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Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
April 17, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.15
STRONG: So, today is Tuesday, April 17th, 2018. My name is Liz Strong. This isfor the Muslims in Brooklyn project for the Brooklyn Historical Society. Shahana, why don't you introduce yourself and then just say when and where you were born?
HANIF: Okay, great. My name is Shahana Hanif. I was born and raised inKensington, Brooklyn. And, I am 27 years old right now. And, I'm a community organizer.
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about your childhood, your life growing up, yourfamily, your siblings, whatever comes to mind.
HANIF: So, I'm the oldest of three daughters. And, Kensington, Brooklyn is, andalways has been, Bangladeshi-populated. And so, from a very early age I was 1:00consumed with mosque life and really delving into Qur'an, learning how to read, learning how to write Arabic and then also, you know, speaking on sort of the tenets of Islam and Muslim life.
And then at home, my mom's side are very artsy and come from a singingbackground. So, I have uncles who are ghazal singers, which -- harder to explain in English. But it's sort of like a poetic launch of romance. And, they're mostly sung in Urdu, so a language that was not spoken at home but was very much intertwined with Bangla because of just sort of like the wisdom and the love of music in my household. So then at home we were singing, both my sister and I. 2:00The youngest one wasn't born yet. So, it was just me and my sister, Sabia [Hanif], who is 11 months younger than me. So, we had a very close relationship.
And at the time, obviously there wasn't any -- like, we didn't own phones orhave access to internet and didn't have a computer at home. What we did have first was just a cassette player. And so, we had tons of cassettes because my mother also used to sing. And so, like, music was just what was lively for us. And, what my sister Sabia and I would do is record our own, like, covers of songs that we were, you know, really feeling. And this was a mix of ghazals, Bangla songs from, like, the 1960s by Bashir Ahmad, who was, like, one of, you know, one of the best sort of singers of, like, Bangla history. 3:00
And then we'd also be singing Bollywood songs. So, Bollywood at home was what,you know, like, taught us how to be women but not -- but obviously sort of contradicting in terms of what we were being taught at the mosque and then what we were being taught at home, kind of, in terms of Bangladeshi culture. So, there was Muslim culture, Bangladeshi culture, and then this projection of Indian Bollywood culture.
And, so for me love and, you know, having a crush, thinking about marriage, alot of that came from Bollywood movies. And, because of it, you know, I was 4:00really -- I really romanticized. And I think I was a very, like, hopeful, romantic person growing up. And, like, you know, Bollywood movies project this sort of like hard to get -- like, the women in the movies are always playing the sort of like hard-to-get type of personality. And, like, I really projected that in a lot of my, like, just growing up. I was, like, really tough and wouldn't fall easily.
And what was interesting is that during this time, like, within our neighborhoodthere were boys, obviously. And we all went to the mosque together. So, like, we all developed, like, really good friendships. And, but we were also very shy to talk to each other because there was gender segregation in the mosque and also just the community in general where young boys, young girls, didn't necessarily 5:00interact with one another unless it was through family relationships.
And so that meant that we were looking for ways to still interact with oneanother. And we did that through notes. And so, we, like -- you know, like, the first guy I dated, he and I would write letters to each other and sometimes would not even -- like, we wouldn't cross each other to give it to each other. We would, like, give it to a messenger. And then the messenger would reach us.
And, so that was -- that was childhood, just a combination of, like, you know,being really delved into Little Bangladesh, which is what I've always known Brooklyn to be. And all my friendships, my crushes, and then dating life, it all 6:00was rooted in Kensington, Brooklyn.
STRONG: Tell me a little about your progression with social life and religiouseducation in the mosque, you know, from younger ages up through, you know, teenager-hood.
HANIF: So, both my sister and I were pretty much -- like, we had weekend Islamicschool. And so, weekends were dedicated to being at the mosque. And then, during the summer months, Monday through Thursday were also dedicated to the mosque. So, like, we didn't do summer school with our, like, junior high school or, like, elementary schools. We were instead focused on developing more Islamic teachings and just knowing various, like, scriptures and going to Islamic 7:00conferences and then also singing religious hymns at different events and get-togethers.
And then we were also actually tutors. So we were teaching younger students howto read properly and teaching Arabic. And then we also, in our time there, before hitting puberty, completed the Qur'an twice. And so, for us it was mandatory to complete at least once before sort of moving on and moving out. We finished reading twice. And this was, like, a huge success for us and accomplishment because we also had some competitors and, like, other siblings who were also trying to, like, one-up us. But they really couldn't.
So, we were -- you know, we were the sisters to watch out for because we -- you8:00know, we really wanted to make sure -- of course, like, the reading properly and efficiently was important for us and our, like, spirituality and sort of connection to God. But we were also aware that, like, there were some other salty sisters in the mosque. And, we developed a closeness with one another. So, for me, my sister and I -- my sister Sabia and I, we worked together.
And I think mosque life helped us build a team and understand what teamwork isin trying to use our creativities, our voice, and then just our skills to work together. And a lot of what we developed then shows, like, how we work together now in sort of our late twenties. so, mosque life also ended quite abruptly, 9:00too. So, one part is we, you know, finished reading the Qur'an. And, it makes sense that, okay, one chunk of our mosque life is done. We're transitioning.
But that transition for young girls was being sort of isolated from the mosqueand mosque community. So, that meant that after we hit puberty and then also once we were done reading the Qur'an at least once, we sort of had no more place to belong in the masjid. And so, for me that was quite traumatic, actually, because I had developed so many friendships. And, realizing that, oh wow, like, I'm getting to see my girlfriends and these other boys because I get to come to this community space , but then being sort of like kicked out, which is more 10:00aggressive than it -- you know, it didn't happen in a way where I was kicked out. But it feels like I was kicked out.
Realizing that I was then homebound and wouldn't be able to see the othergirlfriends, didn't have any way to really interact with these friends I had built, and at home there was no understanding of friendships. It was almost as if, like, we weren't supposed to have friends, or like young girls aren't supposed to have friends. So, from an early age I was also developing curiosity around being a girl and how throughout every sort of fun, social, spiritual life, there were limitations in what I as a young girl could accomplish. 11:00
And, then also realizing that it wasn't up to me. Like, somebody had alreadydecided how far I could go. So, reading and finishing the Qur'an was an accomplishment. But, that was that. There was no sort of like, hey, like, we want to build a young woman's Qur'an class for the next five weeks. Can you lead that? There wasn't any, you know, outside mosque space for young women to gather, or even in the mosque for young women to gather and pray together. Like, it wasn't a community center in the way that I thought I was a part of during the whole trajectory of leading up to finishing the Qur'an.
So that was very disappointing and alarming because then we were just homebound.12:00And then at home also my mother played by those rules. So, she was adamant about the fact that, no, young women and women in general pray at home. We don't have to go to the mosque. And, our spirituality is tied to our homes. So, I mean, what am I supposed to do in that case? Like, I understood it. I believed it. And I sort of was like, okay yeah, that makes sense. No one is fighting it. And it's my mom who's telling me this. Like, she must be right.
And then, also, like, if the mosque is doing this to us, they must be right,too. And so, I think as a young person I felt really -- kind of like I didn't have a thought process. I was just like, okay, like, yeah, that makes sense. Like, elders are telling me this. So, it should be good information and 13:00believable information. I should believe them. But I think also I was raised to be timid and to be quieter and not push back, because my sister, in comparison, was not like this. So she fought back all the time. And she was getting into trouble.
But for me getting into trouble meant like I was doing something wrong. Andgetting punished was not good. So, like, I didn't want punishment. So, for me I knew, like, the tactic was to just stay quiet. But it's just such a contradiction to realize, like, wow, like, staying quiet means my needs won't be heard. But then when I want my needs to be heard, there'll be consequences. So, what is right and what is wrong?
So, I was in constant battle with myself, like, just realizing, like, okay,14:00Sabia is the rebellious one, and she gets in trouble a lot. I have to keep up this façade, almost, of being good and being a good girl and, like, staying shy and introverted to be accepted.
STRONG: What was she doing to be rebellious? Like, what was she getting introuble for?
HANIF: So, we -- the only times that we could play outside were during thesummer months. And she just loved running around. She loved just getting into little issues with other kids and, one time, like, slapped a kid. Like, so there were things that she was doing that we were taught not to do. But she was also, for me, like, the way I see it, was confronting her feelings. So, if somebody hurt her, she was taking it in her own hands, whereas for me if somebody did something to me I was more likely to go to my mom. And she wasn't. 15:00
So, but it's really realizing that she did what I feel all of us should havebeen prepared to do [laughter], to respond, to confront, to communicate feeling hurt. And so, in those instances she would get punished because my parents also were not good at communicating with other parents and often put all of the blame on us, like we were bad kids. Or she would get told, like, be like your sister.
And then there were just other things. She just loved -- she was such a -- shestill is a free spirit. And, one time, like, the ball went to the street. And she, like, ran to get it. And then, I guess a car or a bike -- I'm not remembering which -- had sort of just touched her. And so, she got a little 16:00hurt. And, same thing -- like, she took a different route in sort of figuring out how she can protect herself and went to our childhood friend Saera place. And then, like, her mom took care of her. And she was like, you can't tell my mom.
But then, like, I got the message. And I was like, you have to tell her. Like,you got hurt. And so, like, I had this very much -- like, I felt like my parents were everything. And I needed their approval. I needed their -- like them to save me. And for her it was like I will save myself. I have -- and for her, what I love is that she realized that my parents weren't going to protect her. My parents weren't going to be the ones who will be like, oh, like, you got hurt. Like, let me, like, heal -- help you heal this. They would yell at her.
So she knew not to tell them. She knew that her friend -- our friend Seara, andSeara's parents, were a little bit more supportive and would keep this, you 17:00know, confidential.
STRONG: So how did this play out when you say the two of you built a dynamicworking together in the mosque which then helped you later in life, these two different personalities, solving problems together? Can you give me an example of what that looked like?
HANIF: Sure. Well, the thing is, like, I protected her. So, she also came to mefor when, like, shit went down and she knew she needed backup. I'm a good listener. And, I am a nurturer. So, she just by default would come for advice. And, our relationship is such that we don't hold grudges. So, like, if she's upset at me, or I'm upset at her, we're not petty with each other and, you know, go on, like, a hiatus of talking. We, like, confront it immediately.
And, so it helped for her to be the one who is very outspoken, extroverted, in18:00terms of, you know, what you did was not right. And for me to be the observer and sort of like process everything and then quantify it in, you know, a written form. So, there were skills that we were both honing in on that made us compatible for whatever projects. I mean, initially we were just like -- in the house, we were always looking for opportunities.
And this is in high school, not junior high school. High school where thelimitations and, like, restrictions of going out -- because we were like, all of our friends are able to go out and hang out with each other outside of school. My parents felt that we didn't need to cultivate friendships. They didn't -- and I could understand that. They haven't -- for my father, he's had to work ever 19:00since he came to America. So, friendships were not the way that I'm imagining via watching cartoons, via watching movies.
And then, for my mother, she came here when she was 17 or 18, and similarly,like, was a married woman and had to -- or was kind of pushed into taking care of two kids at a very young age. And, so cultivating friendships were not nearly, like, how I have friends. Like, their friendships were very, like -- to me it seemed very different. Like, them having friends is just honestly them saying hi to people, and that's it.
So, they didn't believe in us needing friends or, like, needing to hang out, andhaving some, like, social time and, like, just hanging out with people and doing 20:00-- not doing homework or not doing work. I think that drove them nuts. Like, they were like, so what are you going to do with them? And then, like, just letting them know that we were going to hang out was just, like, bizarre to them. They're like you go to school -- am I sending you to school to, you know, to hang out?
And so, we didn't have friends. Or, we were unable to successfully cultivatethese long-term friendships that many of my other friends are able to have and still kind of enjoy. But we still tried. So, like, we were always looking for opportunities to get out of the house. But we needed each other's kind of like backup, because we didn't have the same friends. So, we would make sure that if we were going out we were going to be out together and come up with this whole scheme to make sure that we were on time. And because this is also -- we still 21:00don't have phones, it's a hard time to get in touch with us. So, just making sure that we had ways to communicate with each other and then to get home by whatever time was mentioned -- but I feel like I was still always a scaredy-cat. Like, I was the one who was just too scared to take any risks, to hang out far away from school or, like, to take the train and go into Manhattan.
Like, I just stayed in Brooklyn. We went to Bishop Kearney High School. That wasin Bensonhurst. And, I never -- like, I just didn't dare to even move away from Bensonhurst because I was too scared that I would get caught. I was scared to get caught, whereas Sabia, like, didn't care. She -- so, I felt like I almost -- 22:00in a lot of the instances I was, like, saving her ass from getting caught, or being the one to be, like, imagining the cover-up story in advance, being like, and this is what happened.
