Islamic History Month: An Interview with Zarqa Nawaz

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Zarqa Nawaz is a woman who always has a lot on the go. Nawaz is best-known as the creator and writer of Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom about a Muslim community in small-town Western Canada, which gained worldwide attention when it premiered on the CBC in 2007. She also has two university degrees, four children and is a filmmaker with multiple short movies and documentaries to her credit. When I spoke with Nawaz, she had just returned from a tour in the United States promoting her new book Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, which is about her life growing up as a Muslim Canadian. Despite all this, when we chatted, she did not seem the least bit tired. Instead, Nawaz was frank and thoughtful, discussing all kinds of subjects – from Indian Residential Schools, to her own teenage rebellion, to how her father encouraged her to become an advocate of women’s rights. 

A woman stands in profile and looks directly at the camera.  She is smiling and wearing a hijab with a floral pattern and an orange blazer.
Zarqa Nawaz. Photo courtesy of Zarqa Nawaz


October is Islamic History month in Canada. What does that mean to you?

Oh my God! It’s so interesting because I just got back from my trip and my friends are trying to organize an event for Islamic History Month. Honestly, I’ve been a little out of it because I was travelling so much, so I haven’t been involved in the hands-on organization of Islamic History Month – but it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the history.

I know that we’re doing a “Tent of Abraham” event which will be a gathering of Muslims, Christians and Jews – and a First Nations speaker will talk to us about the history of First Nations in Saskatchewan. I had a rabbi here [in Regina], Jeremy Parnes – he was suggesting we all do something together and I thought it would be really good to do something that involves the First Nations community because so many newcomers don’t know the history of First Nations in Canada. It’s important that they learn about the whole way it happened, with the cultural genocide and the residential schools. We thought that would be a good event to organize, so that’s what we’re organizing on October 22nd.


As the child of Pakistani immigrants, you’ve said that you rebelled against your parents both by being more Western than them and also more Islamic than them. How has this culture clash informed who you are and what you write and talk about?

I think that it’s a rite of passage for teenagers to rebel against their parents, no matter what culture or generation they come from. It’s a universal theme – and for me, religion was perfect, because my parents were always more conservative and so religion was really important to them. So there was no better way of turning the knife than to be more religious than them and to out-Islam them.

It kind of caught them off guard because for them, religion was more cultural back home. They came from a Muslim majority country so they took everything for granted – but when you raise children in a non-Muslim majority country, then you learn about religion in a different way. I would learn about it going to the mosque and being part of the mosque community, whereas they [my parents when they lived in a Muslim majority country] could pray everywhere they wanted. There weren’t community centres with Muslims gathering because the whole country was Muslim. The whole issue of women going to the mosque and even the way the hijab became a political identifier for young Muslim women – it caught our moms off guard, because they didn’t come from that sort of society and didn’t need political identifiers because they were part of the majority.

We kids would become idealistic and have black and white views of Islam and start criticizing our parents’ practice in various ways – which became annoying to them. But they couldn’t really say much because they had wanted us to go to the mosque, because it was a big thing for them – and then suddenly, it backfired. We were like: “Well, how come you guys take interest from the bank?”1 and all that sort of thing. That was a way of eating our cake and having it too – we were able to use that to be an irritant to our parents.


When Little Mosque on the Prairie first aired, there was opposition to the series from some within the Muslim community and from some non-Muslims. How did the controversy affect you? Did it play into your reasons for making the show?

I think that the controversy came about because it was the first show ever in North America to show Muslims. Up to that point, the portrayal of Muslims in the media had been pretty negative. You only see the worst stories in the news, you know? Muslim men as oppressors of women and women always being victims – and television shows, they would just sort of mimic those stereotypes. So I think it caught the community off guard – an ordinary show about Muslims doing ordinary things – and they weren’t sure what my intentions were.

I think comedy isn’t necessarily universal and can’t always translate to the different generations or cultures. I mean, it [Little Mosque on the Prairie] was very much a comedy based on my generation – being a second generation Canadian Muslim. So I think some people who were of my parents’ generation didn’t understand the comedy and they would see an older Muslim man like Baber [a character on the show] being made fun of and then they would think “she’s disrespecting older Muslims,” – or that “she’s disrespecting Islam,” because they [older Muslims] represent Islam.

I think it took a while – it took about two years before the community realized that nothing catastrophic was happening and that, in fact, it was humanizing Muslims. A lot of non-Muslims were coming up to them and saying: “This really helps me understand your community and in fact helps me realize that Muslims are just like the people in my church or my synagogue or my temple or my soccer association.” These characters I created actually exist in every community and the more specific the show became in terms of the Muslim community, the more universal the show became, because it sort of represented human nature and the foibles of human nature – and I think that gradually helped spur the older conservative Muslims to realize that. The show wasn’t actually what they were fearing – that I was airing dirty laundry and Muslims would be disrespected and Islam would be seen in a more negative light – but in fact the opposite was happening. And now, in retrospect, everyone has calmed down and realized that it was just a show, it was just a funny show about the community. It really helped people bond with Muslims.


