Afghan Air Force 2nd Lt. Niloofar Rhmani made history May 14, 2013 when she became the first female in over 30 years to successfully complete undergraduate pilot training and earn the status of pilot. She will continue her service as she joins the Kabul Air Wing as a Cessna 208 pilot.
Twenty-year-old Iqbal El Assaad made history by becoming the youngest doctor in the region when she graduated from the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
Sakeena Abdulraheem is one of the founding members of the Falling Walls Initative. She holds an BA in Spanish and International Studies from Meredith College, and an MA in Islamic Studies from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. She is currently completing her MA in counseling psychology with a concentration in trauma and crisis intervention. She has extensive experience working as a teacher, mentor, and consultant. Sakeena currently counsels victims of domestic violence as an interning therapist at the House of Ruth MD.
MH: Tell us more about your academic path that led you to pursue counseling.
My background was actually not in counseling. In undergrad I double majored in Spanish and International studies. By my senior year in college I was fluent in Spanish and I knew I wanted to make a positive impact on a global level but I was still exploring career options at that point. By the end of my senior year in 2002 I was hired by the defense department was waiting for my security clearance to go through and so I began substitute teaching and got involved in education before I eventually made my move to the Washington, DC area from the Raleigh-Durham, NC area. After working for two years in government I decided that it was time to explore other fields with my skillet where I could see the impact of my contributions more immediately and directly. I had gotten my MA in social studies with a concentration in Islamic Studies from The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and I began entertaining the idea of becoming a teacher. I worked for about 4 years in the educational system working with elementary school aged youth that had aspergers, autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. I saw the various ways in which emotional well being, and mental disorders not only had an impact on the environment of the classroom, teachers struggled through curriculum working with children with complex behavioral problems that quite frankly they were not trained to deal with in an educational setting. As a result, I immediately began applying to counseling graduate school programs because I saw mental health being the way in which I would be able to contribute towards and give back overall to the community.
MH: Tell us more about what got you interested in counseling and specifically in domestic violence?
While I was teaching full time in before and after school programs I started my graduate program part time in counseling psychology. At the beginning of the program I was planning to concentrate and specialize in children and adolescents because of my work history of seeing mental illness in elementary school age children. However, it was my study abroad trip at the beginning of my graduate program to Kigali, Rwanda, to study and learn about programs and non-profits working towards addressing trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the context of genocide that influenced my decision to change my specialization. During my trip I had the opportunity to meet survivors that were working as educators and heads of non-profit organizations and professors in the department of psychology that spoke first hand of their personal experiences during the genocide in 1994. I was also exposed to the cases of gender-based violence that were used as weapons against the tribe that was being killed at that time. Rape, sexual assault, various parts of the female anatomy were being cut off during the genocide in an effort to terrorize and instill fear in the population and specifically the female population. After the genocide many women were dealing with various psychological problems that would go untreated and many had to undergo abortions because they were victims of rape during the genocide. Looking at all of these factors, I realized that I wanted to continue learning about Post traumatic Disorder under various context and I also realized that is was this particular type of population that I wanted to work with and that this was the area of counseling that I wanted to continue to pursue. After returning from the trip I immediately changed my concentration from children and adolescents to trauma and crisis intervention. Trauma and crisis intervention is inclusive of various population and victims of domestic violence are a part of this population. I began interning as a therapists since last year for a non-profit organization, The House of Ruth MD that works specifically with domestic violence victims at their counseling center.
MH: Tell us more about the Falling Walls Initiative. What was the idea behind it? What do you plan to do?
Falling Walls is an initiative that was inspired by a research project led by one of the founding members Darakshan Raja. The study looked at crime victimization in the American Muslim Community. This study in particular highlights that denial is a major problem in the American Muslim community when it comes to addressing abuse, domestic violence, and victimization overall. One of the main goals of the Falling Walls Initiative is to break barriers such as denial with the Muslim community by educating based off of experience from direct services, applied research, and through the dissemination of research. The second goal is to bring awareness through various forms of social media.
