It wasn’t difficult finding an inspirational local woman to interview for International Women’s Day.
I got lots of good suggestions but Zahra Qadir stood out. Born and bred in Waltham Forest, at 21 years of age, she managed to start a brilliant campaign that spread across the world like wildfire.
Her social media campaign denouncing the actions of the terrorist group, ISIS, resulted in more than 50,000 tweets using the hash tag #notinmyname in a week, international news coverage and was even mentioned in a speech by US President Barack Obama at the UN.
We met at Le Delice café on Hoe Street to discuss the hash tag she is famous for and the organisation she works for – Active Change Foundation (ACF) based on Lea Bridge Road.
Who is Zahra Qadir?
“I have been working for ACF ever since I left school. I’m also studying homeopathy and help manage a family business.
“I have a very diverse role at ACF. I have worked with people who are dealing with domestic problems and I’ve had cases where families have come to ask for help when their children have gone to Syria.
“At ACF we also work with offenders to try and reintegrate them into society: our doors are open to everyone.”
She tells me about what made her get so involved in community work:
“My dad founded the company – initially we had a gym upstairs and a [community] centre and I met a girl there who had been abused.
“I started speaking to her and it made me realise the value of the work ACF did.”
Zahra explains that every day is different when working for ACF and says she meets people from all over the place who have been through difficult times in their life.
“I have seen a lot of good things, and a lot of things you wouldn’t really want to see, and it has made me realize that there are a lot of issues that need to be dealt with in Waltham Forest.
“People can turn to us and feel comfortable coming out and talking about whatever problems they are dealing with.”
A Story of Struggle
With all the community work that she’s been involved in, Zahra tells me about one incident that really stands out for her: “I used to know this 14-year-old girl who was in care – she used to come to the ACF centre every day and tell us how she had moved back in with her mother.
“She would sit there and fantasise about it but we found out from her social worker that she hadn’t really moved back in.
“It got to the point where she was drinking so much that she ended up in hospital with a liver problem. She was part of a gang and was seeing a boy who was abusing her.
“We found out he sold girls and that really hit me because I’d gotten so close to her.
“We had to get social workers involved to help her move away. Even though things got slightly worse and she got pregnant, she settled down and sorted herself out. It wasn’t a perfect ending but at least it worked out in the end.”
What is #notinmyname All About?
“#Notinmyname started off shortly after James Foley, a humanitarian worker in Syria, was beheaded by ISIS. Around that time a friend of mine was attacked in Waltham Forest – someone pulled at her abaya (Muslim covering) and it made me scared of going out.”
It had become clear to Zahra that:
“What was happening in Syria and with ISIS would result in us being targeted. We had to do something so my little group at ACF came up with the idea of #notinmyname.”
The campaign is a platform for British Muslims to use Twitter and other social media platforms to condemn ISIS and explain why their actions do not represent Islam.
I ask her why she feels she needs to apologise: “If you look at what #notinmyname is – am I saying sorry? No. I refuse to apologise; not because of pride but because I know that Islam doesn’t teach that.”
The purpose behind the campaign, she says, is to defend Islam.
“I may not be perfect,” she says, “but my religion is. And it has no room for ISIS or any other such group.
“In fact we’ve been warned that the likes of ISIS will come into our community, and though their prayer will be perfect and they will look like Muslims, they will drive people away from the faith.”
I ask Zahra what she would do if she came across a member of the ISIS group: “A much as I’m against what they are doing and as much as I would want to strangle them, I know that God will punish them for what they have done.
“I would go up to him or her and tell them to lock themselves in a room with the Quran and make peace with any demons they have within them. They are clearly deluded.”
The next part of the campaign, Zahra tells me, is called #allstandtogether which stemmed from when the Jordanian pilot was burned alive by the ISIS group:
“We will do a series of other videos and get community groups and general people to take part.”
She tells me that this campaign is to show people that ISIS does not represent Islam: “Innocent people will get hurt and women will be the first people whose hijabs (scarf ) will be pulled off.”
Zahra’s Role Model
So who has influenced this young woman to become such a loving and community orientated person?
Zahra tells me about her grandmother who after going through so many trials – including losing four of her children – manages to get up every morning and keep at it: “She’s 96 years old now and I see her knitting away and it inspires me.
“My granddad used to treat her like a queen and never let her cook or clean so when he passed away when she was quite young she had to bend backwards to keep her family going.”
Compared to her grandmother’s generation, Zahra feels that:
“Nowadays we are weak. We just see something small and we can’t deal with it. Older people went through so much.”
Visit ACF’s website: www.activechangefoundation.org