Spotlight On Ayesha Khan: A Political Staffer Who Shares with Us Her Views on Religion, Art & Community
Written by Rebecca Dass
Sunday March 5, 2023
Ayesha Khan, 27, is an Indo-Guyanese political staffer born and raised in Toronto. In her past, she used to be a bit of an actress and model before turning to the world of politics. She completed her undergraduate degree at York University in Environmental Studies, with a stream in Politics, and is now currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy, Administration & Law.
She first joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association (ICCA) in 2021, and currently holds the title as one of the Vice Chairs of ICCA. At first, the historical content that ICCA shared on social media really spoke to her, and keeping Indo-Caribbean history alive was one of her drivers to join.
“We’re a culture that has suffered displacement,” she says. “Our methods of story-keeping and record keeping have been damaged over the years, but this is almost like the youth, the younger generation is trying to reclaim that and going back and tracing the footsteps of our ancestors, and I think that act is so powerful.”
Ayesha grew up in a mixed religious household, which she revealed was a bit difficult. “My mom is Hindu, and my Dad is Muslim,” she says. “My Dad came from a very religious background so for him it was super important that [my mom] converted. I felt as though part of my history was kept from me for the majority of my life.”
“My mom’s religion, my matriarchal lineage, was very much wiped out. There were attempts to keep it from me, and almost pretend I was homogenous in some way, which to me, that’s sad. I think it was an exercise of power in a way. It gave me the opportunity to seek out my own lineage and my own heritage, to come to it and be able to accept both of these as parts of myself. I feel I lean toward the Hindu side in practice but I don’t neglect or reject any part of my history or ethnicity.”
In October 2022, Ayesha was heavily involved in ICCA’s Respect Diwali campaign, which questioned the date of Toronto’s municipal election being held the same day as Diwali, a Hindu holiday. “Ryan [Singh] asked me to get involved with that because I brought a unique perspective to that particular issue. I was part of a campaign team, and I was helping out on a municipal campaign. A lot of the argument around not moving the day to respect Diwali was around that people had the advance vote dates to go vote. But my specific story was that of someone who wanted to help somebody get re-elected, and you obviously cannot miss election day, that’s the most important day. That’s the day that all the work has been leading up to.”
Ayesha had a chance to speak to multiple media outlets on behalf of ICCA to voice her opinion on the campaign. “[It] was asking that I miss that holiday in order to help my friend get re-elected, and I did. That’s exactly what I had to do and it was sad, I didn’t get to celebrate [Diwali] with my family, I had major FOMO,” she says. “Indo-Caribbean people actually have a large population in Toronto, and I think that with any demographic, especially as you grow, it’s important that we see representation there. So for creating barriers to Indo-Caribbean people to be able to run, do we not want more Indo-Caribbean people running? We’re making that more difficult by making them have to work on Diwali. I think that’s an angle that most people hadn’t really considered. I know for certain that this [campaign] put the issue on the map, and I was grateful for that.”
Ayesha had many instances to speak on panels for both ICCA and the Indo-Caribbean Organization Network (ICON). “The panel that we did, on being Queer and Indo-Caribbean, was a highlight for me. That’s a story that does not often get told. I’ve gotten into quite a few arguments with family members about Queer rights, so, it’s not an identity of mine that I was super comfortable navigating growing up. It was something that I was basically taught to believe was wrong, and something that I had to do a lot of growth around. Seeing all these young people who are similar to you, it’s such a freeing experience. All three of us panelists, we got to talk about some of the scars that we wore from that repression of parts of ourselves, and how we worked through that and discovered ourselves and our identities. I think that was a very transformational space, and it was really inspiring, and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that. I think everyone who tuned in and watched, and everyone who participated in the panel was grateful that it happened.”
“Also speaking on the panel that ICON had was a great moment. There was a clip in there that Brown Gyal Diaries caught of me talking about being a trailblazer doing things for the first time in your lineage. I didn’t realize when I said that, that it would have such an impact on the people watching. I was honestly speaking from my heart, it was something that I thought about because my parents didn’t really have the privilege to do those kinds of things. They were coming from a place where survival was key, and that was all that they had the energy for, their children would have the privilege to self-actualize and that’s exactly what I did. It brought up a lot of uncomfortable questions, and I imagine that people in the audience that day were facing some of those questions themselves. So having the space to talk about that, being given the opportunity to share something so personal, but also realizing that it wasn’t personal at all, it was something that we were all feeling. Maybe if we could talk about it more, we could work through it together, instead of just as a personal thing, and that’s at the heart of what community is about.”
