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Shaheen Rushd

Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong

October 17, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.49

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STRONG: Okay, so today is Wednesday. It is October -- hmm. What is the date today? Is it the 17th?

RUSHD: Seventeenth.

STRONG: It is the 17th, 2018. This is Liz Strong. I'm here with Shaheen Rushd for the Brooklyn Historical Society Muslims in Brooklyn Public History Project. You ready to go?


STRONG: All right, tell me when and where you were born, and anything you'd like to share about your childhood.

RUSHD: I was born in Bangladesh -- it was then Pakistan -- on [date redacted for privacy] 1956. Bangladesh became an independent country after a bloody civil war from Pakistan in 1971. There are two distinct phases in my life, the first in Bangladesh, from birth 'til March 1970, when I moved to the US, and the time 1:00after that, in this country. Once I started talking to you about this project, I started thinking about my life, and distilling memories, and one thing that -- one area that I really thought about is my life in this country since then, and I think our conversation today will, will be a reflection a lot of, of my life here. So I thought I would just give you an overview of it to start with.

STRONG: Okay, sure.

RUSHD: I actually wrote this down, so -- [laughter]

STRONG: That's all right.

RUSHD: As I said, I was born into a Muslim family. My parents were secular. Since 1972, I associated mostly with secular White people, in terms of marriage, 2:00schools, workplace, and friends. I have strong connections to my Bengali family and Bengali culture, but it is only recently that I've begun to reconnect with my Muslim heritage. I'm an agnostic, and a feminist. I identify very strongly as a Brooklynite and an American citizen. I'm a naturalized citizen. At the same time, however, I feel a strong sense of being the other.

STRONG: Okay, so I have many follow-up questions based on that statement. I guess let's just go through them roughly chronologically. Can you tell me first about your upbringing? You talked about Bengali culture, and so give me some examples about how that was taught to you, and how that looked in your childhood.

RUSHD: As I said, my parents were secular. My father was an intellectual. He was 3:00a writer. He was an English professor. He held many different government posts and became a diplomat, but growing up, through him, my experience of him is about literature, and it was wonderful to be around his friends, reading their works aloud. My mother is an amazing woman. She got married to my father when she was 16, in an arranged marriage. She didn't meet him before they got married. [laughter] And she had a traditional housewife life after that. But 4:00before that, she had a very non-traditional upbringing. I will talk more about my nana, which is her father. He was an unusual man. But she grew up driving cars, riding bicycles, riding on horses. She, at least once, actually even, like, glided from an airplane. [laughter] She was, I think, a tomboy. She spent a lot of time with her three younger brothers. She didn't have a sister. And they all played together. So she has so many interesting stories to tell. I 5:00could talk to you for hours just on those, but I won't. [laughter]

So I had a secular side of the family, and -- but also, many of my family members were quite religious. My grandfather came from a family of pirs. They're holy men, people -- they have followers. People come to them for religious advice, but also advice on all kinds of problems of their daily living. They're very devout people, but it's -- they're associated with being religious. My grandfather was actually going to be an heir to that tradition, but he changed early on. He left his village for Calcutta and became -- started to become a 6:00humanist. He studied Bertrand Russell. He, he moved away from religion. But at the same time, he had a deeper understanding of Islam than I would say of many Islam scholars or devout Muslims. It was amazing, his knowledge of the Qur'an. He was an -- he was a big influence on, on my life.

And then my mother's family also had a pir tradition, and that tradition continues today. My mother's maternal grandfather -- I'll start again. My 7:00mother's great-grandfather really started, as far as I know, this pir tradition in that side of the family. He, he was known all over the country as a very devout person. He had many, many followers. He, he created this compound, which is called Shah Shahib Bari. I never met him, but I was, I was very familiar with Shah Shahib Bari when I was growing up. It has a mosque, it has a madrasa, it has residences for the pir family. It's a place where a lot of activity happens. Interesting, interesting -- you know, very interesting religious, communal life takes place there.


STRONG: And you spent time there as a kid?

RUSHD: I would visit. It was in Dhaka. I would visit often. And it -- I was being raised in a very secular fashion, but my interaction with that side of the family was harmonious. I didn't even think about it, really, that they were that different, at that time. Now I think -- now I'm much more aware of the differences than I was growing up. I was a child. I loved my big, extended family there. You know, it was also interesting to see things that I didn't usually see. Like, there would be boys reciting the Qur'an outside of the madrasa. The graves of my, my mother's grandfather and great-grandfather are now 9:00religious shrines, and people come from all over to visit those graves.

Another thing -- a particular event that I remember is what was called Urus. Once a year, there would be this huge gathering of the pir's followers, and the pir family would cook a huge feast for them. So it was amazing for me to watch all this. And even though I was not growing up in purdah, and, and the older women in Shah Shahib Bari were living behind the purdah, although various degrees of strictness, it -- that difference in, in lifestyle didn't get in the 10:00way of, of enjoying each other. I still feel close to my relatives in Shah Shahib Bari, and visit Shah Shahib Bari every time I visit Dhaka.

STRONG: Wow. So now tell me about your father's experiences a little bit. He was a writer, but also a diplomat, you mentioned. So what were his responsibilities there, and how did it affect his views?

RUSHD: My father was a believer in Islam, but secular. He, he didn't pray five times a day, but he still believed in Allah strongly. He, he was born when it was British India. Calcutta was part of British India at that time. He was very 11:00much involved in supporting the creation of a Muslim nation, the creation of Pakistan. He felt -- he, and I think most Muslims, felt that they would have better life chances in a Muslim country rather than a Hindu-dominated country. He was a writer from the very beginning. I think he published his first short story when he was 20 years old. And that was quite a feat. It wasn't that easy for young Muslim writers to get published in British India. There were many, many Muslim writers at that time, but it wasn't easy for them to have -- to get their works to be publicized. So that was -- I'm very proud of his writing. He's 12:00written many novels, many short stories. He had a column for a while in -- he had columns in both English and Bengali newspapers. Very critically -- he would not be shy about criticizing the government. He would not be shy about taking on anybody, really, and that impacted his career as a government official.

STRONG: Your family came to the US in 1970, is that right?

RUSHD: In 1970.

STRONG: And 1971 was the war, and then the independent -- no longer East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

RUSHD: Right.

STRONG: What were your father's perspectives on that transition? Did he want to 13:00be independent, or was he hoping to stay a unified Pakistan?

RUSHD: He came as a, as a diplomat from Pakistan. He was the educational and cultural attaché, and the civil war started the next year, in 1971. It was a bloody civil war, and the Pakistanis slaughtered Bengalis. There was no -- it was very hard to have any sense of Muslims brothers and sisters, in that context. But nevertheless, it was not easy for him, because he really believed in the idea of, of a country for Muslims. But once the civil war started, even though it was a hard decision for him, he, he did not want to be part of 14:00Pakistan, and it was a traumatic time for us. There were a number of diplomats at the Pakistani embassy who were from what was then East Pakistan, and now is Bangladesh. They all abdicated on the same day. At that time, there was no Bangladesh. The civil war was still raging. They became the representative of the government in exile. Actually, you know, in terms of legal status, I don't know -- I think the US government had to figure out what to label them. Ultimately, I think they were called foreign agents. [laughter] So it was a very exciting time, and a hard time, not only because you are giving up a citizenship 15:00of a country you really believed in, but you're -- but you -- but you're experiencing the horror that was -- well, let's, let's -- I'll change that a little bit. We weren't personally experiencing the horror, because we were here. We were safe. But our -- but many of our friends and relatives and our country-people were getting butchered, so it was a very hard time.

STRONG: As a young person, did you know anyone personally who was affected by the war, or who was killed?

