On a Friend’s Departure by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


On June 25th, I received the news that my friend Zubeida Shaikh had passed away in South Africa. This took me by surprise. The last time Zubeida and I exchanged communication, she was as always, strong, determined and full of life, ready to realize her dreams. Zubeida Shaikh was an avid reader of feminism and religion. I would like to remember her in this space, thanks to which she and I met in life. In 2015, a little before my trip to South Africa, Zubeida sent me an email. She had read my article “Enemy of Islam” and it “was speaking to her”.

So, few weeks after my arrival in Cape Town, we met in the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, her place of work until 2017, where I visited her in her office and we talked at length about feminism, violence against women and resilience, putting our own stories with patriarchy and abuse on the table. Then we spent the afternoon together. She was the first person from South Africa that I met. She was my first friend in South Africa.

I do not want to talk about the pains that complicated Zubeida during her life and that perhaps led her to death. You can read about it in her own words here, in an article she wrote last year, Power for my pain. I just would like to call your reflection on the devastating effects of patriarchy and male dominance in women’s lives.

But specially, I would want to talk about her strength in the face of pain, her optimism for the future, her gift of leadership, her support for the dreams and abilities of the women she met, including me. Zubeida was one of the few friendships that outstripped racial cliques, cultural differences and even the tensions and conflicts that can only exist among people who are close and concern each other.

So, what is the legacy that my friend Zubeida Shaikh left in my life in her short but brilliant journey through this world? There are some images of the real woman I met that I want to remember her for.

Wild Honesty. Zubeida was the only person who, from a start, told me IN MY FACE and sorry-not-sorry that I should not, for any reason, get involved with that man, who was not up to correspond with maturity to my feelings and qualities.

You will suffer, because women with the courage to risk a lot to love beyond differences, always suffer when facing cowardice and mediocrity. He is not for you, you’re too much for his league, I’m not going to stop you, but let me say that I already told you so.

Zubeida did not care that I could get upset with her, if that was the cost of warning me about potential dammage, with total sincerity and sugar-free. That’s what someone who loves you really will do. I didn´t listen, but I have to say: She was totally right. #sorrynotsorry

Nevertheless, she persisted. Zubeida fought her whole life with physical and emotional pain, but this didn´t stop her from organizing the One Billion Rising campaign in South Africa or to found Project #365, Justice in Our Lifetime, an initiative to create violence-free societies against women and girls. Until the last day we talked, she visioned her own future and the spiritual and social reparation that we could achieve for many women if we as women could embrace ourselves and each other as a whole, and put our skills to work together.


Keep walking. Zubeida knew how to support someone in difficulties without falling into patronising. She pushed you to move, to take charge of your own shit and to create something wonderful with her .. yes, it is totally possible if you know the power of resilience and have a friend to remind you of your own power.

Your life, everything you are, is not tied to anything that does not make the blood that runs in your veins dance, or to anyone who does not show with actions that they are interested in being part of.” Or to say it briefly: “let the trash take themselves out.

You’re a Goddess. Zubeida taught me that I was a Goddess and that within each woman lives one, asleep under the patriarchal mandates, forgotten in the way that women take to compete against each other by male approval. The time that she and I spent together in her house in Surrey State was a time of healing and discovery of that divine feminine in me. One night, while doing brainstorming on Shamima Shaikh’s anthology book, Zubeida told me:

You know, Vanessa, you have a Goddess living inside of you … do not neglect her, you’re made to shine, don´t put your care in little things. Never share your time, your body, your energy or your love to anyone who does not honor the Goddess in you. You have to own her for your own benefit: Unleash her freedom, her creative power and also, unchain her anger with no fear; claim your divine wrath, that purifies and allows the birth of new worlds and learnings.

Shameless Sisterhood. I knew the saying “You hurt my sister and you hurt ME”, but I never saw it in action with the radical way that Zubeida carried it out. She took that statement very seriously. Zubeida, with her Goddess awaken and in possession of all her power, knew how to give some lessons to those people who hurt her friends. Like all Goddesses who support women, like Kali, Oyá or Artemis, their anger is not aimed at revenge, but at calling out the abuse of power, restoring justice and warning abusers and slanderers that there is someone who sees them, someone willing to give them a spoonful of their own soup. And she did!

And along with these lessons, we shared sunsets at Sea Point, Thursday nights at the Cape Town Fish Market and I keep with me the gift of a hand-embroidered sari brought from India, for when I “got married again” … Zubeida, you’ve left us suddenly but without any doubt, with the work well done. I’ll see you soon, my friend.


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a specialist in training and community outreach in Gender, Communication and Interculturality. She’s also a learning and social projects designer and a qualitative researcher; an awarded activist for women’s rights who too does independent scholarship in Religion, Gender and Social Discourses. Nomadic writer. A woman with stories and geographies, lover of books, cats and spicy Chai.

Author: Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Consultora en desarrollo de capacidades. Educadora y analista en género, participación ciudadana y desarrollo sostenible en el marco de la Agenda 2030.

10 thoughts on “On a Friend’s Departure by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

  1. What a beautiful woman and what a beautiful tribute to her. If only we could all be so strong and self and woman affirming. You were blessed to know her and we are blessed to have heard her story.She may be gone but the Goddess is here, in us, and in everything. Blessed be!!!


  2. I did a search to see if there’s more information on Zubeida than what you gave and there’s nothing! It should’ve been in the news. I never met her but the few exchanges via email and linkedin showed her to be a committed gender activist. I know she was ill some time ago. She’s been absent from Linkedin (I don’t do facebook) for some time and I did wonder. Heartfelt condolences Vanessa. The absence in the space she occupied will remain empty for some time. I’ll put this post on Linkedin.


  3. Oh, what a powerful and moving tribute to this remarkable women friend…

    “Until the last day we talked, she visioned her own future and the spiritual and social reparation that we could achieve for many women if we as women could embrace ourselves and each other as a whole, and put our skills to work together.”

    Ah, let us continue visioning as your friend did…


  4. Thank you for mourning and celebrating Zubeida with us. I am so sorry for your loss–and for the world’s loss. May her work and spirit live on!


  5. Brava! There are few things as important to our lives as our honest female friends, the ones who can be that honest with us. Zubeida could have been a friend of every woman and man in this FAR community, but you’re the one who was fortunate to share her life and friendship. I had a friend like her. This friend died (stomach cancer) in 1994. I still miss her as you will miss Zubeida for the rest of your life. Cherish your memories!


  6. Zubeida looks (in photo) and sounds like an amazing, grounded, and loving woman. Thank you for sharing her story with us, Vanessa. May we carry on in her spirit of truth and courage.


  7. I followed the link you provided to her post on Linkedin. I am profoundly shocked and distressed to know she eventually died of injuries sustained by her then husband’s violence against her.


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