We got caught several times because we were hanging out with boys. So -- but I,like, contest a lot of these things. Like, what is getting caught? And, like, why was it such a problem to have a friend who's a guy? And it really -- like, I have a problem with the fact that all of my and my sister's interactions with boys and men were always sexualized. Like, it was never seen in the sort of like, they're just friends. They're just hanging out, and there's nothing happening that is intimate in a romantic way.
So, that was a problem for me. And, really seeing my parents in this very, like23:00-- they didn't seem like good people. Like, they just seemed like -- is this protection, or is this manipulation? Like, why are they treating us like this? Because, on the other spectrum we were seeing those same boys that we were hanging out with live their best life. They were joining a cricket team. They were hanging out after school. They had, like, rich dating lives and just opportunities that they were able to take advantage of. Whether or not they did, that's not an issue.
But the fact that there was choice, there was agency over decisions, there was alack of questioning of where are you and what were you doing with X, you know, XYZ person? None of that was a part of their childhood. Regardless of the fact 24:00that they too are Muslim, they too are Bangladeshi, were in nearby schools in Brooklyn, how could it be that we're growing up in the same place, same time, and their lives are so much more drastically freer?
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about Kensington as a space, you know, outside ofschool and home and mosque. Like, what are the shops, the public spaces, the streets, you know, when you were a kid versus now? How has it grown and changed?
HANIF: So, back in the day, the mosques that are there today are still -- werestill there. So, Baitul Jannah Jame Masjid, is where I had my Islamic school teaching happen and Qur'anic literary stuff. And then, Darul Jannah [Masjid], which is right across the street from me, was there. It was also offering 25:00after-school programming. And then there's Nur Al-Islam, which was called the Guyanese Masjid. That was also there. And, so those were the kind of like icons of Kensington.
And then, we had 38th Street Park and then Albemarle Park, or rather the PS 230Park. So, I went to school at PS 230. And then, my early years -- I mean, we always fought to also go to the park. So, I didn't really like that. But, like, we -- yeah, we fought to go to the park. I don't know if it's because my mom was lazy or, [laughter] like, she just didn't want us outside. So, we really relied on -- and by "we" I mean, like, I had childhood friends. 26:00
So, like, one of the best things about Kensington for me is that, one, I hadSabia. It's like God was like, "Here's a sister. Here's your friend, your first friend." And then, our neighbors, who were also similar in age to us, so there was Nancy, Roxy, their brother Rezvi. And then, they've now moved. They're still in Kensington. They've moved. But they were in the building that we live in for more than 12 years.
And then, there's Seara who's still in the neighborhood. She came when she wasthree or four years old. So, that means I've known her for at least 20, 20-odd years. And, we really relied on our stoop and then just the street. So, we really occupied our -- where our home is and what's nearby. So, we didn't go to 27:00the park or anything. The two parks are sort of close but we occupied the street, and in a way in which we were cultivating games that were from our own imaginations.
So, like, we'd have -- I mean, we were playing the normal stuff, like hide andseek and freeze tag and cops and robbers and just like whatever we knew was close to us, but also coming up with our own iterations of them. And, dancing, and we were just doing, like -- I mean, those were good times. We were also having picnics because Nancy and I, we were, like, older in the group. And so, we -- every Friday -- no, every Saturday, we would do laundry, like our 28:00respectful -- our sort of like respective laundries. And, with whatever money was left we would, like, get some snacks.
And then, like, Saturday, you know, in the summer months, so we would havepicnics by, like, our garden. And so, we would do, like, a little outdoor thing. And we would have a little garden. And then when it got colder we were then moved indoors and still have the same thing because we were still doing laundry and other chores. And so whatever money we had left over we would buy a few little snacks. We would also put on, like, shows and performances because -- so, my sister and I, we would sing.
We were watching, at the time, this movie called "Ishq". And it was just ourfavorite movie of the time. And we were acting out scenes from that film, all of us. Like, we all took on a different actress. And, so we were doing things to 29:00cultivate our creativity. And, we didn't limit ourselves to any boundaries when it came to playing, because we loved to play. And we loved to run around. And then every year there'd be, like, a new thing that comes out. And, so like one year it was scooters. And, like, you know, we had to do the most to get my parents to buy us a scooter.
And then, and also around that time, when the scooter -- when it was the scooteryear, for the summer the street in front of our house was closed off because it was going through new pavement. And, once that was completed, though, it was still extended. So, like, we were just riding on this fresh, fresh road. And, it was the best. And then, like, the year after it was like everybody was, like, riding a bike. And I had this, like, traumatic bike experience when I was younger where, like, both my sister and I had gotten bikes. And, our house was 30:00undergoing some construction. And somebody stole one of the bikes. And that one bike happened to be my bike.
And so, Sabia, like, didn't let me ride her bike. So, I didn't learn how to ridea bike until I was 14. But that's the beauty of also having childhood friends, because they were like we're going to teach you how to ride a bike. So there was always this support system. And, for me that was always other young girls and young women.
One of my favorite shops in Kensington is Korner Pizza. And the Korner isspelled with a K. They celebrated their 50 years of, like, being in the neighborhood two years ago. And, it's just so exciting for me to know that they are older than I am. And they've, like, been so committed to, you know, pizza and serving the neighborhood such good-quality pizza. And, it's still there. And 31:00it's, you know, a real gem in the neighborhood.
Now, we have some more public spaces. So, one is Avenue C Plaza, which is -- Imean, I love it. Like, I -- for me public space is everything because having the stoop wasn't enough for me. Like, I wanted to have more. I wanted to have a park. I wanted to have, you know, just games. I wanted to, like, own the park. I just -- and I wanted to be there all the time.
And I remember we had such limited hours for being outside. And so, like, just acurfew, but like also if we happened to go back inside for any reason, like, oh, we got thirsty, or we had to use the bathroom, my mom would get really tight. 32:00And she'd be like, "No, you can't go back outside now. Like, you came back in. Like, stop coming in and out." And, so she would always make a fuss. So, we did the most to really stay outdoors. And we just loved it. And, for me that's still true where I love being outdoors. I love having access to public space that is especially centered to meeting those very needs of the fact that many people, especially Black and Brown people, have not had access to public spaces in which they're not criminalized.
So, during -- right before Avenue C Plaza became an institutionalized thing, itwas just an empty lot. And, I had seen it -- I had always seen empty lots as opportunities. So, there was -- this was in 2015 or 2014, where there were a 33:00number of child killings in Bangladesh. And around that same timeline was also the killing of several Bangladeshi atheists -- atheists and other thinkers and bloggers who many felt were writing in contradiction to Islam according to the sort of like hegemony.
And, we -- a few of us activists were like we want to respond to these attackson bloggers and thinkers and writers. But we also felt that our own lives would be threatened by it, and especially in a place like Kensington where there are so many mosques, that we could potentially, as women, gender-nonconforming, queer group, we could put ourselves in danger. And so, we then were like maybe it's time to just activate our people in a different light and talk about abuse 34:00that happens to children and just young bodies, young bodies who are in poverty.
And, a big focus for us during that protest was also recognizing the ways inwhich Facebook and other social media are used to make abusive issues and violent scenes go viral. And so, we took it upon ourselves to do political education on the plaza. This wasn't a plaza yet. It was just the empty lot. We just called it the triangle. And, had invited, you know, everybody to come but mainly Bangladeshis from across the boroughs to listen to us and to become activated and respond.
And so, the first half was just conversation and dialog, all of which we35:00presented in Bangla. And then we did a rally in the neighborhood. And, for me that was the first I had seen that, like a rally take place with the issue that concerns Bangladeshis. And, it gave me hope that we care. People aren't silent. But people need an activator. And, the political education can be done. But it's going to take time.
And, at that time I also learned, like, right before the protest rally tookplace, a few of us were doing outreach on the ground and speaking with people who are on the strip of McDonald Avenue, which is the concentration of Kensington's Bangladeshis. And, they're all men. So, throughout my life I've seen this, like, image of men occupying Kensington and occupying spaces that are restaurants, spaces that are, you know, salons, doctor's offices, and loitering. 36:00Like, this is -- their space that they have not been told that it's their space, but they've known that this is their space.
And, so, we were doing some outreach, giving out flyers and, like, trying toreach what we thought was, you know, our base. And, it was so difficult because, one, realizing that, wow, like, these men have this space to freely, like, just take over and eat and enjoy and meet their friends after work and, like, do whatever they like. The second thing was recognizing that, on one hand, we were trying to reach the masses. So, this meant men who were also potentially catcalling and harassing us while we were on our way to, you know, work or school.
And, for me, like, that was a huge learning curve because I was like, wow, like,37:00the organizing I'm interested in takes into consideration that a person in the room might be a harasser but also is impacted by immigration or is also impacted by child abuse. Like, how do I hold these nuances and do the work I want to do for my neighborhood, for myself? And so, I felt really committed to staying in Kensington despite all of these sort of like contradictions of, like, not belonging, feeling like I didn't belong.
And then, the other piece of outreach was realizing that it was hard to reachthe younger folks and women. And that is still a battle for me right now where 38:00I'm like, you know, if we invest in more public spaces or, you know, centers, community centers, it'll really break the status quo. And, it might be messy. It will be messy. But, it's necessary. And then, Kensington also, I mean, the schools are still there -- PS 179, PS 230, that's where I went to -- PS 230 is where I went to school.
I stayed in the neighborhood for middle school, which I attended ImmaculateHeart of Mary, also a Catholic private school. And then, I went to Bishop Kearney High school, which was an all-girls' Catholic school. And then, I stayed in Brooklyn for college, too. I went to Brooklyn College. So, I haven't moved 39:00much. And still, like, I hate going to the other boroughs. I'm just like, if it's not in Brooklyn, I don't know why I need to be there unless it's on the F train. So, like, I'm also very biased to the train I grew up with, which is the F train. And, if the F will take me someplace, then I'm more inclined to going. But, if it's in Queens, or if it's in The Bronx, I'm very wary of why and what. I'm thinking of other Kensington places.
STRONG: Well, I'm curious about how the Avenue C Plaza story turned out. How didyou ultimately get it to be what it is today? And I know that's skipping ahead. But, go ahead and tell me that story.
HANIF: No. So, after the protest, I was connected to a group of White older40:00women called the Kensington Stewards. Or they were undergoing this, like, name change/deciding on a name. And, prior to Avenue C Plaza, they had helped bring some benches and flower pots to another part of the neighborhood, which is called Kensington Plaza. And, that was similarly -- it's not as wide of a stretch as Avenue C Plaza where it's visibly a triangle and visibly looks like an empty space.
Kensington Plaza is surrounded by stores. And, like, it has a Walgreens. It hasa Dunkin Donuts. And so, right in front of this, like, few stores are benches and, like, flower pots. And they're seasonally changed. So, they had brought that. And then they had also, you know, really recognized that there needs to be more of an effort to clean the neighborhood. And so, they had, like, taken on this sort of like committee of, like, you know, people who recycle and people 41:00who, like, pick up trash and just doing, like, nice things.
And, so when I was connected to them I was surprised. I was like, oh wow. Like,so this is possible. Like, because I think prior to that I didn't even -- I didn't connect the fact that I had power to make a space, a space where everyone can come not just when there's a rally. And, but I think about, like, also the imbalance of, like, you know, not being -- not knowing that my community is a place where I can really invest in and alter the design and alter how, like, the space is utilized.
So, it was a huge learning moment for me. But also realizing, like, no one inthe room was Brown, person of color. Of course, no Black person. So, an older 42:00White woman -- I was curious. And I was like, will they understand me? Like, I've never seen them in the neighborhood. Like, what is their interest? And historically Kensington is White. But, because of the growing population of Bangladeshis -- to this day it's still not seen as a hub of immigrants or an immigrant enclave because the rest of the district, with Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus, Borough Park, they're not Bangladeshi, or as Bangladeshi.
So, these women live in Kensington. But they're sort of like on the outskirts ofwhere they're -- the Bangladeshis aren't necessarily there. But for me, the triangle is surrounded by mosques, is in the center of where the Bangladeshis live, including myself. I live, like, just a few hundred feet away from the 43:00plaza. So, I really saw it as a place for Bangladeshis. Like, I saw it as a place for Muslims to gather. So, I was extremely invested in it because I was like I feel like I own this. [laughter] I feel ownership to it.
But I was interested in learning the knowledge of urban space, of public spaces,and design and, like, just the -- everyone who's involved in this. And that required teamwork and so, like, really understanding the [New York City] Department of Transportation's role in this, because we learned initially that the plaza sits on top of the train station. And so, there might be issues. And, like, making the ground straight or, like, making it, like, all one size. And, like, there were just these nuances in, like, road and, like, you know, what kind of materials we could use, what's not allowed. All of this was coming up. 44:00
And, we had a soft launch of the plaza in 2015 or --? I'm not remembering theyear. But, we went through, like, iterations of launches and, like, events. And now, for the last two summers, we've had regular programming during the summer months. So, we have ArtBuilt mobile studio that is there for the entire month. And, through their mobile studio, which stays put on the plaza, we have, you know, arts workshops, poetry workshops. The Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts puts on singing classes and choirs and dances.