MH: Do you feel there’s a stigma in the Muslim American community in regards to seeking counseling and/or help when someone is in need?
Yes. I believe there is a HUGE stigma for individuals that seek counseling or treatment whether it is from a social worker, counselor, therapist, psychologist, or a psychiatrist. A lot of this has to do with the lack of knowledge about mental health in general in the Muslim community. If you ask some individuals what takes place during a counseling session many individuals in the Muslim community may give you a blank stare, some statement full of misinformation, or say that they do not know. When the truth is counseling is for everyone, whether they are experiencing grief, need someone to talk to as they make a major transition in life, their family is currently experience a crisis, an individual is suffering from a mental disorder, or a couple would just like to work on ways they can improve their relationship. As you can see I gave multiple examples of why some individuals decide to go for counseling which is a clear indication that counseling is something that everyone can benefit from, including the therapists themselves, and is very much a part of personal growth.
MH: What role does culture and tradition, if at all, play in preventing individuals from seeking counseling or help when they’re going through troubling times?
Culture has a tremendous impact in terms of looking at the way shame is used to maintain the cultural norms of the group and discourage individual member from stepping out of that norm in order to avoid bringing shame upon the family.
MH: A lot of Muslims in America and the world are suffering silently and are faced with a lot of psychological, emotional and even physical abuse. What can the Muslim community do to prevent abuse in our communities?
The Muslim community can start by actively supporting organizations that are already established and currently in the processed of being established whether it is through volunteering, sharing resources, sharing information, networking, and connecting others so that we can work more collaboratively to bring an end to these issues. Supporting the local domestic violence shelters, Muslim, non-Muslim whether it be economically, sharing informations, or sharing resources. I also think that men are in a very good position to address the issue of domestic violence in their own way. Men speaking out to address the overall problem of the culture of violence and the various ways in which violence against women is accepted and expressed. Educating men more on the issues of violence against women and the dynamics of the way in which unhealthy patterns of relationships and learn behavior play a role in abuse of women and all victims.
MH: Are more Muslim Americans becoming comfortable with the concept of counseling?
I believe that as more programs and platforms like Fallings Walls and other established organizations are supported that are regular initiatives, addressing the issues of denial and shame, it will make it clear that counseling is just another area of one’s health that we all have room to work on and improve. When a person learns poor eating habits over the course of their childhood they go to a dietician. When someone learns maladaptive behaviors and unhealthy ways of interacting with their spouse from family and childhood experiences they go to a Marriage and Family Therapist.
MH: A lot of Muslim say that Islam is not compatible with Islam and that private family matters should remain within the family. Is counseling compatible with Islam?
Counseling is an Islamic tradition. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a great source of knowledge and people frequently came to him for consultation for a variety of matters whether it was for major life decisions, mediation in settling marital and family disputes, etc. Also counseling is a form of bringing about the process of emotional, psychological, and in many cases spiritual healing, helping others in a way that brings healing for any community is a purification for the soul and a form of ibadah.
MH: In recent times we’ve seen growing pressure and demand on imams to counsel individuals in their community. In your opinion, should imams be trained to counsel? What are the pros and cons?
I believe Imams are already conducting a form of pastoral counseling which is different from the counseling that an individual will receive from a mental health practitioner who is trained in how to conduct psychotherapy, diagnosis, assessment, therapeutic approaches, etc. I think that imams should definitely be trained on how to identify when the issue and complexity of what may be happening with an individual is beyond the skills that they have as pastoral counselors. Imams can gain this training through basic skills workshops that help them to become more thoroughly aware of issues related to marriage counseling, domestic violence, and how to appropriately protect the rights of the woman and not put her in danger in cases of domestic violence.
MH: Is pastoral counseling a growing field? Is there a demand for Muslim counselors in the Muslim American community?
