Defining moments: Women in Leadership

Image of left-to-right Maysoon Salama, Anjum Rahman and Aliya Danzeisen

The Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) is a group that was formed in 1991 to cater specifically for the needs of Muslim women around New Zealand. Maysoon Salama, National Coordinator, and Anjum Rahman and Aliya Danzeisen, Assistant National Coordinators, are leaders within their own ethnic communities, serve on a range of boards, have a wealth of experience and knowledge and are highly entrepreneurial. They share some of their thoughts about their own journeys, life and leadership.

Each one of you has had a very unique leadership journey. Could you share what some of the key moments were that brought you to where you stand today?

Aliya Danzeisen: I was in a room with a number of other members of the community when someone asked me (and four other women) to help address the challenges that were facing the female Muslim community here in New Zealand. No one in the room could think of anyone else, and it dawned on me, then and there, that nothing was going to change for the women in our community if I didn’t do something to help. That moment has been the driver for me for ten years now, and despite all the challenges, it still motivates me. Only now I know there are others around me who feel the same way.

Maysoon Salama: My story goes back a bit further. We were very young and my parents gave us advice that is still engraved upon me. We originally come from Palestine (an occupied land and troubled area) and my father said to us: “My beloved children, you are Muslims and according to our teaching you should thrive to be the best among the best and the leaders to goodness in this world - you are Palestinians and you have no land at the moment so education and hard work are your best tools for a bright future”.

Anjum Rahman: I remember how the events after 9/11 had a great impact on me, and I saw the impact on people around the world. As the spotlight came on my community in the coming months and years, along with instances of intolerance against other communities, it became apparent to me that a significant amount of work was required to bring people together. This was the impetus for me to get more involved and active in the wider community - in an effort to create the change I wanted to see in the world, and to create a society where our children could live without fear and hatred.

What are your thoughts on how we can continue to shape leadership for our communities here in New Zealand?

Anjum Rahman: I have gained a lot of knowledge about leadership from my faith, where we are taught that every person is a leader, and that a leader is a guardian and a servant of those for whom they are responsible. This kind of caring, committed, unselfish and humble leadership is exactly what is needed at all levels of society today, and we find wonderful examples of it in unexpected places. This year, I have been privileged to be part of a leadership programme run by the Leadership New Zealand Trust, through the support of the Office of Ethnic Communities. It has been a powerful experience of self-development and growth, and it has helped me to develop the inner resources to deal with difficult situations and relationships, as well as to bring different perspectives to my work.

Aliya Danzeisen: It’s also important to remember good leaders get their hands dirty, they get involved and by participating, inspire others to do better or to do more. A person can show a burst of leadership for just a few seconds but, when well placed, it can be the most important thing for progress of the group or community.  I teach the youth we work with to value and cherish those forms of leadership just as much as the ones who are out front and willing to carry leadership titles.

What advice could you offer, especially to younger women, who are faced with the task of carving out a role for themselves in New Zealand in 2017 and beyond?

Anjum Rahman: I think it's really important to know yourself, to take time to reflect and to read widely on a range of topics. Education of any kind is never a waste, from the simplest to the most complex things. Remember that you have something to learn from every single person you come across, no matter what they do or how old they are. But the most important thing of all, for me, is to leave the world a better place than I found it. I would like younger women to think about how they will make change, and in what ways they can make things better. It is best to make that change doing the things you love, whether it's art, science, hospitality, cooking or anything else that you feel passionate about.

Aliya Danzeisen: My advice is to find something that you’re passionate about.  Be tenacious and ignore the naysayers.  Look for the “yeah sayers”.  If you want something, find a way to make it happen.  I’ve found in life that if one path is blocked, there is usually a way around it.  The other thing is to find a really good mentor, who will be honest with you, but will also advocate for you when you’re in the right. 

Maysoon Salama: I agree, don't concern yourself with what other people think of you and don't try to mould yourself to what society expects. Stay true to yourself and make sure your intentions are pure. Don't give up regardless of what happens, you will always encounter resistance no matter how well you are doing. Do it for those few people who appreciate it, it's totally worth it.

What changes do you wish to see in New Zealand in 20 years’ time?

Anjum Rahman: For me, poverty reduction is hugely important – no one going without food or clothing, and everyone having access to a safe and warm house and good quality health and education. All of these are basic human rights, and everyone deserves them. After that, I would like to see a society where everyone is valued and feels like they belong. I want a society where people have the opportunities to achieve their aspirations, and to live in dignity, connected to their loved ones. It's not a small dream, but also not an impossible one!

Aliya Danzeisen: I believe the future lies with our young people and the youth I interact with in my job and my community work are the most accepting of diversity and accepting of change.  They don’t fear it, but rather embrace it; and yet are still able to be Kiwi and embrace the traditions and history of Aotearoa as well.  It will be awesome in 20 years if the vast majority of Kiwis have that same perspective.  Our ability to embrace diversity could become as iconic as the Kiwi “Can Do” attitude.

Maysoon Salama: I agree with both Anjum and Aliya, this is the way of our future and I would like to see even more acceptance of diversity and more people from different backgrounds working together to build a better future. That is the future of New Zealand.