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Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali
August 02, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.24
ALI: I'm Zaheer Ali. Today is August 3rd, 2018, and I am here at BrooklynHistorical Society with Wazina Zondon. Am I pronouncing that right?
ZONDON: Yes, Wazina Zondon.
ALI: So Wazina Zondon. And, this interview is for the Muslims in BrooklynProject. Wazina, if you can, again, reintroduce yourself, and state your full name and your birth date.
ZONDON: My name is Wazina Bibi Zondon, and my birthday is [date redacted forprivacy] 1982.
ALI: Okay, and how do you spell your middle name?
ALI: Okay. So, let's talk about your early life. Tell me when and where you --when and where you grew up.
ZONDON: I grew up in New York City in Flushing, New York, in the -- I guess inthe '80s and '90s, and I lived in Queens until I left for college in 2000.
ALI: Okay. Tell me a little bit about your family background.
ZONDON: Sure. So my family is from Afghanistan. My parents are immigrants fromAfghanistan who came here because of the Russian Soviet occupation, and because of the war. So they came here. We grew up in a close-knit community in Flushing. 1:00You know, our roots in America only go back to, like, 1978. My uncle came first and then was -- the rest of the family kind of came over. But I grew up in a close-knit Afghan community. I mean, until probably like the early '90s, the conversation in our family was that we were just here -- going to be here temporarily, that we're going to be here until it was okay to go back home. It's funny, because I didn't -- I realized that -- I knew that, but more recently, my dad -- told a story about how -- he's like, "I don't know if you all remember, but, like, we didn't even really want to invest in a television -- or, like, a nice television, until like, the mid-early-'90s, because" -- he was like, "I didn't think there was any, you know, real reason to get a nice TV, because we're going to be here temporarily."
But I grew up in Queens doing all the things that I think regular, you know,kids do, like school, block parties, that sort of thing, but then also, you know, my -- I was just encouraged to hang out with my cousins, go to masjid -- you know, on -- after school or weekends to learn to read Qur'an, things like that. 2:00
ALI: So that's interesting. Did you -- how much of a sense of the kind oftemporary or transient nature of -- or intention of your parents did you -- were you aware of growing up, do you feel?
ZONDON: I don't know if this feeling of "temporariness" was a family thing, oreveryone else outside my parents. Like, just feeling like you didn't really fit, and I know that my parents encouraged us to kind of Americanize and do the things that other kids did, but I don't think I was received in those spaces by the kids and their parents and families -- to feel like I was meant to really blend in.
ALI: Explain, or tell me a story that you think illustrates that.
ZONDON: Yeah. You know, like I -- so I took dance classes growing up, because I3:00really wanted to dance, and my parents were like, you know, "I guess you could do that." But -- my parents were like, "Yes, you can go to the dance class," but I had to go to walk to the dance class and find it myself and, like, sign myself up, and then walk myself to dance classes. While -- and when I would go to like -- you know, to dance class, like, all these parents and people were there, like, with their kids. Well, and so -- and I don't know if that illustrates it well enough, but there was something that felt the gaze of all these parents -- and generally a lot of White people, the White gaze -- on me as like this "other," not just because of my physical appearance, but also because I was, like, this parent-less child, who was doing this thing independently. But my parents were on board with it, they just -- you know, they were like -- "Okay, you go do it. We're going to give you the okay." Which -- right -- my parents were like, "Yes, do the thing that all other kids do in Queens -- or all other girls can do. We're okay with that." But when I would show up in those spaces, no one reflected both the family structure in the way we did things, and the 4:00race and, you know, spiritual religious things. I didn't see myself there.
ALI: How -- do you remember how you responded, or what ways you kind ofresponded to reflect that unique feeling?
ZONDON: I think this -- I think I took on this identity of, like, being asubculture or "other" culture kid. Like, you know, I also ended up being very big into, like, this, like goth, all-in-black weirdo. And I was embracing the weirdo because I felt like I -- someone on the margins, on the outside all the time. My wearing black was just a way to, like, own it, and you know, carry a parasol in sunlight, all those things, because really what was set me -- setting me apart wasn't my aesthetic, it was my sense of isolation as a Muslim kid, as someone whose grandmother did not look like every other grandmother on the block, whose parents didn't sound or look like everybody else's parents. Yeah. 5:00So I think that's the place where I felt the most transient, not of here.
ALI: So, while you were doing that in relationship to, let's say, people outsideyour community, how were you feeling in relation to the people in your community? Because I'm wondering, were there other people in your community, even within your family, making those, let's say, forays to the kind of outside culture? Because if you were like, say, doing the goth thing, how did that position you inside the community?