I believe that Muslims can benefit from the various forms of counseling that are already available whether the counselor is Muslim or non-Muslim. A key component that families should look for when searching for a great counselor are similar when searching for a doctor or dentist they like; do they make you feel comfortable, are they culturally competent and aware of the significance culture may or may not play in your life; do you find their adopted therapeutic approach helpful; how many years of experience do they have in the field; do they speak your language or multiple language; what is their expertise; do they have experience working with the population of the group you are a part of?….etc…
MH: In your opinion, how can Muslims learn more about how to create peaceful environments at home and learn about relationship-building, conflict resolution, communication and parenting?
Looking up local Muslim and non-Muslim counseling resources in their prospective areas and shopping around to find the best practitioner that they feel comfortable with, understands their concerns, and that they find helpful.
MH: What resources are available for people going through traumatic events in their lives?
There are various resources available for individuals experiencing a traumatic event which include hotlines, suicide hotlines, online counselors, crisis counselors, domestic violence counselors, therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and practitioners trained in conducting psychological first aid, etc. such as the following:
MH: What resources are there to learn more about Islam and counseling?
Peaceful Families Project, Muslimaat Al Nisaa, Project Sakinah are among some of the stronger programs that have been discussing the misinterpretation of the verses from the Quran and the way in which the religion is misinterpreted and used as a form of spiritual abuse. They also have great resources listed on their website as well.
MH: What advice would you give to someone seeking to pursue your career path?
Research and explore the various areas of psychology and really investigate and visit various programs that you feel are tailored to meet the needs of your professional goals and interest. This type of profession is not made for everyone so visiting various programs and getting work experience before starting graduate school will also contribute in helping you to make your decision.
MH:How can we learn more about your work and support your work?
You can learn more about the work we do by going to our blog:
(www.fallingwallsinitiative.wordpress.com) and staying tuned for the launching of our website that we hope to have completed and launched by April.
Sakeena Abdulraheem is one of the Founding Members of Falling Walls Initiative. Falling Walls Initiative was founded by Darakshan Raja, Maha Hilal, and Mawish Raza.
“Falling Walls was born out of a research project led by one of the founders on the state of responses to crime victimization in the American Muslim community. As one of the first research studies in the field, the study found that the number one challenge identified within the American Muslim community on addressing abuse and victimization was denial from within the community. With rates of abuse in the Muslim community of one in two persons, a team of skilled professionals from fields such as criminal justice, psychology, counseling, human rights, journalism and media, initiated Falling Walls with the express purpose of breaking the barriers to addressing victimization within the Muslim community. Our work is based on direct services, applied research and the dissemination of research and practice through social media.”
Sakeena holds an BA in Spanish and International Studies from Meredith College, and an MA in Islamic Studies from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. She is currently completing her MA in counseling psychology with a concentration in trauma and crisis intervention. She has extensive experience working as a teacher, mentor, and consultant. Sakeena currently counsels victims of domestic violence as an interning therapist at the House of Ruth MD. She also consults as an online counselor for OnIslam English. Her expertise and interests include cultural competency, post traumatic stress disorder, working with bicultural and multicultural families in transition, refugees, and orphans, survivors of violent crimes, women’s issues, gender based violence, sexual, and domestic violence. Sakeena has an assertive and directive therapeutic approach and believes in addressing conditions in a holistic manner. Sakeena is currently a founding member of Falling Walls.
Khadijah Abdullah founded Reaching All HIV+ Muslims In America (RAHMA) in 2012 while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Horton’s Kids in Washington, DC. During her service she worked with families in Ward 8 and helped empower them through building partnerships with local organizations. With this she was able to offer families parenting classes, workforce development classes, case management, legal aid and other services. She also set up biweekly HIV testing on site and coordinated HIV education workshops.
Khadijah became very passionate about HIV/AIDS during her senior year of college. At this time, she was working in a hospital and learned that a friend who was a patient had HIV. He was only 19 years old. After this experience, Khadijah started advocating and educating on her college campus. She realized that there were no programs on campus that targeted HIV. Khadijah reached out to various student organizations and the local community to organize the first AIDS Awareness Week on campus. Due to her efforts, Khadijah was recognized by the State of Connecticut for her involvement in Community Service and by her University as well. Khadijah continued on to volunteer at AIDS Project New Haven and organized a team to walk in AIDS Walk New Haven.
