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I Serve the Public (And I’m a Muslim Woman)

By Zahreen Ghaznavi
Peace X Peace

“We may be more independent and free than some of our sisters in other parts of the world, but post-9/11 there is a real fear within the American Muslim community about putting women in the public and at the forefront.”

Through civic engagement, American Muslims carry out their social responsibilities, and provide a critical and often unheard voice.

Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Zahreen Ghaznavi, Chair of the Board of the Muslim Public Service Network, about the role of Muslim American women in civic engagement and public policy. Her responses are below.

Can you tell me a little about your personal background and how you became involved with the Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN)?

My parents are from Bangladesh, and I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I was raised in a house that was very religious, in a spiritual sense more so than conservative, and I studied Islam every week. I didn’t grow up in an area where there were a lot of Muslims, so the religion was more of a family thing until I went to college and became involved with the MPSN program. That’s when I realized there is a whole Muslim community out there that can be supportive.

After completing my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Yale University, I participated in Teach For America for two years, during which I taught 5th grade on the southwest side of Chicago. I have always been passionate about public education, being a product of it myself, and I thought Teach For America was a great transition for me. After that, I decided to apply for a position with the US Department of Education and I ended up working with the school improvement grant effort, to turn around the persistently low achieving schools. My interest in education policy and education law led me to apply to law school. I currently attend Columbia Law, and it has been a great experience so far.

In terms of how I got involved in the Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN)—in 2006 I participated in the organization’s leadership program, which brings in Muslim students interested in public service. Last year I was nominated along with two others to take the places of the outgoing board members. All three of us are women. We took the helm, took charge, and are reinvigorating the organization. It is 18 years old, but has always been run as a volunteer organization. Sabith Khan is our first paid Executive Director, and we are moving forward to give MPSN more organizational structure.

Can you share a little more about the public service leadership program, and your personal experience with it?

The program helps students get day internships, provides them with evening seminars, and pays their room and board. Day internships must be with non-Muslim organizations and non-ethnic businesses. We want to build leadership capacity within the Muslim community and emphasize community service.

This program gave me a community that was interested in public service and civic engagement, and it provided me with mentors that were interested in these initiatives. I’m Muslim but my interests are not necessarily related directly to religion. I didn’t really feel that I found my place in the Muslim community until I became involved with MPSN.

The program is an excellent experience that allows women and men to meet other Muslims who are excited about being in the public arena, wanting to work in that area and to have mentors. Our curriculum involves speakers from various careers, and we try to make sure there is equal gender representation. We want to show the students there are people just like them who are in this field. It makes their hopes and aspirations as American Muslims more real—they feel that they have a support network. MPSN provides that network not only socially but professionally as well, and you can count on it to provide support and guidance as you explore career possibilities in public service.

What role do Muslim American women play in supporting civic engagement?

I think Muslim American women have a unique perspective that needs to be represented. I think a lot of times we lump the genders together and say American Muslim. But we forget that the experience of American Muslim women and American Muslim men are completely different here in the United States.

There are difficulties more often within Muslim families with daughters versus sons. There is so much discussion around Muslim women and how they are treated in Islam, and I think Muslim women can provide a counter to that. MSPN actually struggles to get men to participate in the program—we usually have a huge gender imbalance. Tons of women apply to the program, and we maybe get five or six men at a time.

I think that says a lot about where American Muslim women are: that they are politically and civically engaged and they care about their country. I think increased involvement will change the way people view Islam and the way they view Muslim women. Their active participation in the public sphere makes it more real for those unfamiliar with Islam and Muslim women—other than in National Geographic or sensational news stories. I see the role of American Muslim women as offering that perspective and knowledge.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities related to being an American Muslim woman working in public service?

One of the major challenges of being a public servant is that you are putting yourself out there. There are portions of the Muslim community who might be uncomfortable with that—not because they don’t think they should be doing it, but because they are worried about the treatment they will get.

You hear stories about women having their hijabs pulled off and being called towel-heads. There is a perception that men can handle being in public service better than women. It is really a question of Muslim women asserting themselves and countering the perception that they are oppressed, weak, or puppets. I personally have never had an experience that wasn’t positive when working in public service.

I think we need to give people more credit. That’s not to say that I haven’t gotten questions, but for the most part people are positive and interested in learning more about Islam. This might just be the circles that I run in, but I think people in public service are probably in the same one and I think there is a general attitude of caring and promoting public service in a way that maybe there isn’t in other fields.

People who are interested in civic engagement and public service are not only going to be putting themselves out there but they are also interested in the people who are in the field. They are open, caring, and ultimately they have met people who have challenged any stereotypes they might have. So I think the challenge will be making sure you can counter those stereotypes and that they don’t take over your life.