ZONDON: Yeah. In the community, it didn't -- thankfully, it didn't set me apartthat much. I was mainly encouraged to just be really close friends with my cousins, and we -- I did everything with my cousins, my mom's sister's 6:00daughters, and we did everything, slumber parties, we even dressed alike. So we were a very tight-knit, cohesive group internally, which was actually very -- I think was probably a saving grace and moment to feel less isolated that way. And then I also -- but we never talked about that. We never talked about feeling that much of an insider-outsider.
Although when my cousins and I would go out in, like, in Flushing to the park insummertime, everyone -- except for me, because I liked my name -- would come up with, like, a -- a White girl name. Like, everyone was a Tiffany or a something, instead of being a -- other names, the names we were given. So when we went outside -- when we went out, we, like, kind of performed this identity, and we all -- I don't think we talked about why we were trying to make up these new names for ourselves, but we just knew that it would give us some sort of social capital, or safety, really.
ALI: So tell me, within your family, do you have siblings?
ALI: And where are you in the line of siblings?7:00
ZONDON: Right. There's -- I'm the eldest, and then I have a brother, and twosisters that are a little bit young-- so my brother, Adam is 18 months younger than I am, and my sisters, Zarina and Sangina, are about 10 and 11 years younger than I am.
ALI: Do you feel like you had to be the pioneer? It sounds like you were --
ALI: -- like, you were a bit of the pioneer, you know, in terms of the foraysinto Americana, you know, how did -- what ways do you -- did you feel like you assumed that role in your family?
ZONDON: Yeah. I cer-- I mean, I a hundred percent did. Everything from -- so mybrother, also was a boy, and he just, also was, like, naturally more athletic, so when he did his sports things, he, like, excelled at all those things, and also because he was a boy in our family, he had so much more freedom and leeway 8:00to do the things he wanted to do. So there was Adam.
And then when my sisters were born, I certainly assumed, like, all motherhoodroles for them, everything from writing their doctors notes, to, you know, like, just notes for whatever the case was. And my parents also, I mean, had me do that for them. You know, like, if there was forms to fill out for them, that sort of thing. But then every -- so like, chaperoning their school trips, and things that I knew I really wanted my parents to do for me. So as I became -- when I was 18, they were, you know, like 10, and I could start going to school trips, their PTA meetings. My parents never went to PTA meetings because -- or parent-teacher conferences, because they're like, "We know you're a good kid. We expect that from you. I do not want to hear anything else from a teacher, so there" -- I never gave them a reason to go to a parent-teacher conference.
But I went to all my sisters' parent-teacher conferences. If there -- they had abirthday, I wanted to make sure they -- I brought those things to the -- you know, if they had -- you know, from other sports, so from soccer or softball to swimming, I was their person who took them. So I definitely made sure that they 9:00felt less -- I think, I don't think it was a conscious decision, but now I know it's so wouldn't feel as alone in -- with the rest of like, you know, like, Queens, or all the people that are looking, and judging, and assessing, or asking for explanations. I did not want them to be the person explaining it. Like, I would be the adult to explain, and sort be unapologetic about, this is how it's done.
For example, my little sister's name is Sangina, or Sangina, but it's spelledS-A-N-G-I-N-A. I remember picking her up in kindergarten and first grade, and they're like, "Oh, San-gina, San-gina [pronounced with a soft g]." And I was like, "Her name is Sang-ina." And they're like, "Oh, we didn't know." And I think my sister -- I don't think she was embarrassed, but I was like, "You have -- don't let people mispronounce your name." Like, "Just" -- you know, she didn't know how to correct an adult. I was like, "This is how you" -- so I was like, I can do that for her.
ALI: And what did you -- how did you feel, having to -- or wanting, maybe, to10:00embrace that -- those kinds of responsibilities?
ZONDON: I think it felt -- now it -- I don't think I ever felt burdened by it. Ithink my dad reflects back now, and thinks about like, "We put so much on you. We like, had you be this parent-ified child early on." But that is a responsibility, that is a privilege. I think it felt very powerful for me. It was a way for me to go back to my younger self and be -- I don't think my parents ever did anything wrong, or didn't -- or inadequate, but I wanted -- now that I can, I can do something, you know, and go back and do that.
We never talked about, as a family, the hardship of, like, code-switching, or,like, turning this thing on, and turning this thing off, depending on who you were with, but I wish we had talked about that a little bit. I wish we had acknowledged that -- that, like, you know, I know my dad when we went -- was with his coworkers, he, you know, acted a certain way. Even his name -- like, has -- so my dad goes by "Don," as in "Don Zondon," because all the men -- 36 or 11:0035 years ago -- decided that was an easier name than his actual name, and he goes by Don. Like, I wish we had talked about how we all perform different things. But --
ALI: Did you -- and did you have that conversation with your siblings since youwere little -- or were you still also working through that yourself?
ZONDON: Oh, which part?
ALI: The code-switching?
