By Muaz Nasir
Green Leaders is new online series by Khaleafa.com, profiling Muslims who are involved in the environmental movement. The goal is to highlight the achievements of those within our community and provide role models for the youth who are interested in pursuing a career in an environmentally-related field. This week we follow Fizza Mir, a Canadian educator, activist and designer with Azadi Project; a fashion collection that caters to the socially conscious consumer.
1) Briefly explain your educational and professional background. What piqued your interest in the sustainability field? Was there a defining cause, person or event that was your source of inspiration? What possible career options do you have in mind?
By profession, I’m a high-school teacher. I’ve been involved in social justice work for much of my life, whether it’s anti-poverty work, domestic violence prevention or organizing anti-war actions. I’ve also enjoyed design from a very young age and I would often (and still do) design and sew my own clothes. Although I haven’t had any formal training in garment design or construction, they are skills that were passed down to me by my mother who was a college Art teacher herself. The creation of Azadi Project seemed the perfect merging of my creative side and my commitment to social justice work. Although I love teaching and regard it as important, meaningful work, as a teacher I never had time grow creatively. Through Azadi Project I am able to revive my creative side while aiming to improve the condition of the earth and that of people in marginalized communities.
2) In the lead up to your current position with Azadi Project, briefly share your career path. What has been the most fulfilling position that you have had? What are some of the most inspirational experiences you would like to share?
Currently, I have taken a break from teaching to work on design and establish Azadi Project. The fashion and apparel industry is among the most exploitative and environmentally destructive industries, so I knew that if I wanted to work in fashion it would have to be within an ethical and sustainable framework. The most beautiful part of my work is that I know I’m directly supporting women and helping to provide an income that allows them greater independence, opportunity and choice in their day to day lives. One of my most inspirational experiences was at the Fashion.Art.Toronto (FAT) fashion show in Toronto last spring. It was a high profile, city-wide event and I was very excited and anxious about the show. Just a couple of days before the event Rana Plaza collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh killing over a thousand garment workers. It was a horrific tragedy and I wanted to find a way to commemorate the workers at the Toronto show. Although it was extremely last minute, I, with the help of my sisters, was able to paint some placards and create some black ribbon pins that my models would hold and wear at the show. My co-presenters agreed to wear the ribbons as well. I thought it was a beautiful and necessary tribute; here we were celebrating fashion and entirely ignoring the people who tragically perished making it. The tribute was received well by the audience and was a way for me to make a statement against the conventional fashion industry and express my solidarity with Bangladeshi workers on a very high-profile platform.
3) Azadi Project is a fusion of indigenous techniques and original design concepts for the socially conscious consumer. How did the project arise? Why did you choose to focus on an environmentally sustainable and socially just product line?
My desire to work on a clothing line that would incorporate my love of design and my commitment to social justice was my motivation for working on Azadi Project. Knowing how oppressive, exploitative and environmentally destructive fashion is, I knew Azadi Project’s clothing label had to focus on ethical and sustainable sourcing and production. All our fabrics are hand-loomed using a mechanical loom, avoiding the use of electricity or dependence on precious water resources. Our artisans are encouraged to participate in the creative design process which incorporates indigenous craft as a means of preserving century old techniques of decorative design. At times, women are able to produce at home, alongside their daily household work. They take great pride in being able to contribute to the family income and earn enough to send their children to school. Supporting these communities means that they can stay in their ancestral home and not have to move to large urban slums to work in the conventional garment industry; an industry that makes up approximately 80% of Bangladesh’s GDP.
4) This project has been a collaboration between your long-time friend and current business partner. What have been some of the benefits of entering into this project as a team? Do you both share the same passion for environmental/social justice issues?
My business partner Farah and I both share a love of design and commitment to ethical practices. Farah’s involvement in fair trade for over 10 years, and my involvement in social justice work for much of my life meant we were both able to bring important knowledge, experience and passion to Azadi Project.
5) Are there any parallels you can describe between Islam and the environment specific to your career path? How has your faith been a source or inspiration or direction in your life (both professionally and personally)? What is one environmental message you like the Muslim community to adopt?
My faith has absolutely guided my work, both personally and professionally. I feel social and environmental justice is an integral part of Islam, we see it in countless examples throughout the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). To be a Muslim is to advocate for justice, whether it’s justice for people, animals or the planet. The Quran also teaches that we are stewards of the earth, responsible for its care and preservation and unfortunately we’re failing miserably. All of us are blessed with unique gifts and opportunities, everything we have is by the grace of God and ultimately we’ll be accountable for how we utilized our blessings, whether it’s time, ability, wealth, health, power or intellect. If we, as an Ummah utilized all our blessings to advocate for peace and justice in all aspects of life, we could be a beacon for the rest of the world, an example to emulate. As cliché as it sounds, thinking globally and acting locally can profoundly change the discourse and behaviour around environmental issues in our communities. Living consciously is the first step to affecting chance. My hope is that Muslims will be exemplars and leaders in fields of social and environmental justice, fulfilling our deen through example and action.
6) Can you provide any advice for someone considering a career in the environmental field? Are there any lessons you have learned, mentors who were influential or causes that influenced you so far? What advice can you provide to those considering starting their own environmental business?
When aspiring to work in an environmental field, the issues can get overwhelming and seem insurmountable at times. There are powerful interests and agendas that oppose environmental justice and view it as a direct threat to their prosperity and way of life. As such, environmental action is very much a political, contentious endeavour and I don’t think people always recognize that. It’s important to understand that change comes very slowly, in increments, in small victories; don’t get discouraged by this pace. It’s very important to surround yourself with people that also share your passion and are involved in the same type of work (though, unfortunately, you won’t always find these networks within the Muslim community). Engaging, sharing, collaborating and organizing with like-minded people is incredibly powerful, inspiring and motivating; it builds support, solidarity and growth for your environmental goals and aspirations. I have met so many incredible people that have inspired me on my journey and who motivate me to keep going. Most importantly, view your work as a fundamental part of your faith. To me, embarking on a career that respects people and the planet is integral to my faith; it’s an act of worship.