RUSHD: You mean as a young person? You mean --

STRONG: Yeah, in your experiences personally. We kind of talked about your father's a little bit, and so I thought I'd ask about you specifically, when you said that you lost people, or --

RUSHD: I've lost -- I lost relatives. The death that really stands out is the brother of a 16:00friend. He was very idealistic, and, you know, I had a crush on him when I was growing up. He was handsome. He was an actor. He was killed when he went to join the freedom fighters, and his body was never found, and I still think about that death. And he was -- you know, he -- and it's not clear whether the -- how he was killed and who killed him, but, but that death just stands out for me, and I still feel it, because he was such -- this young man, with so much life, with so much vision, and then dead, and a body that was never recovered. Can't imagine what his mother feels like. I can't imagine. Anyway.


STRONG: You were in the US when you got that news. How did you relate to other students around you who have no experiences like that?

RUSHD: It's so interesting, because at that time, my focus wasn't so much on my contemporaries at school. My focus was at going to the meetings where people were discussing what to do in the context of the civil war. There was a lot of drama in terms of getting ready to abdicate, and then there was a lot of drama afterwards. So I was so involved with, with that process, that it doesn't really matter to me that I wasn't sharing my experience with my contemporaries here in 18:00this country.

STRONG: How were you involved? What did, what did you do? What was that like?

RUSHD: I was a little kid. I was -- but I would go to the meetings. I would go with my father when, when he met with the other diplomats. I wasn't privy to all their conversations, but I was hovering near them. And so I was getting not only a sense of what they were going through, but I was also getting news of what was happening back home through that process. It was such an exciting time, thinking about a new country, thinking about Sheikh Mujib [Rahman], who was the Bengali leader. He was such an amazing speaker. He would just get us so riled up. I would just be -- get goose-- goosebumps listening to his speeches. So when I 19:00think back to those times, I'm focusing on, on -- within the bracket, you know, my family and my -- their friends, and my father's colleagues -- and my father's colleagues.

STRONG: So just a short while later, your parents decide to go back.

RUSHD: Short while later, yeah, but a lot happened before.


RUSHD: You know, it was a very important period, even though they were in, in the United States for a short time. It was an important period for us as a family among all the other things. Maybe we should talk a little bit about sort of transitioning --

STRONG: Yeah, please do.

RUSHD: -- to life here. But before that, I want to go back a little bit to my childhood. We talked about Shah Shahib Bari. I also want to talk about my Nana 20:00Nari, which is my grandfather's house. It was right in the heart of Dhaka, near the center of commerce, government, and religious lives, but it was an oasis. He had a large parcel of land. There was a pond. I learned to swim there. He planted fruit trees all over the compound. And his house was a gathering place for everybody. All my relatives, whether they were secular or not, we went there, and stayed there. [laughter] He had bridge buddies coming over all the time. He had his humanist friends coming over. He wasn't religious, but people 21:00would come to him and ask him for verses from the Qur'an, which they could wear in a ta'wiz. Do you know what a ta'wiz is? It's a -- I shouldn't call it a necklace, but you wear it around the neck, and the, and the verse goes inside a locket, I guess. So even though he wasn't religious, because he knew so much about religion, people would come to him for that kind of advice. People would come to him for family planning advice. [laughter] He was just fun. I would -- I remember going to Bollywood-kind of movies with him. This intellectual, but he would be crying and laughing aloud. He just felt -- he enjoyed life, and I loved 22:00being with him. I -- he is such a huge influence in my life, even now.

STRONG: Is there anything else you'd like to say about that time?

RUSHD: Oh, there's so much to say. You know, so much to say.

STRONG: And we can always circle back if you think of something as we talk.

RUSHD: Okay. Okay.

STRONG: So talk to me about the transition a little bit to the United States.

RUSHD: So in terms of language, it was no big deal. I was pretty much bilingual by the time I came here. I essentially went to school where most of the courses were taught in English, and my father was an English professor, among other things. He had gone to Oxford. Most of my family -- most of my immediate family spoke English very well. But there were -- but it was a huge transition. I was the foreigner. I had met very few White people before I came to DC. I think we 23:00had AFS, American Field Services, student come and stay with us in Bangladesh for a short time. That was one experience with a White person. I had never met an African American. I had never met a Hispanic person. And I started going to a public school in DC, where I met people of all races. It was wonderful, but it was also a little intimidating. I liked the feel-- I liked being exposed to the differences, but I also had a safe haven to come back to, my mother and my brother, my, my father. I remember some Bengalis expressing certain racist 24:00feelings and saying, "Oh, you guys should move to the suburbs, where the --" quote unquote "good schools are." But within my family, I -- we never talked about people in derogatory terms. There was no talk of racism in my house. Most of my -- well, the few friends that I had then were all African American girls. But it was interesting, right? I mean, you think about, sometimes, racism among Whites and people of color, but there's also racism within people of color. So that was interesting.

STRONG: This speaks a little bit to your experience of being other, which you 25:00said is a theme throughout your life. What does it mean to you to be, quote unquote, "other"?

RUSHD: I will hold that for a while, because I want to go back to, to my, my -- the first few years of my life here, because that all sort of ties in. We did move to the suburbs, but because we could get -- we could afford to get a much bigger house there. I went to a public school there called Kennedy, which was a progressive school. It was called a School Without Walls. That was a wild moment in my life. That's where I, I think, started a period of assimilation, but, but 26:00-- and also tremendous personal and intellectual growth. The school had very few rules and very few requirements. The students would call the teachers by their first names. The situation could not have been any different from my schools in Bangladesh, but I loved it. I loved it. I was always a good student, but I was not a serious student. I read trashy novels. My parents were avid readers, but they let me be. I guess they were so happy to see me reading, they just wanted me to read. They didn't care what I read that much. But at Kennedy, that 27:00changed. I began to read literature like crazy, and I had to catch up with my friends, who were writing parodies of Socrates and reading Nietzsche. But it wasn't just a matter of catching up; I really loved learning at that point, in a way that I hadn't before. And even though, like, some of my friends would say, "Oh, you're so exotic," so that sense of being other was still being reinforced, but I made some very good friends who really helped me feel rooted to, to the 28:00community, to my new community. So even there, I was feeling very much a part of the community, and wanting to get assimilated into it, but at the same time, I, I did not feel completely part of it, because I was always the other. A few months before, I -- before I was set to finish 10th grade, my father was asked to go back to Bangladesh. That was in early 1972. He was offered a really good position. My reaction was totally selfish. "No, I don't want to go back now. I 29:00want to finish 10th grade." I just didn't want to be uprooted. Easier said than done, because my parents were under a lot of pressure not to leave me back, even for two months, because I was a girl, and -- but --

STRONG: Pressure from who? Sorry.

RUSHD: Pressure from Bengali friends and relatives, and internal pressure. And internal pressure. I am -- I'm not afraid of speaking up, [laughter] and I, and I told my parents, "Well, you're leaving my brother behind. He's being allowed to finish his university years. Why can't I stay back for two months?" My mother, despite her misgivings, supported me, and that's what she's always done. 30:00She's always supported me through all my -- the different phases of my lifes -- life -- some of which has been -- have been very challenging. [laughter] Anyway, I didn't go back after those two months. I, I then wanted to finish high school. I said I could accelerate and finish in, in -- after 11th grade, and I -- to this day, I don't know how I convinced my parents to allow me to do that. Because not only [laughter] would I stay back an additional year, I would be working as an au pair for a family who had lived next door to my parents in -- 31:00when we moved to the suburbs. Yeah, I had never worked before, you know, and here I was, at a very young age, without my parents, pretty much responsible, not only for myself, but also for a little kid. It was a challenging time. It was a challenging year.

STRONG: Challenging how? Can you give me an example?

