After school, Zayn began studying literature in Canada. Encountering an unfamiliar line from Sylvia Plath, “through a glass darkly”, and being told by her professor that it was from the Bible, she wondered what other references she might be missing. She decided to switch to religious studies to better inform her understanding of literature.
“When I started taking courses in religious studies, I saw that several of my interests came together: the love of literature because, of course, the sacred texts are literary texts; philosophy, with the purpose of life questions that you study in religious studies as well; and you draw on history because no ideas take place in a vacuum. Literature and philosophy engage the real conditions in which people live. I focused on Islamic philosophy for my master’s and then Islamic and Indian philosophy for my PhD.”
Six years after graduation, when Zayn was working at Pomona College in California, the 9/11 attacks happened and she found herself increasingly called upon to educate people about Islam. “That turned me towards public scholarship and showed me that the classroom is also an activist space where you actually can do something about the ignorance and preconceptions that people have about Islam and Muslims.
“I'd always had an interest in the environment, partially sparked by Prince Sadruddin’s Bellerive Foundation. But after 9/11, I began to read deeply into politics in the Middle East and what would lead to a horrific act like that, and I came across the importance of energy for production. And reading about oil helped me to see that actually climate change and environmental degradation is a far larger threat to sustaining life on this planet. That led me into teaching courses on religion and the environment because this is something we really do need to pay attention to.
“Gender and environmental studies are, of course, where inequalities and justice issues are found. So, it's no surprise that I ended up as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Pomona. And then the Institute found me and brought me here, giving me a more direct opportunity to serve our community.
“I look back to my days in the Aga Khan Schools and think: I could so easily have been what they call an ‘at risk’ girl child, born in what was then called ‘the third world’. I don't think I could have navigated life and done the things I've done and taught at one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the United States and then ended up here if it hadn't been for the very solid foundation that the Aga Khan Schools system gave me. My classmates taught me to be comfortable amongst people coming from diverse cultures and economic classes, and my classes gave me a love of learning and a strong study ethic. If it hadn’t been for the things I learnt both inside and outside the classroom, and the amazing teachers I had, none of this would have been possible in quite the same way that it was.”