ZONDON: I think -- I don't think we ever talked -- yeah, I don't think we everactively talked about it. I think we talk about it a little bit now, as -- now we're all adults, and, you know, like, the different worlds we straddle. We definitely talk about this switching on the better Afghan daughter version -- like, with family. So, like, internally -- you know, we talked about that -- when you're with -- at a wedding or you're at a thing or you have guests over, you, like, up your -- you know, like, how pious you are, or you up how 12:00well-behaved you are, or, like, how you're very docile to your mother like "Yes, yes" -- this -- where, you know, when I -- when there isn't somebody -- an aunt watching you, you might be like -- you know, suck your teeth or something. [laughter]
ALI: [laughter] So tell me what -- how were you relating to the Muslimcommunity? You said you were going to masjid and going to Sunday, I guess school --
ALI: -- or learning the Qur'an. How was that fitting into your growing up, as,let's say, an adolescent?
ZONDON: So, I -- you know, we had no choice but to go. And I wanted and embracedgoing to masjid as a thing that was a social experience, because for all my other friends who went to, like -- who were Catholic, or to Communion or my Jewish friends, that was a social experience -- you know, like, a social experience also. But because we were encouraged to always be this perfect version of an Afghan daughter or a perfect Muslim, and, you know, don't show your flaws, it was much more stressful to be around those gi-- the girls -- you 13:00know, because you were separated by gender. It was more stressful to be around those girls because there was a fear that everyone was a narc, that everyone was going to go back and tell their mom about something, you know? Or, you know, like, they would tell on you.
And so, it in some ways created this less-than-desired effect about myrelationship to Islam a little bit, where it felt like a chore; it felt like, if you get caught doing it wrong, or being flawed in it, then you'll, like, embarrass everyone. So there was that kind of -- I think it created more of a wedge between me and some parts of the my faith and culture. Because the other thing was that I collapsed masjid with being an Afghan thing only. Right? That that's what I collapsed it with -- that culture and traditions were the same as 14:00spiritual practice and religiosity. And when in fact, they're not at all.
ALI: I guess we'll -- I'll ask when you realized that, but I'm assuming at thatpoint, you didn't -- like, you were still seeing the two things as one and the same?
ALI: So, tell me about your -- so which high school did you go to?
ZONDON: I went to Bayside High School in Queens.
ALI: Okay, and how was that experience for you?
ZONDON: I loved high school. I loved high school so much. Also, I think the mainreason I loved it so much was that, it was super -- you know, it was a huge high school -- like, I think, 3,500 students -- but also, it was where I got my independence -- where, like, I -- within the four walls of that school, I could be anybody, I could stay out late because I was doing things actively, and I had a great community of friends who were all first immigrant -- first-generation 15:00immigrant kids, and we're all -- when I think back on it, all of my friends were, like, part of, like, the Asian diaspora. Like, there was -- and I didn't realize until I went to college when I was like, Oh my god, there's so many White people here. But the entire -- but my entire high school was very, very mixed, and that was, like, the beauty of it. It was just really beautiful. Like, and the White friends that I had were a mix, but predominantly Jewish, so, like, there was, like, this solidarity on being, like, you know, like, first cousins religiously. But I loved high school so much.
ALI: What were some of the ways you exercised that independence in school?
ZONDON: It was everything from, like, being -- like, taking on leadership rolesfrom the school paper, and kind of being able to capture -- like, just dictate, or help, you know, just determine like what are the conversations that should be captured in the school, to being able to, like -- I had such a great relationship with all my teachers, so I was always able to, like, be their assistant early in the morning, or after school. And I would come to school so early all the time, but because I was getting also some of, like, affirmation from these adults who I think were -- also when I think back on it now as a teacher -- as a teacher currently, I think about how my teachers were relating 16:00to me through their own, like, bias, and I think there was an assumption they had -- I guess there's, like, positive bias, right -- there's a negative bias, but they had this thought that I think they had to take me under their wing -- that, like, they had to carve out opportunities for me to be there early and be there late so that I wouldn't have to go home and be burdened or something like that -- that they were, like, saving this little, like, Muslim girl, and giving her opportunities to, like, go to Barnard [College], and, like, write essays, and be this, like, whole, great, like, person. And I think they were trying to -- I think they thought I didn't have that at home. I think they thought that my parents were too strict, or not loving, and so it was their responsibility to, like, take me under their wing. 17:00
ALI: At the time, did you feel your parents were too strict?
ZONDON: I think I thought my parents were strict. I did. But I don't know -- butI didn't really necessarily resist that. Like, I think other people in my life, and other Muslim kids they -- were around, and that -- you know, other classmates, and other just, like, South Asian kids talked about the strictness of their parents, and they were, like, trying to rebel against that, or, like, sad about it. But for me, that was just the reality. Like, this is how my parents are.
