Leading up to the Christchurch mosques atrocity a year ago, Anjum Rahman was one of our Muslim voices drawing attention to the growing, worldwide danger from those obsessed with white “superiority”. She’d argued for years that this country had no immunity. And, since the March 15 attacks, she’s renewed her efforts to help all New Zealanders develop a sense of belonging.
Kia ora, Anjum. You’ve often been in the news over the last year. But we don’t know much about your early days. I wonder if you can tell us something about your whānau and your life before Aotearoa.
Kia ora, Dale. I was born in India, in my mother’s village Mahuwara in Uttar Pradesh, which is the state that houses the Taj Mahal. The Ganges river runs through the state.
My mother’s family had been big landowners. In fact, according to the stories I heard, my great-grandfather had owned so much land that they had six villages of people to help him farm and manage his property. But, when independence came in 1948, the government took over all those large land holdings.
My father Anis was from another village. And his family history there traced back four or five generations. My mum Qamar says that, on her side, they had a family tree going back 500 years. So, clearly, we were well settled there.
My dad had gone overseas a day or two before I was born, to do his studies in Saskatoon, Canada, where he’d won a scholarship. My mum and I joined him before I turned two. She had to sell all her wedding jewellery so she could afford a ticket for us to go and join him. I spent my kindy years in Canada and I don’t have very much memory of anything there except for the snow. A lot of snow.
We left Canada to come to New Zealand when I was almost six. My dad had a two-year post-doctorate fellowship here with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, as it was known then. But both my parents loved it here and decided to stay.
So it’s way off the mark to think of you as a refugee, Anjum?
That’s right. We were migrants. We were the first Muslim family to settle in Hamilton. So there was no Muslim community around us. And that was a challenge for me when I was growing up because there was nobody like me, nobody outside our family who understood what it meant to be Muslim.
I went to two primary schools — and, at the second one, I was the only person who wasn’t Māori or Pākehā. I was a real oddity there.
Not so now, Anjum. Haere mai. But, back in India, the stats would be dramatically different, wouldn’t they?
In India, about 13 percent, that’s around 200 million people, are Muslim. Actually, there are more Muslims there than there are in Pakistan. It’s a big minority that’s going through some very difficult times at the moment.
It’s also, I guess, sometimes difficult for you. The head scarf is such a visible sign of your Muslim-tanga, if I can use that term. Whereas, if you’re a Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, or some other denomination, you don’t look out of the ordinary. How closely did you adhere to the norms of Muslim dressing as a child?
I didn’t wear a head scarf until I was into my mid-30s. So, visibly, I wasn’t Muslim. Being Indian was enough of a difference. My mum always made sure my legs and arms were covered, so the other kids found it odd that I didn’t wear shorts or skirts like them.
And then, of course, there were the food restrictions. In Hamilton, in the 1970s, vegetarian food wasn’t available beyond your own home — and you could forget totally about Halal food. In my early 20s, I can remember walking down Victoria Street and going into and out of various cafes and not finding anything I could eat there. There was nothing vegetarian.
Anjum, I’d hope you had some Māori friends. Kids often see past the cultural differences that adults read so much into. Was that the case? Did you find some support from local Māori?
My front neighbours were Māori. I used to play with their little girl, who was my age, all the time, outside of school. But, in school, there wasn’t much connection with me at all. Then she moved away.
Around my final year at primary school, I did have another Māori friend. But I was very lonely at school. I didn’t have many friends at all. There were often times when I just had no one to play with.
Then at Hillcrest High School, I had a Māori friend Rose who invited me to join the kapa haka. I went a couple of times and I really loved it. Then my mum said: “No, you can’t do that because they wear those skirts. And the clothing is not appropriate for you. So you can’t do it.” I was gutted. I’d actually started learning the poi and a couple of other things.
The other thing that connected me to Māori was that I studied history in the fifth and seventh form. We did a significant New Zealand history component in both those years. When I was 14 or 15, that 1981 Springbok tour was on — and I was becoming aware of racist issues. It was often in the news, and everyone was talking about it. And then there was the link with my own whakapapa because, like New Zealand, India was a colonised country.
So I felt a real affinity for people who’d been colonised. I remember a sense of outrage over what had happened through New Zealand’s early history. We went on a road trip to a lot of the pā sites and the forts in the Waikato. That made me feel a strong connection. That experience resonated with me.
Anjum, can you recall any instances where you noticed racist attitudes towards you, or you felt people were putting you down?
