Her hijab (head scarf) is firmly in place, her slender frame encased in an ankle length skirt and a full-sleeved top. One is tempted to cast this mother of four as a "typical" Muslim woman. But listening to her, or viewing her films makes one realize that she is all about breaking stereotypes.
This 34-year-old filmmaker and journalist who describes herself as a Canadian Muslim has acquired a cult status with her films, which examine and demolish stereotypes associated with Muslims as terrorists, wife abusers and religious extremists. And that too with loads of wit. The name of her production company "FUNdamentalist Films" reflects her satirical bent of mind, and this streak is evident in her film trilogy - 'BBQ Muslims', 'Death Threat' and her first feature 'Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance'.
While the motto of FUNdamentalist Films is to put "fun back into fundamentalism" the trilogy is what she calls "terrordies", or comedies about terrorism. The films have been widely acclaimed, and requests have been pouring in for copies. So much so that Nawaz quips, "I could spend my lifetime at the post office, mailing them (the cassettes) out."
'BBQ Muslims' is about two hapless Muslim brothers who are suspected of being terrorists after their gas barbecue explodes, and 'Death Threat' was a take off on the fatwa (decree) issued by religious clerics against Salman Rushdie and Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen for their writings.
Her current project, 'Real Terrorists Don't Bellydance', concerns a struggling actor named Amir who's engaged to a high-powered public relations consultant. With his finances dwindling (his most recent job was as a belly-dancing mango at a fruit juicer's convention) Amir accepts a role in a movie being financed by a group of Moose Jaw dentists, without reading the script. Too late, he discovers he is to play a terrorist/bank robber. Meanwhile, a Muslim organization has hired his fianc'e to shame investors into withdrawing their support for the film because of its negative portrayal of Muslims.
While the reaction to her films within her community has been positive, Nawaz says, "Some Muslims worry that I'm making fun of Muslims in my films. My response is that I would rather see a goofy, silly Muslim on film which is essentially harmless than a Muslim playing competent wife abuser."
It is such articulation that sets her apart. Although proud of her religion and her Muslim identity, Nawaz does not believe that a woman's role is confined to domestic boundaries. One of the first things she made clear to her husband-to-be was that she "wanted to work, make films, be a journalist and have a career" and asked him if he would he be willing to take on the burden of being with children. And he was.
So, while Nawaz maintains a hectic work and travel schedule, her doctor husband takes care of their four children and she says he is very good at it. The couple has different approaches to their respective work. Says Nawaz, "He doesn't quite understand why my career means so much to me. He works only so that he can have a great life and thinks that a job is just to earn enough money, but he knows work is everything for me. So he is always glad when something exciting is happening, because he feels "she will be happy for the next month and-a-half."
For someone so free-spirited, her decision to wear the hijab does come as a surprise since it is widely perceived as a symbol of subjugation. "There was this wave throughout North America during which Muslim women adopted hijab not as active submission but as a sense of political identity. It gave a sense of belonging in the world where we did not quite fit in. So we identified us as a group and organized camps, conferences. We found a place for ourselves in North America and learnt about our religion very differently from how our mothers did. They learnt this very repressive / oppressive view of Islam and we learnt it so differently. We didn't know there were women out there who were being oppressed because of the hijab. Here it meant emancipation, freedom, a relationship."
The flip side, quips the filmmaker, was that thanks to the hijab, "the right men paid attention to you". These were "well-educated men who learnt Islam in North America and knew how to treat women".
Nawaz is however, acutely aware of the practices that disallow women from participating fully in religious affairs, and a strident version of Islam that is making its presence felt even in North American mosques. "We are dealing with men who are coming from those (conservative) countries and bringing that type of Islam into mosques and our husbands who support us are almost outnumbered in many of these places."
The next decade or two, she feels, will be a struggle to wrest control of these mosques from the conservative elements. "There are so many Muslim women putting pressure on mosques and saying you can't treat us like this. We have a right and a voice to participate. I think our biggest challenge is how to become moderate Muslims, how to maintain moderation within our religion and how to counteract the mentality that the one who has longest beard is right."
Meanwhile, in the larger public space, Nawaz attempts to ally misconceptions about Muslims. She believes that one of the reasons why racist stereotypes (of Muslims) persist is because of the community's under representation in mass media as well as public life; they have to break this bubble of isolation.
"As a community, we're realizing that rather than sit back and complain about our representation, we have to be proactive in creating our own image. Become filmmakers, become journalists, own our own newspapers, participate in society." Nawaz does not of course intend making only "terrordies". Once the trilogy is complete, she is all set to work on a children's film. "It would have some Muslim characters and some elements of my community, my culture, but that is about all. I want to make films with wide appeal."
Not surprising, if you hear about her ambitions as a film maker. "The next Muslim version of Steven Spielberg would be my perfect fantasy. That is how I see myself in future."