After graduating in 2009, Khadijah relocated to Washington, DC and interned at the National Minority AIDS Council. After her internship, she began volunteering in the community. She received the President Obama award for Volunteerism. Khadijah later began work at Islamic Relief USA. During this time, she realized her passion was not sitting behind a desk, but being directly out there in the community serving others.
Khadijah holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from Southern Connecticut State University and has dedicated her life to ensuring the well being of others. She resides in the DC area with her family.
MH: Your profession is not a very common one in the Muslim American community, why did you decide to get into art?
Well, I’ve always been naturally inclined towards the arts, and it was only a matter of time that I recognized the best thing I could do for myself was to use my gift in the best way possible — to create more opportunities for reflection, gratitude and beauty.
MH: Where do you find inspiration from for your art work?
Life and all the awesomeness of it. Ever since I can remember, I have been reflective of the human experience, from its chaos and despair to its magnificence and beauty. I’m always searching for insight and understanding and any simple event or moment can lead to the concept for my next painting.
MH: In Islamic history, there used to be a deep appreciation for art and it would have great significance to the degree that it would make a huge impact on the architecture of mosques, government buildings and household items. Today there seems to be a lack of appreciation of art and architecture in the Muslim community. As an architect and artist, how do you feel we can revive that appreciation?
Well, two things — First, I think the depreciation of arts in the Muslim-American community has something to do with the immigrant generation that came before us. Their focus wasn’t to bring about identity and change through arts and culture, but generally speaking, it was one of assimilating into American society, seeking higher education and creating financial opportunities for their families. Leading to my second point, I feel it’s up to our generation to use the privilege of our higher education and the roots that our parents laid down to integrate into society in such a way that we employ the arts to further refine and revive our cultural and religious identity. What does this mean in practical, tangible terms? For starters, it means that we employ and support in every way the talented professional Muslim artists who have been trailblazing the movement of bringing change through the arts for years now, even, and especially, if initially it was to just start beautifying their own personal worlds. If you need proof, just look up some of the great projects and work that some of these Artists have been creating and working on: El Seed and Karim Jab going global with their calligraphy graffiti and light calligraphy; Mustafa Davis and Ridwan Adhami – two of the most prolific photographers and talented brothers I know; Maryam Eskandari, a graduate of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs her own architecture business – Miim Designs; Tamir Diab, a Lighting Technical Director working in Visual Effects at WETA Digital, Ltd. has worked on two of the highest grossing films in Hollywood; Australian designer Peter Gould and typographer Tarek Atrissi have created award-winning designs with high profile clientele; Mark Gonzalez and Omar Offendum – two of the most remarkable spoken word and hip-hop artists and performers of our generation, and the list goes on. This is just a tiny drop in the ocean of talented Muslim Artists that exist who are dedicating their lives to the revival and recognition of the arts.
MH: Do you feel there is a revival in appreciation of art in the Muslim community?
Absolutely. I remember being at Islamic Conferences and being the only Artist present with a booth or an exhibit ten years ago, but now you go to these events and you have Artists headlining and giving speeches, and booths representing the creative fields all over the bazaar. My clientele population has changed drastically from parents and friends of parents commissioning me for work as a favor, to young professionals hiring me to design their marriage certificates, eid cards, or making custom paintings as gift or to be placed in their own homes, for example. Although our community has a long way to go, I’ve definitely seen a shift in mindset where art is being seen and appreciated less as commodity, and more as a service to society. If this much has changed in ten years, it’s pretty exciting to think of what the next ten years will bring on. I’m optimistic, and it’s a good time to be an Artist (though honestly — any time is a good time to be an Artist).
MH: What types of mediums do you most enjoy working with and why?
