemen by the Saudis, the US, the UK and Canada in an ongoing proxy war. With a VOW banner, she helped stage a protest on Halifax’s Citadel Hill.
  • Finally, Dr Lynn Jones received an Inspiration award, though she could not attend in person.  Jones is a well-known writer, activist and organizer in the African Nova Scotian community.  A Black woman who splits her time between Truro and Halifax, Jones has fought tirelessly for the human rights of marginalized communities.  Acadia University and Mount St Vincent University have each presented her with an honorary doctorate.  She was the first Black person to be a vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) .  More recently, she chairs the board of Down the Marsh Community Land Trust in Truro, an organization which is trying to build affordable housing for members of the Black community once driven out by racism or by flooding who wish to return.   The Lynn Jones African-Canadian and Diaspora Heritage Collection, is a collection of half a century of newspaper articles and mementoes, and keepsakes and campaigns involving Nova Scotia’s Black communities.  The Collection is now kept at the Saint Mary’s University Archives. 

Clockwise from left: Munawar Ahmad and Rana Zaman; the late Joan Smith teaching students at Sacred Heart School; the first Inspiring Women’s Awards Jan 14, 2023; Dr Simardeep Hundal (credit CBC); the late Joan Smith teaching students at Sacred Heart School in Halifax; Dr Lynn Jones (credit 100ABC Women)

As mentioned, I’m writing this post because I too received an award for Inspiring Women.  My work as a founding member of Equity Watch, as a co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and Canadians, Arabs and Jews for a Just Peace was acknowledged—and  applauded.  Of course, if you are reading this, you know I’m a writer and most people know me as a community activist.  Unlike most who have retired from their paid work, I resolved to never allow my paid work as a university professor (in the Management Department at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University) to define me.  And something tells me it hasn’t.

What does this tell us about the silos in which most of us live, about the awards given for career “excellence” or tributes given to those who financially endow hospitals, universities or even the YMCA.  Check out the local YMCA’s wall of donors.  Not many of the women from Saturday night’s party are named on those walls.    

A Note about Rana Zaman

Rana is a Halifax-based community leader and activist.  She has supported too many causes to list and has made friends across many social, ethnic and religious divides.  Rana immigrated at age seven, with her family, to Halifax from Pakistan.  From a young age she had to work to help her family. After marriage, she, her husband and three children moved to several cities to further her husband’s career as a medical doctor. I got to know Rana because we both supported Palestinian rights and fought against Israel’s wars and attacks on Palestinian civilians. In summer 2019,  Rana who was an active, dedicated member of the NDP, won the nomination to run in the federal riding of  Dartmouth; the election was set for late October.  She won the nomination “fair and square” – she was the first Muslim candidate for the NDP in HRM.  Within hours, NDP apparatchiks in Ottawa launched an all-out attack on her and demanded her resignation.  Though the party said they had “vetted” Rana,  she had publicly spoken and tweeted against Israel’s murder of Palestinian civilians.  The NDP unceremoniously cancelled her nomination, and replaced her.  The silencing of criticism of Israel was deafening.  There had been other candidates the NDP removed f or comments against Israel.  This vicious attack on Rana was not lost on the Nova Scotia NDP whose then-leader, Gary Burrill, agreed she should not be allowed to be a candidate. 

The role Atlantic Jewish Council played in taking away Rana Zaman’s human rights award

In Dec. 2019, Rana was awarded a Human Rights Award by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC).  It was taken away from her within days, after complaints by key figures in the Atlantic Jewish Council who accused Rana of antisemitism.  Rana had tweeted about the hundreds of Palestinian children the Israeli army had killed in their attacks on Gaza.  She’s no antisemite.

Below: Atlantic Jewish Council’s scurrilous press release about Rana Zaman; Larry Haiven at the microphone at the rally to support Rana, and demand the NSHRC return her award, Dec. 2019; the late Robert Devet, editor of the NS Advocate, interviews Rana in Dec. 2019 at the rally.

While we in Equity Watch have noted in our Critique of the NS Human Rights Commission that it takes up to five years for the NS Human Rights Commission to act on most complaints,  it took less than ten days for the Commission to publicly withdraw Rana’s award.  Equity Watch and friends demonstrated against the NSHRC at their offices on Spring Garden Rd in Halifax. We asked them to reinstate her award.  They refused.

In 2022, we nominated Rana for a NS Human Rights Award.  Attached to our application was a list of 11 Jews living in Nova Scotia  who petitioned for her to get the award.  It did us no good – she did not win a human rights award.  We’ll go back every year to nominate  her.  For more information read this article by writer and journalism professor Stephen Kimber here, and my articles here and here.

Featured painting: “What are you doing here?” by Arpita Singh (1992). Living in Delhi, India, Singh is an award winning and nationally recognized artist. To read more about her work, read this.

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