Speaking of her upbringing, a lot of the work she encountered at religious places of worship were really inspiring to her. “We were involved in a lot of the mosques in the area, and we would go to programming. A lot of the temples and mosques within the Toronto area have a large Indo-Caribbean presence. In those settings I find that there is a lot of philanthropy being organized. I remember drives being put together for things to be sent back to Guyana, and it was never anything formal, it was people coming together in a very grassroots way to contribute, and that’s at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about. I’m very grateful that I grew up with people who were of faith, and who used that faith to inspire [people] to do good things.”
Hailing from the Jane and Finch area, Ayesha’s career hopes going forward includes giving back to that community. “Spoiler alert, someday I do want to run myself. It is kind of a dream, especially in my home community of Jane and Finch. I love this area, I’ve lived here for quite some time, I know this community inside and out. And I’m very familiar with its specific needs. There is a large Indo-Caribbean community here, and I think that their voices need to be heard. There have been a lot of issues around housing, seniors issues, and I think that it’s a voice that needs to be heard. It’s an underrepresented voice and I would like to add myself to that representation.”
Ayesha encourages young Indo-Caribbeans who are interested in working in politics to consider volunteering, saying “The political engine needs volunteers because it relies on people having a vocation about it. That’s the only way to spread the word. I would encourage them to think critically about everything they’re receiving, stay abreast of local news, pay attention to what’s going on, and learn about some of the previous Caribbean elected officials whether or not you agree with their politics. You should learn about them and learn about their trajectory, how they got elected.”
“Getting involved with ICCA is so great for someone who's interested in politics because so much of what we do covers policy issues, it’s such a wide variety. But also, part of being a political representative is understanding culture, it’s being a part of the various cultures in so far as they allow you. So I think being part of ICCA teaches you how to immerse yourself in and appreciate the vibrance and color in a specific culture, even be it almost learning how to write your ABCs, learning how to appreciate your own. It’ll teach you the capacity to go forward and be able to appreciate other cultures.”
In her free time, Ayesha enjoys the arts, being creative, and trying different hobbies. She also shared with us her favourite Indo-Caribbean dish, “This is going to be contentious. So I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat at the moment, but my favourite Indo-Caribbean dish that I’ve ever eaten has to be a good goat curry. I can’t change it, it is reality.”
“I’ve written a couple pieces of spoken word poetry . There was one specifically about Jane and Finch that I wrote for a book. My friend Wanda McNevin who’s an amazing community activist, she lived in Jane & Finch for decades and saw the community change so much, and witness the amazing work of a lot of grassroots activists who she wrote about in her book. When she had her book opening she gave me the privilege of writing a poem, basically a love poem, about Jane and Finch. And I got to read that out in front of people just for fun.”
“I used to practice various forms of dance as well. I'm a little rusty now, but I was actually a Kathak dancer (a North Indian form of classical dance.) I did a couple of performances with my dance group. We led an event in the Black Creek that was based on Indo-Caribbean culture, and namely the three river goddesses, mother Saraswati, mother Lakshmi, mother Durga. My dance teacher gave everyone dandiya, like the sticks that they put together in a circle, we taught people how to do that in the Black Creek, and we had a huge circle of people running into the circle doing dandiya, it was so fun.”
“These days I actually have a bit of a cute hobby, I like to write handwritten letters, I like stationary, calligraphy, I’m not necessarily any good at it, but it’s something that I love. A lot of my friends have little kids who are like 4, 6, 8 years old, so I like to write them letters to help them practice their reading, and it gets them really excited. I have one little pen pal, she’s 6, and she’s so excited whenever something comes from me in the mail, and I send her little tidbits of my life like mementos, and it’s just a little dose of positivity. I think the next generation may not ever know the joy of receiving letters, so I want to keep it alive a little bit, hoping it could be a nice slow form of communication. Everything about writing a letter is so intentional. And I think it’s a nice antidote to how fast our brains move these days, especially with text messaging, how instant everything is. It’s a reminder to take a step back and think about your thoughts. So yeah, I really like to create, and to be creative, it’s a great way to decompress from the high-stress world of politics.”
About the Author
Rebecca is a Toronto-based writer and digital marketer, currently working in book publishing. With a BA in Sociology and a minor in Caribbean Studies, she joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association to continue her interest in researching and writing content about Indo-Caribbean history and culture.