I remember on my first day at my second primary school, all the kids wanted to play with me. But, within a week, no one would have anything to do with me. I imagine these little kids went home and told their mum and dad that they had this little Indian girl in their class — and being told to stay well away from her. Either that, or I was a really horrible little kid. I don’t think I was that horrible.
Then there were the “curry-muncher” taunts. And I remember when I was seven or eight, this little girl asking me: “What does it feel like to be Indian?” I didn’t know what to say to her. Like, what’s that as a question?
Kids quickly get put into a box. I was put into the box of the person who got teased about everything. About how ugly I was. Or my big nose. Or big feet. Then, when the kids were picking their sports teams, I was always picked last. And when we had to do that awful square dancing, the boys picked the girls — and always picked me last.
So school was a hostile environment. It meant that I had very little self-confidence — and that became a spiral because you become withdrawn and depressed, or unable to socialise. Then those kids who might’ve socialised with you decide not to because they’d prefer to be around happy, cheerful kids.
I hope we’ve changed as a society since then. Certainly the demography of our country is vastly different from what you encountered when you arrived, Anjum. At least, I assume that there are many more Muslims living in Hamilton now. Many more Indians.
My kids were born in the Waikato, and I feel their experience growing up has been much different from mine. They have a lot of friends from different cultures. My older one was in a tightknit group of four. A Korean, Chinese, Pākehā, and her.
Another difference is that when I was growing up, I didn’t have any wider family here. No cousins, uncles, aunties. Or anything. That was a huge thing, not having access to any whānau. But my kids’ generation are growing up in an environment where they have contact with their relatives.
I suspect that some Māori families have suffered from a similar isolation when they’ve moved into the city from their tūrangawaewae and, initially anyway, haven’t had their own people around them for support. I don’t know how my mum managed because she had my brother and sister born here and she had to deal with those two little babies all by herself.
Much has changed, though. Especially the food situation. But, for a lot of our kids, these days, I think they just take diversity in their stride. They see it as normal, and they just deal with it in ways that are so much healthier than my generation did — which is really good.
On the flipside, yes, there’s still harassment — verbal harassment, anyway. Often, that’s tied to things happening overseas or to other big events in the news cycle. Back in the day, it used to be talkback radio which would get going about Muslims or immigrants. That hasn’t stopped, but now we’ve got this new thing: online hate. The talkback crowd has jumped on to the internet and we’ve got all these paid trolls and bots in there to change people’s views and create a lot of online hostility that then can translate to offline incidents.
Throw your phone into the sea, sister. I’m not a fan of social media for the very reasons you’ve touched on — the trolling and the anonymity that the trolls revel in.
Your life is an uplifting story of overcoming adversity and I take my hat off to you for your work, such as with the Islamic Women’s Council and the Legal Aid Review panel — not to mention your success at university. But let’s turn now to the Islamic Women’s Council.
I was there at the original meeting and became the first secretary back in 1990. I joined in the council’s discussions about giving women a voice within our own community, and I’ve worked closely with the organisation, on and off, over its whole life.
We call our head person the national co-ordinator. I was one of her assistants. Then, in the Christchurch mosque attack last year, she lost her son. Her husband was also shot, although he survived. But, because of her situation, I felt some pressure to take on her role.
Before the shooting, we were already engaged with government and trying to raise the issues because we could see the increase in hate. But it was hard-going, and really frustrating.
A lot of that story, we’ve taken to the Royal Commission of Inquiry. The details of that will come out in due course. But, when March 15 happened, one of our reactions was anger because we’d raised the alarm much earlier — and pushed and pushed. And nobody was at all active or taking us seriously.
So, personally, I was dealing with rage, as well as grief. But I’ve been using that anger to fuel my determination to help make things better.
I’ve been working on a new project — the Inclusive Aotearoa Tāhono — and one part of that involves travelling around the country talking with various communities about their sense of belonging and inclusion, and finding out what’s working well and what needs to change.
And the best one we’ve come across has been a kaumātua group at a marae just out of Motueka. The kaumātua and kuia were amazing! What they’ve created in that group, I believe, is a model of what we could have all through the country, if people were prepared to invest in that.
They have regular gatherings for the kaumātua. They do movies. They have a ukulele group and all sorts of other activities. They organise transport and it all happens at the marae. And it’s not just Māori. They have Pākehā joining in, feeling welcome, sharing this sense of belonging — learning te reo along the way, and not being judged if they get the words wrong. And being strong in their sense of self. It really works.