RUSHD: It was challenging to be without my parents at that young age, definitely. It was also challenging because -- in good and bad ways, in terms of living with this family. She was a Native American. He was from Ghana. At that time, there was a lot of activism in the Native American community in DC, which 32:00was led by Russell Means. The mother would sometimes take me to those meetings. So there was this new world, right, I had never -- I had never been exposed to Native Americans. Of course, I know about -- something about the horrible way they have been treated in this country, but I didn't really have any personal experience with that community. But there was a lot of friction between the parents, and that was not fun for me. I grew up in a family where people didn't have heated arguments, for better or worse. [laughter] So that was hard. But I continued to enjoy my school life. But even there, two of my best friends had 33:00gone to college, so my community at school had shrunk, too, but it became -- so my focus really was on my intellectual development.

STRONG: And you didn't really self-identify as an intellectual before that, so how did that turn take place?

RUSHD: It took place as I, as, as I said before, in terms of going to Kennedy and being exposed to these young people, who were doing these exciting things, like I said. You know, talking about Nietzsche all the time, talking about Dostoevsky. It's hard to describe. There was this push for excellence in terms 34:00of critical thinking, in terms of understanding strat-- that didn't come out right. I think I learned to be a critical thinker, or started to be a critical thinker. Not just learning about an idea and spewing it back, but examining that idea, and that was, that was so much fun, and still is. I continue to do that, to some extent.

STRONG: When you say there were exciting things happening, what exciting things were you doing? What literature were you passionate about talking about, or was it not literature? What was your, what was your pursuit at that time?

RUSHD: I loved Dostoevsky. I, I, I think my life changed in some ways after I read Crime and Punishment. It would be -- it would take me too long to tell you 35:00all of that. I really loved reading Socrates's dialogues. I found them not only deep, but also funny. He had such a sense of humor, I think. I developed a love for Chinese paintings, and tried to learn about that long tradition as much as I could, and I still, I still love that. I love that art. Yeah.


STRONG: So how did your conversations with your parents change during this time as you were seeing the world differently and engaging with it differently?

RUSHD: Well, I wasn't having direct conversations with them, because my parents moved back to Bangladesh in March 1972. My father went back to Dhaka and took over his job. He didn't keep it very long, because he is -- he was not the one to toe party lines, so if somebody asked him to do something that he thought was wrong, he wouldn't do it. So [laughter] he got posted to London, to another diplomatic assignment, in March -- in February 1973. He didn't last in London 37:00that long either, because, while he was the diplomat, he was not very diplomatic. So he was sent back to Bangladesh in end of 1974, and after that, he left government service and, and became a professor at a university. He taught English literature. That was his first love, you know, the teaching of English literature. He, he loved it. He loved it. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare. He died in 2010, when he was over 90 years old. I saw them in the summer of -- after I saw them in the summer of 1974, I didn't see them for the 38:00next three years. I -- you know. It wasn't until after I graduated from Kalamazoo [College], which was in 1977, that I saw them again. So I was not having personal conversation. It was the age before cell phones, so we were writing letters. So much -- a lot of the details of my life, I wasn't communicating with them.

STRONG: So in letters, it's much more catching up on news than really --

RUSHD: It's talking about bigger, bigger things, and more general things, rather than exactly, you know, my daily experiences that, that, that were shaping my life. My changes in so many different ways, and maybe we should talk about that. And so -- [laughter] in terms of going to college, I had to find a college which 39:00would give me full scholarship, because my parents could afford to fund me in London, but not in this country. My college search was totally irrational. I applied to just a few schools. Wesleyan University rejected me. I discovered Kalamazoo College through the Underground Guide to Colleges, something like some -- the title was something like that. And it, it stood out. It had innovative curriculum and programs, including, like, it had senior individualized study, foreign study, and career services. And I applied, and I got a full scholarship 40:00from Kalamazoo, so that sealed the deal. It really was the best decision -- among the best decisions in my life, to go there. It was a wonderful time.

I think about my first day there, feeling so alone. I was walking around and saying to myself, "I wish I had one friend. I just want to have one friend." And as I was walking around, this woman with red hair came to me and said, "Hi, I'm Nancy," and, and we became very good friends. We have had our ups and downs, but we're still good friends. And she was my initial anchor. Yes, there's no other way of describing that relationship. She anchored me to that community. And that 41:00feeling was interesting, because I was with people -- there were very few people of color in that community, and I don't think there was anybody from Bangladesh, and there were some really ignorant people. I remember one student coming up to me and say, "Hey, do you guys use elephants for transport?" I remember another incident when somebody said, "Hey, was your country named after the concert?" George Harrison had given a concert for Bangladesh. [laughter] I remember another incident where this kid came up to me and rubbed my arm and said, "Hey, is that your real color?" [laughter] But most people -- most of -- that is not 42:00reflective of my experience at Kalamazoo, but most people were very different. They were very interested in me. It was a period of assimilation for me, because my parents were away. I was on my own. I developed real strong friendships, mostly with White people. I -- my -- some of my professors almost took on, took on parental roles. I developed -- they were real mentors, and remain to this day. Jeremy, my husband, and I just recently went and visited three of them, actually, in Kalamazoo. So I still maintain close relationships with my 43:00professors, and some of my best friends are from my college days.

Intellectually, again, it was a very western focus. It was only in my last year that I focused a little bit in studying about Bengalis, and also it was on a -- not on a religious basis. It was about radical politics in West Bengal, India. [laughter] I went to the University of Chicago, and one of my mentors, who was -- who had gotten a PhD from the University of Chicago arranged for me so I could use the libraries there. That was a fun time. I met Bengali scholars, and 44:00also Americans who were Bengali scholars. So that was an interesting time. But apart from that, most of my studying was related to western culture. I mean, I did take courses in African literature and Indian religion, but all in all, it was a period of assimilation. And I married my college sweetheart. I am not married to him anymore. [laughter] He was White. He was non-Christian. No, sorry, not non-Christian. He was not Muslim. He did convert, but, but only to please me and my parents. He, he, he was never a believer.

STRONG: So you married him in '78?


RUSHD: In January of 1978.

STRONG: And you saw your parents again for the first time in '77. So essentially, that first time you're seeing them again, you're introducing them to the person you're about to marry.

RUSHD: Not introducing. He didn't go back then. But really, I spent -- let me go back. I spent about three months, after graduating from college, in Bangladesh, and at that time, I told them for the first time about Chris.

STRONG: It hadn't come up in the letters?

RUSHD: It hadn't come up in the letters. [laughter] It would have been hard to -- I might have hinted. I might have -- but not -- but there was no express communication, "Hey, I'm falling in love with this guy who just happens to be White and not Muslim." No, we didn't say that. And, and even in Bangladesh, it 46:00was dancing around the topic. We didn't have -- I don't remember having that many conversations about my -- I know now how my mother reacted. She, she told me a few years ago that she basically stayed in bed for a month. It was, it was very hard for them, for many different reasons. One, a Bengali Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim Westerner was rare. It was actually -- there was a lot -- there was, there was stigma attached to that, and I'm sure they heard -- they -- I'm sure they got a lot of flak from some people in Bangladesh. They never 47:00really, they never really communicated that to me, but I'm absolutely sure they got a lot of flak. Now it's not so rare that something -- you know, that a, that a Bengali woman gets married to a Western guy. But most of all, I think it was about, about having to deal with the fact that I would not come back to Bangladesh to live. I think, for the first time, they said to themselves, "She's not coming back." And that was a huge thing. It's a huge thing for, for, for, for me, even now. I, I have tears in my eyes right now, because it was a huge decision. And it didn't change the love that I feel for my family, the closeness 48:00that I feel for my family, but it did change how I experienced them, just because we were continents away. Yeah.

