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Award-winning human rights and gender equity advocate Farrah Khan.Illustration by Photo Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.

Farrah Khan is no stranger to standing up for society’s most marginalized. Over the last two decades, the award-winning human rights and gender equity advocate has been fighting for reproductive and gender justice on all fronts – as a front line worker, trauma counsellor, educator and policy adviser.

The change maker has a major career shift ahead, as she steps in as the new executive director of Action Canada, a leading national sexual and reproductive rights organization that works to advance progressive policies on abortion access, stigma-free health care, gender equality, 2SLGBTQIA rights, and inclusive sex-ed – issues with which Khan is intimately familiar.

Before taking on this role, Khan was the manager of Consent Comes First, the sexual violence centre at Toronto Metropolitan University. She is also the founder of Possibility Seeds, a social change consultancy where she is currently leading the development of Courage to Act – the national framework to prevent and address gender-based violence at postsecondary institutions.

After decades of working on the front lines, Khan is ready to take a step back and focus her efforts on advocating for policy-level, systemic changes. She’s also ready to live a life in which she consistently makes joy a priority, and that includes spending plenty of time “laughing from her belly” with her spouse, Ontario MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam, and young son.

How is this new role different for you?

I worked for a very long time as a front line worker supporting people who had been subjected to gender-based violence, and it really took a toll on me. There isn’t enough care taken for people who do this work. A couple months ago I took some time to do some deep reflection and I decided that I could no longer do it.

Now I’m excited to be doing work that looks at the actual policies and the systemic reasons why those harms are happening. My goal is to, you know, burn down the patriarchy. But seriously, reproductive and sexual rights are under attack globally. And we can’t achieve gender equity without all women being safe, heard and affirmed. So I’m eager to focus on the needs of those most vulnerable to harm and hate, including trans folks, low-income women, BIPOC women and migrant women.

You became a mother just a few years ago. How has becoming a parent informed how you understand and approach your work?

Becoming a mother changed my understanding of reproductive health and justice in so many ways. From the process of getting pregnant as a queer family and sometimes feeling demonized or seen as unnatural, to the fact that only in the past decade in Ontario would my partner not have to adopt our child when he was born [in order to be recognized as a legal parent].

I was so lucky to have access to midwifery care and an amazing doula, but not everybody can afford or access that, which isn’t right. I also went through a miscarriage and learned firsthand about the grief that comes from that experience. Mainly, I realized that so much of reproductive health, specifically around pregnancy, is still shrouded in secrecy and shame and fear – and that absolutely has to change.

How does it feel to be working on these issues at a time when there seems to be so much pushback against progress?

Having worked in the violence against women’s sector for so long, one of the things we always would say to women when they’re leaving abusive relationships is that one of the most dangerous times is right when they leave.

Right now we’re in a very dangerous time because we’re leaving behind a harmful world and we’re trying to build something new and beautiful, but the people who have benefited from harm are scared and they’re acting out. So this is the time when we have to take care of and look out for each other.

Wyoming recently became the first state to ban abortion pills, and a Texas judge is currently considering a lawsuit that could effectively ban a common abortion pill across the U.S. What could this mean for reproductive rights here in Canada?

This could impact us in Canada, absolutely. What we’d like to see going forward is ensuring that when the Canadian government is talking about a universal PharmaCare plan, that includes universal contraceptive coverage across all provinces and territories. This is a human right, and it’s also financially smart. Some people are like, ‘We don’t want to pay for people’s sex lives,’ but you already are. You’re paying for people’s unintended pregnancies and STIs within our health care system, so why aren’t we doing preventative interventions?

Two popular television shows – Sex Education and Big Mouth explore themes of puberty, sexuality, consent and more in ways that few pieces of media have before. What do you think of them?

I love them both. They meet the needs of young people. When young men tell me they watch Big Mouth, I think that’s amazing, because it talks about subjects that we’ve been told we’re supposed to shy away from, like masturbation, penis size and women’s pleasure. Young people deserve to have accurate, accessible information about their health. That’s their right, and yet so often they’re not getting it. So I applaud these shows, I’m so excited they exist, but I want that to happen in our education system, too.

How do you make time for rest and joy while working on such urgent, serious issues?

I read romance novels because I love happy endings, and I want to read stories where the queer couple doesn’t die in the end. I am intentional with my time with friends and family. I have the most amazing group of women and trans people around me that send me ridiculous memes in the middle of the day, that love me and cheer me on. And I spend time with my son.

I also just want to start not seeing joy as frivolous but as a key part of any of this work. The joy and the justice have to go together.

Are there any books you would recommend that teach important messages to kids at a young age?

We’ve read my son the Feminist Baby series, and we also have an amazing book called Will Ladybug Hug by Hilary Leung. It’s about a ladybug who has different friends, and they all like different ways of greeting each other. So it’s talking about consent, and I believe there’s never a wrong time to start having these conversations with our children.

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