Leaving a Legacy Behind: Farrah Marfatia

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As I sat bright eyed and eager in my teacher’s college class, my peers and I were told by our instructor, “If education is not 100% your passion, then you need to leave now and find another career.”

After becoming a teacher, I truly understood my instructor’s rather abrupt sentiment. Teaching is not a 9-5 job. It envelops and consumes even the best educators, leaving us marking before bed, planning over the summer break and preparing in early morning hours. For Farrah Marfatia, a career in education was the result of a “serendipitous” stroke of events, which led her towards what she says she was [meant to do] as it was her true passion.

Marfatia is the principal at Maingate Islamic Academy, which is a private school in the suburban area of Mississauga, Ontario. Through her own educational experience she attended an array of denominational schools from a nunnery in kindergarten, to a public school in Thorncliffe, Ontario, to ISNA Elementary, and finally to The Bishop Strachan School as a teenager. Marfatia’s varied experiences in different school environments and cultures shaped who she is today. As she describes it, she was exposed to a “network of very interesting people.”

However, it was her experience at ISNA in her elementary years that she feels solidified her Islamic identity. It was this very identity that Marfatia felt she needed to continually defend, while also learning to mold in order to navigate through the torrid waters of teenage life. She would later learn to repeat this process with her Muslim identity and a promising career in the pharmaceutical industry. While co-workers would unwind after a hard day of work with a trip to a local bar, Marfatia would have to dismiss herself from the activities because of the Islamic prohibition of consuming alcohol. It wasn’t until she found her place as a Principal that Marfatia’s life began to take on a new meaning. “For the first time in my life, at Maingate, I’m fitting in.”

Listening to Marfatia describe her work, it’s hard to miss the apparent care and drive she possesses. The principal, who is currently pursuing her Masters in Education at Brock University, explains:

“I’m giving back. I am so motivated by contributing to society […] We have to mold and shape [our kids] to fit in here [in Canada]. We want them to fit in, but we want them to understand that they are Muslims first and foremost. Islam doesn’t mean you can’t have it all. You can have [worldly success] and you can have [your religion].”

This is an important sentiment given that statistics indicate that the Canadian-Muslim population is expected to triple from the years 2010 to 2030 (1). Even more so, many Muslims are first generation Canadians, and a “special consideration will be needed to find room for the second generation” (2).

Marfatia expresses a deep understanding of this special consideration and says to Muslim educators in Islamic schools,

“You have the opportunity and chance to shape what our Islam is going to look like in the future, because our children are going to become the future, they are going to be the vehicles of what Islam is going to look like.”

Marfatia also encourages Muslim educators to attain positions in the public school system in order to further strengthen a diverse Canadian fabric.

According to Marfatia, another important aspect of educating the Muslim youth is by community leaders and members coming together to discuss important matters. One such matter is the revised Ontario sex-education curriculum — which will be implemented in schools across Ontario starting September 2015. Marfatia feels the revised curriculum has “polarized our community,” while also calling it a blessing in disguise because it’s forcing our community to have an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.

Rather than simply speaking about the curriculum, which she also does, Marfatia created a “Parent Talk” document, in which she gives an overview of the topics discussed in each grade, and how parents can address it with their children. She also worked in part to create a different version of the Sex Education curriculum, which she hopes will closely coincide with Ontario’s curriculum, but from an Islamic perspective. Both documents are currently in revision, and are not yet available to the public.

Marfatia’s ambition to help shape her community for the better is part of her greater hope to bring Muslims into a more positive public light. A nationwide survey conducted in 2012 “indicates that as many as 52 percent of Canadians feel Muslims can be trusted ‘a little’ or ‘not trusted at all’” (3). Marfatia is working to change this.

“Muslim children and Muslim parents need to become more involved in politics. I think the only way to make a change in Canada is for us to really educate ourselves on how to make a change through peaceful discourse. And I think that you do that by getting involved in politics, by understanding policy, by understanding procedure, by positioning our kids [to get involved in initiatives that are not exclusively for Muslims]”.

Marfatia goes on to say that this type of active engagement in her community is her responsibility as a leader. When asked what kind of legacy she wants to leave behind for her two school-aged sons, she says: “The legacy I want to leave for my kids is that when you are in this world, you are responsible for making it different. You are responsible for creating what you want from it. You are responsible for that.”