STRONG: And also, in your mind, Bangladesh was not going to be home. What was that change like for you?

RUSHD: My difficulty really -- my pain was related to my family, not so much to Bangladesh, because I had been away from Bangladesh for seven years, and even though I, you know, I am so steeped in Bengali culture in terms of literature, in terms of music, and I was very, very excited about the creation of Bangladesh 49:00-- I mean, that was such a huge moment in my life -- but at the same time, I wanted to live in this country. So that, that aspect of relinquishing Bangladesh as my -- as -- of relinquishing my, quote unquote, citizenship in Bangladesh, my Bangladeshi citizenship, that was not hard for me. What was hard for me is that my, my, my relationship would -- with my family would necessarily be affected by the huge physical distance.

STRONG: To get at that question another way, or to get at a different question in a similar way, what was it like for you to adopt this country as your 50:00country? What were your thoughts on it, on local politics, on culture, on any of those things?

RUSHD: That's, that's a huge question. I'm going to, I'm going to address it by going throughout different periods of my life.


RUSHD: I think that's the way to do it. I'm trying to think how best to answer your question, and maybe -- you know, that is such a, such a -- that is such a sweeping question. Maybe we'll -- we can break it down.


RUSHD: Maybe we can -- I mean, by the end of this interview, you'll have an answer to that question.

STRONG: [laughter] Yes.

RUSHD: But maybe not as -- not, not just at this very minute. After I got 51:00married to Chris, we moved to Manhattan. He went to grad school here. I was actually going to pursue a PhD at Berkeley, in sociology, but decided I didn't want to be an academic. I didn't know what I wanted to be. I really went to law school because I didn't know what else to do. I, I surprised everybody. My friends and, and professors at college said, "What?" I surprised myself. And certainly, afterwards, when I became a securities lawyer, that was another unanticipated move for me. I didn't know anything about securities. I actually 52:00didn't know much about the financial world. But I was a quick learner. [laughter] One of my colleagues gave me a booklet of, of, of the most basic vocabulary, you know, in terms of financial terms, and I used it all the time.

And, and I first lived in Manhattan, and moved to Brooklyn in 1980, with my first husband, Chris. We got divorced -- our marriage fell apart in 1983, and, and I had a very hard time. I think not only emotionally, in terms of a break-up at that age will affect anybody, but I also think I said, oh my God. You know, I 53:00had given up my country, my family, for this guy, and now I have to deal with this divorce. I think that was part of it. But mostly in terms of it was my first real, big disappointment in life, and it was a hard time. It took me many years to deal with it. I was lucky in having a very supportive work environment. I was lucky in having some amazing friends who were there for me, but at the same time, didn't want to baby me. They wanted -- so it was just the right balance. My brother, who lived in Maryland, was very, very supportive. My parents were in Bangladesh. They were worried to death. They wanted me to come 54:00back. They would -- they wanted me -- you know, they wanted to take care of me. But I think it was good that I stayed here, because I got back on my own feet. It took me years, but I did, and then I met Jeremy, and here's my life with him, and my two sons, and, and I'm really happy to be with them and have them.

STRONG: So tell me how you met Jeremy.

RUSHD: I met Jeremy in 1988. He calls it -- he describes our meeting as being through a double blind date. His friend didn't know me, and my friend didn't know him, but they were talking about us, and -- for some reason, I have no idea -- and thought we would like each other, and we did. [laughter]


STRONG: Long story short.

RUSHD: Long story short. He's Jewish. He's also White. And that was another test for my family. There's no question there's bias against Jews in Bangladesh. From the very time -- first time my parents met Jeremy, they liked him. Just like my father, he, he too is a Shakespeare scholar, and he won my father over completely when, when he started talking about Shakespeare, and both of them started reciting from Henry V, and I said, okay, this is going to be fine. [laughter] And he's a professor. He's, he's, he's a very easy person to like. He's easygoing most of the time. He's warm, he's smart. He's, he's a great guy.


STRONG: And your first husband converted, but obviously your second husband did not. Is that just not something you needed at a, at a later age?

RUSHD: I think at that time, I knew that it was a mistake to ask somebody to convert when they are not doing it -- when they're doing it to please me and my family, but not because of any religious reason. And I'm not religious, so it -- I didn't -- at this time, I was in my life where I had to say, okay, I'm not religious, and I'm marrying somebody who is culturally very Jewish. He's, he's also not religious, but he's culturally very Jewish. And so I thought, I would never convert to another religion, for cultural reason, and I wasn't going to -- and at this point, I wasn't going to ask somebody to marry -- to convert, sort 57:00of for family reason, so it would be easier for my family to deal with my relatives in Bangladesh. I did that when I was, you know -- how old was I when I first got married? Very young. But I was at a different place.

STRONG: So talk to me about raising your children in an intercultural, interfaith family. How did you navigate and teach them and share your traditions with them?

RUSHD: It hasn't been straightforward, or there hasn't been, like, one way of doing that. They weren't brought up as either -- in either religion, Jewish or Islam. But they were brought up by people who are very culturally steeped in different traditions, me a Bengali, and Jeremy, Jewish. They weren't exposed to 58:00that many Muslim rituals. They were exposed to Jewish rituals through my mother-in-law, who lives in a nearby suburb. She's an interesting woman. She, she kept a kosher home. She went to temple on all the High Holidays, and she celebrated all the holidays -- Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, you name it -- and my kids were there for all those holidays, and they loved the Jew-- singing the Jewish songs. They don't know Hebrew, but they learned to recite the four questions at Passover in Hebrew. My mother-in-law married a very 59:00secular Jewish person, my father-in-law, who died, unfortunately, when he was only 68. So she's an interesting woman. She doesn't believe in a God, but she believes in strongly maintaining her heritage.

So, so, so when I said my kids weren't brought up as a Muslim or a Jew, it -- I don't want to be glib about it. That wasn't an easy decision. I think Jeremy and I talked about rearing children before we got married, and over this issue, we broke up for a week. Just for a week, but we did break up. [laughter] But ultimately, we realized that, for both of us, it was, it was the cultural traditions that really mattered, and it didn't matter what label the kids were brought up under. They, they have a very strong ethical compass, my children. I 60:00love that, and I'm glad we were able to impart that to them. They also have strong sense of the Bengali and Jewish cultures, but they don't identify with any, quote unquote, "tribe." They don't identify with any particular religion. Nadim talks about himself as Bengali-Jewish American. Arif has a more nuanced description. He calls -- he says he is a person -- he's very idealistic -- he's a person, and he celebrates his parents' Jewish and Bengali traditions. The 61:00other day, he said something that really stuck to me. He said, "I didn't fall into a community. I had to make my community." So I think that gives you a flavor of their upbringing. I mean, I think about -- I think I mentioned to you in a conversation before this interview that I'm sort of re-circling back to my Muslim heritage in some fashion nowadays, only recently, but most of the time of my life in this country, it was really my Bengali heritage that I was focusing on. I was -- I would sing Bengali songs, I read Bengali literature, I cooked Bengali food. So it was about being a Bengali more than about having a Muslim 62:00heritage that was important to me as I was raising my kids.

STRONG: So I want to circle back later to what you're saying about reconnecting with your, your Muslim identity now, but we haven't talked much about your work life, and I know that that was central to you, as like a support place, and also, as we talked about before this interview, challenging as a woman in the legal field. Can you say more about those experiences?

