The story of Jean Khan and Leila Adam
Author: Latifa Daud
Jean Khan and Leila Adam sit side-by-side on a comfy sofa in their Wellington home. “I feel good about the interview”, says Jean. “I’m having déjà vu because I’ve done this once before”, Leila said, before explaining the process to Jean and flicking off some dust from her mother’s scarf.
Jean Khan, Khan being her married name, was born in Birmingham, England in 1931. She grew up in the years preceding World War 2. “When I was 10 years old, we had all the destruction of the Nazi fascist bombers. I used to take the religious instruction classes, which were normally about Christianity and Judaism. On this particular day the teacher told us ‘today we are going to talk about Islam’. No one, or I certainly hadn’t heard of Islam. Everyone was feeling so down, and the peaceful things that the teacher was telling us, it just never left me”.
Fate would lead Jean to Islam 10 years later when she met Fiji-Indian engineering student Abdul Salamat Khan in England. They married and moved to Fiji together. In the 1960s, New Zealand was seeking British trained engineers, so the family, including Leila, migrated to Wellington when Jean was aged 36.
At the time, the Wellington Muslim community consisted of about three families, international students and foreign embassy staff. Leila describes the Wellington Muslim scene as “non-existent”. Jean elaborates. “The Muslims were coming in from all parts … and my husband thought we have to keep these people together”. The first step they took in this mission was establishing an association. In the 1970s, they purchased a house and it was later renovated into a mosque. Jean, the woman who would eventually come up with the name “Federation Islamic Associations of New Zealand”, or FIANZ, describes this as a real “community project”. Salamat’s vision came true as it quickly became a hub for people to gather, learn, and be together. “People had forgotten the Quran, so they were all there learning”.
Pic: Wellington's first Islamic Centre in Newtown 1979-1999
“We decided we would bring in all our cultures that are within Islam, to live in a country that is not [Islamic], to be accepted here”, Jean says with pride. But Leila explains that being at the founding stage of an ‘established community’, they had to feel their way around this new Islamic landscape. “Anything to do with being Muslim, we had to invent it. You have to go out, and find out, and do it”.
This is a special community Jean and Leila are deeply attached to. “The Muslim scene wasn’t always here, and those of us who remember that time know how precious it is”, Leila says. Their community began in a house, where the wife of an Egyptian Ambassador would teach both men and women, and Imams would mentor young people in their 20s about how to handle difficult topics, such as female circumcision. “People have the idea that things have been here forever, and in other countries it has always been there”, but Leila elaborates by saying that Muslims today need to “understand there was a beginning and a lot of hard work. It’s precious and it needs to be appreciated”.
The later part of the 20th century saw an influx of refugees from around the world, including Somalia and Afghanistan to name a few. For these communities, the mosque serves as a “recognition of what they had back home”, Leila explains. Cambodian Muslims who were forbidden from practicing their religion in their homeland, they “opened like the petals of a flower” during their classes. There are currently 44 different nationalities within the Wellington Muslim community alone.
Leila now teaches Quran to local Muslim women. Inheriting her father’s drive and vision, her work mainly involves “helping women to rally themselves and do things together”.
Pic: Hosting school visits to the Wellington Mosque
In the last couple of decades, there has certainly been a decline of women’s involvement in mosque and community matters. Jean reminisces about a time when men and women had meetings together and were equally valued. “It was normal and natural, and everyone contributed equally together”, as it was during the time of Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him). “We didn’t have gender hang ups … There is a gap now where women are not as involved as they used to be”.
Jean argues against the rhetoric that men take their knowledge from the mosque and then teach their families in the home, and therefore strongly believes there should be inclusivity and equal access in our Islamic spaces. Leila supports this view and explains. “Young women now don’t know what we had before, and they shouldn’t accept the status quo … Children need Islam in front of them. They only get it at home and at mosque”. Therefore, equal gender access is paramount to a healthy Muslim community.
Following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings, Leila headed the burial processes for the women who died. With tears in her eyes and after a pause, Leila says “it was like washing an angel in paradise”. Jean’s recollection of the shooting was reminiscent of another time, describing it as a “flashback to the blitz”. She analyses the world’s current perception of Islam. “I saw an entire city burnt down by fascism. How can I convert to Islam if Islam is a violent religion? I received peace at a time of violence”.
Pic: Group from the synagogue, outside the Wellington Mosque, the morning after March 15 2019.
Salamat and Jean have both written books about her journeys. Salamat first wrote 'My Spiritual Journey', and Jean followed with a trilogy about her path, 'My Voyage into Islam' tracks her family’s stories, their involvement in the Wellington Muslim community, and articles about life in Aotearoa, including commentary as recent as the Covid-19 lockdown.
Leila, with her lifelong experience of service, leaves some wisdoms for the next generation of Muslims. “It is time for our young Muslims to become fully fledged New Zealanders. We focused on our community, or support system because we were new. The mosque is a haven. That was us. This next generation, their Islam is very confident, and they go and become really exemplary citizens.
“Find your talent, and the groove you want to be in, and go do it really well”.
Pic: Family members spanning across four generations