Farhia Ahmed chooses the cauliflower soup. Just past noon on a Tuesday, she’s at one of her favourite spots for lunch: Thyme & Again in Westboro. The place is bustling. Since they’re out of chocolate peanut butter cookies (she asks), Farhia makes her way upstairs to find an empty table, and sits down with a smile.
Don’t let stereotypes about the hijab she wears fool you. This Somali-Canadian mother of four is a dynamo. Assertive. Fun. Smart. Outspoken. Beautiful. Muslim. Along with the rest of us, she wants her kids to grow up in a society that values decency, respect, inclusion, and justice. “I want to be part of making Canada safe for everybody.”
As a self-described “productivity junky, coffee addict and lover of pizza,” Farhia is also a working mom. And as a full-time public servant, she has dedicated her career to shaping national social policy issues, focusing her considerable talents on Indigenous affairs, multiculturalism and human rights.
In a speech she gave on Human Rights Day, December 10, she said this: “Human rights are about recognizing humanity and recognizing that while we may come from different tribes and nations we are all humans. And as any geneticist will tell you, strength and beauty come from diversity.”
It was 1982 when, at age two, Farhia and her family moved here from Somalia. Growing up, she was a tomboy, playing sports and wearing her hair in a ponytail. She spent her summers building forts with her brother, catching frogs and riding her bike.
Nobody in her Ottawa household wore the hijab. “My mom was the black version of the mom on Leave it to Beaver. She was a stay-at-home mom who took great pride in her home and her looks.”
There came a time, however, that her mother began to reflect on what it meant to be Muslim. Overnight—or so it seemed to young Farhia—she started wearing the hijab. It was an empowering decision.
Forget any notions of oppression and subordination to men. “It actually opened her eyes to her rights as a woman, to her power and her abilities,” Farhia explains. “She wanted to be more independent and more vocal. The hijab helped her do that.”
The change had an impact. Farhia decided she wanted to wear a hijab too. It was the summer after Grade 7, and she remembers it well. “My older sister had just taken me to get braids for Canada Day.” There’s a burst of laughter: “My sister was irritated with me. I went to Canada Day in a red hijab and a white t-shirt.”
Big sis wasn’t the only one displeased by the decision. “It infuriated my dad, she recalls. “He didn’t believe in it. He didn’t see any necessity. He said he’d worked hard to bring us here for opportunities, not so I could live the way people did back home, which, in his mind, was backwards.”
Even though she was resolute (and determined as all get-out), she understands her dad’s perspective. “He was worried I would be stereotyped and judged. He was genuinely scared it would limit me.”
He soon learned otherwise. In high school, even as she started wearing longer-sleeved shirts, Farhia got three jobs—at the Canadian Blood Services, CHEO and a local radio station—and saved her money for university. “I wanted to excel. I wasn’t letting the stereotypes or his fears define me. Over time he realized nothing was holding me back.”
Once high school was over, she continued to forge her own path. While attending the University of Ottawa, Farhia informed her dad she had switched from sciences to communications and public administration; he was surprisingly unru ed, though he’d wanted her to pursue a career as a nurse or doctor.
In matters of romance, however, both her parents had firm expectations. For her father, “I could not bring home a suitor unless I had a degree.” As for her mother? “I had to find a nice Somali boy.”
Farhia followed her heart instead. At Ottawa U, she met Nidal Diaz, whose father is of Spanish and Chilean descent and whose mother is Palestinian. Although he had been raised Catholic, he had recently become a Muslim. And that choice intrigued her.
Farhia and Nidal hit it off, became good friends, then eventually realized they wanted to spend the future together. Admittedly, they were concerned about how their parents would react. “He was unsure how his family would accept a Muslim girl, let alone a covered Muslim girl.” As for Farhia’s family?
“We decided we were going to make the leap of faith and see who was on board.” Although nervous, she was ready to present the idea to her dad. “I had come through on my end of the deal with my father. I had my university degree in hand and had secured a well-paying job. So I reminded him of this pact we made, that it was his turn and he now had to meet Nidal.”
Next thing you know, “the suitor” was invited for dinner. Nidal and one of his closest friends, who is Somali, arrived carrying flowers and a gift for Farhia’s mom. After another peal of laughter at the lunch table, she explains: “You don’t show up alone or empty handed.”
The ordeal went surprisingly well. Farhia’s five siblings all knew Nidal and her father approved of his education plans. As for her mother? “It helped that he was very handsome and she knew the parents of the friend he brought.”
Nidal’s parents are divorced, and while introductions went smoothly with his father, stepmother and stepbrother, his mom had a harder time with the news. Farhia explains why:
“His mother had been working for a Canadian development agency in Palestine for over 20 years. As a champion for women’s rights issues in the Middle East, she had worked hard to liberate some truly oppressed women living in di cult circumstances, and so she often associated hijab with that baggage.”
Nevertheless, Farhia and Nidal wed in 2004 and celebrated in ways that honoured their traditions. When his mother arrived, they held a multi-cultural reception. “It was nice.”
Today she and Nidal are raising their children to be respectful of different ideas and beliefs. Jenin, 11, is an aspiring artist. Laila, 9, plays competitive soccer and is trying out for hockey. Omar, 7, plays soccer and he’s obsessed with Pokemon cards. “His day-to- day struggle is keeping his cards from Yasmine.” As for Yasmine, who’s three? Farhia’s face lights up with amusement. “She’s a very articulate old soul—at the imaginative stage right now.”
The kids are being taught, by example, to be open, kind, appreciative of what they have, and respectful of others. Since they have Muslim and Catholic grandparents, they’ve also been able to experience double the holidays. “We enjoy spending Christmas with Nidal’s family, depending on the year and who’s in town. We think it’s beautiful. We look forward to the decorations.”
Gutsy and opened-minded as Farhia is, perhaps the long-ago clashes with her parents have helped prepare her for the challenge of raising a Muslim family at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise.
Not only has her older daughter heard about hate crimes, one of her younger kids was recently singled out because of the colour of his skin. “My son was called a black boy for the first time. He didn’t get why it was said to him as a put-down.” They had to have a talk about race. She shakes her head in dismay: “I thought we were past that. I can’t believe we still had to have this conversation.”
Years ago, working for the Canadian Blood Services, she personally felt the sting of bigotry and ignorance. At a summer clinic in the Ottawa Valley a local volunteer complained, suggesting, absurdly, that she was somehow connected with the Klu Klux Klan. Farhia was wearing white, including a white hijab, and henna on her hands following a weekend wedding.
Even now, discrimination is fueled by misinformation, she points out. “The only thing misinformation causes is hate and divisiveness.” The more informed we are and the more we talk to each other, the better. “There are different people, different practices, and the important thing is that we get to know each other and that we respect each other. I truly believe we were all created differently for a reason. There is a verse in the Quran that speaks of this:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other).” (49:13)
As this mom is teaching her children, it’s not the label or form of a particular belief system that is its significance. “It’s your actions and your kindness. It doesn’t matter how long your clothes are if you are treating someone horribly. At the end of the day it’s about how you treat people, what you do and what your intentions are.”
Farhia intends to keep wearing her hijab, living according to her beliefs, and speaking up for human rights. As for her children, “I hope they are grounded in their own values,” she says, adding, “People often ask me when my daughters will start wearing hijab. My response is simple: That’s not for me to decide. You cannot dictate a person’s faith. I was free to choose to wear the hijab or not. I want them to have that choice. My job is to open their hearts and minds.”