Rahima Sajid: Dodging Discouragement

Rahima Sajid shares her narrative of faith, and how her studies in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Political Science and  International Studies helped shape the course of her journey as a Muslim American. 


Recently I slumped into one those moments where it feels like you hit rock bottom. All my anxieties and fears came pouring out as I word vomited to a friend/classmate. She listened, and with a calm smile simply responded with “Rahima you are so unapologetically yourself. You speak your mind and do exactly what you believe is right. You’re a rare breed and you should be proud of that.” It has been a journey to get where I am, and it will be a journey to get where I want to go.

As a child I was really quiet, always took everything in, and was well aware of people’s energies. I’m from a big Muslim, Pakistani American family. Originally from a village in Pakistan, we immigrated to the United States when I was 3 years old. I remember having to leave behind my favorite person from childhood-my aunt Yasmeen. I am number 2 in a family of 6 kids. It is a hectic and complex family dynamic with so many colorful personalities. Growing up there was a constant cultural and generational clash (a given in first generation American families). Many clashes were/are rooted in cultural sexist norms. Despite all the complexities my siblings are my support system and being the second eldest I feel a huge sense of responsibility and protection over them. We talk, make fun, laugh, get in trouble, and are always there for each other.

My parents are the hardest working people we know. All of my siblings and I uniquely inherited different traits from them. I have my father’s laid back personality, stubbornness and his ability to firmly believe in dreams, along with my mother’s quick sass, an anxiety that makes me want to do things on my own, and the desire to always “give back” to make this world a better place.

By the time I reached high school, I developed a confrontational and rebellious stance that often landed me trouble.  I attended Al-Noor High, a private Islamic School in Brooklyn and found a mentorship figure in my science teacher. He saw through my rebellious front, knew I meant well intention, and believed in me more than I believed in myself. I probably didn’t study as hard as I could have, got good grades, dealt with cliques, the stress of finals, drama and took part in laughing (sometimes giggling) over the boys segregated in a building across the school-yard. It was in high school, with the encouragement of my science teacher, that I started writing poetry. I remember boldly using my poetry to speak out on the racism that existed within the school. By the end of senior year, my classmates referred to me as the women’s rights spokesperson.

College was a time of lots of growth, both personal and academic. Most of my friends were of similar background to me: Muslim, Pakistani, and American. I was always the reliable and loyal friend who offered the best advice. I tried new things, had lots of fun, dealt with my share of drama and continued to write poetry. My academic route was not the traditional path many took. I double majored in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Political Science and minored in International Studies. This took lots of passion, belief in my cause, and the ability to dodge countless discouraging comments.

While pursuing my dream and passion, I landed an internship at the campus women’s center. It was towards the end of my internship term, when the center director approached me and said she wanted to introduce me to someone. It was a Muslim, Pakistani, American female student. The student told me my poetry and strong personality had inspired her. (She attended an event where I had recited a poem on domestic violence). It had been a big deal for her to see someone who came from a similar background as her, speak out about such sensitive issues. The student herself became an intern at the Women’s Center the following semester.

Another important moment during my undergraduate career took place the following semester. I was taking two political science classes (Democracy and Democratization & American Foreign Policy). At around the same time something happened in both of my classes that led me to feel very uncomfortable and a bit frustrated with the way Islam was perceived and talked about. In one class it just a matter of the political terms being used. I knew the terms and the context they were used in were not in actual and direct reference to Islam, but did everyone else know this?

Shortly after, my professor from my other class briefly paused to acknowledge different cultures and religions. His intent was to embrace the diversity and debunk misconceptions, and so he said something like “no, I don’t think Islam is about oppressing women.” It was a very well intended comment, and I appreciated the effort. But something didn’t sit right with me. Why was there even a need to say something like that? Why are Muslims, especially Muslim women, viewed in a way that did not reflect who I was?

After class that day, I went to the director of the Women’s Center and asked, “May I please host a ‘Women in Islam’ event on campus under the sponsorship of the center?” The director was delighted that someone took on such a task. And so I planned, hosted and spoke at an event titled “Women in Islam.” Right before the event professors had pulled me aside to tell me how proud they were of me and that they will be there to back me up if anything got heated (the Boston bombing had taken place around the time of the event, and so the vibes towards Islam and Muslims weren’t the friendliest). During the event I talked about Islam, Feminism, and how the two went hand in hand. I touched up on topics like hijab, polygamy, inheritance etc. I had figured: if the people around me were misinformed about Women in Islam and Feminism, it was up to me to do something about it.

After graduating from undergrad, I applied and got accepted into Baruch the School of Public Affairs and am working on my MPA. I juggle with school, internships, work, friends, and family and try to allocate the perfect amount of time to each. I always make time to go on coffee dates with my close circle of friends, make sure I listen to all the stories my siblings want to share, and cook for the family to give my mother a day off. I am a dreamer, extremely loyal and annoyingly indecisive.

In an effort to develop professionally and follow my passion I joined the Women’s History Month Committee during my first semester at Baruch, have received the CUNY Women’s Center Council Award for Social Activism, worked at the Financial Women’s Association, interned at NGO Committee on the Status of Women, became a UN Youth representative for the International Alliance of Women, volunteered and held a fundraiser for the Iqra Fund and started a project that is attempting to open a Women’s Center at Baruch. Wherever I go I find ways to make the most of the opportunities in front of me and I find ways to promote my agenda of empowering women and calling for gender equality. I hope to one-day hold a job that allows me to work towards the empowerment of women and push for gender-equality on the international platform.

Throughout it all I have first and foremost identified as a Muslim. This has meant having never-ending faith in Allah, loving the Prophet (PBUP) and making every effort to follow his example of kindness. It has meant learning to read in Arabic, going to Sunday school, making every attempt to prioritize my five daily prayers and memorizing Quranic verses. It has meant refraining from drinking, drugs, clubbing, fornication, cheating, and backbiting. It has meant wearing the hijab, dodging racist comments and slurs, and differentiating between the religious and cultural. It has meant eating only what is Halal, whispering “Allah hu Akbar” to myself countless times a day, and fasting during Ramadan. It has meant speaking up and questioning when things don’t make sense, constantly reflecting on my actions, and always having faith in Allah’s mercy even when I mess up. It has meant being taught that smiling is Sunnah and trying to do the smallest things for people. I am seeking to learn everything I can to make this world a better place, while maintaining my faith in Allah and being spiritual.

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