We just had a huge Bengali new year celebration. Last summer there were twoiftars, one that was organized by the mosques, another that was organized by a young Bangladeshi activist. So, it's been a space of so much opportunity. And, 45:00so many people are using it. Like, I'm just like, and this happened because we activated that space. And, without realizing what kind of need it would serve, because for me sometimes I feel like the need might not be addressed. Like, people might not say I need this, I need this space to be -- to have swings, to have chairs and to have benches.
It takes a space to be there for people to realize what could be. So, that's theway I think, because sometimes I think a lot of people are caught up on, like, is there a real need for this? And I'm like, I don't know, because if I were to survey ten people, they might say no, because they don't know that this could exist. Or, they haven't had access to a space like this previously. So, how would they know what their need is?
And so, now, like, for me, any event that happens on the plaza, like, I make46:00sure I'm there. We're thinking of ways to get more people involved with the Kensington Stewards and have a role in sort of the feedback process. And so, we're a legit group, the Kensington Stewards. We meet monthly. We have an executive committee. And we work with Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, which is like the broader group that, like, helps plazas become a thing and build leadership. And then, just like with our council member and fundraising and making sure that we have press releases when events take place, so it's a real commitment that is all voluntary.
And, without it I feel like, you know, Kensington is not going to be Kensington.Like, it's not going to be Kensington. Another new addition in Kensington is the Kensington Family Shelter, which was also similarly met with -- well, the plaza 47:00wasn't met with any sort of like, oh, no, we don't want the plaza. I think with the plaza there was more curiosity than anything. With the family shelter, there were Bangladeshi men, the sort of what we know as the business association who had protested when they learned that this building, this vacant building, will become a -- will be used as a shelter to house Black women, Black single women, with their children.
And, they were out there with, of course, other White folks, with signs, withvery anti-Black signs, saying that they did not want their neighborhood to get messed up. And similarly at that time I was like, oh no. Like, this is terrible. This is really bad. And, I was working as a tenant organizer at the time. And, I 48:00-- and this was not in Kensington. So I also felt kind of out of place to be like, excuse me, this neighborhood that we live in is also the face of poverty with Bangladeshi immigrants. And so, we must -- it's our responsibility to build in solidarity with the Black community.
But because these were uncles and -- like, these relationships are very weirdfor me because I'm like I see three of my uncles, like, demanding that this building not be a building. And then I'll see him the next day at my house. So, there were these moments where I felt like what is my role in letting them know that this is not right, what you're doing? Is it my responsibility?
And so, I was in touch with council member Brad [Bradford S.] Lander's officebecause he was like this is already decided. This is not -- we're not going to undo this. And then, for me also I was like this must be a shelter. This is not being used for anything. And if this will house a beautiful organization like 49:00CAMBA to house women and women who are in transition, and it's a safe place, then this is a beauty for Kensington to have.
So, what I did was I reached out to one uncle who had -- you know, initially wasfor the protest. He was with them. And then, we had a conversation. He then had called me back and was like, listen, I was wrong. And, what can we do to fight, fight back, to make sure that we do have a shelter? And, I was like, you know, these are your friends. You have some responsibility in sort of acknowledging that. You don't have to burn a bridge, you can just let them know that these are the reasons why we will have a shelter and what our responsibility is to make 50:00sure that everyone who will be here is safe, including our own community.
And, so there were some town halls and stuff. But, you know, the shelter hasexisted. And it's beautiful. Nothing that they had -- they were scared about -- and I don't want to mention the examples of what they feared. But, what they feared has not happened. So, I continue to use the family shelter because outside of being a shelter they're also a community center. So, for a few events we've had -- like, one was -- we have a group called the Brooklyn Ladies Club, which is a Bangladeshi women's -- middle-aged women's group. They wanted to host a seminar around immigration and all that. 51:00
So, during the organizing of that I was like we have to sit and use a space likethe family shelter because it's safe and because this is a woman's only event. You know, even if the women in the shelter are not a part of this conversation, since this was all in Bangla, we should envision a future where we are connecting with our Black sisters.
That was one instance. And then, we recently with another organization calledOATS -- Older Adults Technology Services -- are using the family shelter to hold a Technology 101 course for Bangladeshi seniors. And, the trainers did, like, a site visit last week. And, one of them was like, "I was scared to, like, come in to a shelter." And so, like, these, like, preconceived notions of, like, what 52:00happens in a shelter is very -- it's jarring for me to hear. But, I can also understand why, because folks living in shelters are treated like shit. Our shelters are not models of good housing. They're not models of safety and protection. And, they don't usually work as community centers.
And so, we got into this whole conversation about obviously needing to buildsolidarity with Black communities but also recognizing that they are not the other. Like, we have to understand what our place is as Bangladeshis who are underrepresented, continue to be marginalized in broader South Asian spaces, not even seen as Muslim in many Muslim spaces. So, what is our role in connecting these contradictions, these challenges that we have, especially in a 53:00neighborhood like Kensington where Bangladeshis are low-income, very low-income?
And so, that, and then also recognizing that we have all these mosque spaces.And yet they're not, you know, a space where someone can be resting and staying, like, sleeping in, when they have insecure housing. And, I've -- I continued to contest that because I, through my work at [New York] City Council, many folks -- like, one of the -- the largest issue is immigration. But the second largest is housing. And many folks have been vulnerable to displacement because of being unable to pay regular rent.
And, outside of just connecting the conversation of gentrification and these,like, broad systemic changes that are happening, I also ask, like, what do you 54:00think is the mosque's role? Like, the same place you go to pray, that take in funding and continue to become larger, where's the space for people who are vulnerable to eviction? And so, for me it's recognizing that the shelter is doing what I believe our mosques should be doing but are not doing. And, so people are continuing to get evicted or displaced.
And then I hate, you know, telling folks to apply for public housing becausepublic housing is in dire, decrepit conditions, no heating during winter, lead poisoning and mold and just growing issues, health concerns, that are not viable for people who are already poor. So, you know, I want to make sure folks know that, like, our mosques aren't serving any model of wellness here. So, we need 55:00the shelter.
STRONG: How did you convince your uncle to change his tune? What did you tellhim? Was it all of these things you've just told me, or was it something else more specific?
HANIF: Basically. Basically. And then also I think women and families areimportant to alter some of the ways men think. And so, in his case, his daughter is also an activist. And, she is deeply rooted in making sure that values of justice are visible. And so, the Kensington Family Shelter for many of us was like of course this is good, like, of course. Like, this is a no-brainer. Why would we fight this? And so, I think her conversations just at home helped him come to an understanding of, like, oh yeah, you're right. But it also speaks to 56:00the fact that he's movable and flexible and, like, that he's an ally in the work that we're doing.
And so, I continued to, you know, reach out to him and then recognize the waysin which he can continue to be an ally when it feels like the majority are not where we want them to be. Because this could have easily gone awry, like, if we were depending on the majority here. So, like, if a majority of people were like we don't want to -- we don't want this and, like, you know, who knows what could have happened and what kind of, like, other protests, protest strategies they had in store?
But to say that, like, the majority was not right, and that we can't rely onmajority, we need to be principled in the ways that we see our community to be a 57:00community for others who don't have a community.
STRONG: Tell me also about the formation of the women's group you mentioned.
HANIF: So, the Brooklyn Ladies Club was, I guess, brought together by AnnieFerdous, who is one of the co-founders of the Bangladeshi Institute of Performing Arts. And, these are mostly mothers and women in their forties and older who are making sure that they have a space for themselves and they're learning. And to question womanhood and to learn to think, to be together in a place -- where they also don't have a space to go to and be more than they 58:00thought they would be.
And so, it brings them to a space where they're not -- their children aren'tthere. And most of their children are either adults or teenagers or younger. It's a space for them to learn mechanisms of, like, how to care better for their children and their families. It's also a space for them to learn how to take better care of themselves with a collective spirit. And then it's a space for folks like me who are organizers to be like, okay, "hey Annie Auntie, like, we need to do a seminar. And we need to -- we need some of your members to come to this action." Because even they were very -- when I had proposed to Annie Auntie that the family shelter would be a perfect venue for a seminar, she was also 59:00just like, "I don't know if the women are going to like this. I don't know if they're going to be for it." And so, like, recognizing that I don't have to move people who are in the know -- I want to move people who are confused and who are unsure but can be moved. And for me, my investment in my community organizing has been with women, with women who I see every day. So, outside of the Brooklyn Ladies Club, we also have more informal get-togethers of women who are domestic workers and then women who are just caretakers or working at homes in the neighborhood, because many are undocumented. Many are also older.
And so, there's a huge economic gap wherein women, Bangladeshi women in theneighborhood don't have access to the jobs, the likely jobs that they would want 60:00and instead have to provide house help. And so, through this network of house help, I know many of these women. And, we often have just informal, like, get-togethers so that we can help each other when it comes to immigration needs, language needs like letter reading. And then, if they have, like, a health issue that's come up, a medical condition that's come up, directing them to a, like, a specialist or like, you know, checking to make sure that the medicine that they've been prescribed is good or is, you know, or what the side effects are.
So, there's a lot of information gap. And, the gaps aren't met through anyformal group, because some -- like, a group like Brooklyn Ladies Club is more 61:00so, like, each other's support and some workshopping. But I think there continues to be women on the margins who may not want to be a part of, like, a group that meets once a month or twice a month. They just want to be like, "Hey, can you, like, read this notice and tell me what this says?" and then pop in once in a while. Like, a lot of these women will, like, cook food and then, like, will bring me some as, like, a -- for doing this favor.
So, like, there's just other ways in which women support each other in theneighborhood, which I think is very important. Recognizing that the needs of undocumented women, of especially older women who want to work but don't have the language capacity, educational capacity, and just other mediums that make them undesirable workers, also have these needs of support and, like, tenderness 62:00that -- wherein I feel like I have a role. Like, I don't want to get paid for this. This is just kind of like -- this is a responsibility. Like, if somebody asks you, like, hey, is this medicine, like -- you know, is this why I'm getting this side effect, like I feel like, yeah, I have to, like, let them know, like, this is what it says about this medicine.
So, these informal networks are also important. But, because it happens in thehome, like, I feel very like -- our homes are our safe spaces. And oftentimes when these conversations are happening, like, my dad isn't home. Or, like, no men are in the house. So, I think for me my house has always been a space of activation where, like, women will come in and, like, feel free to, like, just chill, cook, eat, and then, like, engage in conversation about whatever. 63:00
So, I know a lot of the women in the neighborhood, both young and older. And,you know, continue to see spaces in which they will have access to all of the information they need, but while also pushing for changes through at least my position at city council to make sure there's funding for groups who need this kind of participation or, like, the Older Adults Technology Services because so much of public benefits are now email-based and online-based. It is important that adults and limited English-proficient folks have that knowledge of acquiring an email and, like, how to use Facebook and how to use -- how to search on the web and, like, know what's a browser, because although I am 64:00offering myself, I also want folks to be able to teach -- to learn for themselves and, like, do what they have to for themselves.
So, that's that. And then, a third group, which is more formal, and for myself,and is what we call Bangladeshi Feminist Collective. And, this is a group of us who are community organizers, all women, intergenerational. So, like, it ranges from women who were born and raised here, first generation, and then women who were born and mostly raised in Bangladesh and then came here, and organizing in Bangladeshi communities but across different issues.
We recognize that a lot of organizing spaces and left spaces don't necessarilycultivate support systems for women of color and then Bangladeshi women. And so, 65:00we -- initially, like, we knew about each other's work and, like, admired each other from afar but recognized that building true grassroots power requires that we are all on the same, like, wavelength of, like, knowing who to direct the resource to. Sometimes, like, I'll have an issue that will be more applicable to a group like DRUM [Desis Rising Up and Moving]. And I'll be like, hey, Kazi [Fouzia] apa [sister] , like, this seems like something you know.
And then also together thinking of ways to survive and stay in this work for thelong term because, so often, like, we're not meant to survive this work. Like, burnout is real. And then there aren't efficient, like, models of support. So, 66:00we use the space to have adda, which is like informal conversations. And because we're a group of thinkers, like, we're constantly, like, engaging in, like, you know, like, what about this issue? So, like, there's a lot of, like, intellectualizing that happens in the space, and then, like, a cultivation of our personal relationships with one another, and then also as a group. And then we eat together. So, depending on whose house we're at -- and we also meet in homes. We, like, you know, borough-hop to go to the house. And it's mostly been within Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx because that's where we're all from. And that also signifies where the Bangladeshi community is heaviest. And so we'll borough-hop. We'll go and, like, we'll be eating food. We have a whole agenda. We are trying to now build, like, a -- we want to host mental health and anti-domestic violence long -- like a full-day seminar next year. 67:00
So, like, we started planning. So, it's really -- it's a space for us to makesure we're in this work. We're learning. We're challenging other spaces. And then, we're intentionally making and practicing what we think are feminist values in the space and in our lives, yeah.