ALI: What were some of the ways that your parents were strict when you were --
ZONDON: You know, I definitely -- like -- I didn't -- funny, my friends wouldask me like, "What's your curfew?" I was like, "I don't have a curfew, because I'm not allowed really out, and like, I'm not really allowed to, like, really socialize." And -- yeah. So, like, definitely, "hanging out" was not a thing that you were, like, supposed to do. Also, I would get home after school, my mom would then leave for work. So she started working at some point in my, I think, early high school, junior high school years. And so we just took on different shifts. So I took on the second half of mother shift, and she was there the 18:00first half. So I think my teachers knew that -- that there was a lot of responsibility.
ALI: So tell me how you decided what college to go to.
ZONDON: So I knew absolutely that I wanted to go away, and I think part of whymaybe I wasn't as nervous or as stressed about the strictness of my parents was that I felt like I was going to be able to, like, get away, or like, there was -- you have to do all these things to then be -- like, get the privilege of, you know, the next level, which was, you know, leaving for college. My dad was very much an advocate of it, because he did say, like, "You've spent all this time -- high school years -- doing this. You should go and" -- you know, "go to college."
I mean, at first, going to college was, like, a mandate from everybody. But mymom wanted me to stay home. Like, definitely, she wanted me to commute, because, you know, like, what -- you can't leave your parents' home -- you know, you should never be, like, not living at home according to her. And still, according 19:00to her, it's what she wants. So, I picked a bunch of schools based on, I -- international relations and journalism. I kind of wanted to do, like, expository writing, human rights stuff maybe, stuff around public health, or, like -- my end goal at that time in high school was to go back to Afghanistan and, you know, help on human rights stuff, health -- which -- you know, that sort of trajectory. Or, like, work for the UN [United Nations]. You know, just -- what my parents wanted. So I picked schools that would meet that -- like, meet that criteria.
I got into all the schools I wanted to go to, but then my dad's coworker had adaughter who went to SUNY [State University of New York] New Paltz. It was not a thing that I really wanted -- I didn't consider it. But then I did apply, and that's where I ended up going, was SUNY New Paltz.
ALI: So tell me what the experience was like, being away from home for the first time.
ZONDON: Yeah. It was super isolating and very sad. Like, I felt sad all thetime. I also felt a lot of guilt for, like, not being home, so I spent my first year generally commuting back every -- on the weekends.
ZONDON: But it's like an hour -- yeah, two hours, yeah. I would do that20:00basically every weekend. Because I just didn't really know how to hang out, because I didn't really -- I was like, This is -- like, This is what we do? Like, You just hang out with all these people? So that was -- it felt isolating in many ways. I felt like I was, like, a representative for all my identities. You know, like, I was out in high school as a queer person, or as a -- actually, I more identified as a lesbian in high school. So I went to college, I was involved in these things, in the LGBT, you know, organizing world, but I always felt like I was -- I was almost always the only person of color. And even then, like, I generally pass as White, and so I was privy to lots of people's, like, just kind of microaggressive comments about whether my own identity, or other 21:00people's identities, and that felt isolating.
But then I went -- started going to MSA [Muslim Student's Association], but thatalso felt so bizarre, because we were adults, or new adults, choosing to still pray behind a dude, and I was like, I don't want to do that. Like, I thought we were, like, being -- supposed to be open-minded, and they were still kind of conservative. And I think, even if they weren't conservative, they were doing the same thing we did in masjid, which is like, performing piety, and not pushing on things.
And then 9/11 happened, right? And so that, to me, was this -- a moment of like,I now have to defend in all these spaces my Muslim identity, my Afghan identity, and also own that I'm this feminist, I'm this, like, powerful woman, and I've been a powerful Afghan woman way before somebody needed to liberate Afghanistan. Like, I came this powerful, and I came -- and having to, like, speak up for that.
So after 9/11 -- so that was my second year of college -- I, like, gained thisfooting, and ground -- I was much more -- I guess more grounded, and what my 22:00role and purpose was meant to be on the college campus. And so, yeah. That's what happened.
ALI: So I want to come back to that.
ALI: But you mentioned that you were out in high school. Do you feel comfortabletalking about that -- what that process was for you?
ALI: Okay, can you --
ZONDON: Yeah, so I -- the funny -- I was out in high school I think the way moststraight people are out in high school, like, you just know you are. So you don't really actually actively come out. [laughter] But the funny thing is, I remember being on the steps of my high school in ninth grade, and I was, like, wearing, all-black everything, Doc Martens, whatever, the things you wear when you're, you know, 14-year-old Wazina, and this other girl walked up to me, all-black everything, goth, whatever, and just -- legitimately just said, "Are 23:00you bi?" Or like, "Are you gay, or are you bi, or something?" And I was like, "Yes." And all I needed was somebody to say, "Are you gay?" And give me permission to say, "Yes," and I was like, "Yes." And then we, like, started hanging out -- like, it was, like, four of us that were always like hanging out. But that's -- like, it was that easy. I just needed permission to say it. Because I think, no one saying -- do you want to have -- do you want a boyfriend, or something -- no one was asking, are you straight; I just needed someone to say that. So it felt very seamless, which was really -- I'm so grateful for that.
