greyscale sketch of side profile of woman with headwrap on and a greyscale rose behind her

An Interview with 519’s Soofia Mahmood

by Liaba Nisar

Artwork by Thaila Paige-Dixon

Soofia Mahmood is the Manager of Communications and Fund Development at the 519; she has over fifteen years of experience, including working with UNICEF and gender activism during her time in Pakistan. She works at The 519 with Programs and Services, and Philanthropy teams to serve marginalized and vulnerable LGBTQ2S communities through programs, community engagement, space use, and advocacy initiatives. The Peak was able to ask her some questions about her work, and learn more about her experience and passion.

How did you get your start working in gender and sexuality-related activism? Did you find a passion for it early on, or was it something you came to later?

My work in gender professionally started 10 to 12 years ago. My path has been heavily linked to my own lived experience as someone who identifies as a woman and doesn’t follow conventional gender or gender expression norms – in a patriarchal and misogynistic world.

As a mother of a 12 year-old daughter, I feel even more passionate about this work.

What is a major way that your work now differs from what you focused on while in Pakistan? On the other hand, how has it remained mostly similar? 

Back home, my focus was feminism, and gender-based violence specific to women. My work in Canada has expanded my scope. It has also expanded my own understanding of gender. Personally, and professionally, it has been a process of growth. My field has always been communications – including writing and photography work. So even though the nature of my job here is similar, the scope and strength of my work has certainly changed.

How have you noticed your work changing from when you began to now, in terms of the people who come to you and what you do?

The demand for our refugee services has been increasing over the past few years – and is linked to the global socio-political situation and continued persecution of LGBTQ+ communities worldwide.

LGBTQ+ communities experience a lot of barriers to service. Any negative change impacts the most marginalized members even more. For example, the housing crisis is impacting everyone, but LGBTQ+ folks are impacted even more because of the higher incidence of poverty and higher levels of discrimination. Violence has also been a major issue that has always impacted our communities. The last two years have been particularly hard and that impacts the services needed as well. The need for healing spaces, counselling services, as well as trauma-informed services have also been steadily rising.

Is there an experience in particular that sticks out, that you remember to this day, in the work you’ve done? Something that keeps you going? 

When I write impact stories, I get to interact with program participants and hear about their journeys. The protagonist in those stories are always the program participants, and they celebrate who they are, and their resilience. Seeing the different reactions of people to their own stories is most memorable for me. Whether a story makes someone feel validated, respected, celebrated – or supports a refugee claimant’s claim (LGBTQ+ refugee claimants must prove their sexual orientation or gender identity to be successful in their claim as a refugee based on their sexuality) is inspiring and heart-warming. When you are not in the frontline role it is tough to see the impact of your work directly. But when a story impacts someone, it reminds me that at the end of the day, I am not only serving an organization, but I am serving the people the organization serves.

So in short, believing in the organization’s mandate and seeing my role contribute to that, directly or indirectly, is what keeps me going.

Soofia has over 15 years of experience in Marketing and Creative Communications. She has worked for UNICEF and USAID in Pakistan before immigrating to Canada. She has been an active gender-rights activist in Pakistan, passionate about creating awareness for positive change through writing and visual arts. Soofia has a deep- rooted passion for change. Her two true loves are photography and writing.

Liaba is a student completing a double major in Theatre Studies and Geography. She enjoys overindulging in caffeine, watching horror movies, and avoiding her actual homework at all costs. In the future, she wants to be a filmmaker.

Thaila aka Vegas has been tattooing for almost 8 years. She continues to grow as an artist and works to creatively find ways to incorporate social justice and liberation in her work while advocating for disenfranchised communities and engaging with people that align with her identity. To check out more of her artwork, add her on Instagram @vegas. ink

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