STRONG: I want to go back a little bit into your personal story of engaging, youknow, critically and even academically with feminism. So, let's go back to the transition from high school into Brooklyn College, which is where I think that kind of took place, right?
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about that.
HANIF: So, high school, I went to an all-girls' Catholic school. I mean, for me,68:00middle school and high school, and even elementary school, I think for a person like me who's introverted and has always, like, accepted authority for however -- whatever bullshit they'll say, I believe it. I felt like, yeah, this is right. This is believable. So, like, for example, in high school, abortion was wrong. Or abortion was, you know, taken as something that is wrong. And, I never contested that. I was like, yeah, it is wrong.
And, like, there were these values that were in alignment with also Islamicvalues. And, so for me it was like an easy transition into, like, belonging in a Catholic school environment because of just traditions of, you know, around, like, women's bodies for when abortion is in a topic, or sex and remaining 69:00celibate and, you know, pursuing only marriage and, like, pursuing sex only in a marriage. Like, there were just these values around women's bodies and sexuality that weren't a jump for me. It was just like this is what I've been taught all my life. Like, of course I'm not going to have sex. And of course I'm not going to have an abortion.
So, it just felt like -- it felt right. But the sort of like internalizing ofall of this information was -- like, I think I really internalized a lot of these values. And so, like, I was also, like, going to, you know, [Washington] DC where, like, the -- to make sure that the law that has legalized abortions 70:00is, like, you know, rescinded. And, like, so, like, we were marching for the March for Life. And, I was part of a lot of clubs that were against abortion. And, so, like, I felt myself to be in line with a very conservative framework of womanhood and -- but to me, all my friends also, like, were in alignment with that.
And, even, you know, my friends from the neighborhood who didn't have such adense spiritual life or, like, such an extensive Qur'anic study program that they were in, they also -- like, we all knew, like, you have to be married to 71:00have sex. And then Bollywood also similarly normalized all of that. So, like, in movies, if a woman was pregnant, there was like a whole-ass movie that was like this one woman, young woman, got pregnant and she wasn't married. And, like, her family had disowned her.
And so, like -- but then again, these, like, these things that happen to womenwhen women didn't abide by what is normal, what is considered normal -- because in that movie, you know, nothing happened to the guy. But I wasn't questioning any of this at the time. I was just kind of like, okay, like, interesting, like, interesting dynamic here [laughter]. So, in high school, like, for me, I think I was just like I really jumped on the wagon to make sure that abortions weren't happening. 72:00
And then there was another club, like, to protect the environment. Like, a lotof the things were just in alignment with also just like life. So, it didn't seem like any contradiction. I didn't seem like I was -- this was right. Like, this was my way of life. And it was in alignment with everything that I had been taught. It was a good balance. The only thing that was different was that I was wearing a skirt in school. And, like, that initially was -- I felt insecure because of just body issues. But also, like, I've never worn a skirt before. And, I used to wear a hijab in elementary school. So, everything just felt right except for the skirt, which was not even --
STRONG: Was it a uniform?
HANIF: Yeah, it's just the uniform. Yeah, it was the uniform,[laughter] whichwere really cute and great. And then, I -- in senior year, right before senior 73:00year, I was very sick. And, this was the summertime right before senior year where I was just like having these weird symptoms that would come. And then, if I had taken some medicine it would go away. And, I was, like, better for a period of time. But the symptoms were getting worse until I was like -- I had developed, like, these migraines in which I couldn't get out of bed at all or leave a dark, silent room. Like, it was very specific to, like, what was happening to me.
And then, I was very swollen, especially in my feet. But I was so drawn to nevermissing, like, class or, like, never, you know, like, feeling like I -- I was fine. Like, I didn't have to really pay attention to health. And a lot of that 74:00goes back to the ways in which my parents were -- like, neither of them had to deal with any sort of sickness. And then, the sort of annual checkups was like all that they were really interested in and then also not. Like, they didn't really -- we didn't have a strong bond with, like, a doctor or anything.
Like, I think wellness and addressing medical needs, even if you don't have amedical issue, was not something that was normal for us in the household, and for very real reasons. Like, my parents didn't have health insurance. Like, we just didn't have access to sort of like the conversations of wellness that were at least being addressed in school.
So, my mom saw -- happened to see the swollen foot. And, at this point, like,I've started school. Saw the swollen foot and then, like, was like, what is wrong with your -- like, what happened to your foot? Like, we have to go to the 75:00doctor. And so, I went to the ER [emergency room] because, you know, I didn't have a primary care doctor. I didn't have, like, a place to go and, like, inform somebody.
So, we went straight to the ER because that was, like, what we knew. Like, ifanything happened, we just have to go to the ER. And, we went to Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn. And, when I was seen, it was also during Ramadan in 2008. It was Ramadan, and so, like, both my mother and I were fasting. And we're just like, we're not expecting anything. We, like, prayed. And, like, we were just, like, enjoying. An uncle brought us iftar. We were really there for, like, an entire day just because of, like, the volume of people who are waiting.
We had iftar, and then I was seen. So, I mean, the first thing they said wasyour blood pressure is really high. It shouldn't be this high. And they, like, 76:00listed some things. They were like, do you feel dizzy? And have you fainted? And I was like, what? Why would I faint? Like, what are you talking about? And what is high blood pressure? So, all of these unfamiliar things. And then, in the meantime they had done a urine test. And they were like you have protein in your urine. I'm like I don't understand any of this. And then they were like it seems like you have a kidney -- there's an issue in your kidney which would -- which is what's telling us why your blood pressure is so high and why there's protein in your urine. But now we have to find out what the issue is that's causing your kidneys to behave like this.
So, both my mother and I freaked out. We were like -- we were just crying. Mymom was, like, making calls. Like, she just, like, called my dad, called her brother. And we were both crying because we were unfamiliar to this territory. 77:00We were unfamiliar to being hospitalized. We were unfamiliar to being diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening disease. And, for what they were listing, like, it seemed like this was -- this has happened over time. So, this wasn't just like last week you got high blood pressure. They were like you've -- this has been with you for at least several months. And something must have triggered it.
And so, I was confused. I was 17. And then, they kept me in the hospital tostabilize the blood pressure, to also try to lessen the protein. And both of these issues were very serious issues. So, like, I also was not grasping any of that because I felt fine. There was some fat-shaming that happened, too, because they were like you shouldn't be at this weight. So we're also wondering why, like, you've put on so much weight. It could be because of this underlying disease that we're trying to figure out. 78:00
Like, so they were -- like, the doctors were interested in diagnosing me. And,they had also ordered me to -- they were like you can have up to, like, eight, like shot glasses of water. So, I was just, like, thirsty all the time. And then they were like you can't have any salt. And I was like, what? So, I was -- like, the experience in the hospital for that one week, because I was at Coney Island Hospital for about a week, until a rheumatologist from Maimonides Hospital, also in Brooklyn, had come and was like you have lupus. And, you're not going to die. But, it's not going to be easy. And, you have to prepare for what's to come.
And that also put me in, like, a place of, like, what in the world? Like, what79:00in the hell is happening right now? Because, I knew no one with any -- and I was just learning the language of chronic illness, degenerative disease, lupus and others like lupus. They've compared it to cancer because of the similar treatment process. And then, this will be long term. And, lupus, as I was, like, researching, like, I was like, wow, how am I supposed to explain this to anybody? Like, I don't even know what the hell is going to happen to me. Like, how am I supposed to tell somebody I have lupus?
And then also, like, my parents resorting to freaking out, like, they werefreaking out. And, they didn't -- they also didn't understand lupus, especially because of, like, the language piece. Like, they were versed in Bangla. And here 80:00I was diagnosed with a disease that was just like -- even I can't really put words -- like describe it. And then, two, it was all in English. Like, all of this explanation was in English.
So, after a week I got transferred to Maimonides. And, like, I remember leavingfrom Coney Island Hospital to Maimonides where, like, that was like the last breath of fresh air I had gotten from, like, the transporting into the ambulance to going into Maimonides where I was for, like, a very extensive time, like almost two, three months in and out, and in an intensive care unit bedroom where I was just, like, locked to various machineries, like just calculating all the numbers like my blood pressure, heart rate, just everything.
And, you know, over the course of it, the medicines weren't stabilizing. I --81:00they couldn't figure out, like, what was wrong with the kidney because the numbers, the protein was still very high. But I was very much, like, vitamin D-deficient, so other things were happening to my body with all this medication now in my body. So, I had to, like, undergo a blood transfusion. Because there isn't any cure for lupus, I went through a very aggressive medicine regimen where I had two doses of chemotherapy, a blood transfusion, and then being on high doses of steroid medication, all to alleviate the immune system to kind of like reboot itself and recover and bring me into remission.
But remission took so long. And in the process of reaching remission I had lost82:00so much of my mobility that I had to develop, like, a language for disability now. Like, I was, like, in a whole new environment. Like, one hand, like, I'm, like, in school, thinking about, like, AP English class, because I was taking AP English. And we were, like, talking about, you know, Kate Chopin's The Awakening. And one minute, like, I'm, like, reading a book and excited to -- excited about writing about it. And that excitement was, like, taken away into a place where, like, now I'm -- like, the week after I'm, like, diagnosed with a lifelong disease.
And then, the hospital had, like, a school -- like, a teacher would come in to,like, fill the gaps. And I was like, no, I don't want to be schooled right now. Like, there's no way that I want to do twelfth grade in the hospital. So, every 83:00time that this teacher would come I would, like, fake being asleep because I was just like, this person is here again? Like, I am not going to school, which happens to be the hospital.
But I had a really good, like, team of specialists. So, like, I was seen by arheumatologist who was like the main lupus doctor. And then I had a nephrologist who was the kidney specialist. And then, eventually, this list of doctors was bigger where I had developed steroid-induced diabetes. So, I needed, like, a doctor who specializes in just, like, diabetes to put me back into, like, just a better place and not have diabetes. And then, a heart specialist, and then eventually an orthopedic doctor.
And then, over the course of all of this, like, I went -- I was -- once I got84:00home, like, the disabilities had gotten worse. Like, I could not go up and down the stairs. I could not -- I was not freely mobile without using a walking aid or help or, like, using a car. And this was very humiliating for me because i -- again, like, never having seen disabled folks be protagonists of stories, be protagonists of like -- of our society, like -- why would I be interested in using a cane? Like, why would I be interested in using a wheelchair to survive?
So, I was humiliated. And, like, I wanted to stay home. I finished the rest oftwelfth grade, like, at home. There was like a homeschool teacher. Again, I was, like, not the nicest person because I just -- I hated the fact that I couldn't 85:00be in school with my friends. They would come visit me and give me time. But it wasn't the same. I recognize that, like, having a disability and being immobile and then now having this -- having lupus, which required so much time, labor, and I was tired. And then language, like, I had to do the teaching and let my parents know. I was, like, not good at any of this. I couldn't, like, share anything in open words because that was not what I was taught.
So, it created a huge rupture in the way that I was thinking and, like,behaving. And, recognizing that, like, holy shit, like, so in all of my 17 years of life, like, I knew nothing about anyone having a chronic illness or being disabled except for, like, older folks. And, like, we expect that of them. Like, there was this, like -- I'm like what the hell? And then, like, I -- and the 86:00fact that I also needed to develop some language to talk about it in Bangla so that my parents could understand. Like, there was so many different issues here that really put myself at the center, which is where I was like, oh wow. Like, young woman, Bangladeshi, in Muslim-majority community where I had the hospitality of, like, so many people come visit me.
But, there was a rush to -- rush on them to make me not be this person. And Iget, like, that's in a -- from a place of love, but also that, like, we see disability and sickness in a way that, like, you shouldn't be sick for this long without recognizing that some disabilities, sickness and illness are degenerative and are long term, manageable. But, like, we -- we're taught to 87:00behave as though they need to be removed. And, like, we need to be fixed to be normal and not that.
And so, that was also like a point of, like, no, actually, I'm going to havethis for life. And, like, a part of my journey in, like recognizing that was to make sure that I spoke about it. And, realizing that, like, no one else would know this journey. Like, I took to writing because I remember being frustrated, especially after a very eye-opening interview with the folks for MTA Paratransit, Access-A-Ride, because I -- at that point I, you know, basically decided on going to Brooklyn College because the B6 was right across the street 88:00from the campus. And, like, that would take me -- or the B11, rather. B11 would take me straight to Maimonides. And so, like, I realized, like, my entire life now had to be -- had to revolve around making sure I was going to my appointments, I was taking my medicines, a goal for remission. And then really being on top of, like, my diet, being on top of, like, just everything while also going to school, while also making sure, like, I get my degree or, like, have friends and, like, lead a somewhat normal life.
And, I was accepted into this, like, science opportunities and careers program,BOSC [Brooklyn Opportunities in Science Careers], which I saw as a sign. I was like this is an opportunity for me to, like, not give up because I was also just -- I didn't think I could go to college with limited mobility. So, I also moved closer to campus for several semesters thinking, like, I could be close to school and move about, but had also needed paratransit to make sure that I was 89:00not being pushed and shoved in the trains and buses and didn't, like -- and that I always had a seat so that I could sit whenever I needed to, or that I didn't need to, like, go up and down the stairs, because our train system isn't accessible. And, like, having elevators is not enough. Having escalators is not enough in the design process.
So, but then, like, now we have paratransit. I'm like, okay, this is the fix.This is the solution that will, like, fix my life. And, I went for the interview. And, like, it just worries me that our entire, like, lives in this society and, like, just a culture around ability that, like, disabled folks and people with different mobility issues are not meant to survive out here. Like, 90:00this is -- it's already not meant for them to have access and to survive. And so, like, but because of the advocacy from disabled people and advocates, we have things like paratransit, for instance, that is like a little piece of, like, relief.
But, the system of it is just so poor that, like, I was completely in shock. So,I went for the interview. And, there's, like, a model, like, train or a bus. And, this person who conducts the interview, like, has to assess your disability. And that just shocked me because I -- that was when I also realized, like, this person who is mobile is going to judge my mobility. And, because I also passed as an able-bodied person for the most part, how are they supposed to tell? How are they supposed to tell if I didn't put on a performance of disability? 91:00
So, I realized that. And, like, I mean, I did my best. Like, I knew that, like,yeah, there are moments when I can stand. And there are moments that I don't need a seat. But there are moments when I absolutely do. So, how are these nuances going to be captured in this interview? And so, I didn't get accepted to the paratransit, of course. And so, like, I was frustrated. And, I told a friend of mine who was in the, like, the medical program at Brooklyn College, the pre-med program. And he was like why don't you, like, write about this? Because I was also thinking, like, don't medical students and, like, medical professionals feel responsibility to this?
So, he was like why don't you write about it? And so, I had started my blogcalled Shahana with Lupus. And, one of the earlier posts, like, reveals this, like, not getting accepted or realizing, like, paratransit is a mess. The system 92:00isn't built to give anyone who needs it paratransit. There's a whole, like, requirement that you have to meet and be told that you are disabled. And we get to decide. The state gets to decide if you're disabled.
And, then I went for the interview a second time, and I got it. But, it wasafter I had learned to maneuver. And so, in one hand, like, it felt dishonest almost. And it made me question, like, what is disability in a place where I can't determine my own needs and a state institution, a place, will constantly decide. Like, you get to have this because we believe that you now need this. So, you know, I was developing some, like, thoughts I had never developed and politicized.
STRONG: I was going to say, this sounds really similar to what you were sayingbefore, that there are authorities in your life, who prescribe your way of life 93:00for you. And, there was a time when you didn't question that. But it sounds like this health crisis raised the stakes to a point where that changed, or it had to change.
HANIF: Oh yeah. Being silent was not helping me. And, I still was afraid totalk. Like, I was still afraid to -- like, I can't imagine barging into that same place and being like why don't you think -- like, why did I not get this? Like, I could never do that. I still can't do that [laughter]. I mean, I could probably do it now. But, like, I just still can't -- I'm, like, not the one to just go in and be like, what was the reasoning behind this?
So, the outlet for me to develop that voice of rebellion was through writingwhere I was, like, able to channel this anger and recognize that, like, holy shit. Like, when it wasn't my concern, I didn't question it. I didn't even think about this. But now it's impacting me so much that, like, if I don't speak up, 94:00who the hell will? Like, no one else had seen this. No one had seen the journey I had taken to do this interview and then get rejected and then continue with my life by, you know, either taking a cab -- like, I think all of that also needed to be written about and framed in a way that was digestible information but candid and raw.
Like, I didn't also want to, like, lighten my experience because what washappening was just not light. It was not light. So, I was writing. And the blog was a way for my friends to keep up with my life because I think in just regular social settings, like, there was no concept of really having these harder conversations. Like, going into a room, and then, like, if somebody asked me, 95:00like, "How are you doing?" like, I can talk about, like, having gone to this very hard appointment and, like, "Oh, like, and then tomorrow, like, I'm getting blood work done." Like, the response felt -- didn't feel authentic. So, like, I was also realizing that, like, the way that we talk to one another and care for one another is very, I mean, interesting to say the least. But it just feels like it's not genuine or that we haven't learned to really respond to these harder conversations, these, like, more nuanced conversations.
And, because we see sickness through a light of, like, devastation, like, it'sas if, like, if I'm telling someone that I'm, you know, getting surgery next week. Like, they have developed a way to respond that is like, you know, "I hope you recover soon." Or, like, it's kind of like not personal. So, I don't even 96:00blame it on my friends.
But it's just like we've been taught to meet conversations around disability andchronic illness with this sort of like, you know, like demanding folks to, like, do XYZ and then they can get better, and then, like -- instead of being like, "Oh, how can I, like, be there to help you?" Or, like, you know, "Do you need anything in the meantime?" Or, like, "Oh, like, what happens when -- ?" like -- so, like, folks are just always scared to ask, like, "So, like, what's exactly going to happen?" And, like, "What are you expecting? Are you scared or, like -- ?" so I think writing, though, helped the ways in which people were responding.
So, like, I think similar to me talking about these issues, my friends were97:00scared to talk, too, because the communication hasn't been taught to us. And so, like, my friends, you know, would respond to me in, like, message or, like, a comment, and acknowledge that they had read the piece or, like, you know, "Let me know how I can be there for you." And, like, now, like, I have friends who will, like, you know, put in some money into my Uber or, like, just more tangible ways in which they see this as my life. Like, this is not something that is done, or that if I'm my best and if I'm doing well, it's still not something that's gone.
And I also, like, now in conversation try to, like, say things as they happenand, like, even if it's hard, like, okay, like, you just have to say it. So, through that, like, the politicization that was happening, I was also curious 98:00about what I can study and, like, what to do. I was initially, through the BOSC program, because it was science careers-oriented, I felt like I would, you know, want to study more about chronic diseases and, like, rheumatology especially, and potentially be a doctor, which was also really dictated at, like, kind of like early on.
And so, yeah, again with the sort of like rebellion, I, you know, rejected that.I was like, there's no way that I want to do this. And, I needed that. Like, I needed lupus to realize, like, who I am. And so, I had to like kind of also, like, give my parents what they want. I, like, tried to try out, like, economics 99:00and just more sort of like harder majors that would -- that they believe are, like, you know, good and have money and would, like, kind of be respected, like the respected majors. I was trying. I was like, oh no, like, yeah, I'm not into any of this.
But, I really took to broadcast journalism. I took to, like, theater courses. Itook to extracurriculars in which -- like, I had my own radio show in college. And, I was really into writing. So, like, I was going through, like, the course booklets. And then I'd come across Women's and Gender Studies. And, the intro course description just drew me right in. I was like, this is something, like, I need to see and explore. And, like, I think for me college was like a place of exploration. And I also didn't really, like, worry too much because I had, like 100:00-- like, my college was, like, funded through, like, financial aid, and, like, I had some scholarship through the BOSC program, which later got defunded. But then I had transferred into the scholars program. So, there was a lot of support around being a humanities major or, like, picking something that was interdisciplinary and just having fun.
Like, and I just loved to learn. Like, I just loved to be in class. And, like,all this new information that I really needed to, like, make sense of my life, through sociology -- mostly sociology. I didn't really take a lot of anthro classes. So, mostly sociology. I had taken my first sex-ed class, which was -- it was just a woman's health course. And the book we had used -- Our Bodies, Our Lives -- that textbook had changed my life. I had learned so much about -- I 101:00mean, obviously, like, how to have sex but also just centering my body around addressing my needs and not just sexual needs, but just like my health needs and my personal needs of accessing space and confronting when those spaces were not available. And so, like, I just was in a place of, like, this is what I was meant for.
And, at the same line, I had -- I was pursuing -- because I recognize that a lotof the woman's studies courses were very, kind of, White literature-heavy, I was focused on also taking history courses that were about South Asia, and had taken 102:00several courses around, like, South Asian history, South Asian masculinity and, like, women of Bengal, and taking time to learn about, like, my own cultural preservation and history of, like, the Bangladeshi liberation movement, the role of women in that movement, and bringing those voices to the forefront because otherwise, like, growing up, despite all of this, like, Islamic teaching, Bangladeshi cultural teachings, never were women acknowledged for all the work that they do, or thanked or recognized.
Like, so, I was like, wow. Like, I'm in a place where women are valued. Thereare so many women who are badasses, who paved the way for so many movements to even take place. And, they weren't White. So, it was just a place for me to be 103:00so affirmed. And, all my professors were great. Like, I just -- it was some of the best times of my life.
And then I also pursued queer studies courses because I wanted to learn about,or kind of like unlearn what I had learned all around my personal sexuality and then homosexuality, and the particular, like, ways in which women's bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies are attacked. And, through that I was inspired to write my thesis, which was on Muslim women and gender-nonconforming people who 104:00are Bangladeshi and Pakistani and identify as queer. And I had intentionally left out Indian because so many of South Asian models of, like, academia are really Indian-heavy. And when South Asia is explored, India is always explored first. And so, voices of those who are queer are never Bangladeshi and Pakistani.
And so, my study was, you know, focused in New York. And I -- the first part ofit was doing some, like, interviews with folks who identified with, like, the sort of like requirements I had made. And then, the second part was challenging 105:00scriptural passages. So, I had literally just gone to the text of the Qur'an and Hadiths, which are sayings of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to denounce -- that are used to denounce homosexuality. And, I looked at it from an academic angle. And I also looked at it from a personal angle where I was like none of this is accurate to the experiences of queer Muslims in which what's written in the passage is sexualized.
And, yet again, like, when -- like, for women and queer people, like, ourexperiences are always sexualized. Like, why is that? And, the passage that is, like, most famous is specific to same-sex acts, so -- and in the perspective of 106:00men. And so, there were very interesting points of view that I was, like, exploring at that point, and also contesting the translations of the Qur'an, too. I was like let's, like, look at who translated this. And we don't have any women who are recognized for their translation work. All of what exists, like the sort of priority-translated Qur'an, because none of us read -- none of us who read the Arabic understand the Arabic that we're reading. And the Arabic is also known to be -- in the text that is in the Qur'an is ancient. And so, anyone who is a fluent Arabic speaker won't read the Arabic and be like, oh yeah, I understood what this said.
So, I was, you know, questioning all of that. And I felt like, yeah, this iswhat I should be doing. Like, this is what everyone should be doing. We should 107:00have an analysis to think critically and to be -- to explore the ways in which patriarchy has dominated religious life. And, that goes to -- that goes back to recognizing that men translated all of this material. And then they were passed down to institutions where men have led and have taught. And, the denouncing of homosexuality is still sexualized.
And, I found myself in alignment with queer communities because of thedisability justice framework. And, I mean, I felt like I and others who were 108:00recognizing that care, acceptance, inclusivity, these sort of broader umbrella terms in which our communities, you know, whether Bangladeshi-specific or not, but Muslim for sure, were not necessarily, you know, practicing what they say they hold to be valuable and hold to be the ways in which justice is accomplished. So, I found myself in alignment with the fight for queer people's just livelihood because we were also creating alternative models in which that rejected western ways of coming out, for instance. And so, all of whom were interviewed for my thesis are not out to the community and to their families and 109:00et cetera. So, it was recognizing that, like, we were also in battle not with just our own community but the sort of like western ideas about homosexuality and queerness.
And, the other intersectional fights that we all strive to participate in thatwere not just limited to our personal fights -- like, for me, like, around disability, or for them for connecting queerness with their spirituality or whatever. But it was more so recognizing that our communities are marginalized within broader systemic issues of oppression. So, whether that's immigration reform, whether that's domestic violence, whether that's war -- so, there are other issues, broader issues. Housing is a big one, which is why, like, I had 110:00moved into not just being focused in, like, the identity politics but moving more into housing and affordable housing issues and tenant organizing, where I was working with mostly queer folks and women organizers to build around language access and then also to fight for protecting whatever is left of public housing in New York City and building curriculum around racial economic justice in a language that is Bangla. And then we also had models for Korean and Chinese.
So, really moving away from this, like, "Me, I have this issue," to, like, "Whatis our issue? What is our issues? What are our issues?" And, but continuing to work with Bangladeshis because I also felt like, okay, now that I've developed 111:00some analysis for myself around these few things, other folks need to know too. And, like, for them this is -- the housing crisis is most -- is what they're being impacted by. But there are opportunities to also connect these issues of, you know, queer bodies and trans bodies and the ways in which they are also attacked at the margins of housing.
So, like, I'm just -- I was just, like, connecting all of these issues and foundmyself belonging to the housing movement work that was happening in New York City but also realized that the language access component is so, so difficult to achieve because although I'm of Bangladeshi descent, I can't read or write in Bangla. And, like, that became an important tool to really create curriculum and to produce feminist ways of teaching, because I wanted my thoughts to be in this 112:00outside of just the research that I was including in it.
And, it didn't -- I didn't -- although, you know, we used a translation servicefor larger projects, for me that wasn't feminist. Like, for me that felt kind of like this person, who may or may not having housing -- excuse me, housing, like, knowledge or capacity to really understand the connections of queer people and then immigrant communities and then women of color, Black women in this, like, arena of not having housing, may not be uplifted in the same way that I want to say it.
So, I then decided after about, like, two and a half, three years, that I needed113:00this, like, personal development. Like, I needed -- and that wasn't available to me in New York City because I was also exploring, like, opportunities to learn to read and write in the language and to do it from a feminist perspective because it's also not enough to just learn how to read and write. It's also like developing that -- the language of, like, what -- how is patriarchy talked about, feminism, and just like the justice toolbox that I had kind of learned through organizing and through undergrad and through the medical system. I wanted a similar experience with learning Bangla. So, I went to Bangladesh.
STRONG: Before I hear that story, I -- at this period of your life there's acouple of other questions I want to ask you. Well, because you're developing this whole new language of advocacy, and feminism, and queer theory outside of 114:00the home. And I'm interested how you're sharing that information with your sisters, with your parents, how relationships are changing. Tell me a little bit about that.
HANIF: I felt like I was better than everybody. [laughter] I was in my own zone.Like, I think I was in my own zone. I was interested in developing friendships and relationships with people who understood that point of view. And so, it took me a while to really come out of that. So, at home -- so, my sister, at the end of -- at the time I was diagnosed with lupus, she had gone away. Like, she had eloped and left to France. And, she, like, had a boyfriend and, like, got 115:00married. So she, like, took off and was missing for two years, like -- not missing, but she was missing from my life for two years, two significant years.
And then, with my parents, they were also -- they had -- my dad had absolutelyjust disowned her and had stopped talking to her. My mother gave in and, like, was like, had, like, started talking to her again. She returned. But, she was struggling to adjust to living at home with my parents. And, given that she had always the urge to be out and about and carefree and, like, pursue as she wishes, my parents tried to really, like, you know, not. Like, they were like if you want to live here, you're going to have to do XYZ. And they also kept 116:00shaming her about, like, her experiences of, like, this is what happens when, like, you don't listen to your parents.
And, so, like, a lot of manipulation was taking place. And, I was living away.And so, there were some gaps. But, I also feel like that was the time when she was exploring her own individuality and her own interests. And so, she was working. And she didn't want to go to school. She didn't want to go back to school. But one of the stipulations that my parents had kind of put on her was like if you -- now that you're back in New York and living in our house, you have to get a degree. And she was like, no. She was like, I'm not going to do that. But still they were like, you know, why don't you just try it? And she was like, okay. She had, like, gone to Baruch [College] and still didn't like it. And so, she stopped. And, we were -- she was, like, dating this guy. And, like, 117:00I think, like, for her, a lot of her time was spent on that while I was, like, exploring a lot of, like, college activities and, like, getting busy with, like, you know, internships. And, I was, like, doing on-campus, like, student life stuff like the Desi Culture Club, the Brooklyn College Bangla Club, and then getting close to the women's center.
So, like, I, like, just found space to just stay on campus a lot. And thenweekends we would, like, hang out, or at home. But we would constantly get into arguments anytime anything came up. And, like, the biggest issue for the both of us was around sex work. So, like, we would just constantly get into arguments. And, like -- for me, like, I just felt like if she didn't agree with me, that was it. Like, this is not going to -- so, like, I was terrible at the debate part of the work, and then the part where if she's not in alignment, I can't 118:00have her in my life.
So, like, I was also just like, okay, she doesn't believe me. Just get out of myroom. I don't want to have this conversation. So, it suffered a little, but I don't think that much because I had kind of just prioritized other friendships and, like, other modes of, like, you know, other outlets to, like, be -- like, roll with the values I hold now. And, it wasn't a requirement for me to change my sister or whatever. Like, I just was like whatever. Like, she's always been like this. Like, I don't have to -- whatever. But, I was -- for me what was important was developing my analysis and, like, still having it out there. So, like, she was still reading my stuff. And, she -- so, like, a lot of my advocacy was rooted on Facebook and then through my blog. And then I was also writing, 119:00like, other stuff.
So, she was reading this stuff. And I think over time, like, she has taken insome of that stuff. But for me also, like, I've become more tender in the ways -- and through the organizing. So, I know that I needed to organize to, like, ground myself in recognizing that, like, queer theory won't save my community and that, like, feminism won't save my community. These are good values to practice and to learn from. But they won't -- like, I'm just, like, making myself, you know, not a good person to be around.
So, I think over time we are -- like, I'm more, you know, empathetic and willaddress if something is absolutely wrong. Like, a huge practice in the neighborhood is the N-word. And, like, everyone -- like South Asians have a 120:00history of saying the N-word and copying or trying to emulate Black culture through this despite being told not to say the N-word. And, so for me that's been a huge issue because, like, my immediate family continues to slip and say that word. And, it's not good. And it's not acceptable. And so, like, on one hand, for me it's been like being that person who's like, "You just said the N-word again." And then -- because the teaching part has already been done, like why you shouldn't say it. And I was just like, "You said it again. What are you doing to change it?" But then also recognizing that, like, for her or for others who may be saying the N-word are not in any other spaces where they're being 121:00told not to say the N-word.
And, even if there's a worldwide message to stop saying the N-word, a lot ofpeople are still saying it. And so, I know that in my space, I don't want that. And, like, in -- now in broader collective spaces nobody wants that. So, like, you have to listen. But I'm still, like, holding this balance of, like, she's still learning. And she's still catching herself slip and, like, will ease into a place of permanency at some point. But it doesn't mean that I'm going to reject her and, like, cut her out of my life.
So, I'm just, like, not that person anymore. But, I think the holding multiplethings is a hard job. Like, where do I draw the line? And so, yeah, like, when I think about, like, who do I cut off, it's like abuse and violence. And so, if 122:00like -- but I still make sure that, like, if I see that people are interested in learning and are capable of shifting their values, then I do it. And, like, you know, my sister is important to me. So, like, she's -- she may not be the most woke person ever. But, she's still amazing at being there. And, you know, I wouldn't just cut her out just because she said the N-word once. But I know that we have the relationship for me to be like, "You did it again." But it's hard. It's tough because we've been in places where, like, she'll say it. And then, like, others will depend on me to be like the force that is going to undo this. 123:00And, like, I also don't want to be seen as a system of oppression or that, like, I am, like, the perfect person. And, like, oh, if you're like this, why is your sister like this? Like, you are responsible.
So, like, I also don't like those modes of thinking because in a lot of, like,academic left spaces, like, these values are really, like, pushed and shoved around. Like, people are expected to be, like, the best and, like no mistakes and, like, no slip-ups, and, like, you have to teach everybody everything. And they also have to understand everything that you've taught them. So, it's really, it's a tough game. But, yeah, I think my -- I'm more carefree. With my parents, at least, like, they were really -- they were like what is women's and gender studies? Because that's what I majored in. And, they never quite 124:00understood anything I was doing. But I think for them also, because I had lupus and they saw the crux of it, since both of my parents are mostly home -- my mom is a homemaker. My father was retired by the time that I was diagnosed.
They saw, like, the pain. And they saw all of the misery at home. And they alsowere the ones who, like, took me to doctor's appointments and, you know, were there when I had undergone the surgeries. So, they also didn't kind of pressure me. But I think the pressure in me was already like -- I had already internalized pressure to succeed that I was like I have to make sure that I have, like, something that I do that will lead -- that this will lead to someplace. And yeah, I don't regret it one bit.
STRONG: I also want to ask about Brooklyn College because it was such a125:00fascinating time to be there, as we've kind of discussed a little bit already. But, you know, 2011, the AP [Associated Press] story comes out about surveillance. There's stories about specifically surveillance of student groups on Brooklyn College campus. There's activism going around in a bunch of different ways. How did this, you know, larger reality intersect with your world and your education at the time?
HANIF: I was not involved in a lot of, like, activities until 2012, only becauseof my -- like, I didn't hit remission until 2012. And, I was still mostly immobile. So, I had undergone a left hip replacement in 2010. I'd started school in 2009. 2010, I went through the replacement on the left side. 2011, I had 126:00undergone, like, just as big of a procedure for the right hip. But it wasn't a full replacement. And then, in 2012, replaced the right hip. So, like, all of these procedures and stuff had kind of put me at the margins of activism in the way that I'm involved right now.
And, because of the lack of inclusive models, many disabled people, or nodisabled person, was involved in any of this work. And so, for me, like, what my world was then was the internet support because a lot of what I was curating and thinking was through the internet. And that was still very much from a disability lens.
And, because I was part-time at school and then I had semesters off, like, I wasjust pretty much removed from any kind of organizing. And that's still true for 127:00many of my friends who are disabled, who are mostly homebound or just workbound, where they're unable to participate in the ways that there's almost an expectation of them to do. And so, I always recognize that when, like, I realize that a lot of my initial activism needed to take place online.
And, unless someone had made it accessible for me or had, like, brought me tothe space, there was no way that I would show up. And that still holds true today. And, like, although I'm more mobile I think about the ways in which my friends can't come to protests, can't protest, can't be in large crowds, can't be involved in, like, issues really impacting Muslims around surveillance in the same ways that we expect because those models of protest and activism are not 128:00inclusive of disabled bodies.
So, I didn't learn about the 2011 informant story until very recently when itall came out and was exposed, that there was an informant at that time. And I was actually thinking, like, "Where the hell was I?" and, like, had to bring myself back to the place and was like, "Oh yeah," like, when I was going through just personal identity issues around, like, belonging to a Muslim community. Like, how could it be that I'm going through this and I'm feeling so alone and expect to still believe?
So, I was going through that kind of like -- I was at my weaker points ofspirituality and was drawn to women's studies but was also going through, you 129:00know, some of the kind of like taxing years of lupus until 2012 where it wasn't until the full recovery of the right hip that I went into periodic remission and had been -- and through that, because I was now mobile again, like, I was, like, walking and, like, you know, exploring what's out there. And, for me, one of the first issues was a rape that had taken place near campus. And, this was, I think, February 2013. And, I was just, like, what are we doing about this? I was very interested in, like, still issues impacting women and the ways in which I can be connected to the women's center. And so, I was developing those relationships at the trajectory wherein which the MSA [Muslim Student Association] is, like, going through the spiraling of an informant who behaved 130:00and took the Shahada and acted like she was a Muslim person.
And so, like, it's just so wild to me to think, like, all of this is happeningin the same place, same time. So, i -- yeah, I didn't know until recently because now, like, you know, because I am mobile and able to get around easier and am deeply involved in just Muslim activism, two of my friends, alumni, Brooklyn College alumni, you know, like, visibly remember. And they are -- they were especially traumatized. And, I remember we had just begun to do some organizing to address the issues of informants going into public universities like Brooklyn College where Muslim students are almost majority. Like, there's 131:00so many Muslim students, so many Brown students who are impacted. Like, anyone who looks like a Muslim person, like, perceived to be Muslim, is under attack.
And so, I remember, like, with one of them, at least, my friend Ayisha, we werehaving -- just like, organizing meet-ups to think through what the hell just took place. And, this was obviously years after we've graduated. And we're just, like, trying to make sense of all of this. But still, because I wasn't directly impacted, like, I couldn't really -- not that I couldn't connect to it. But, like, I didn't have that experience. I didn't have the MSA experience of Brooklyn College. I was almost kind of part of it. But, at that point women's and gender studies had, like -- I didn't see -- I didn't like gender 132:00segregation. [laughter] Just, I didn't think it was useful.
STRONG: You mean specifically in the mosques?
HANIF: Specifically, like, for, well, gender segregation, contextually, I think,is important. So, like, for example, like, hosting women's-only seminars around immigration, that was important to me. But, literally separating men and women through a curtain wherein afterwards I'm going to see my brothers and friends, like, immediately thereafter, like, what's the point of that? So, I just felt very insecure in the ways in which the MSA was operating at Brooklyn College. I didn't feel like I was wanted because I also didn't wear a hijab. And so, I wasn't -- I'm the unlikely Muslim Brown girl who isn't perceived to be Muslim 133:00because I don't wear hijab. So, like, I meshed more in with the other Bangladeshis who didn't wear hijab. And so, we had the Desi Culture Club. And that was -- and that for me was also not the place, not my, like, home, because that was spiritually disconnected.
So, there was no, like, place where I felt like I was really growing in terms ofextracurricular activities because the MSA was so segregated. And, like, I felt like even in the sisters-only space I had to wear hijab when I was going in. And I'm like, wait a minute. Like, when sisters are in the same space, like, we don't have to wear hijab. But I felt like I had to, like, over-perform an appearance. And then, in the Desi Culture Club, it was just so rooted in cultural activities and dances. And, it was absolutely spiritually disconnected. 134:00And so, that also wasn't fair. And then, at home, like, there was still this, like, notion of, like, you've got to pray at home. Like, there was just nothing that was really filling this specific void that I felt I needed as someone who was creative, spiritual, who won't be wearing a hijab right now, and who wants to be political and address systemic issues.