I never felt like I was doing something wrong religiously, or like I waschallenging, like, a natural order, or that God would hate me. I was like, God put this inside of me, so this is meant to be. I knew that I wouldn't be able to talk about it to my parents, the same way I wouldn't talk to my parents if I had a crush on a guy, the same way all the cousins never talked -- never owned their 24:00heterosexuality, you just wouldn't be able to own your sexual orientation, as powerfully as our, like, maybe like White American non-Afghan counterparts can own it, and talk about, like, you know, when you're allowed to date and that sort of thing. I think I just accepted that's how it would be.
It didn't feel like a burden in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it felt moreliberating to know that, if I ever had a girlfriend, there would be no need to explain why I'm hanging out with this girl, and why this girl should come over, and why I need to go to this girl's house, because they would be -- it wouldn't be a problem. Because I was like, Great, that's a very invisible, like, thing. I was out to my friends, so I ended up coming -- just telling them, and they were very lovely about it.
My sisters, as soon as they could kind of know about things -- when I had, like,my first girlfriend, I let them know about her. Sort of. I mean, like, they were five or so, so, like, they couldn't really understand it, but -- yeah. They were -- and they've always felt very, I think, seamless about -- and comfortable in 25:00their understanding of sexual orientation.
ALI: Were there other Muslims who you felt understood your identity?
ZONDON: I don't think so. I don't think I had any other Muslim friends that Iwould -- I told my cousins, so those, like, were my friends. And they were great about it. Yeah, they were actually very lovely. And I think one of my cousins, like, was like, "Were you offended when we were, like, 11, and I called a girl a dyke in a pool in the Poconos?" I was like, "Oh no, I wasn't offended by that." Because I didn't know what the word meant then. And I don't think she actually knew what it meant, but I actually -- now that I reflect back, I think there actually were lesbians in that pool. But -- yeah. So they were, like, really like lovely about it, yeah. And I don't think I had any other Muslim friends. I 26:00had one other Muslim Afghan girlfriend my mom really wanted me to be friends with, but I -- I think I tried to drop hints. Because you know, I had like Marilyn Manson and Boy George posters in my room, but she never really got it. Yeah.
ALI: Did your parents or relatives ever talk to you about marriage as -- youknow, as you were approaching adulthood?
ZONDON: They did. I remember asking my parents early on about just the wholething -- or they approached it, and they basically had always -- so, like, you -- "We'll pick the guy for you when the time comes." And then when I was about, I think 16-ish, my mom told me -- or maybe I was, like, 17, my mom told me that there was, like -- you know, one or two, like, marriage interests. But they had advocated and said, "No," like, "she has to finish her schooling, and then she can decide." So I always trusted that my parents weren't going to, like, send me off or make decisions without my consent. And -- yeah. And more and more, I definitely know that my parents -- especially my dad -- wouldn't be able to 27:00handle that at all. Like, he -- we were so close, and he's especially very, very close to his daughters and me, and I don't think he could have, like, handled that reality. And my parents met by choice, and fell in love on their own at work. And so while they would -- I think, advocate this traditional, like, you know -- like, "We'll just -- you'll have a suitor you can meet, and then you can decide if you're going to continue with the suitor or not." I think they idealized that, but they also never had that for themselves; they met on their own.
ALI: Okay, so back to college and 9/11.
ALI: What were some of things that you did in response to this kind of newfoundfooting you gained after that moment?
ZONDON: Well, so it was everything from, like, holding vigils, and speakouts,28:00and people kind of doing, like, healing interfaith related conversations. I also was a -- became a radical cheerleader. [laughter] So "radical cheerleaders" are like cheerleader --
ALI: A radical cheerleader, okay, yeah, yeah, okay.