RUSHD: Absolutely. My identity is very strongly connected to being a working woman. It was second nature to me. When I had my, my children, I never had any question that I would go immediately back to work. I took three months off, but then I went back. When I started at Pomerantz, the law firm I was with almost -- 63:00for almost 30 years -- I was the only woman lawyer, and there were very few women in the securities litigation area. That has changed now, but it was -- at that time, there were very few women, and there were no women of color that I knew of in my field. And I had interesting experiences -- I shouldn't say interesting. I had bad experiences. I remember, early on, going with a team of lawyer to a white-shoe firm in Boston, and as I walked in, this young lawyer came up to me and said, "Can you please sign this confidentiality statement?" I said, "Why? You're not asking anybody else to sign this document." He said, "We ask all paralegals to do that." So he just assumed I was a paralegal. I, I 64:00retorted immediately, "You're asking me because I'm Brown? Is that why you think I'm not a law-- are you assuming that I'm a paralegal because I'm not White?" He was a little embarrassed, but that was not -- that type of -- I, I -- I'm getting too emotional. Let me step back.

I had that experience over and over again. I would be mistaken for a paralegal. People just assumed I was a paralegal. Another example that stands out, again, when I was a very young lawyer, I went to take a deposition of a very distinguished White man who lived in an estate outside of Stanford University. As I walked in, somebody said, "Oh, you're the court reporter. Let me show you 65:00where we will be." Again, it was just an assumption, because of my color, that I was not a lawyer, and I just hated that, and I hated that. But that was the reality. I often talked to Jeremy about this, about when a White lawyer walks into a room, all he has to worry about is being a good lawyer. When I walked into a room, I had to worry about people first reacting to my color. Second, I had to think about proving my-- proving to them that I was actually a lawyer. And then, if I performed well, I still had to deal with some people being 66:00surprised by that. "Oh, you did a good job," in a very -- but said it in such a condescending way. "Oh, we, we didn't expect you to be able to do that." So that -- those are the kind of experience I lived with all my time in -- you know, even in being a lawyer in New York City, I had to deal with people reacting to me as a person of color, first of all, before they did anything else. So that is very much a part of my life here.

STRONG: Talk to me about how you maybe saw that change as more people of color, more women, started to enter the profession. Or did it change?

RUSHD: It really didn't [laughter] change that much while I was in practice, in terms of women of color. It certainly did in terms of women. Pomerantz has many, 67:00many women associates, and several women partners. Actually, I think, if you compared it to other firms, it does really well in terms of hiring women.

STRONG: Sorry. Please continue.

RUSHD: As more women started working at the firm, I, I often was asked the question, "How do you balance your work and family life?" They saw me working like a maniac. I mean, I did go home at seven o'clock most of the time, but many times I would be working through the night, and they knew that when my kids went to sleep, I was working again. So that was a question I was asked a lot, and my 68:00answer to them was, "Don't ask that question unless it's also asked of a man." Because I feel like society expects the woman to balance wife -- work and home life, but they don't have that same expectation of men. And I don't think we'll ever reach equality, true equality, at the workplace, unless this expectation is addressed. And I say that to my sons' women friends now, "Don't answer that balancing question unless, unless that is asked of men, too." It really, really is so important to me that we address that issue. We should be talking about changing structures that would allow parents to be -- to have more time to be 69:00parents. Absolutely I'm for that. I am for better leave for parents. I don't want the focus just to be on maternity leave. I think it should be maternal leave and paternal leave.

In terms of what hasn't changed, there's still a huge pay disparity. And women are not as aggressive in terms of asking for pay raises as men. I sat on the management committee at work, and very few women would come and ask for raises in strident voices, whereas men would. They would use very strong voices to ask for raises. So when we were actually making those decisions, often the people with the strongest voice would stay in our mind, and I remember having -- saying 70:00many times, "Hey, wait a minute, just because X person didn't come and ask for a raise, we shouldn't give this guy a better raise than her, because she is more senior than him." And people would say, "Well, she never complained. The squeaky wheel gets the grease." And I would say, "Well, you know, we just end up solidifying stereotypical expectations and, and behaviors, and rewarding -- you know, rewarding behavior that will just strengthen the inequities between men and women." I hope that came out right.


RUSHD: That's an important idea for me.

STRONG: Yeah. And you, you mentioned in your, your opening statement of sorts that you, you see yourself as a feminist. So -- oops. Let me pause for just one moment.


[Interview Interrupted.]

RUSHD: It's thinking you're ask--

[Interview Interrupted.]

STRONG: Will that happen again? Okay, we're back.

RUSHD: Turned it off. Turned it off.

STRONG: So I was about to ask, what does it mean to you to be feminist? How do you see that affecting your life, your experiences, your relationships?

RUSHD: It plays a huge part in how I live, in what I think, in, in, in the fights that I fight, in terms of how I raise my children. It's a constant battle. Oh, God, it's such a huge area, Liz. I think we need to -- I mean, I 72:00obviously believe in sort of making sure we have basic legal protection, like in terms of reproductive rights, which are at jeopardy now. I believe about equality at work, I believe at equality at home. I was actually -- well, I'm not going to get into that. But even in terms of living with a man like Jeremy, who is very liberal and pro-feminist, there are a lot of stereotypical behavior that we have to address, and sometimes we do it well, and sometimes not, in terms of 73:00responsibilities at home. I mean, he was an equal partner in terms of taking care of children, but in terms of the home, often I, I, I feel like, hey, don't expect that -- you know, don't expect that to be my responsibility. I have to -- you know, I think I fight a lot of those fights in terms of home life. Not that he thinks I should be cooking or I should be washing, but often we have to consciously address certain expectations of, of home life and responsibilities in the home.

STRONG: So this is totally tangential, but just to bring it back to where we kind of started this, you had mentioned that only recently are you circling back to understanding and exploring Islam more. Tell me about that transition or that experience.


RUSHD: It's -- it has happened over several years, actually. I mean, the recently bit was -- I'm taking back that recent word --


RUSHD: -- description, characterization. It's happened over several years. It started with September 11th. I mean, I saw that second tower being hit from my window in Brooklyn Heights. So it had an amazing impact on me. And I was part of that wave of patriotism and flag-waving, but I was also -- became very conscious of problems with being too nationalistic, too tribal, too sort of saying, "Americans, we are the best in everything." And I remember, right after 75:00September 11, being at, at my office. We were all mourning together, and we were talking about what had just happened, and, and I said something like, "It's horrible. I saw it. It's horrible. I don't understand it, but it's very important to try to understand why it happened. Why did these people do it?" People were silent, and then, like, one person, who had tremendous power at the, at the firm says, "What are you talking about? We don't have to understand. These people are evil. Shaheen, don't be talking to us about understanding them." And I said, "Yes, but we still need to understand what they did." But that was almost like a taboo thing to say, and I think there were many, many 76:00times -- there were, there were, there were a lot of subjects that were taboo at that time, but I learned to speak up, and, and, and I was very uncomfortable, but I did speak up. I remember some of my -- like, I had an acquaintance who didn't really know I was of Muslim heritage coming up to me and saying, "You know, I just walked out of a subway car. This guy with a beard walked in, and I was so uncomfortable." And I mentioned to her that I was Muslim, and that how that just did not sit well with me, and I had a problem with that reaction. I had so many discussions like that during that period.

So I was -- I, I, I, I, I didn't experience the, the really heinous part of 77:00Islamophobia developments then. I think men did it more. I know people, men, who were slapped on the subway because somebody thought they were -- by strangers, because they thought they were Muslim. All the really horrible stuff that was happening at the governmental level in terms of profiling of Muslims, unjust imprisonment of Muslim men, and just people shouting out slurs to Muslims on the street. That didn't really happen to me that much, because often people don't 78:00associate my looks as being, quote unquote, "Muslim." They think I'm Indian, they think I'm Filipino, they think I'm Bolivian, they think I'm Mexican. It's only when they hear my name that maybe, you know, they focus on me being -- of having a Muslim background. But most of the time, they don't. I personally didn't feel it, except when I spoke up. I felt that, that silence, and then, like, that reaction of, what are you talking about? But I was scared for my sons. They were very young then. They were under 10, but I was still scared for them. So that, so that was one period where I sort of learned to speak up, and did so.

