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Nazlin Umar Is A Bridge Over Troubled Waters
London , UK , December 4, 2005 (The Sunday Standard) – Dining with world leaders and partaking of five-star cuisine in exotic restaurants has not changed Nazlin Umar’s definition of a good meal.
"Matumbo and ugali remain my favourite, and preferably in a local kiosk," she confesses.
One cannot help but admire Nazlin Umar’s high-spirited personality. Her quest to challenge misconceptions about Islam has won her friends and foes
Her trade mark hijab (head scarf) and flowing robes in resplendent shades of red, pink and orange belie her powerful persona as an avid defender of Islam.
In recent months, the mother of four has rapidly acquired the nicknames ‘Mama Kenya ’ and the ‘Iron Lady’ due to her vocal support for the Orange Democratic Movement.
But more outstanding at the local and international level has been her role in taking Islamic and women’s agendas to the public domain.
Her passion for the rights of women ‘behind the veil’ has seen her work to address issues pertaining to HIV/Aids, gender disparities and social development.
Nazlin’s life was literally turned upside down after traumatic experiences as a Muslim bride of 19 years in 1984, in a closed society. Her marriage eventually broke and she lost a protracted battle for the custody of her four children.
She was to experience more psychological pain following the brutal murder of her father and later her sister, who died in Mombasa in her arms.
Nazlin says her sister suffered 95 per cent burns after an assailant doused her in petrol before setting her ablaze.
This backdrop of tragedy enabled Nazlin to muster the strength and courage to become the ‘voice of the voiceless in a male dominated society.
"Police allowed my sister’s burial although they suspected foul play. Because she was a Muslim woman, no man could be allowed to handle her corpse during a post mortem.
"What hurt me most was the typical cultural inclination in our community to view women as unimportant, regardless of whatever happened to them," she told The Sunday Standard.
Her courageous defiance has seen her join the ranks of Shekeba Hachemi, the founder of Afghanistan Libre which works to secure the rights of Afghan women, Tehmina Durrani of Pakistan, who cast aside personal considerations and broke taboo to speak out against oppression of Muslim women and the Egypt-born Soheir Khashoggi who has used her influence to highlight the plight of women in the Arab world.
Nazlin Umar says more women should join politics to take charge of their destiny and improve families’ living standards
Predictably, Nazlin’s quest to challenge misconceptions about Islam and show the true status of Muslim women has won her friends and foes.
At the national level, she has made a mark as a founder of the National Muslim Council of Kenya (NMCK). She is also the national chairperson of Oasis of Hope, a gender crisis centre providing free Islamic legal aid, litigation and mediation to redress all forms of violence against women and children.
Her Behind the Veil project aims at reducing and eventually eliminating stigma towards Muslims living with HIV/Aids.
Now, an unseen force seems to be hauling her rapidly into Kenya ’s turbulent political waters.
Late last week, a delegation of councillors from Kamukunji approached her for an early morning meeting, to ask her to run for the constituency parliamentary seat in 2007.
"I will not deny that I do not have political ambitions, but my joy is serving others. This is why I see myself as a bridge over troubled waters," she says, quoting the popular 1970s song by Art and Garfunkel.
At a personal level, one cannot help but notice the rare balance between her dynamic, high-spirited manner and her extraordinary humility. Her manner is as fascinating as it is captivating.
The intriguing tale of her paternal ancestry goes back many generations to the Rajput’s family in Pakistan . Her paternal great grandfather who came to Kenya with the British Army settled in Kitui and married Nzisa, the daughter of a Kamba chief while her maternal great grandfather was an Indian who married a local woman from Nandi.
"I love the fact that you cannot pin me down to any particular tribe because of my mixed ancestry. This makes me a true Kenyan."
She says her childhood was like an exciting journey. Born in Eastleigh Section 3 in 1965, she grew up in Pangani with her four siblings and attended Eastleigh Primary School .
A self-confessed rebel during her school days, her leadership qualities began to sprout in secondary school when she questioned a requirement that Muslims attend mass.
"As a form one student in a Catholic school, I was disturbed because we were all made to go for Mass and I wrote to the school board about this. I even asked the headmistress that Muslim students be allowed to have their own religious gatherings," she recalls.
This encounter transformed the 13-year-old into a teacher of Islam.
"We were then allowed to start the Muslim Society, and as there was no one to teach, I had to study the Koran and share the faith with the other students," she recalls.
Interestingly, the one time winner of an award at the Kenya Music Festivals topped in Christian Religious Education examinations, even as she increasingly dabbled in inter-faith debates.
She recalls approaching one of the editors of a daily national newspaper while still in high school, to protest at an article that misrepresented Islam.
"My father supported me and drove me all the way to the media house where the dumbfounded editor looked at me and said I was a brave girl."