ZONDON: Radical cheerleader, cheerleader. And so, we were the New Paltz Rads,and it was a group of -- we were generally, like, people who identify as women, kind of gender-nonconforming radical feminists, who were bringing cheerleading to protests, and so we did things like, "Two, four, six, eight, Barbie likes to masturbate!" Or, "One, two, three, four, knock on the White House door!" You know, like, that sort of thing, and there was a whole crew of women -- and, women and men folks around the country sharing chants and cheers, and so we would do a lot of, like, anti-war protest cheerleading on the campus and around the Ulster and Dutchess County area, people like were starting inviting us to, like, the Kingston anti-war protest, because we were -- and we did choreography and everything. So we did that. [laughter]
You know, we did many screenings of like, Beneath the Veil, or whatever -- allthose documentaries that came out, talking about, like, what was happening under Taliban rule and regime, but there was always, like, a panel, and I was always 29:00part of the panel to talk about -- that this is not, like, what Afghans are like, or what Islam is actually about, and being able to, like, kind of situate or contextualize, you know, the relationship between feminism and women and Islam. There was a lot of that. Yeah, I think -- so it was, yeah, a lot of, like, education 101 type stuff. I mean, I remember being on one of these panels. Like, we watched a documentary, and then people talk about whatever -- you know, we had a panel, and there's a Q&A with, like, an Afghan girl, which was so embarrassing, now that I think about it. Like, every professor on the campus was such -- taking an opportunity to have this, like, Afghan person who was like palatable. You know, like, I say that because I know that, like, I look White, I'm safe, I'm not a hijabi, I -- you know, like, I speak in a particular way 30:00that, like, makes people feel -- White people feel safe. And so, you know, the campus and lo-- like, professors were definitely asking me to, like, do things that I think was a lot more -- it could have been much more detrimental to myself, and it was, like, burdensome. It was, like, doing the work that everybody else should have been doing. And as an international relations major, like, hearing shitty, shitty comments from students and professors, like -- sometimes, I was just like, How are you the adult here? Like -- or bigger adult than I am. Yeah.
ALI: Did you -- how much do you feel you were functioning as an example versusan exception of the community of the time?
ZONDON: I think it was probably more like 75 exception, and then the example,yeah. And I think it was depending on which part they wanted -- which part of my identity they needed at that moment, right? The queer Muslim part didn't come 31:00until much later on, for sure. But it was, like, the Afghan feminist -- Look, like, she -- you know, like, that sort of thing -- then -- yeah.
ALI: And how did the other Muslim students respond to you at the moment?
ZONDON: The funny thing is -- the funny thing is there was -- I feel like I hada lot less solidarity with my Muslim counterparts on campus after 9/11. There was a lot less, like -- of that. And it was, like, the -- everybody else -- like, my queer world, like, my activist world, showed up more. Or maybe -- and really -- and I say that they showed up more, but maybe they showed up because they wanted, like -- me to help give them validation or affirmation -- or I was like -- I was legitimizing, like, the activist world, where I think that Muslim 32:00students probably were like, Yeah, we know. Like, Yeah. Like, you know? And I think it's also part of my own privilege that, I think they were probably like self-preserving. Safety was more of an issue for them. Particularly if you look -- you know, for the guys on campus, and for all the different, like, markers that certain people have, that you know, pass -- have them look or be seen as Muslim, I had much more safety in being out and vocal because, again, I had the safety of invisibility.
ALI: So tell me what other kinds of activities you were involved in during yourcollege years.
ZONDON: I was actively involved with a lot of, like, the sex positivity work. Sofrom selling condoms -- you know, going through trainings around promoting sexual health awareness and safety. So I did a lot of that -- selling condoms, demos, you know, around dental dams to internal or female condoms, so I loved that part. And then I was actively involved with, like, the LGBT community, so there was, like, workshops, 101s -- you know, screenings, movies, a lot of that 33:00sort of thing. And I started interning with Planned Parenthood, and I was just doing stuff around -- at that time, they had a campus organization called Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood. So, it was preparing for the March for Women's Lives in 2003 or '04, so I was involved in kind of helping organize my campus and Dutchess County campuses like Marist and Vassar and those schools to kind of get a couple buses to go down to D.C., so it was a lot of that. And then, I was also -- what else was I involved in? Yeah, I think those were the primaries. And then a feminist group called Social Change for Womyn -- Womyn with a Y, yeah. So I did all the classic -- I don't know, I guess classic for, yeah, activist stuff.
ALI: I'm going to pause for a second. I think we're fine; I think my headphonesjust died --
ALI: -- but let me just pause. That's what happens when you have an old34:00headphone. Okay. Oh, okay, here's the problem. Okay, I think we're okay.
ALI: All right. What do you think drew you to that kind of work?
ZONDON: I think it was -- a large part of it was, I think my parents and beingMuslim. I mean, I think a lot of it was this collapsing, right, I collapsed tradition and culture, but I also collapsed, like, the idea of, like, justice, and also being Mus-- being Afghan, and having some relationship to a hardship, or my parents' experience of, like, war, and that sort of thing, wanting to always create an opportunity for people to experience justice and have a whole 35:00full safe and self-express, like, their own sovereignty. I think that was a big part of that. And I think my parents certainly had always encouraged that, like, you should speak up. And so I definitely -- I think about that, or I give them credit for that.