More recently, in terms -- when I said more recently, I was thinking about it 79:00going beyond the personal. It's really the post-Trump world, where this really, I don't know, hysteria against Muslims at so many different levels, including his incredibly heinous Muslim ban -- or bans against Muslims, not just one ban -- this tremendous hysteria now, this tremendous Islamophobia. So I started working with grassroots groups that were trying to address these issues in terms of protecting immigrants' rights, in terms of working against the ban against Muslims. I became a volunteer at Brooklyn Community Foundation, and did some 80:00research for them, which took me into the Muslim communities. I spoke to a few leaders, like Linda Sarsour, who was then the executive director at Arab American Association [of New York]. She's very famous now. She's one of the cofounders of the original Women's March in DC. I spoke to a top official at --

[Interview Interrupted.]

RUSHD: -- for Just Immigration.

STRONG: Say that one more time? I was paused when you started.

RUSHD: Sorry.

STRONG: That's all right.

RUSHD: I spoke to a top official at, at Black Alliance for Just Immigration. It's a group that addresses discrimination against Muslims who are African Americans, but also Muslims who emigrated from different countries in Africa. 81:00That was very interesting. I spoke to other leaders, including the executive director of Arab American Family Support --

STRONG: Center.

RUSHD: Support Center. Thanks. So I became involved with leaders in the community, and also came into contact with just Muslims from so many different countries and different ethnicities and races, more so than I have ever before. Let's see. Pause.

[Interview Interrupted.]

STRONG: All right, we're back.


RUSHD: In terms of religion, I'm still an agnostic, but I do want to learn more about Islam. I want to study the Qur'an. I want to study other religious texts. I want to take courses that approaches Islam in a critical thinking manner. Not being critical of Islam, but taking -- really trying to understand it in a deep way. That's what I want to do. I want to have a better sense of women and Islam. I have a hard time if, if Muslims use or misuse religion to put down women. I'm 83:00not saying most, most -- you know, I'm not saying that's what happens in, in, among most Muslims, but that happens sometimes in, in -- you know, I, I have a personal experience with a woman who used to be a successful professional woman, but now she's married to, to a person who doesn't allow her to work, who doesn't allow her to talk to men outside the family. She can't drive. That's not -- I mean, it's, it's hard for me to see -- say that's her choice. I don't say that. It's hard for me to accept that. But at the same time, we have enough of a shared basis that we have a relationship with each other. I think people have a misconception of women and Islam, and I want to be able to understand better 84:00that relationship. I can hear my -- when I was a young girl, my model was Khadija [bint Khuwaylid], who was the first wife of Prophet Muhammad, and he actually had a monogamous relationship -- marriage with her for 25 years, until she died, actually. He didn't have other wives until she died. She was a businesswoman before she got married. She's the one who had the money, and I'm not sure if I'm right, but I think she asked -- she was the one who first expressed interest in marrying him. She was -- I don't know, at least 15 years older than him. She was married twice before. She was a widow. I think her previous husbands had died in wars. So here we have one of the most important 85:00figures in Islam, a woman, and how many people know about that? How many people in this country know about that? And I want to know more about that. So that is an area that I want to explore a lot. I have to find a good course on it. I have to find good readings. I have to talk to Zaheer about it. Giving me some good sources.

STRONG: You know, along those lines, when you're talking about meeting community leaders and faith leaders from so many different -- what's the word I'm looking for -- cultures of Islam, you know, both from the US their whole lives, or immigrated, all, all in Brooklyn, all in New York, I'm wondering about your perspective on cultural differences among practitioners of Islam here. Or what 86:00stood out to you, or what surprised you, or what did you learn?

RUSHD: I think I had a sense of -- I had an intellectual sense of the differences. I mean, not just among, you know, people, people who practice -- yeah, in terms of people who practice the faith in different ways, given their different backgrounds. For example, just because you're a Sunni doesn't mean you're going to be practicing Islam in the same way. If you're a Sunni in Saudi Arabia, you know, you're a Wahhabi, and you are -- it is a very strict interpretation of Islam. If you're a Sunni from Bangladesh, it's a very 87:00different interpretation of Islam. Not that the basic tenets of Islam are, are different in the -- you know. The basic tenets of Islam remain the same, but how you practice it changes. Certainly in terms of the role of women, in terms of Sunni Bengalis. There are -- I mean, I grew, I grew up with, and I live among, women who are, who are professionals. They're -- you know, some of them wear hijabs, but most of them don't. They don't have -- they don't fit the stereotypical idea of Muslim woman that, that exists in so many different parts of this country, you know. People just have one view of how -- what a Muslim woman is, and what she can or cannot do. There is no one view. Just like there's so many different ways of being a Christian. Even among fundamentalist 88:00Christians, there is not one way of being a fundamentalist Christian. The same is true for Islam, even among religious people. And of course there are, you know, Muslims who are completely secular like me. I'm beyond secular. I'm an agnostic.

So I think, for me, it was important to personally experience it, so that I can be a better communicator of those differences, and attack the stereotypical views of, of Muslims in this country. I mean, most people in this country think, like, Muslims are Arabs. Not that there's anything wrong with being Arabs, but Muslims are from all different countries of this world. Most -- I mean, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. How many people know that? So for me, it was so important to have those personal experiences, because 89:00it makes me a better communicator of things that I want to talk about, which is, among other things, diversity in the Muslim communities, plural.

STRONG: You know, in, in parallel to all of this, you've retired from law and you're becoming, you know, very socially engaged, and I want to focus on a couple organizations that have been important to you, because I know there's more to discuss than we can discuss in the time we have.

RUSHD: Right, right.

STRONG: So just roughly, can you tell me a little bit, first, about the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, and how you got involved with that, and what your thoughts are?

RUSHD: Before that, can I digress? [laughter]

STRONG: Yes, please.

RUSHD: As I said before, I am, in many ways, assimilated into this society. I'm 90:00very much a Brooklynite, and I want to give you some sense of that, what I mean when I say that, but I also want to say why I feel the sense of otherness, too. I have to deal with the question, "Where are you really from?" I don't -- I'm surprised that people ask me in this community, which is supposed to be so liberal, but, for example -- I can give you one example. I volunteer at the, at the garden nearby, the park nearby, and one day this woman said, "Hey, where are you from?" No, sorry -- yeah, "Where are you from?" In a very nice way. I said, "From Warren Street. Where are you from?" And she gave me her answer, and she said, "But where are you really from?" And I didn't answer that question. I was so offended, and she understood that I was offended from, from my body language. 91:00I mean, I can understand why somebody is going to be curious about my background, because I have an accent, and I look different, but the question as posed is so offensive, and so many people who ask that question doesn't understand -- they do not understand that. That happens to my oldest son a lot, and he is really offended, because he has this view that, yes, he's a person who's Brown, but he's a person. You focus on a person. So when somebody says, "Where are you from?" and he says Brooklyn, and then they say, "Where are you really from?" He says, "Hey, I was born in this country. I don't speak with an accent. Why are people asking me that question?" You know.

And just think -- I was thinking, actually this morning -- think about a person 92:00who looks very Irish, has an Irish name, but has no Irish accent, and that person tells you, "I'm from Greenwich, Connecticut." Not one person will ask them, "Where are you really from?" So that question is only asked of non-Whites, and, and maybe non-Whites with accents. But that's not true for Arif. He's -- he doesn't -- so it's really asked of -- White, White people don't experience that question. We do. I do. My, you know, my sons do. I wanted to say that.

