Imtashal shares her powerful story of social justice advocacy from both a local and global perspective with MALA. In her honest account, she details her own complex relationship with her identity, and how her role in civic engagement and growing up in Brooklyn, NY has carved a path for appreciation, acceptance, and advocacy.
When I was first approached to share my journey as a Muslim American, I was honored. However, that joy was quickly replaced with anxiety. I have to be honest with you; I feel very uncomfortable writing about my personal experience as it relates to being Muslim. I have a complicated relationship with my identity, which is reflected in the long and winding path that led me to where I am today. I was born in Brooklyn and spent my formative years in Pakistan. I have a deep appreciation for my culture, and my religion, but for me home will always be Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
If America is the melting pot, then Sunset Park is the stock—the bones—of that soup. For the last fifty years, Sunset Park has been home to a wide range of immigrant communities, including Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian populations. Strolling through the streets of my neighborhood- a square mile area nestled in South Brooklyn featuring stunning views of the Manhattan skyline- one can bear witness to its history. Its sometimes violent past but also the strong sense of community and cultural pride that emerges from years of struggle. Puerto Rican and Mexican flags hang from windows and balconies. Murals and graffiti cover many buildings—some of them your standard tags, and others including themes around social issues. Others commemorate the young men killed on the streets when the neighborhood was still one of the poorest, most violent, and drug ridden parts of the City. My favorite mural, on 5502 Fourth Avenue, depicts the diversity of women in the neighborhood. One side features two Muslim students wearing the hijab and shows a pair of hands that belong to a Jamaican mother. The other side of the mural depicts three generations of Puerto Ricans- a mother, daughter, and grandmother, as well as an elderly Chinese woman, representing Sunset Park’s most prominent and growing communities.
I feel a strong sense of connection to my diverse neighborhood, and I often find myself identifying more as a girl from Brooklyn than a Muslim. Yet, as I’ve grown up and traveled farther and farther from my home, I’ve come to realize that those two identities are really two sides of the same coin. Today, Sunset Park is roughly fifty percent Latino and forty percent Asian. Yet, watching the experiences of the new immigrants in my neighborhood reminds me of my mother’s journey. She worked in the warehouses along Third Avenue which are now retail stores and trendy coffee shops. I worked in those same factories as a teenager, and my mother often chided me to do better in school so I could make something of myself. My mother became a women’s rights activist and today she works towards ending violence towards women at the New York Asian Women’s Center. Although I took the winding path, I eventually made it to college and received my undergraduate degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and my Masters degree from Cambridge.
When I look back on the last seven years, my greatest accomplishment is not my education but my work in with advocating for the most marginalized people in our criminal justice system and towards building global peace. I currently serve as the Global Peacemaking Specialist for Intersection Intersectional, a New York based NGO which leads people to unite across lines of difference in mutual pursuit of social justice, globally and locally. Global Peacemaking is just one program among many at Intersections; Believe Out Loud advocates for the LGBTQ population in the Christian community. Arts & Humanities does work with community policing, and their innovative play Uniform Justice served as a venue for the citizens of Memphis to voice their concerns about police brutality and violence. Service Together works to bridge the military-civilian divide through dialogue and mutual service, recognizing that in order to heal communities and build peace we must address every aspect of war.
I feel at home with Intersections in the same way that I feel at home in Sunset Park. Although I often joke that I am a “bad Muslim” and shy away from sharing my personal story, the reality is that I am just as much a Muslim as anyone else. For me, my Muslim identity was forged in the diverse melting pot of Brooklyn. To me, being Muslim means acknowledging and celebrating the many paths that Muslims walk. We are the women’s rights activists, the cops and the soldiers, the humanitarian workers, and the protestors in North Carolina insisting that HB2 is not a representation of the love of Allah. It may have taken me many years, with painful experiences resisting racism and questioning my own identity, but today I am proud to say that I am a Muslim woman, working to make life better for my peers both at home in Brooklyn and across the world in Pakistan.