On the negative side, there’s the unfortunate reality that Muslims as well as Māori have been ill-served by the media. Too often, through the years, the media picture of our people has been that we’re constantly failing. And it’d be fair to say that Muslims have been vilified by the media as well — it’s Muslims, so the story goes, with the weapons of mass destruction and it’s Muslims who are the biggest threat to the west. What are your thoughts on the media’s role in this ongoing denigration of Muslim people?
What you say is definitely true about the media experience of Māori, of Pasifika, and of refugee communities. So much of it has been hostile. But I feel that, in the last 10 years, the media, the local media anyway, have done much better. They’ve told positive stories about us. The problem is the prevalence of the overseas news and opinion pieces where writers feel they have to be provocative to get the clicks and the views.
There’s actually been research that shows that the more media a person consumes, the more likely they’ll have a negative perception of Muslims. And there’s other research about the attitude of employers which showed a definite bias against Muslim women wearing head scarves.
Certainly, we’re not the only community facing that sort of prejudice. And it gets difficult because a number of the individual journalists are great and they’re really positive. In fact, I’ve been amazed that, in interviews I’ve had with Paul Henry, Duncan Garner, and so on, I’ve been treated really well.
I’ve found that interesting, because I’ve often felt quite frustrated about some of the other things they’ve said. But, when I’m on there, I get treated well. So, what can I say? Or do?
Be careful, I guess. A year on from the mosque attacks, we’re all still ashamed and devastated that it could happen here in our country. But it did. This bloke, he doesn’t need to be named, perhaps has been influenced by things that we’ve just discussed, the media and the social media. And hanging with right-wing lunatics. Do you hate him? Do you want to kill him?
No. Not at all. That’s just not a healthy space to be in. I could count all the things that he’s taken from us, through this one act. It’s not just the grief he’s caused. It’s not just the ongoing struggle to make a living now that you’ve lost a key member of your family.
It’s the wider impact on our community leaders and the time that they’ve had to spend away from their own families. It’s the kids suffering at school. It’s the wider mental health impact.
But the anger I feel is not directed at him, funnily enough, because I feel strongly that we should’ve had the systems in place to ensure that he wasn’t able to do what he did. We should’ve had de-radicalisation programmes and a focus on what’s happening with these young men.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes out in the inquiry, for instance, about how easily he was able to move in and out of the country. But that was where my anger starts. It doesn’t sit with him. I just see him as a very bad person. I can’t even imagine what kind of soul you’d have to lift a gun and aim directly at a three-year-old child and shoot repeatedly to kill that child. I don’t comprehend it. It doesn’t make any kind of sense.
But I don’t feel hatred and I don’t want revenge. I want him to go through a proper justice process. I want him to have the full human rights treatment, although I hope he does stay in jail. I think he needs to be kept away from society.
I want to believe that all people can be redeemed, but with an individual like this, I don’t think we can take the risk.
The days ahead will be difficult for you, won’t they?
And for so many others as well. I’ve been busy with writing and speaking engagements. And that, in a way can be therapeutic. I think, sometimes, busy is good. But you also need time to stop and dwell. Some quiet time to heal. Mental health is important and I will invest in that, if that’s what’s needed for me.
One of the big questions coming out of all of this is how can we be better as a community? What hopes do you have now after that enormous setback 12 months ago?
I think it’s important as a society that we invest in bringing people together. We have to put our time and energy and resourcing into it because there is plenty of resourcing being put into hate. People often assume that things will be all right, that they’ll just fall in place.
But they won’t, if we don’t put in the effort. If we don’t speak up. If we don’t organise. If we don’t come together. I know people who don’t believe they have the ability to have an influence. But, if you’re in a space where you can make something happen, you should make an effort.
It’s important to think about the ways that you might help bring your community together. Think about the ways you can bring some positive kōrero to the spaces where you are.
Ask yourself what you may be able to do in your workplace. Or at the local school. Or with your neighbours. Pitch in wherever you have the energy and ability.
We need to work hard at this. Also, we need to demand more from our leadership. We need to demand more of our politicians. And be vocal in demanding that.
Next year, once we’ve finished developing a strategy on belonging and inclusion, we’ll be looking at forming constellations or “work hubs” to bring people from different communities together to work on common goals because it’s important to get into the habit of working together, despite our differences — and learning how to get things done while disagreeing with each other.
Also, let’s try, in our own behaviour, dialling back our outrage and modelling a little more compassion and empathy. I know there’s a place for anger and we have a right to express our anger. But we can do better, can’t we?
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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