Another incident that's bothered me a lot is -- and it happened as recently as last year. I went with Jeremy to see a private screening of a movie on Syrian refugees, in Brooklyn Heights, so most of the people there, you know, they sort 93:00of pride themselves as being liberals. [laughter] And I was moving to -- next to Jeremy, to sit with him, and this woman, this really well-dressed White woman, said to me, "Dearie, can you get me one of those delicious sandwiches?" I'm still shocked that that person just assumed I was there to be, you know, functioning as the help, or was the help. What am I saying? I'm trying to -- [laughter] not, not that hard -- it's a simple concept. That person thought I was the servant because of my color. There's no other reason for her to think that.

So -- but, saying all that, I'm very much a Brooklynite, and I'm involved in so many different levels. I have great friendships. I mean, I do great things with 94:00them. We have these rituals, and I want to talk about some of them, if we have time. My -- a friend has -- every Saturday after Thanksgiving, we go to a friend's house for a soup dinner. Jeremy and I have Shakespeare readings at our house, where people come, and we have a feast, and we read through an entire play of, of, of, of Shakespeare in one evening. We have celebrated New Year's Eve at the same friend's house for many, many years. They live down the street. I'm, I'm, I'm involved in a lot of different organizations and groups in this community. I love -- I, I love being a Brooklynite, you know. Even though this 95:00is a very White neighborhood, I can just walk down the block, and I can bump into people of all different colors, from many different places. There is very little economic diversity in this community, but again, I walk into it just if I walk one minute away from my house. So I feel very much a part of this community. I have a lot invested in it. But at the same time, I do feel that I'm also the other. I wanted to get that out.

STRONG: I have a follow-up question about it. What is Brooklyn? Like, what is, what is the spirit of Brooklyn, and what does it mean to be a Brooklynite? Like, how does that resonate with you specifically?

RUSHD: Many things. I like brownstone living. I like the horizontal living, 96:00although Brooklyn is changing, right? We have these high-rises now all over Brooklyn. But it was wonderful for me to work in Midtown, with all the high-rises and the throngs of people, and then be able to come back to this oasis. [laughter] Nadim described this community as a Jane Austen community. He would say, "Well, we -- people knew each other, and sometimes were too nosy." He -- you know what happened once was he was hanging out the window, talking to a friend on the street, and one of our neighbors screamed at him, and he popped back in. The neighbor called me back and complained about it, you know. He was very unhappy. I was pleased. [laughter] I was pleased. So that -- I love that element of people sort of knowing you, watching out for you. I mean, I can walk 97:00into my dry cleaner's. The person will address me -- people will address me by my name. I love that. I love, I love the diversity of Brooklyn. Obviously, you know, there's gentrification. I live in a very segregated community, neighborhood, but at the same time, the diversity in Brooklyn is what makes it special, and I hope it survives. I know there are lots of problems with gentrification, with the lack of affordable housing, with the lack of good jobs for many people, but being a Brooklynite means being part of this amazing community of different people.

STRONG: Just to get some perspective on neighborhood history, you were in Brooklyn Heights, and then you moved here to Cobble Hill in the 2000s. How did 98:00these neighborhoods change over the time that you've been here?

RUSHD: When I first moved to Brooklyn Heights, it was not -- it was affordable. The houses, the prices were not crazy, as they are now. So that has suddenly changed in both neighborhoods. They're very -- the real estate here is very expensive. You know, really, it's so -- it's just totally crazy. In terms of who lives in these neighborhoods, that hasn't really changed. They are very White neighborhoods. Very few people of color live there.

STRONG: You know, something you've mentioned sort of throughout our interview is that you find yourself in White spaces, White schools, White employment communities, White neighborhoods. Why do you think that is?

RUSHD: I, I don't think there was -- there is one particular reason. It was just 99:00how things evolved for me. You know, after my parents left, where I lived, where I went to school, then moving onto Kalamazoo, the context in which I studied there, you know, where my family was away from me and I was really focused on my emotion-- my emotional sustenance came from my friends and my professors, who were mostly White. I married a White guy the first time around, and the second time around -- the last time. This is it. [laughter] I didn't, I didn't think about choosing a White workplace. I just happened to choose a field where there 100:00were very White people, and at that time, as I said, there were not that many women lawyers at my firm in my field. So it wasn't like I made -- I want to be, I want to be with White people, I want to be with White culture. It's just, just the way it happened. It sort of happened without consciousness. But here I am.

STRONG: I just wanted to ask, because it had come up. Let's go back to where we started before we came back to this. Tell me about some of your work with the Human Rights Watch, New York Appleseed, Democratic Party. You pick.

RUSHD: Great. I'll start with Democratic Party, because that's the most recent. I'm now an elected official. I'm a member of -- it's a mouthful. I'm a member of the Kings County Democratic County Committee. Long name. It's the bottom rung of 101:00the Brooklyn Democratic Party. On paper, I have, I have some power. I, I, I vote for the election of the officials who run the Democratic Party in Brooklyn. I have a say in terms of judicial nomination. I have a say in the filling of vacancies that happens when, when an elected official resigns for whatever reasons, or moves, moves to another job. I have a say in the budget. I have a say in the formulation of rules. But in actuality, things are different. The Democratic Party is run as a machine. There is a boss who decides everything. We had our first meeting in September, and before we got to the meeting, everything 102:00was decided, because the boss had collected enough proxies. But there is a reformist movement that I'm a part of, and we're trying to change things. A lot got written up in the press about this meeting, and most of the people who actually attended the meetings were reformists, and for the first time, the, the party bosses had to face a slate being put up by an -- let me back up. The party boss puts up his own slate of officers, but this was the first time that we put up our slate of officers. We did -- we lost, but we came close. But I'm excited 103:00about being part of a group that is trying to bring about changes. I'm not -- I think we all love being Democrats, but we want to change some things in terms of how the party in this borough is run.

STRONG: What convinced you to run for that position?

RUSHD: My, my family said, "Hey, you're so interested in politics. You're always working for politicians. Why don't you run?" They are really ambitious. They wanted me to run for city-wide office, and state-wide office, and I said, "Are you kidding me? No way." But then my oldest son, Arif, sat me down one day and said, "We're going to find a thing that you can run for," and we together did research and came up with running for the bottom rung of the Democratic Party, a place to begin. [laughter]

STRONG: So what's next for you? What are your ambitions in this area?


RUSHD: Well, in this area, I just want to be an effective county committee member for now, and of course I do a lot of work, volunteer work, for candidates. I'm very involved in terms of the midterms. I want to get Democrats in power, so I do a lot of that. In terms of my personal ambition, in terms of my county committee work, I have, I have a lot that I want to do, but I don't think you really have time to hear about it. [laughter]

STRONG: That's fair. Just to focus on, on another one of your, I guess, focuses, is desegregation of schools locally. Can you talk to me about that?

RUSHD: That is where New York Appleseed comes in. I am on the board of -- I'm on the board of directors. I'm actually on the executive committee. I love the work that they're doing. They are trying to come up with innovative approaches to 105:00deal with the segregation in public schools in New York City. I was -- I, I was amazed to learn that we are the third-most segregated public school system in the whole country, which is amazing. So New York Appleseed works with, with politicians, with students, with teachers, with lawyers, with parents, to come up with novel approaches for, for addressing this issue. And one thing that I'm really proud of is what happened at PS 133, which is a school in Park Slope. And this -- Apple-- New York Appleseed worked with other groups and came up with a program so that, in terms of admitting students, we also look at their 106:00socioeconomic status, and whether they are English-language learners. If you just look at race, then, then there are, there are all kinds of legal hurdles that you have to jump through. You can accomplish -- you can get people from different races together by also focusing on their economic backgrounds and whether they are English-language -- whether English language is their second language, because you will get in more people of color by focusing on those two criteria, or using those criteria. But anyway, that's one way, and -- of accomplishing diversity.