I love all mediums of paint — oil, acrylic and watercolor, but my absolute favorite is oil. I’ve found oil paints to require a lot more patience in the process of using them than other mediums, and each color mixes with the other — nothing is independent (at least the way I use colors). Each color informs the next one. I find there’s a lot of discovery and time for reflection instead of a focus on the end product because of this, and the painting gradually comes to reveal itself in the end. In fact, when I approach a painting, I never know what the end product will look like; I try to remain solid in my intention throughout the process and have faith that the painting will reveal itself in the end, inshaAllah.
MH: Your artwork can be described as contemporary. Are there elements within your artwork that draw inspiration from classical art or calligraphy?
Of course, any form of art really stems from an understanding of the traditional arts. I’d describe my work as conceptual, actually, and it stems more from my discipline and appreciation of proportion and structure because of my architectural background, and less from calligraphy, per se. When I first started painting, I drew very representational and literal works of art, and I was interested in being able to render a scene or image exactly as I saw it, and less as I experienced it. Over the years, however, my view of the world inevitably changed, and my experience in the architectural field led me to become more conceptual with my work. In other words, skill, technique and a good foundation in color theory were still vital to making a “good” painting, but a great work of art for me became one which mastered an expression of an idea from start to finish, on every level, instead of accuracy in visual depiction of a subject. If I captured my experience, then I considered my painting successful and complete (as much as one can be).
MH: Some say art is a way to express emotions and feelings. Has your artwork done the same for you? How has your art allowed you to express yourself?
Absolutely, all of my work is very personal to me, and essentially, it is my soul coming through. I learned how to express myself with colors and forms before I did with words, so painting and drawing have really just been a natural extension of my hands and my inner workings. Articulating emotions through words is an entirely different challenge. I think my work has evolved into more abstracted work particularly because of this — expression is so incredibly unique and personal, ambiguous and ever-changing, so all I can really expect is to be able to share it and hope that the viewer will bring his or her own interpretation to it. The goal isn’t for them to match their expression with mine, but to be catalyzed to express their own reaction in their own way.
MH: Some Muslim artists make the distinction between being a Muslim artist vs. an artist that just happens to be Muslim who is inspired by his/her faith. In your opinion is there a difference?
That’s a really great question — there’s really no wrong or right, but my opinion is that there is a difference. I attempt to live my life with the most consciousness that I can, so I try not to do or be anything just by default. While making “Islamic art” or paintings with Arabic calligraphy is not my focus as an Artist, I would most definitely call myself a “Muslim Artist” because my inspiration stems from my spirituality and consciousness of God. Having said that, I also don’t separate my identities of being Muslim, an Artist, or even a woman — they are all inherent to who I am and I don’t feel I’ve ever had to censor or filter myself because of any one of them. Alhamdulillah, my parents raised me in an open and nurturing enough environment, and although I experienced the typical American-Pakistani-Muslim identity conflicts from time to time, I never felt the need to express one identity over the other. I was always encouraged to be close to my heart and express my own ideas of who I was.
MH: What advice would you give to those who would like to pursue your career path?
The advice I would give to others, and myself, would be to create discipline in your life and put in the hard work to find your voice. The work that is truly interesting and has longevity is the work that is honest, and authentic, but none of it will come to surface without hard work and commitment to your art.
Malika Bilal is the digital producer and co-host of The Stream. She joined the Al Jazeera DC team by way of Doha, where she worked as an editor and writer for the Al Jazeera English website.
Wafa Al-Rimi is a 16 year old Yemeni student who created her own business which creates solar-powered appliances. Her products are sold to hotels and government offices.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is an American sabre fencer and member of the United States fencing team. She is the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in international competition. She captured a bronze medal in the women’s sabre team event at the 2011 World Fencing Championships held in Catania, Italy, competed in the 2010 World Fencing Championships in Paris, France and attended the 2011 XVI Pan American Games where she won the gold medal in the women’s sabre team event. She is also a 2-time United States National Champion.
MH: Not a lot of Americans are familiar with the sport of fencing. What got you into fencing?