You’ve been a strong advocate of women’s rights and a critic of inequality within Islam – why is this an important topic for you?

I think women’s rights have always been important to me. I grew up with a really conservative father but he was adamant that women be educated, be economically independent, be able to fulfill their potential as human beings. He saw too many women who had married very young in his family and who had not been able to live full lives or were dependent on men who weren’t necessarily positive influences in their lives – and so he always felt that the only way out of the cycle was to emancipate women with some education and so he was very, very much a promoter of female education. In fact, he was so anti-marriage and anti-men – because he always felt that marriage and men were the two things that prevented women from fulfilling their true potential as human beings. He felt that if a woman had a really good education and made enough money, she would never really need to get married.

It was a really strange way of growing up, but I think that it was sort of always in the back of my mind, right? Women and women’s rights and being able to speak, and hear and see. So when this issue of women in the mosque being put behind curtains or a barrier came up, it was really strange for me. Why would Islam be a religion that would tell women they couldn’t be seen or heard? It made no sense. And I watched a documentary [called] Half my Kingdom by a Jewish feminist who said the same thing happens with women in Orthodox synagogues – they were put in behind curtains or up in balconies. She said that this was actually not written in the texts of faith either, but that it came about because there’s always been an issue with women in fundamentalist-based religions as being tempters of men. Women get punished for that and then isolated and put away, whereas the fact that men also have agency and can control themselves is never brought out. Why are women always the ones who have to be responsible for men and their actions?

I made a documentary Me and the Mosque to talk about how patriarchy and misogyny are sort of universal themes throughout every culture and faith. A lot of times religion is just used to justify patriarchy. Sometimes we get tradition and theology mixed up and we need to be able to separate the two, so that we can be transparent. We need both men and women to participate equally in society and hear from each other in order to grow and to become stronger and healthier as a community. That was really important and so that’s why I had to make the documentary Me and the Mosque – and then from there sprang Little Mosque on the Prairie, because I thought: “What if the Imam hadn’t come from a culture that was misogynistic? What if he came from a culture that was more inclined towards gender equity?”

Islam is a religion that grows very well in a place where there’s a liberal democracy because then people can talk and exchange ideas. For centuries, Muslims were very pluralistic and that sort of ended with Saudi Arabia Wahhabi puritan-influenced thought process and we should start examining that more critically and talking about that in our community. 


Just a follow-up question: When you got married, did your father give you a hard time because of his belief that marriage could hold women back?

I think what his big worry was that I would become subsumed with motherhood and babies and not go on with my career. And I think what happened was that shortly after I got married, I started making films and then Little Mosque on the Prairie happened – and for him, that was what he wanted to know – that I would never have regrets about not being able to fulfill my potential as an artist and as a person who had all these ambitions. I think that when he realized that I had married someone who is really supportive and that I was able to continue on with my work, he was happy – and then Little Mosque had become huge and he got to see it in his lifetime.


Your book Laughing all the Way to the Mosque shares personal stories that tell readers aspects of what it is like to be a Muslim in a Western country like Canada. You live in Regina, Saskatchewan, a smaller city, and Little Mosque was set in a small town.  Do you think Muslim minorities in smaller Canadian communities experience particular challenges and opportunities compared to Muslims living in bigger centres?

I think that we have a huge advantage living in a smaller centre because there’s more a sense of community and people know each other and support one another, whereas the bigger a community grows, you can lose that sense of community and personal involvement. When I first came to the mosque in Regina, there was a potluck dinner and we all introduced each other and I got to know the whole community and it was really tiny. And so everyone knew each other and socialized with each other but the community is growing, even here in Regina. I can see that it is becoming difficult to know everyone and we’ll also split off into different enclaves. I think Hutterites know this right? At a certain number they split because they know that it becomes too difficult to have a cohesive community. So I think growing up in a small community is really useful because everyone knows each other and there’s a sense of solidarity and if someone dies or something happens, everyone comes together. So there’s a huge advantage belonging to a smaller community.


Journalism, films, television shows and now books – what’s your next project?

I am actually writing a novel. I want it to be a comedy about a Muslim writer who accidentally joins an ISIS-like group in the Middle East and causes international mayhem. I want it to bring out the current issues that are happening in the Middle East into a more sort of digestible form and so that’s kind of my challenge now of how to do that. So I’m working on that.


1 In some interpretations of Islam, Muslims are not supposed to accept interest on loans of money.