And Appleseed's focus has not been just on doing that at a particular school 107:00level, but trying to expand it to involve -- to do it on a district-wide level. And recently -- I think it was on district 15 -- the middle schools in -- de Blasio just announced that the middle schools in, in that district will no longer use a strictly, quote unquote, "merits-based application process," but they will also use just the kind of criteria I was talking about, and, and, and that's very exciting, and Appleseed was very much involved in making that happen. And often when -- there can be a lot of acrimony among parents when people try to introduce the notion of adding diversity. It can get pretty ugly. 108:00I mean, racism can really raise its head. This didn't happen this time around, so that's exciting.

STRONG: It's interesting that the, the problem of segregated schools is defined by racial segregation, but the, the framework where you're allowed to tackle that problem has to use different tools, different --

RUSHD: Absolutely, because you can't, you can't address racial segregation without addressing, say, for example, segregation in housing, and also the use of tests, which impact different communities in different ways. For example, the, quote unquote, gifted schools use tests that keep out people of color. And 109:00there's nothing sacrosanct about these tests. People just say, "Oh, but, you know, why do you want to get rid of tests? I mean, how else are you going to determine who are the gifted kids are?" But it's not like these tests are written in stone. Why shouldn't we experiment with other ways of identifying gifted students? Even if it's messier, and even if it's not, quote unquote, an "objective" -- as keenly objective as some people think tests are. Tests are not objective, by the way. I was like -- I bombed on standardized tests, and I did really well. I was first in my law school class, but I probably had the worst LSAT scores. So I have -- I, I am very against testing. So I love Appleseed for 110:00all the work that it is doing in terms of the problem of segregation in, in the New York public schools. Can we stop for a minute?

[Interview Interrupted.]

STRONG: So along this line of your work to make Brooklyn and, you know, your local community better, I want to continue kind of working backwards and ask about your retirement. As we said, just right now, off the record, you can't take for granted that when someone retires, they will go and become involved the way that you have. So how did you make that decision, and how did you find your initial focuses of where you wanted to put your energy?

RUSHD: I didn't have a roadmap, which was a little unsettling, because it took me a while to find a rhythm. [laughter] The first thing I did after retire was breathe, and what that meant was I went on these walking explorations all over 111:00Brooklyn, all over Manhattan, and it was a very important way for me to learn to relax. I remember getting up really early in the morning and going to the Flower District in Manhattan, and just experiencing the morning light, the quietness, and then the beginning of the workday. The fact that I was experiencing -- had that experience was amazing, because my life had been so busy, I could hardly breathe. So I didn't have a roadmap. I was floundering, but I was also learning to breathe. I was doing -- like, I was taking courses. I took a course on The Iliad. I love The Iliad, and it was wonderful to study it. But it took me a 112:00while to figure out what to do. I mean, I knew I didn't want, quote unquote, positions of prestige. I didn't want to be in a position of being responsible in a big way, or managing people. I had been very driven. I had done that. I didn't want to do it. But I had to figure out what I wanted to do, because I certainly didn't want to sit at home and watch TV. And my kids were older. They didn't need me. [laughter] They, they, they didn't need me. You know, they love -- they were very happy that I was retiring, because they knew I was, they knew I was ready to do that. I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore, and they supported me, but they didn't need me as much anymore.

So I was interested in human rights issues, and the opportunity to go on the 113:00advisory council of Human Rights Watch sort of fell onto my lap, and it was, it was a great experience, because I love that organization. They are so good at shining light on, on, on abuses all around the world. They were among the first to expose the fact that [Bashar al]-Assad was using chemical weapons against his own people, and the focus about huge human rights problems that exist in this country. So initially, I got -- I, I was very happy to get involved with that organization. I'm less involved with Human Rights Watch now. I sort of moved onto other organizations, New York Appleseed being one, all my political work 114:00being second, and everything else I've talked about, you know, all through this interview.

STRONG: So what are you looking forward to? What are you going to work on next?

RUSHD: I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and seeing what, if anything, I can do. I'm excited about working with this reform club. I hope to take a lot of courses. I really want to. I wasn't kidding when I said I want to study Islam. I want to study the religious texts. I want to learn more about Khadija. I want to learn more about Palestine. As a 115:00matter of fact, I'm going to start my course in modern Palestine tonight. So I love being a student, and so I hope to take many more courses. And I, I have so many different ideas right now. I'm thinking of, of figuring out a way of working with a group that deals with sexual abuse in the South Asian community. So there -- I have lots of things percolating right now. Let's see what happens. It's exciting.

STRONG: Well, is there anything we didn't get to in this interview that you would like to cover?

RUSHD: Did I tell you what great sons I have? [laughter]


STRONG: Would you like to elaborate? You're welcome to.

RUSHD: Not really, but except to say they're great. I mean, they're just -- they are good human beings, and I think that is among my greatest accomplishment, is raising two sons who are such good human beings.

STRONG: How do you think you pulled that off? [laughter] What do you credit to their success?

RUSHD: Them, mostly. But I think Jeremy and I have been successful in talking about -- in talking and living a good, ethical life. You know, sort of focusing on ethics, focusing on tolerance, focusing on being self-critical. Focusing on 117:00maybe being accepting, but at the same time, having a real strong sense of one's self. But mostly, it's them. I'm just very lucky. Jeremy and I are very lucky -- Jeremy and I are very lucky to have such great sons. On that note, I will end. [laughter]

STRONG: All right. Well, thank you so much for your time.

RUSHD: You're welcome.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Shaheen Rushd

Shaheen Rushd was born in 1956 in Chittagong, Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and came to the United States in 1970 when her father was stationed in Washington, D.C. as a diplomat. When her parents returned to the newly-independent Bangladesh, she remained in the United States to complete high school, and went on to attend Kalamazoo College in Michigan and New York Law School in Manhattan. After earning her law degree, she joined a Manhattan law firm that specialized in securities litigation. She and her husband raised their children in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, and upon retirement, she became involved in local social justice organizations and in the Democratic Party.

In this interview, Shaheen Rushd discusses her family's history in religious, academic, and political circles in South Asia, as well as her own upbringing in a secular Bengali Muslim household. She speaks about her father's diplomatic assignment to Washington, D.C. and their experience of the Bangladesh War of Independence from the United States. She elaborates about attending high school near Washington, D.C., her experiences at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and her work as a lawyer. In addition, she talks about her decades-long residence in the Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill neighborhoods of Brooklyn; her interfaith marriage with her Jewish husband; their children's relationship with their Bengali heritage and Jewish religious traditions; and her own exploration of Islam. She puts significant emphasis on her political activism following the 2016 presidential election, particularly involving her membership in the Kings County Democratic Committee; economic inequality and gentrification; and segregation in schools. She also repeatedly touches on her lifelong experiences around diversity, racial profiling, misogyny, and class throughout the interview. 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.


Rushd, Shaheen, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, October 17, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.49; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Democratic Party (New York, N.Y.)
  • Human Rights Watch (Organization)
  • Kalamazoo College
  • New York Appleseed (New York, N.Y.)
  • Rushd, Shaheen


  • Bengali Americans
  • Child rearing
  • Diversity in the workplace
  • Education (Secondary)
  • Gentrification
  • Interfaith families
  • Interracial marriage
  • Islamophobia
  • Multiculturalism
  • Political activists
  • Segregation in education
  • Women lawyers
  • Women political activists


  • Bangladesh
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Cobble Hill (New York, N.Y.)
  • Washington (D.C.)


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Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories