Anjum Rahman — leading the way for equity and fairness for ethnic women in Aotearoa

Anjum Rahman MNZM is a New Zealand Muslim community leader and human rights activist. A strong advocate for the rights of Muslim women she is a founding member of the New Zealand Islamic Women's Council. She was also a founder of Hamilton’s Shama Ethnic Women's Trust, which supports ethnic women to achieve their aspiration as mana wāhine, to be respected and welcomed into their communities and the wider community, free from fear, prejudice and violence.

We talk to Anjum about what motivates her to lead the way for fairness and equity for ethnic women in Aotearoa.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood and how you came to be in New Zealand.

I was born in India, but left there with my mother when I was two years old to join my father in Canada. He was finishing his doctorate, and then got offered a job in Aotearoa/New Zealand. So we arrived here in June 1972. My parents loved the country and chose to stay. I grew up in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton), where I still reside.

It was a difficult childhood in some ways, in that there were no other Muslim kids at school. Indeed, in one primary school, I was the only child who wasn’t Pākehā or Māori. I remember a lot of isolation, of being misunderstood and verbally bullied constantly until I reached high school. These things have a lasting impact, and it took a long time for me to understand myself and my place in the world.

But I did find it, and Aotearoa/New Zealand is my place of belonging. It will always be home for me.

Tell us about the work you do and why you chose your path.

Currently I co-lead an organisation that works on building belonging and inclusion through the creation of cross-sector networks. Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono (IACT) was formed in 2019 as a long-term response to the terrorist attacks on Christchurch mosques. The heart of our work is to connect and support communities to come together, to work on issues that are common to us all.

I trained to be a chartered accountant, and worked in that field for 30 years. It’s a profession I’m proud of, and during those years I was also involved with a range of community organisations, at governance and volunteer levels. I have been both a community and political activist, pushing for a better and more inclusive society, whether it was interfaith work, social services for ethnic minority women, a media voice for diverse communities through access radio, or policies that improved the lives of the wonderful, diverse communities that make up our country.

Through this work, I knew that the best and most powerful change comes from communities working at the grassroots. That is where my focus is, and the work is uplifting and motivating.

Aligning our organisation to Te Tiriti o Waitangi has been an integral part of our kaupapa — it informs our organisational structure, our values and the projects we undertake. This is part of our commitment to indigenous rights, and we know our work is better when we bring the perspectives of te ao Māori to all aspects of our work.

Throughout your impressive journey, what makes you most proud?

It’s really the number of people who get involved with our work. Our country has many wonderful people who have a passion to support our vision of an Aotearoa/New Zealand where everyone has a place to belong. They give their time, and as we watch the connections develop, decisions being made and the mahi undertaken by them, we know we are on the right track.

What is it about Aotearoa that makes you choose to call it home?

Migrating to Aotearoa/New Zealand was a choice my parents made. This is the place where I grew up, it has shaped me and it is here that I have roots and commitments. Its waters run through my veins; its soils make up my flesh. I cannot physically or emotionally separate myself from here.

I’ve travelled a lot to Europe, Asia, North America and the Middle East. I always love coming back through the rolling green hills of the Waikato — they are soothing to the soul.

But it is more than the land, it is the people. I know and understand them, and this is the place where I can make a difference.

What inspires you to jump out of bed in the morning?

That is a difficult question because I’m definitely not a morning person! My family, the work I do, my community, the people I connect with: they all inspire me. Sometimes the negative things inspire me just as much. When I know and understand the ways in which people are harmed and excluded both in our online and offline worlds, it motivates me to do what I can to push for change.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve learned along on your journey?

Islamophobia and racism have been major factors. These have been constant in my life, and have impacted my wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence, and ability to participate in society. I’ve seen how similar and other forms of discrimination have impacted others. Often people don’t understand the deep-seated trauma that is sitting with people from this kind of exclusion, not to mention the ways in which it harms society as a whole.

I had the privilege of facilitating many of the belonging conversations we ran in 2020, as well as those we ran last year. On top of that, I have facilitated discussions on racism both as part of government engagements with community and through our Bridging Cultures project. Time after time, we have witnessed the tears and hurt of people as they relay their experiences.

Pushing for investment in people is critical, much more important than investing in infrastructure, production or similar things. When our people are well, then all the other things fall into place.

What is the best advice your parents ever gave you?

Not so much advice, but their example of building and leading community has shaped my own approach to life. We were the first Muslim family to settle permanently in Kirikiriroa, and I watched them build and support a community over decades. They are a strong and powerful living example that we need to do more than just support ourselves and our own whānau.

We have a wider responsibility to contribute to society in ways that we are able, and I know that it’s a privilege to be able to do that. For many, food, shelter and the basics are still a struggle, so it’s up to those of us who have capacity to use it to benefit others.

The theme for The Tindall Foundation’s Annual Report this year is inclusion and equity. Can you tell us why you are such a passionate advocate for these?

Because I know what it’s like to be excluded and to have inequity. And I have heard too many stories from other people who have had such experiences. Those impacts aren’t just at a personal level. We need to be thinking about the systems and processes we use to make decisions at state, local government, community and organisational levels. We also need to move away from the ‘one law for all’ approach, as it doesn’t take into account people’s differing needs and circumstances. Flexible and adaptable programmes and solutions are critical to building.

What importance does philanthropy have to play in supporting organisations like Shama and Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono?

It is critical. For IACT, it means that we can have an independent voice, and be outside of the politics that comes with government funding and changes of policies and priorities. Philanthropic funding gives communities the power to shape their own solutions.