I think it’s important that people know I am Muslim. You challenge stereotypes just by being present and saying what you need to say. It may have nothing to do with Islam or being Muslim. People can come up with an understanding of Muslim women just by you being there, and you don’t need to do any more than what you do on a day to day basis.

Through civic engagement, American Muslims carry out their social responsibilities, and provide a critical and often unheard voice.

There is a protectionist attitude toward women in the Muslim community. We may be more independent and free than some of our sisters in other parts of the world, but post-9/11 there is a real fear within the American Muslim community about putting women in the public and at the forefront. It’s not an attitude of “Oh they are women and should stay at home”; no, it is a fear of what will happen to them and will they be able to handle it. Women wearing hijab especially have their faith “on display” and people, especially from my parents’ generation, are fearful and they think, “What will it mean for my daughter?” There is a mixture of pride and fear with the hijab—“Post-9/11, our daughters are doing something that I never had to go through wearing hijab.”

The older generations do not want us to get hurt and feel like outsiders – they don’t want us to feel excluded. More so than men, that’s ultimately what the root of it is, that was my own personal experience with my father and uncles who are coming from a different country. That colors your experience … and then I think, my own children will be very different. The current generation of American Muslim women are raised thinking there’s a big bad wolf out there and they need protection. I think that’s definitely a challenge. In public you’re doing press interviews, you’re in front of the camera, you’re talking to journalists, you’re promoting a mission—and that’s something that definitely scared my parents. My dad is a computer scientist and my mom is a daycare worker. They didn’t have to be in the public sphere so much—they just kept to themselves.

Every person needs to do what is right for them and feel like they are getting what they are supposed to out of this world. I would like to say “Stay strong” and if you want to cover you should be able to. But the reality is that it is hard for women wearing the hijab in America, and I think there are some women who are better able to handle it. It is not a matter of strength and weakness—it is just that for some women, the stares don’t affect them as much. I think all Muslim women in America, whether or not they are wearing hijab, can keep pushing forward to find and create the space they need to thrive.

There are so many Muslim women breaking into the workforce. It is like any other group that is trying to break into something because of the public image they have. My mother wears hijab and traditional clothing, and what she had to go through trying to maintain a job with people who are not Muslim was not easy. She was in the United States at a time when she broke barriers in ways that we don’t even understand yet, and made the culture more comfortable with it.

I don’t wear hijab but I am very upfront about being Muslim. If I don’t get hired because of that, that’s their loss, but I will get a job. I may not be president, but if I can get a job on the Hill, that’s a start. Stereotypes don’t break overnight; it will take time. There will be hurt feelings, and you’ll have those moments when you are like “What am I doing here, why am I here?”

During these times I think there is a strong need for American Muslims to bond together in the areas they are interested in and support and mentor each other. It makes those days when everyone is staring at you that much easier. That kind of solidarity will get you through it, and our being present in the public sphere will change the world’s understanding of Muslim women. It will transform worldviews so that people can know I am not an oppressed woman. It will become about who I am as a person, rather than who I am as Muslim.

What is one thing you would like to highlight to the world about American Muslims, and women in particular?

I want to emphasize how much American Muslims, including women, are just regular Americans. We are just regular members of the community. It’s kind of like US Weekly magazine where it has the section: “Stars—They’re Just Like Us.” It’s like that for American Muslim women: We are just like every other woman. You have Muslim women in Parent-Teacher Associations, in law firms, on the Hill, and they work and live their lives every single day, just like everyone else. Their lives have a different flavor—an added layer that brings in a different perspective—but they are doing the same work that their colleagues are.

I am just like any other woman or man who cares about public education and public education reform. My mom is just like any other mom who cares about her kids and who’s involved with her kids and goes to parent-teacher conferences. My sister is just like every other doctor. We are not that different—it seems cliché but we really need to stop emphasizing otherness. Growing up talking to my friends we talked about the same topics. I just have different colored sprinkles on top, which happen to be my faith.

In terms of MPSN, I couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is for the Muslim community, but also the American community. It helps to ensure that every perspective in America is represented at the highest levels of public service. We also need more African American, Latino American, and Native American representation. We as a community should be pushing for that, and America should be empowered by our participation and embracing it. We may be a small minority (about 7 million), but we are an important minority, and we have stakes in major foreign relations issues.

We as Muslim Americans can offer very important insights into these issues and in many other fields. That is what we should be pushing for—diversity of representation, and we need to build our own social capital. We need to reach out to the portion of the Muslim community that hasn’t been tapped. We have a good number of doctors and engineers, but there is a portion of the community that doesn’t know about the importance of policy and politics in shaping how we live our lives every day. That is what MPSN provides.

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