Like, was there a space? Could that be a space? But I think I started to seekout that space during college. And then I landed in at the Muslim Writers Collective [MWC]. So, that was the space for me wherein I started reading a lot of my pieces, shedding light on lupus and chronic illness alongside the spiritual depths and the challenges, while also the beauties of it, and didn't 135:00feel like I was getting judged or shamed, and took on an organizing role to cultivate the space to make sure that these other voices, including potentially queer voices, stories of all kinds of Muslims, and not just one type, was present through writing.
STRONG: That group was fairly new. Were you involved in deciding how it would beand what it would be like?
HANIF: It was founded by Hamdan Azhar and Ayisha Irfan in Brooklyn. So, youknow, I'm, again, very close to Brooklyn projects. They founded it. And then, 2014, they had their first meet-up/open mic. Ayisha was sort of removed from it, but had their first meet-up. And, I hadn't gone to it. But I had seen it. And, 136:00like, I was immediately drawn because it was a writer's collective. Like, I was like oh my gosh. And, it's the Muslim Writer's Collective.
And, like, prior to that I hadn't even imagined that. Like, I just love when,like, a need is met without -- again, I couldn't tell you that I needed a Muslim Writers Collective. But, But, Hamdan and Ayisha had done that. And so, I'd gone to the second one. And then, upon the second one Hamdan and I had just been talking so much and, like, were so interested in making it bigger than what it is. And so, it was just natural for me to be a part of that process in New York City because over time, like, MWC is scattered throughout, you know, Boston, LA and other cities.
So, yeah, it was very natural for me to take a step back from performance and137:00focus on, like, being the femcee and, you know, making it a space that was woman-led, making it a space wherein first-time performers were having a chance at taking on the stage, and then thinking through, like, themes, thinking about who's not in the room, because it got to a point where it was only, like, mostly transplants from out of -- like, not even from New York coming in. And then they were also mostly Pakistani, all educated in, like, Ivy League and in the financial world.
And so, like, we were recognizing, like, what was happening and who was missing.And we were like, okay, we want to make sure that Black Muslims have a space. We want to make sure that converts have a space. We want to make sure that these 138:00other Muslims can also come here and feel safe and feel like they can share their story or at least listen to others. But we also didn't want to tokenize and be like let's call, like, our Black friend and, like, tell him to come to this.
So, we were looking for ways to address organizing issues because a lot of otherspaces were tokenizing some of our bodies and then not building relationships, long-term relationships. So, we did the -- I was there for also, like, two and a half, three years. And, right before -- I transitioned out right before I left to Bangladesh. And it still continues to be, like, a space in which, I mean, 139:00there's so much creativity, new performers and, you know, folks building friendships.
So, I had found a space in which I felt like I am on a spectrum of mycreativity. I'm on a spectrum of my spirituality. I am learning from others. And I'm seeing a space intentional for the needs of Muslims who needed a space like me. So, that was very refreshing. And, like, I performed and, you know, led it until I also recognized like other people need to lead it.
STRONG: So, tell me a little bit about -- you know, just picking up on thingsyou mentioned as you were leading up to that story, tell me a little bit about the evolution of your faith personally at that time -- how you practiced, what you believed. How was that?
HANIF: After remission, I think I -- well, after remission in 2012, and then140:00having found MWC, I drew close -- closer to the Muslim community. Like, I knew that I wanted to build friendships with Muslims and Muslims who were thinking about their Muslim identity, whether that's, like, just the personal connections of, you know, some of the more typical things like dating and being Muslim, but also, like, being a Muslim and attending to, or, like, just addressing the needs of crises and issues impacting the Muslim community in the US.
So, I wanted to be a part of the Muslim community to be -- to develop that, to141:00help develop that model. Like, I didn't want to do that with someone who's not Muslim. And I needed the grounding from community instead of, like, Muslim studies course or something or, like, you know, academia or even, like, Tumblr. I needed to be in that space to know other activists, to know organizers who were in these conversations already.
And, in that same timeline, because I now had, like -- I felt like I wasbuilding with these folks, I also started going to the Islamic center at NYU [New York University]. And, yeah, the same year, 2014, I had gone to pray at the Islamic center at NYU. And, during Ramadan they have iftar every night. That is, 142:00like, sponsored by, like, some group. Like, it's always for free, like, meaning for free for anyone who comes. And, one, that blew my mind. I was like, okay, there's all genders here. This isn't just like -- and it wasn't closed off. Like, it wasn't like, okay, like, women get it from this room and then men get it from this room. It wasn't like in this binary of, like, separation.
And then, the other thing that blew my mind was that there was a prayer spacefor women. And, I had never seen that. I'd always believed that women could pray at home. So, I didn't even think to think, like, are there spaces for women? And, that Ramadan in particular, my friend, she was like, why don't we just 143:00masjid-hop and, like, make it a goal to pray and have iftar at a different mosque, like, when we can. We were both working, too. So, like, whenever we can we'll go to a different mosque. And so, like, we went to the 96th Street Mosque. And, similarly they also had a woman's space. The IC, the Islamic Center at NYU -- I liked the IC because the space wasn't different. So, like, women just prayed behind the men. And then also it was accessible in that, like, I pray with a chair. So, I didn't feel -- like, initially I felt a little uncomfortable because I always feel like because I'm seen as young, people question, like, why are you sitting on a chair? So, that happened a few times. But, like, I think overall just the fact that they're other women, too, and other people using chairs to pray, it just made it like this is completely normal. Like, people do pray in other ways. So, recognizing that prayer takes place in other ways was 144:00important for me. And, like, visibly seeing all of this being modeled in front of me was especially important.
And, to practice being Muslim, like, I needed to be in these spaces. I think ifI was in absolute isolation, if I was removed from Muslim community, if I was not living in Kensington, if I, you know, didn't have a yearning to build my creativity around Muslim identity, like, I wouldn't be nearly as spiritual anymore, I feel. Like, I don't think for me it's possible to do -- to be spiritual and to be practicing without a community.
Like, I need the backing of support. And I need the affirmation. And, like,those components go hand in hand. Like, for me, like, practicing prayer, reading 145:00the Qur'an, referring to Hadiths, and then doing justice work and social change work are just all-inclusive. So, even, yeah, like, and keeping that in mind, like, that's how I navigate the world. And, sometimes I still have apprehensions around, like, being perceived as Muslim because I also believe, like, if I didn't have -- like, if my name wasn't Shahana Hanif, like, I could be seen as a non-Muslim person.
And, so like there's still tensions that I hold around, like, am I seen asMuslim? Like, am I seen as a legitimate voice for a Muslim perspective when it comes to addressing issues impacting Muslims in Kensington? And so, oftentimes I'm still conflicted around whether or not I want to wear the hijab. And that 146:00has been the biggest issue for me. And it wasn't so much after 9/11. It has become an issue for me since [Donald] Trump's election because I think the more aggressive challenges around Islamophobia has made it impossible for me to feel like my voice is listened to -- or that someone who wears hijab should be addressing this need.
So, like, I am constantly in -- like, I'm just like what do I do? Like, do I doit for political reasons? Because many of my friends took on hijab post-9/11 as a political tool for resistance. And, recognizing the many ways in which the hijab and Muslim-ness in appearance has taken shape in the US context because of 147:00all of these issues, because going back to Bangladesh, like, that's not a conversation. Like, that's not a challenge that I can be like, oh, I'm not feeling Muslim enough. Like, you're automatically Muslim, like, without needing to look it when I go back to Bangladesh, although there are conversations there, too, now around, like, the increase of women taking on hijab but also in line with the fundamentalism taking root.
So, it's a different conversation. But over here with surveillance it'sinteresting to me the ways in which the hijab is used as a token of priority. And, I mean, you know, even in the Woman's March, I was very, like, vivid and clear that, like, the Muslim woman is a woman in hijab. And, the picture of -- 148:00the iconic photo of the American flag hijab is that for many allies, too. So, even like when I'm in conversation with non-Muslims, and then particularly White people, it's a struggle for me to kind of be like, yeah, I'm Muslim, you know?
So, I'm also very particular about how I act and, like, constantly checkingmyself when it comes to being in places where there's alcohol or, like, just making sure, like, you know -- because, one, there's an assumption that I already drink because I don't wear hijab. So, I also feel like I'm taken differently. I'm assumed to be a certain way because I don't wear hijab. Or, like, I will say yes to things because I don't wear hijab. But then at the same 149:00time, like I know my closest hijabi friends are also, like, "I'm perceived to be, like, this, like, completely different person because I wear hijab."
So, like, but these are conversations I feel that need to be happening becauseit is an issue in broader policy-related stuff wherein, like, for someone like me to be working directly in city council, like, I am representing Muslims. But, am I being perceived this way? And, like, because I know there are more eyes on me because I'm in city council, like, I also have to kind of uphold this, like, perfect Muslim kind of thing. And, like, you know, it's a struggle for me. I just don't even know what that is, like, anymore.
STRONG: I'm seeing some similarities between your story of performing disabilityand performing your religion. Is that something you see as well as something you've run into, or --? 150:00
HANIF: I guess. Yeah, I guess. But that's why, for me, storytelling is still socrucial because, like, for example, like, right now, like, physically, having lost so much of the weight of, like, the post-diagnosis and, like, the treatment, I also don't look like I have lupus. Or I'm not perceived to be a sick person as I looked when I had lupus. And I had chronicled some of those pictures, too.
I have taken a different route in the way that I talk about it. So, like, forexample, now, like, because I'm able to go around, I also, like, alongside having lost the weight, I also am, like, more physically mobile. I don't 151:00necessarily need paratransit anymore. And I'm able to, like, kind of make moves whenever I need to, sometimes even spontaneously which, back in the day, wasn't -- I couldn't make spontaneous plans and just, like, go somewhere without, like, having just everything intact like my medicines, emergency numbers, hospitals nearby and just, like, having everything so structured.
So, now what I do through my Instagram is I curate, like, a photo exhibitionthrough the hashtag #thesickwait to still, you know, talk about chronic illness but from a different perspective. So, like, I still have doctor's appointments monthly. I'm still seeing a rheumatologist, a nephrologist, an orthopedic surgeon. And this doesn't count for the sort of other flares that are still invisible to people because I still pass as a person who is well. 152:00
And so, it's called the sick wait because of, one, just like the sick wait offolks not understanding the kind of like nuances of chronic illness, the physical sick wait of, like, doctor's appointments and visits, and the commute time and, like, just what it takes, like, the toll it takes on the sick person to have done this journey of, like, missing an entire day and then connecting that back to the workplace because, you know, although most of our workplaces are equal opportunity employers, there's no model for wellness. There's no model for, like, sick days outside of this, like, terrible two or three days. Like, the models are still not in place. So, the advocacy still has to continue.
So, by putting a visual to what my day-to-day appointment looks like -- and Ionly highlight, like, just every time I have a doctor's appointment is the only 153:00time I'll do a sick wait post. And I, like, show, like, I mean, some appointments have an MRI thing that's happening. And I'll talk about that a little. I have a shoulder replacement surgery coming up which I'm going to schedule for Ramadan. And so, talking about that, because somebody who's going to see me at work or, like, just going about daily life, like, won't be like, "Hey, you're getting that -- " like, "Is your shoulder okay?" Like, they're not going to ask me that.
So, you know, coming -- recognizing that these issues are still in my life, butthrough storytelling and through visual art, is another way to make sure that it's still living, because a lot of folks who will follow the post, you know, will often reach out and be like this is -- this is -- "I needed to read this because I'm also experiencing this. And I'm not being heard." and, like, will also submit their own sharing of, with the hashtag. So, it's a way to really 154:00make sure that folks know but see that sickness isn't just one characteristic. Like, me at my worst is not lupus. Like, I still have it.
And I see the same for being Muslim where, like, I think because the picture isa woman in hijab, like, I'm still contesting that by, like, what I don't -- I'm choosing not to wear it right now. But, recognizing that I'm still Muslim, like, I'm still not, like, just because I'm not following or sort of like taking on what has been kind of outlined for broader, like, Muslim life and, like, kind of like Muslim identity, it doesn't make me not be Muslim right now. 155:00
So, even in spaces, like, I often have to remind people. But, I'm adamant aboutletting folks know because -- or else, like, the mistakes are made. Like, and if I don't, you know, use it as a moment of education, I think folks will not know.
STRONG: Another thing that pops to mind as you're talking is the idea of comingout and living out and that being something queer people are always having to perform and remind. And, earlier in the interview you mentioned, like, coming out in a western-prescribed way. And I was wondering if you could say, you know, what does that mean? And what are the alternatives to that?