And then I also knew that I wanted to, like, have these skills to, whether itwas to go back -- you know, to do stuff around health and development. So I knew that, like, textbooks were going to be one thing, but the active learning and doing it hands on was really what I liked the most.
ALI: So, after college, what happened next?
ZONDON: After college, I -- so the last semester of college, I got a part-timejob as a sex educator at Planned Parenthood. So I would, like, work from 9 to 12 in the morning for Planned Parenthood and then do my classes. And the day after graduation, I had a full-time job at Planned Parenthood as a sex educator in Newburgh. And so, I was a traveling sex educator for all of Orange Country, and I loved it. Like, I was good at it, I was -- didn't ever plan on teaching. And 36:00so I was like this facilitator, right, and I was learning how to teach and facilitate workshops and classes from everybody from high school, junior high schools, to doing things at county prisons, you know, working with folks in different facilities. It just was -- I, like, loved it. And I did that from 2003 -- oh, from 2004 when I graduated until 2007.
ALI: What was -- what did you find most challenging about that work?
ZONDON: I guess, right now, I think whatever the challenge might have been, I,like, loved, because I was growing so much in it. I think for me it was, like -- just, like owning my size and, like, physical-ness -- like, how physically, 37:00like, I -- saw myself as very small and petite, and especially when I started going to high schools, I was like, Oh, I look like a high schooler. Or, like -- or how do people see me, or adults, like -- also, like, by adults, I mean, people that were -- had children, or people who were just, you know, old -- like, later in age, that I was this person standing up in front of them talking and trying to teach them about something. And so, knowing that, I never -- I just didn't want to be condescending in my small size and stature. I think that's always -- now been something that I do really well is, don't ever want to make people feel, like, vulnerable, or dumb, or stupid, or something. And I certainly won't ever make -- don't want ever to make somebody feel that way, but that's their own -- like, they might come with that, in their experience with teaching -- with schooling. And so, I think the biggest challenge was how to be a very kind person to them. 38:00
And I now think back on why my parents didn't come to parent-teacher things, orPTA meetings, was because feeling like, I don't know any better. Like, you're the adult -- like, you're the teacher, so, like, you just tell my daughter what she's supposed to do. But if there was more opportunities for people to feel like they could own their own education and their child's education or something, it would be so much better for everyone. Like, everyone would feel so much more empowered and powerful, and so, that was I think one of my biggest challenges.
ALI: So, you said you did that for two years?
ZONDON: Three years.
ALI: Three years.
ZONDON: I feel like I did it for so much longer, but -- because I left NewPaltz, and I moved back to the city in 200-- I moved back to the city in 2008.
ALI: And when you moved back, you moved to --
ZONDON: I moved to Astoria for a minute, and then Crown Heights, yeah.
ALI: Okay, so tell me about coming to Brooklyn.
ZONDON: Yeah. So, I -- [laughter] funny, I moved to Brooklyn because mygirlfriend at the time lived in Brooklyn. And I grew up in Queens. And I was like, I want to move back to Queens. And so I moved to Astoria at the time because Flushing was too far from the job that I had. And so -- and I also didn't want to move back to Flushing, even though I was like, I'll move back to Flushing. I was like, Maybe I'll do Jackson Heights, but I was like, No, every 39:00person who's like -- reminds me of my aunts or uncles, could potentially be my aunt or uncle, and know that I'm out and gay and have tattoos, and I look the way that I'd look, right? So I was like, Okay, I'll do Astoria. And then I moved to Crown Heights.
But the funny thing was, I was really cranky about moving to Crown Heightsbecause I did not want to move to Crown Heights and be like every other Park Slope queer person that was there. I was like, I don't even ride a bicycle. Like, I don't want to, like, be -- I just didn't want -- because, you know, I spent so much time in college being around this, like, particular scene of, like, queer or lesbian, LGBT-identified, like, activists, and they all moved to Brooklyn at some point, and I didn't -- I feel like it was like, I don't want to be part of that, because, you know, I was doing some work now about, like, kind of shedding some of that internalized stuff, and noticing, and now being like -- oh God, everything was so -- I was doing so much emotional labor and teaching 40:00that I don't want to be around these people. So I moved to Crown Heights. A little cranky about it at first, but then I loved where I lived in Crown Heights. It was not Park Slope, right? It was Crown Heights in, like, 2008, '09 -- 2009, right -- which is a whole other look, demographic -- literally, like, the color of Crown Heights was not the color that it is now, or all -- you know, parts of Brooklyn. And so, I really, like, embraced that. You know, I wasn't very far from Eastern Parkway. My girlfriend at the time taught at a high school really close by. It was like, the she-- the whole purpose was so she could walk to it. So I really liked that part.
