A profile on 2018 DiverseCity Fellow Alumna Naseem Mithoowani.
Naseem Mithoowani has never been one to sit on the sidelines and be a spectator to hate.
Yet changing attitudes is not easy—something Naseem, an immigration and refugee lawyer and 2018 DiverseCity Fellow, learned first-hand.
In 2006, Naseem and a group of fellow law students from Osgood Hall Law School took Maclean’s magazine to task for publishing what the students deemed offensive content depicting the Muslim community.
After the magazine refused to address their concerns, Naseem and her colleagues turned to the Canadian, Ontario, and British Columbia human rights commissions through formal complaints. The claims were ultimately dismissed, but the experience forced Naseem to become a leader by necessity, pushing her to create new ways of having dialogue where it would not have otherwise occurred and insert Muslim voices into conversations about Muslims.
In 2015 Naseem seized another opportunity to advocate for the rights of Muslims when she represented Zunera Ishaq. Ishaq was challenging a government policy that forbid her to wear a niqab, a face covering some women wear for religious reasons, at her citizenship ceremony.
Many told Naseem that advocating for this issue during a time of increased nationalistic political rhetoric could cause a backlash against minorities. Instead, Naseem saw this as an opportunity to debunk myths that fuel hate as the case went to the Supreme Court and gained national profile as a federal election issue. Ultimately Ishaq won the case and was able to take her citizenship oath while wearing a niqab.
“As a result of this case, I think we came out stronger and more empathetic through this opportunity to have authentic and difficult conversations about diversity and inclusivity” Naseem reflected.
Naseem sees that shift continuing as Canadians are starting to realize the power of hateful and stereotypical speech and the role it plays in motivating racist acts of violence, but is concerned by how these Islamaphobic and racist attitudes are still perpetuated online and target the most vulnerable groups in society, like refugees.
“The problem is when people stop getting to know each other,” said Naseem. “In Ishaq’s case, there was curiosity and an appetite to learn more. When answers challenged expectations, it debunked harmful stereotypes and built bridges.” Naseem pursued her own curiosity by applying to the DiverseCity Fellows program, where she hoped to connect with a broad range of individuals and break out of her echo chamber where problems and solutions are viewed only in legal terms.
What is Naseem up to now? When she’s not practicing law at Waldman & Associates, she’s creating change and standing up to hate by working to create a Muslim Legal Aid Clinic in Toronto, developing a group to provide legal support for students on university campuses being targeted by CSIS, and providing guidance as a board member for the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
Want to chat with Naseem about law, Islamophobia, advocating for refugees, or anything else? Just send her an email – she’d love to connect!