President and Co-Founder | Poligon Education Fund
What do you do?
I recently accepted a position at Church World Service in Washington, DC, where I'll be working as a Media Associate on advocacy surrounding refugee and immigrants issues.
I’ve also been working as an independent consultant and public speaker. I do a lot of freelance writing. I just had a contract finished with Thomson Reuters about how Americans are dealing with the election. I was writing for an international audience primarily based in the Islamic world. I also travel around the country speaking to universities and conferences, teaching people about media engagement and how they can maximize their message.
I just did a lecture on Islam and terrorism, debunking the myths about Islam as it pertains to terrorism or terrorism as it pertains to Islam and comparing it with other forms of terrorism. I also talk about what it's like to be a Muslim American: civic engagement, how to engage with your Member of Congress, how to become a more politically active person. I do a lot of those trainings and workshops.
You are very active in getting Muslim Americans more engaged with politics.
I started a nonprofit dealing with getting American Muslims more engaged in the policy making process. It's called Poligon Education Fund. We're dedicated to getting American Muslims’ voices heard in Congress. We teach American Muslims how to engage with their Members, both in the Home Districts and Washington D.C. We plan on keeping people updated on legislation that's coming up that they would find interesting or applicable to them, and on doing advocacy days on Capitol Hill.
I also help with the nonprofit campaign ‘I Am Your Protector’. This is an international campaign that I've been involved with since its inception last year. It works to elevate stories of people who have protected or stood up for people who are different from themselves in order to combat racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-refugee feelings. We share stories of people who have protected those unlike themselves. We bring Holocaust survivors to talk about, for instance, Muslim families that saved them, or to teach people to think differently, to see the other differently.
We've been really successful. In about a year, we've reached over 4 million people with events done in Geneva, New York, Washington D.C. and Pakistan. Kofi Annan has spoken out in support for it. We just launched a two-week exhibit in Geneva, at the UN headquarters. That was attended by 350 dignitaries, ambassadors and civil society members. It's all been very exciting to do.
Does Donald Trump’s election worry you as someone who works in foreign policy?
It does worry me because the people that Trump has been appointing or nominating to his Cabinet have been largely islamophobic and people who perpetuated conspiracy theories. The Muslim American community as a whole is very afraid of what could happen. Under the Bush administration, post-9/11, we saw things like the Patriot Act and the Nation Registry Program for Muslims and Arabs, the No Fly List, etc. Civil Rights groups are very concerned.
At the same time, having an American Muslim voice in the government is important. It wouldn’t be a good thing if every single Muslim in the government left, because there would be nobody to be the voice of reason or counter policy that isn't good for national security and discriminates against people or violates their civil rights. It's important for people to remain engaged. But if it comes to a point where you're asked to do something that’s immoral or something that you don't agree with personally, you have to be prepared to walk away.
It's new territory for us. Many people are thinking about what it means to be working as a minority in foreign policy or in any space in government.
I know some people are leaving the government because they don't want to work under Trump. Some people are choosing to stay and see how it goes. It's a personal preference, but it is important to have representation there. We have to wait and see what plays out. With Donald Trump, you don't know what's going to happen. That's the scariest part. With Hillary Clinton, you knew what was going to happen. With Trump, you have no idea, so it's a gamble.
What's your experience been so far as a Muslim woman in foreign policy?
It's been a positive experience so far, but that doesn't mean there haven't been snags along the way. I wear a headscarf, so I'm a visible Muslim. I know there are Muslim women who work in foreign policy who may not wear the headscarf so their experience is different than mine.
For instance, when I was in Israel last year, walking around with a headscarf, people assumed that I was Arab. My parents are from Pakistan, so I'm South Asian. I was traveling with a colleague who is a white, blonde woman. The difference between the questions we were asked at the security checks were very apparent. I had extra questioning as they were trying to figure out if I was Arab. Once they realized that I wasn't, it wasn't as big of a deal. They're very concerned about people being Arab there, and so the headscarf symbolizes that to them.
In the US, I work a lot with Congress, and Congress is very white male-dominated. There's not that many women working there, and certainly, I haven't seen that many women of color.
I grew up in Texas, in the suburbs of Houston. I was largely a minority here, so I'm not worried about that. But I am concerned with presumptions people have about the Islamic faith. I remember sitting in a meeting with a bunch of people I had worked with on the Iran nuclear negotiations. They were educated, largely white people. They were talking about human rights in Iran and wondering what we could take on next. They started talking about women's dress. All of a sudden, the chair of the organization turns to me and said, "What do you think about that?" I'm not Iranian, so I don't represent the view of Iranian women. I said that to him.
Later on, one of my colleagues who was sitting there texted me asking "Why don't you represent the view of all Muslim women who wear a headscarf?" Remember that everybody is different, but sometimes people see the headscarf and assume that I represent Iranian, Arab and Pakistani women, or even all Muslim women. We're not a monolith, and that's always a challenge I'm trying to overcome so I can represent my own views. I want people to recognize that.
Once people see that I have a solid understanding of those issues, they can get past that initial stereotypes that they have associated with my appearance. I wish there were more people like me in the field to help break down those barriers, to show that we're normal people and we all have our own personal and political views, and that the headscarf isn't representative of just one thing.
What would your advice be to a young Muslim woman leaving university who might want to go into foreign policy but is worried about these prejudices?
People have reached out to ask about this. Some wear headscarves, some don't. They're worried they'll face discrimination in the workplace or that they aren’t going to be able to move very far. I tell them "You have to go for it. You will never know unless you try. You may try and fail, but if you're passionate about an issue, you owe it to yourself to go after it. You shouldn't let physical appearance, religious belief or the discriminatory thought people have about you to deter you. That is all the more reason why you should be in those fields so that you can bring a different, diverse perspective to them and show people that you have something to offer. You're not the stereotype that they think you are."
I tell them to get their education and the best internships they can get, whether that's at the UN, an NGO or a think tank. Then they work their way up and lean on other women. Look to other people, including minority and non-minority women. We're good at helping each other, and we should help each other.
Don't be afraid, because you can't live your life in fear. If you go pursue a safer job, you're always going to wish you had contributed. We need diverse voices. We need more women. Studies show that in peace building your likelihood of success is greater if women are involved. You can't exclude half the population when you're making these decisions.
Take the Iran deal and the Syria conflict. There were a lot of women working with me on the Iran deal. There were women negotiators at the White House and on the civil society side. For Syria, it's largely been males negotiating. That makes one wonder whether things could've turned out differently for Syria if there had been more women involved in negotiations.
You used to be an accountant, which is a very different field. Why did you switch to foreign policy?
I left that field because I felt passionate about doing more for my country, for my community, and I wanted to be the bridge between the Islamic world and the United States, because there are a lot of tensions involved there. As an American Muslim and a proud American, I wanted to work on those issues. That still drives me. That's what encouraged me to pursue a second Master's degree at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs focusing on Human Rights and Middle East studies. I haven't looked back since.
It's not easy an easy field to enter. You have to be willing to make sacrifices, do unpaid internships, and keep abreast of the news constantly. There isn’t much to be personally gained from foreign policy. It's all about the greater good. If you are passionate about that, then it's worth it, but just be aware going in.