“You can never really overcome challenges, all you can do is gather the spirit to face each one and that spirit, has to be undying, says Nazia Izuddin, Co-founder, SN Group of companies. This Fulbright scholar, and Harvard and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) alumnus is a philanthropist and writer, and heads The World Integrity Foundation, a charity based in Uttarakhand.
Nazia is a product of multiple contrasts. With an activist father and very aristocratic grandparents who lived in a village, with degrees and careers from both India and abroad, she has always lived and existed in multiple realities at the same time, witnessing and experiencing utmost liberation with her activist father and utmost restraint with her aristocratic grandparents. She has witnessed high empowerment and no empowerment in the same household among family members, experienced ultra modernism and extreme conservative behavior in the same neighborhood among different families.
HerStory met with her to know more about her as a woman who has been a part of dualities and dichotomies and draw inspiration from her experiences.
HS: You have studied at Aligarh Muslim University and Harvard, institutions that are poles apart. You have written about your experience at AMU. Is there a difference between how women are treated in both these institutions?
Nazia: At Harvard, there was no struggle to be treated as an individual. In India, that struggle continues. It is not a phenomenon that just Aligarh Muslim University alone perpetrates or upholds or even promotes.The appeal is to focus on my intellect, and my ability and my capability as a person, that should entitle me to equality in a learning environment and educational institutions, as opposed to make me suffer or deprive me from getting access just because I am a woman.
HS: Do you think women in India have it tough, especially in educational institutions and workplace?
Nazia: Yes, I do. I think women are treated with utmost disrespect and willful disgrace in all Indian institutions. This includes the institution of family, and the institution of marriage and moves up to educational institutions and work places.
The concept of a person has to start from home. If a parent does not give a child respect as a person, he or she will never be able to assert the strength of being that person in any social institution.
I grew up as a person, I was raised as a person, and I live as a person. Being a woman, being female in sex, is a fact, a scientific fact, just like air, water and all other natural elements around us.
Women are people. Each one of them is an individual, an independent person. It hurts me deeply to have to say this aloud each time, because it feels like a daily struggle for independence, of being there, and not being in the limelight. I dream of a day where we can just be, as people, and the fact that we are women, is not even a matter of discussion, that we as humanity can rise over this one fact that has become a mental barrier.
But that dream apart, the very concept that women need treatment, any kind, special or not so special, in itself is reflective of a second standard that exists in our society. It is painful, because at the core of it is the basic lack of acceptance for us as people, individuals.
In the Indian culture, this fact has been stretched to become an over encompassing social reality and all people, men and women and children live in a notion of supremacy of a male over a female, guided by artificial social elements created to protect this structure of superiority and inferiority; a structure that is as deep rooted as the Indian caste system.
HS: You have an interesting career graph given a career in law to construction. How and why did this happen?
Nazia: I was recruited from Harvard as a legal associate by a law firm in New York office. This was my first job. After my initial years in New York, I also worked in Dubai and London with yet another international firm in project finance and Islamic finance till the time I quit my practice to move to Dehradun in 2008.
I can tell you that in all probably it happened because I was following my heart. When I relocated to Dehradun, I did not have a plan, and I did not know what I was going to do. The focus was to build a life with my husband and be happy together. We wanted a house and a lifestyle community that I was used to in New York and Dubai.
At present, I run a business house that goes by the brand name SN Group that has operations in the hospitality and real estate sectors. I am the founding president of the World Integrity Center, India, a concept for a lifestyle socio-cultural center that I conceptualized and created in Dehradun. The group spearheads innovative, new and interesting ideas that best narrate a holistic lifestyle experience. All the projects, whether residential or recreational, aim at creating a direct connection with the client and the product and thereby enrich people’s life experiences.
HS: What excites you about your role today?
Nazia: The ability to create communities, and lifestyles that are real and tangible, and will touch people’s lives, and impact them daily, and make a difference to how they see the world, their own and the ones around them, make construction a meaningful job.
HS: What was your childhood like and what experiences have shaped you?
Nazia: I belong to an old acclaimed family in Kerala – the family of the south Indian saint Omar Qazi of Veliancode. My grandparents lived in the village where life was very protected, and we were treated with utmost reverence. During my stay in the village, I would have to abide by the rules set by my grandfather and executed by my grandmother. We were not allowed to walk out on the main street, or ride a bicycle there.
This was very different from the life I lived with my father – a lawyer and social activist – who was not bound by tradition but guided by his own spirit and belief. As a child, I spent a lot of time travelling across rural Kerala with him. I would regularly accompany him to Lok Adalats where he judged litigations out of court, to large gatherings promoting education including religious gatherings. At many of these places, I used to be the only girl, and also the only child.
Now that I look back, probably everybody condemned him for letting his girls live an unusually free and independent life.
HS: Given your exposure to different cultures, countries and professions, what are some of the learnings you would like to share with others, especially women.
Nazia: I have studied and worked in some very fine institutions across the globe. I continue to travel the world, as much as I travel my country. But the one thing I have learned about learning is that it is not the institutions that you attend or the books that you read that alone teach you. Some of the most inspiring people I have met in my life did not go to Harvard or Oxford or do not have high qualifications. But I have learnt from them about sharing, and unconditionally loving and giving, of not judging people for what they have materially or what they do not have. I guess the essence is values.
Formal education may not necessarily be able to teach you values. What I have collected from the world, from travels and people, and various cultures, and institutions, is this respect for values, for tolerance and a culture of respect. Institutions such as Harvard have attained excellence because of this respect for ideas, for multiple realities and possibilities as opposed to being stuck in a single way of thought and life. I would like to share this more strongly with women, because it is a gift parents can pass on to their children, to be able to enrich their childhood, and thereby empower them for life.
HS: What is the best piece of advice you got from anyone?
Nazia:When I was 11 my father’s friend who we were visiting told me a story about how people in overcrowded buses fight to get a seat or keep watching to spot an empty seat, so that they can run over to grab the seat. In the whole scheme of life, what difference would it really make if you do not grab a seat, and ended up standing all the way during the bus ride. After all, it is just a bus ride. It does not really matter whether we get a ticket first or last. It does not really matter if you are the last in the line. The bus will not leave without you, and even if it does, there will be another one. Are these battles to be the first one to gain, the right battle?
This advice has always put competition, the idea of success, the idea of achievement, and the idea of rushing before somebody else takes something available in perspective for me.