After the breakdown of her marriage, she sought to rebuild her life, even mending bridges with her ex-husband who remains her good friend. She dotes on her children who during the referendum campaigns showed their support for her cause by wearing Orange T-shirts. The family cooks together and frequently goes out for dinner.
Nazlin’s influence began to spread when she became a resource person and consultant, editing national and international documents, and writing on human rights, gender and faith-based approaches to human rights.
She is also involved in activities that aim to address the plight of women and minorities.
"I realised that Muslim women did not have someone to champion their rights and took up the challenge," she explains.
She has devoted many years to studying the Koran, strengthening her conviction that the Holy Book gives women privileged status. She is convinced that women are not supposed to be a downtrodden lot.
"Much of the interpretation of the Koran has been to support male dominance. The truth rarely comes out," she said.
Nazlin is a workaholic, sleeping for between three to four hours every night. Knocks on her door at the Oasis of Hope located at her home in Kileleshwa begin as early as 6am , when distressed women call on her for help.
Her mission to serve others takes her across the world to represent the global Muslim population in International fora as a speaker.
Among her assignments was attending the first international Muslim leader’s consultation on Aids in Uganda and a regional leaders training in Tanzania .
She was also a speaker in Ouagadougou , in Burkina Faso during the 12th Icasa (International Conference on Aids and STDs in Africa ) meeting and went to Durban in South Africa as the Islamic speaker during an Igad meeting on HIV/Aids.
When the International Republican Institute (IRI) based in Washington DC with its East Africa regional offices being in Nairobi held a four-day seminar for Somaliland Muslim Women activists in January, she was invited as a resource person.
One of her highpoints was her appointment in Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia in May 2003, by international delegates as a speaker to respond to a blasphemous paper that had been written by Amina Wadud, a Muslim scholar.
Nazlin captured the attention of international media as she read a critique of the paper and defended Islam, articulating the faith’s strategies for addressing the Aids pandemic and speaking on the rights and status of Muslim women.
She has also visited the United States several times as a guest of the Department of State and has been interviewed on diverse media, including CNN, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and BBC.
Frequent death threats she receives do not intimidate her.
"I only fear God, and would feel privileged to die for what I believe in," she says, intimating that she would rather die as a servant of the people than in any other way.
A believer in and upholder of democracy, Nazlin caused a stir in February this year when standing before guests and a former minister for Information, she withdrew her name from the nomination list of the Eve Woman of the Year award.
She defends her controversial action, saying she felt the selection was undemocratic.
"I instead committed myself to be a servant and defender of the people and a bridge over troubled waters for women and children."
Several of her writings have been discussed internationally. They include An Islamic Exposition into Sexuality, Gender and the Aids Scourge — Islam’s Strategies, The Muslim Community’s Challenges in Response to the Aids Pandemic, The True Status of Women: In Defence of Islam, Islam, Sexuality, Women and Female Genital Mutilation.
Some of her electronic publications include Islam and Muslims, Focus on Human Rights and Social Justice in Islam, Muhammad, and the Seal of the Prophets.
To her joy, Usaid declared Behind the Veil their best project and affirmed their support for its activities for the next two years.
The British Government pledged £165,000 to support the Oasis Of Hope through the Global Opportunities Fund.
Eyes on the presidency
It was about 1am on the night of the referendum and Nazlin was an observer based at Kenyatta International Conference Centre when she received a distress call from a friend in Kamukunji.
He said 11,000 votes were missing and the crowd was getting out of control because counting clerks wanted to declare a Banana win.
In a convoy of three cars, she left in a hurry and found a frenzied mob and the OCPD calling for backup.
"I feel close to the people in Kamukunji because I’ve done a lot of work there," she explains.
She assured the crowd that the votes would be recounted until they were satisfied. To their joy, Orange won.
One of the local councillors later said to her: "We want you to represent our constituency because we know you will make a dedicated leader from the way you helped us out that evening."
Nazlin was considered for nomination as an MP after the December 2002 General Election on a Narc ticket.
She had also been short-listed for a government job and was nominated for the position of a commissioner at the National Commission of Human Rights in June 2003.
"The pains of my community and the desire to see more women become involved in politics to take charge of their destiny has been part of my motivation," she says.
Nazlin confesses she has presidential ambitions and does not hide her disappointment with President Kibaki whom she supported in 2002.
With the benefit of hindsight, she believes that voting in Kibaki was the biggest mistake Kenyans ever made.
"He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and we parted ways as soon as I realised he was going back on most of Narc’s pre-election pledges by not honouring the MoU."
At the moment, she is not affiliated to any political party and chooses to associate closely with members of the ODM because as she says, "birds of a feather flock together".
She shares Orange leaders’ views on democracy and detests the government’s inability to root out corruption.
"I will continue to work with the ODM as long as they remain the voice of the common wananchi," she pledges.
She says the President may try to weaken ODM by offering its members key positions in government, but that won’t stifle the movement.