Early on, my parents always encouraged us to participate in sports. They felt that engaging in sports provided us with opportunities to be physically fit and also be active and social in a productive and halal way. I was involved in different sports, including track, tennis, softball, and even volleyball. When it came to uniforms, it was a constant struggle. My mother always had to tweak my uniforms to make them more modest and appropriate for me to wear. My parents saw my desire to compete and wanted to find a sport for me where I could be fully covered.
I discovered fencing for the first time when I was about 12 years old. My mother and I were driving past a local high school and we happened to see the fencing team practicing through the windows. I was attracted to it because I noticed the attire of the players and how they were fully clothed. Fencing presented a unique opportunity for me where I could feel comfortable in my values and participate in sport. I was 13 years old when I joined my high school’s fencing team and from there followed this pursuit to where I am today.
MH: What advice would you give someone whose pursuits may not embrace his/her religion as well as fencing did for you? For instance, someone who may want to pursue a career as a news reporter and faith/wearing a headscarf alienates her?
Had I been discouraged by the lack of minorities involved in fencing when I first gained interest in the sport over a decade ago, (Allah knows best) I wouldn’t be where I am today. I always try to encourage people to set their bar high. Never allow bias to your religion, ethnicity, or your gender hinder you from following your dreams and doing what you love. Anything is possible with hard work, determination, and prayer. Hold tight to theses and you shall not fail with the will of Allah.
MH: Did you ever face any obstacles as a Muslim competitor? As a woman? Which one was a bigger challenge?
Of course, I cannot deny that I have faced discrimination and obstacles throughout my career. However, I feel that comes with being an ethnic and religious minority in the United States. People an be apprehensive when dealing with a Muslim American fencer, but I don’t let that deter me from my goals. I constantly remind myself that I am not only doing this for my self, but Inshallah this will also be beneficial for the Muslims and minorities who come after me. Inshallah I am paving the way for others.
MH: Tell us a bit about your experience with the Peter Westbrook Foundation. What drew you to them?
When I first begin high school fencing in New Jersey, I was one of few African Americans. I remember a parent suggested that I check out the fencing club in Harlem where “black kids” fenced. Initially, I was offended by her remarks. Was I so different from the other NJ fencers that I had to go to NY to find fencers who looked like me? Though I am not sure whether or not her suggestion was meant to be offensive, it did awaken the desire to find African American fencers. As much as I wanted to feel a sense of normalcy in the fencing world, there was the constant reminder that I was a minority.
When I was 17, a senior in high school, my mom took me to the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City. It was the premiere club in NYC, where all the elite level minority level fencers trained. Though I was amazed at the level of talent exhibited by so many of the clubs athlete, it was the comradery and strong sense of family that drew me in.
MH: Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility to Muslims around the world to be a role model and to spread your story in order to counteract the misconceptions many people have of Muslims?
My journey through my fencing career has undoubtedly brought a significant amount of attention to Muslim women in sports. It was never my intention to be a role model, but I have been presented with an unique opportunity to provide other Muslim women courage and the foundation participate in sport. Muslim woman are not common in the sports arena. I hope to break misconceptions and make hijab and sports a common thread of discussion in both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
My hijab brought me to a sport I never would have discovered otherwise. I was exposed to a sport that gave me a foundation to become who I am today. I pray my story reminds Muslim women and youth that nothing should hinder them in their pursuit of reaching their dreams.
MH: In an interview, you mentioned that some people in the fencing community don’t know how to react to you because you are different from them. How did you deal with that?
Alhumdulillah I have been able to accomplish a lot athletically while wearing my hijab. I found a sport that embraces my religious beliefs and my desire to wear the hijab, breaking several stereotypes by excelling in a sport not typical to minorities or Muslim women. I have earned my spot on the United States team and my “seat at the table.”
Earlier in my career off comments about my race and religion might have upset me, but now I know that purpose is much bigger than me. I wear my hijab because of my love for Allah and my commitment to Islam. In such a racially and economically static sport, I am constantly mindful that what I do is for the Muslims and minorities who come after me.