HANIF: So, coming out would mean, like, for example, there's Coming Out Day on156:00campuses and then also, I think, a nationwide Coming Out Day, which is a big win for the queer movement here. And then there's also this, like, homo-normative way of doing so, which means that you are literally putting your body on the street. You are putting your body in places in which Brown and Black bodies cannot because of the contradictions of queer identity in communities of color. So, whether that's like religious community or just like the ethnic community, wherein through models of patriarchy, like, have not made -- have not been built to be queer-friendly in any capacity. And, so instead, a lot of my queer friends 157:00will invite in, and so will look for opportunities when they feel safe for friends to know.
But, their inviting in is not -- or their friendship isn't -- like, they don'trely on queer identity to be like their sole purpose of life, at least with the few that I'm talking about. There are -- I do have friends who are also openly queer because we do need voices that are out. But that requires making sure that this person is safe and that this person will be outcasted from more Muslim spaces or will not be invited to Muslim events regardless of their contributions to Muslim communities. 158:00
So, it's a battle in which, one, staying closeted means you have a family. Youhave a home. You have a community. And then on the other hand, coming out can mean opportunities for others who want to -- or just for even closeted folks to know that, you know, we -- there's advocacy happening for our lives and for collective queer bodies, but that this person will be -- will not have opportunities to, you know, really be involved in Muslim spaces and decisions around Muslim bodies because they don't agree with that perspective, yeah.
STRONG: Thank you. Another thing that I recognize in your stories -- many peopleI've interviewed are interested in kind of inter-religious outreach. And, you've 159:00sort of described more of like an inter-Islam outreach, which is very unique for me. So, I'm wondering, can you tell me about experiences of building communities among people who are Muslim but from completely different practicing backgrounds, national backgrounds, and how that's unique to your experience and your work?
HANIF: I guess through the Muslim Writers Collective is where I was able to movethat. And I think it was possible because the biggest interest of MWC is written narratives and storytelling. And so, although the Muslim identity piece is important and a priority, the written part of it and, like, the narratives being 160:00performed and curating this identity of a storyteller and of a performer of theatrics brings -- has brought together so many types of Muslims in one place.
But still there are still challenges in terms of, like, conservative Muslims notbeing there or Muslims who might not want to hear something about sex being there. And so, I mean, I think those challenges exist in all kinds of spaces. But the Muslim Writers Collective has been an example of a space for me in which I've seen diverse Muslims come together to really honor different stories. 161:00
And, the stories are not all nonfiction. So, these are fictions. These arefantasies. These are just wide genre that are not limited. And I think the biggest part of it is recognizing that we -- storytelling is important for our survival. And reimagining futures that don't involve us needing to constantly bear the burdens of surveillance and Islamophobia, or that constantly needing to talk about Islamophobia impacted my survival.
And those stories are also equally important. But I think it's that space wherewriters have a voice in which they don't have to represent being Muslim.
STRONG: I'm also curious from your own perspective, having grown up in your162:00Muslim community, and then through college and after, being able to visit and learn from other ways of being Muslim -- and I know you said a little bit about this already. But I'm wondering if you can share more detail about how that changed your perspective, the way you practice, the way you talk to your family, anything like that.
HANIF: I was still curious to see the ways in which something like Muslim ArtsCollective could be brought into Kensington. Like, I think I'm disappointed in that these didn't exist in my community, although, like, I feel like the mosque could have had this, like, could have had an open mic regardless of what's allowed and, you know, what you say, and could have sustained it. And, I think 163:00it's still a possibility to have that so that young people aren't constantly seeking out ways to be themselves outside of their community.
But, I also feel like I'm glad that I was pushed out of the community to feellike there are others who are exploring these questions of identity, of togetherness, and are trying to cultivate communities that their own home communities didn't provide and may never be able to provide. And so, yeah, I don't know if MWC will ever be, like, as local as, you know, something in Kensington.
But, it's important that it exists so that we can still find it. And I thinkhaving been exposed to it, like, I -- others -- it's just so wide-reaching that 164:00so many people know now and attend it. And, yeah, I'm not sure I have much more than that to say.
STRONG: Okay. I'm also realizing that we've been talking for well over twohours, and our brains might be pancakes. But, there are so many things I have yet to ask you about. What should I ask you? I mean, of your trip to Bangladesh, your organizing in 2016, your return to Brooklyn, you know, some of this we have been able to talk to already, your joining city council. What do you really want to make sure we get some stories about and get on the record before we wrap up? [laughter] I'm so sorry.
HANIF: I have no idea.
STRONG: Well, tell me a little bit about -- I'm sorry to skip your adventures in165:00Bangladesh. But tell me a little bit about your return to Brooklyn and how -- what you learned there in terms of, you know, public spaces, advocacy, connecting with these feminist groups abroad, how that impacted your work, returning to Brooklyn in 2017, I think it was, or 2016, and then moving into the city council work that you do now.
HANIF: After I came back from Bangladesh, I was rooted in building withfeminists moving forward. Like, I didn't want to belong in a space that was not inherently trying to achieve feminist values. So, that was one takeaway from my trip wherein I had developed some, you know, feminist movement skills through a group called CREA, and then had also taken part of a digital rights seminar, a 166:00week seminar, with tactical tech. And this was also a feminist training.
So, thinking about the ways in which women, queer people, trans and othermarginalized communities occupy the internet, is the internet feminist, thinking about those questions really made me understand that I want to always ask these questions. And, like, I want to always be exploring ways to achieve this or just, like, all of these queries. Like, I want to make sure that there's not a moment in which I'm not thinking about this and that I'm not working around this.
And, I also knew that I didn't want to work in a place that was not in Brooklynor that was not in my neighborhood. I was pretty much like, okay, I'm ready to 167:00stay here. But I also needed a place to work because my savings were, like, coming to an end. And then I had also at that point figured out that I can't work full-time in the way that is kind of like outlined for in, like, a 40, 45-hour workweek, having recognized that from my work at CAAAV [Organizing Asian Communities], where I could work. But my worked looked very different. And my meaning, my, like, definitions of productivity had also altered.
Like, I knew that I was absolutely capable of producing work. But it lookeddifferent. And it looked like I needed to take a day off and then come back the next day. It also looked like I could work better at night. It looked like I needed to take breaks during the day. So, it was -- my work was actually like my life. So, I didn't want this to be considered as separate entities. And so, 168:00having recognized that, I was looking for something part-time because I was also interested in potentially going back to school because I feel like academia holds space for being curious all the time and, like, really questioning and, like, kind of asking the bizarre questions and then, like, trying to study it.
So, like, I just felt like maybe I should go back to school and, like, put someof those ideas into writing and pursue something like that. And, I'm still thinking about that. But, I was kind of certain that, like, if I didn't work in Kensington, then, like, I would be removed from it. Like, I just wouldn't be working in my community on my block. Like, and no one else was doing it. There were no groups that were local to Kensington, political/social change groups, 169:00that were also addressing some of the housing needs, some of the needs around hate attacks, and then women's needs, youth needs.
And, I didn't want to go in with, like, a savior, you know, like a complexitywhere I was like I'm going to be the person to do XYZ. But, I knew that my presence was needed. And, so I -- luckily, I guess, the city council position for Bangladeshi community liaison was open. And, I didn't know if I wanted to fill that role because I was like this is a government job. And, the government is the state. And, they have not been friendly .
And, but I also looked at the ways in which I can, as a part-time staff person,170:00that I could be flexible and, like, really just only do work to meet the needs of the Bangladeshis in the district. And so, I took on the position. And, I mean, also I really like council member Brad Lander. Like, I just also really like him. And, I set out to make sure that I was in touch with people in the neighborhood.
And, initially I was like I have to, like, you know, be -- like get all the men,like, the -- kind of like the leaders, the self-proclaimed leaders, of, like, the mosques, the mosque leadership. And then, like, there's the neighborhood association leadership. They're all men. So, I was like, oh my God, I'm going to have to, like, become their friends and, like, move them on different issues. 171:00
But, it wasn't -- it didn't take long for me to realize that, like, I actuallydon't need to do any of that. Like, I don't need to dismantle any, like -- you know, in, like, whatever's in place at the moment, but rather look for allies who are looking to change some of this or at least open up space for others who reject those leaderships. And that's exactly what I've been doing.
So, I'm working with groups, community-based organizations, who want to be inKensington and provide various resources and services. I'm meeting -- all the constituents who come to see me are people who are absolutely low-income, who are in need of affordable housing, who are in the process of applying to be a 172:00citizen. So, it's a very specific niche.
And I realize that these are people who, even if they use the mosque to pray,are not invested in their leadership, and that there's still activation required to organize along these other needs of people. And then, of course, women, prioritizing women's needs and making sure that there are spaces in the neighborhood in which women can gather but also learn and, like, be with each other and, you know, not being a model that makes it mandatory for them to have their kids there but for them to, like, have a space.
And then, the last piece being youth. So, like, I've been working with Arts andDemocracy to curate programming for young people, like, college-aged and then 173:00younger, in high school, because there are many young people in Kensington. And, they -- like, they're not seen. And so, like, I was assuming, you know, which was, you know, what I had done, too, like -- leaving the neighborhood to find themselves. And so, recognizing, like, what was missing and, like, how to fill that, and reaching out, reaching those groups.
So, I plan on staying in city council until at least Brad's done with his term,which is in four years. But, this is -- since I have not yet hit, like, my first year, I'm, like, still, you know, curious about -- like, I'm just still in observation mode, you know? I'm, like, getting to know people and, like, getting to know, like, the sort of like leadership that has kind of existed and then, 174:00you know, cultivating newer leadership and building relationships. But all of that really requires to be present in the neighborhood. So, you know, that means I'm not leaving Kensington. And, like, I'm not going to be pursuing something that takes me away from the neighborhood.
STRONG: How is the neighborhood going to be different in ten years?
HANIF: I have no idea. Oh my gosh.
STRONG: What do you think, or what do you hope for?
HANIF: I really don't know. I really don't know. I'm going to be, like, 37 yearsold. It's so funny because just a few weeks ago my sisters and then Seara, we were like, do you think we're going to, like, stay in Kensington in ten years? And for me it's a yes, yeah. So, it's a yes for me. Like, I know that I'm going 175:00to stay in Kensington. And, I want to make sure that there -- or I want to see a community center. I know a lot of the neighborhood infrastructure will change. So, we may have more public space. But, a lot of people are getting displaced and moving to Buffalo or other parts of New York, not like the city.
And so, I know there will be some shift. But, I know that Kensington as-is is myhome. And, I just believe, like, in ten years we'll -- there will be a community center. There will be maybe another plaza-type thing. Many of us who are first-generation Kensingtonians will live here. Our, like, spiritual centers 176:00will also have space for women, young women. And, yeah, I mean, I just want to make space for everyone to feel like they are not isolated.
STRONG: If you could pass forward any advice to yourself ten years from now --
HANIF: Oh my gosh -- don't change [laughter]. Carry the spirit.
STRONG: Yes, I believe in that. Thank you so much for your time today. We reallymust stop. But I've really had a wonderful time listening to your stories.
HANIF: Thank you.
STRONG: And, I really appreciate you sharing anything. If there's anything youwant to put on the record before we stop, now would be the time.
HANIF: No. I think I'm good.
STRONG: All right.
HANIF: I think I'm good.
STRONG: Okay. Well, thank you again. And, I look forward to being in touch asthis project progresses.
HANIF: Sounds good. Thank you.
Oral History Interview with Shahana Hanif
Shahana Hanif was born in 1991 in Brooklyn. She was raised in the Bangladeshi community in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. After a health crisis as a teenager led to a diagnosis of lupus, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in women's and gender studies from Brooklyn College. While there, she became involved in intersectional activism and community organizing, especially with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and Naree Shongothok: Bangladeshi Women Organizing for Social Change. She also worked as Director of Organizing and Community Engagement for New York City council member Brad Lander.
In this interview, Shahana Hanif discusses growing up in a Bangladeshi American family in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, including her relationship with her sister, the impact strict gender roles had on their religious educations and social lives, receiving a diagnosis of lupus as a teenager, and her subsequent navigation of health and accessibility limitations. She also talks about her exploration of intersectionality and activism in college, especially regarding her disability, religion, and race. In addition, she speaks about internet activism and specific organizations and causes she became involved in, especially Naree O Shongothok, the Muslim Writers Collective, the Kensington Stewards, and a local ladies' club. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationHanif, Shahana, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, April 17, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.15; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Brooklyn College
- Church Avenue Merchants Block Association, Inc.
- Global Spiritual Life (New York University)
- Hanif, Shahana
- Kensington Stewards (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Lander, Brad
- Muslim Student Association (Brooklyn College)
- Muslim Writers Collective
- Naree O Shongothok: Bangladeshi Women Organizing for Social Change
- New York University
- The Kensington Family Shelter (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Bangladeshi Americans
- Children of immigrants
- Health services accessibility
- Internet and activism
- Intersectionality (Sociology)
- People with disabilities
- Shelters for the homeless
- Women in community organization
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Kensington (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories