Written by Sasha von Oldershausen
A few days after Sept. 11, Shahana Hanif organised a meeting with her sisters and neighborhood friends in the basement of her home to draft a letter to President George W. Bush. Even though she was only 10 years old, she was already concerned about the shifting public opinions toward Muslim Americans.
“One of the first questions we asked each other was, ‘Can the president help us?’” said Hanif, who was born and raised in Kensington, Brooklyn, the home of many Bangladeshi American families like her own. “The president was the most powerful person who could send this mass message to the American people that this incident happened and it shouldn’t reflect how we think about Muslims across America.”
Bush did not write back. And in the following decade, few local leaders spoke out against the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which enabled profiling and discrimination, or what many perceived to be the department’s surveillance of Muslims, which only became public knowledge in 2011, or the wave of deportations enacted by the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
Hanif and her Muslim peers who came of age during that time would witness their communities deeply affected by these measures.
“What we realized and had to grapple with from a very young age was fighting for a more democratic city, fighting for equity without even knowing these terms,” Hanif said. “We needed to grow up in a way to become the warriors of our communities.”
Hanif, now 30, is trying to do just that. She is on track to be elected the first Muslim woman to serve on New York’s City Council, representing Brooklyn’s 39th District, which encompasses the Kensington neighborhood where she grew up. For Hanif, the fallout from Sept. 11 became a driving force in her pursuit of politics. And she is not alone: Other Muslims from her generation are entering New York’s electoral ranks, too.
“It’s a hugely important moment,” said Mohammad Khan, 35, president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York. “I think it shows the increasing relevance and power of Muslim New Yorkers,” he continued, citing the legacy and ongoing influence of Black Muslim leaders like state Sen. Robert Jackson and Councilman I. Daneek Miller of Queens, the only Muslims who have served on the City Council so far.
On Sept. 11, Khan was a junior at Stuyvesant High School, just blocks from the World Trade Center. Like Hanif, he also sensed a shift in public perceptions toward Muslim Americans after the attacks. “Being Muslim felt like it became a lot more politicized as an identity,” he said. “I think for some people, there is a choice to either back away from that identity and try to make yourself less Muslim — whatever that means — or lean into that identity.”
But not everyone has the privilege to make that choice, Khan acknowledged, especially not Muslim women in hijabs, whose visibility can make them targets. Without the option to hide, many female Muslim leaders have decided to do what Khan mentioned above and lean into their identities.
But it has not been easy. For example, 12 years ago, Rana Abdelhamid, a teenager from Astoria, Queens, was assaulted by a man who tried to forcibly remove her hijab. She had a black belt in karate and managed to escape. But the experience stayed with her; she spent the next decade developing a nonprofit that trained women in self-defense, then entered politics. Now the 28-year-old community organizer is taking on Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the longtime incumbent, to represent New York’s 12th District in Congress.
As Abdelhamid strives to make women safe and empowered, she must confront Western stereotypes that define Muslim women as oppressed.
“The reality is, all women experience the patriarchy; all women experience gender oppression,” she said. The stereotyping, she said, is “very frustrating because it does harm to gender movements within Muslim spaces, and that impacts Muslim women.”
In August, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Abdelhamid shared an image on Twitter of Maloney wearing a burqa on the House floor. The image was taken from 2001 during a speech in which the congresswoman denounced the treatment of women in Afghanistan as grounds for supporting Bush’s decision to invade the country.
“I was 9 years old when I watched my congresswoman wear a burqa in Congress to justify the invasion of Afghanistan,” Abdelhamid wrote. “For the rest of my life, I knew that, as a Muslim woman, my identity would be weaponized to justify American wars. 20 years of war later, what did we accomplish?”
(Maloney responded that she has been working directly with Afghan women whose lives have been threatened by the Taliban. “My focus is getting as many women’s right activists as possible out of Afghanistan and into safety,” she said. “As for wearing a burqa, it should be a woman’s right to choose what clothes to wear and to get an education.”)
For Linda Sarsour, 41, challenging stereotypes comes with the territory. As a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, “I demystified every stereotype possible as a Muslim woman in hijab on the highest stage in America,” she said. But the platform also came with public scrutiny; in 2019, Sarsour and two other leaders of the Women’s March stepped down from the organization amid complaints that the New York-based coalition was too insular.
Sarsour got her start at the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where she was born and raised and one of the hardest hit by surveillance, detention and deportation measures in the wake of Sept. 11. The social service organization scrambled then to transform itself into a defense league of sorts, said Sarsour, who kept a basket on her desk filled with FBI business cards that her clients found slipped under their doors. From her office window, she also witnessed a police raid on a coffee shop.
There were SWAT teams, unidentified black cars, men with guns, she recalled. “They literally had men lying on their bellies on the street.”
To get the Muslim community politically engaged at a time when most hoped to stay under the radar was very challenging, said Sarsour, who persisted in her activism, cofounding the Muslim Democratic Club of New York in 2013 and pushing in the following years for New York City schools to recognize Muslim holidays, which they made official in 2015.
Sarsour decided long ago not to run for political office, realizing she could achieve more behind the scenes, she said. She is inspired by the work of Aisha al-Adawiya, 77, a Black Muslim leader and human rights activist whom Sarsour described as a “living legend.”
“You have to have a space where you can call people to accountability, and that becomes very difficult to do once you’re inside the system,” al-Adawiya said. “I think that change is really going to come from the streets.”
Still, Sarsour said, representation matters. “In the 20 years after Sept. 11, one of the things that has kept me here is that I see that our community is finally realizing that we have to reassert ourselves,” she said. “I watched the generation that was silenced, and then I watch a new generation coming up now that is fearless.”