MH: You talk often about your defining principles of hard work, determination, patience, amongst others. Do you think your faith instilled these values in you?
I do believe that Islam instilled values if hard work and patience. Allah (swt) loves that if one does a job he perfects it. I challenge myself everyday to be a better Muslim, daughter, sister, and athlete.
MH: Do you think the biggest problems facing Muslims come from non-Muslims perceptions and treatment of Muslims or are the most imperative issues created within the Muslim community?
I believe the issues Muslim face comes from both non-Muslims and within the Muslim community. It is important that we work together as an ummah to combat the negative stereotypes we all face everyday.
MH: What advice do you have for girls who wear hijab who want to pursue sports but receive backlash from both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities?
For me, my hijab has become an integral part of who I am as a person. It is extremely important to be confident in yourself and in your faith. Never allow someone else’s misconceptions about you hinder you from reaching your dreams.
MH: Do you feel the focus on the hijab by the media on individuals who do wear it and are successful takes away from their achievements?
Not at all. My hijab has brought much attention to the sport of fencing and awareness in the United States. As the first Muslim woman to represent the United States in international competition, I pray that my story reaches as many people as possible and encourages them dream big. I am thankful every moment of every day for each experience I have had.
MH: When people hear your story, what do you hope they take away from it?
I want other minorities and Muslim women and youth to believe that anything is possible through perseverance. I hope my story inspires them to dream big and never allow their religion, gender, or race to hinder them from accomplishing their goals.
The fashion world is getting a lesson in innovation from Islam.
By its very nature, fashion is about interpreting looks from one culture or lifestyle and mixing them with another. Towards that end, Chicago human rights attorney and fashionista Shaz Kaiseruddin may be on to something big by tapping into a $96 billion industry that is covered chic–hijab.
Shaz is spearheading a national contest for aspiring and established designers which will involve them creating their own interpretation of what her company refers to as American Hijab. She wants to dispel myths while at the same time showcasing unique fashions that have their roots in centuries old tradition but are as modern and hot as looks seen on the fashion streets of New York, London, Paris and Los Angeles. Set to launch in November, the American Hijab Design Contest will offer widespread exposure and opportunity for designers to interpret this centuries old form of dress any way they can possibly imagine. And the contest will be open to everyone in the US. Contestants need not be a designer or in design school.
Covered chic has been seen among various celebrities (Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Madonna, Angelina Jolie among others) and other high profile women in recent years, but its popularity among mainstream consumers appears to be on the rise as well. “Hijabi” hit the runways of the recent New York Fashion Week, which featured a number of “hijab friendly” looks for winter, including those of well known designer Nzinga Knight. “More and more we are seeing covered chic looks on the streets of major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta,” says Shaz. “Hijab fashion draws from a forward thinking clientele.
There are many American women, including many Muslims, who wish to wear this style and comprise a lucrative market. American trends tend to spread quickly to other countries, thus expanding that market. And we hope that the more commonplace covered chic images become, and the more such images spread through pop culture, the less pressure all women, Muslim or not, will feel to wear clothing they are not comfortable with.”
Shaz has received sound advice and encouragement for the contest from friends, business colleagues, and even some of the industry’s top young designers, including Jeffrey Sebelia, winner of Project Runway’s third season, and Alexis Bittar, recipient of the 2010 CFDA Accessory Designer of the Year award. She hopes to attract sponsors and celebrity participation, possibly as judges.
What really drove home the idea for a large scale design contest happened after a friend who is blond with blue eyes converted to Islam and began to wear hijab. “Suddenly, the first question from people meeting her was ‘where are you from?’”, says Shaz. “My friend has that All-American, surfer girl look, but the head scarf immediately conjured up misguided impressions, because it is seen as something foreign to America. I’d like to help change that. And instead of taking a more serious approach, I thought we could have fun with it by involving fashion.”
Please take a look at the American Hijab Design Contest – this is an idea born from one woman’s powerful connections between high fashion and universal acceptance of all cultures and religions.