I really also wanted to center that "be humble" piece. And I don't know how wellI did that; I don't know how well I even do that now, although that's my -- just to know that this isn't -- wasn't my neighborhood, and that -- but I would like to make it my neighborhood and home, and so I want to be really kind, and, like, 41:00neighborly, but, like, not over-eager -- like, you know, be, like, "that girl" that's like -- you know. [laughter]
ALI: So did you -- I mean -- that's interesting, because I actually moved toCrown Heights around that same time. [laughter] And I also was, you know, not wanting to be like, a gentrifier, or harbinger of gentrification. So I really understand that sentiment. Were there any things that -- was there anything that ever happened, or an exchange, or encounter you had that kind of reminded you of the need to kind of not be that person?
ZONDON: The thing that -- so there was, like, two. When the Labor Day -- like,the West Indian Day Parade happened, I remember so many of the friends we had were like, "Okay, we're just going to camp out in Prospect Park all day long, because they're going to be so busy. You've got to get out really fast." And I was like, "Why the fuck do we have to get out really fast?" Like, that really 42:00annoyed me a lot. Like -- or people being like, "Oh yeah, I have to be away that weekend." And there were also people of color that were saying that too. But I was like, Ugh. Like, that made me -- it was like, how dare we move into this neighborhood and be like, annoyed that for, like, you know, a full day -- like, there's a weekend of, like, celebration. You know, so that's -- and there was a moment that my girlfriend at the time -- we were like -- in our apartment we're on Rogers [Avenue], between Carroll [Street] and Crown [Street], and we were, like, looking. It was like, Shit. Like, there was a cop car, and people were just, like, pouring water on it. But I was like, I hope nobody sees the two of us looking out the window, being like, woo-hoo! Like, that's -- you know, because -- it just was like -- I just felt like -- I felt cringy for myself looking that way.
And then another experience that really reminded me of just my place in all thiswas, I was walking on Rogers up towards Eastern Parkway. And cops were never really around this part of -- because I was on the, like -- by the Medgar Evers 43:00side of things. They were always down and over by Franklin Avenue, Franklin -- whatever. But they were never really -- but so, clearly things were changing, right, because cops were now coming around. That's always a sign of something -- buildings coming up now, being made. But these two White cops were -- I was walking past of them, like, oh -- they said something, I was like what, he's like, "I've never seen such pretty girls live around here." And I was like, oh, I was like, "I've been living here for a long time." And in my head, I was like, there are pretty girls all the time. And to me that was like, shit, you mean -- you don't see Black women as beautiful, right, or the other women that are around here -- and now, you read me as like pretty White girl, and I was like, ugh. And also I'm gay, right? [laughter] But that was a moment, I was like, oof. I was like, I hope nobody -- I just didn't want any other, particularly person, like a Black woman to hear that like, I'm the pretty girl. And that was like, a reminder of like my location in all of this. Because I know they're not 44:00complimenting girls, or men, or anybody who is walking past them otherwise.
ALI: So what were you working on while you were in Brooklyn? Were you still --
ZONDON: So I wasn't at Planned Parenthood. I was -- when I came back to the city-- so I ended up commuting for a minute from New Paltz to the city, and I worked for an organization that's now no longer, but the Empire State Pride Agenda, which was New York State's LGBT civil rights organization at the time, and my role was to do, something called Pride in My Workplace, was working with New York State-based companies around their LGBT best practices. So I did that and some organizing around the Dignity For All Students Act, Marriage Equality Act, and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which still hasn't passed, for New York State.
And then I went to for GLSEN very briefly in 2009.
ALI: And what is GLSEN?
ZONDON: Oh, GLSEN used to stand for the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.45:00Now it's just GLSEN, G-L-S-E-N. They removed like, the meaning of the acronyms, but it's a national anti-LGBT bullying organization, like a safe schools organization that's still in existence and doing great work.
So in about 2009, I ended back to the classroom. I went back to -- so I returnedto sex ed, fully sex ed, because the LGBT-related work I was doing was in the realm of sexuality, but I wanted to be able to do holistic sexuality, not just sexual orientation, but anatomy, body image, self-esteem, all the things, and was -- got a position through the Children's Aid Society, to be full time in a school in downtown Brooklyn, and to teach sex ed from -- to go from middle school through high school with the same cohort of students, and it was an all-girl public school in downtown Brooklyn, and I loved it so much, yeah. 46:00
ALI: So let's talk a little bit about your -- when did you get involved inNYCoRE [New York Collective of Radical Educators]?
ZONDON: So, in about 2008, I got involved with NYCoRE because I was doing theDignity For All Students, that kind of organizing, and so I wanted to get involved with teachers to get them to be involved in the, you know, lobbying for this anti-bullying bill. And I also knew I wanted to return to like the classroom, and so I was like, this would be great way to like, network and figure out how to -- like what the landscape of teaching, and kind of -- or facilitating and stuff would be in New York City.
ALI: And for our listeners who may not know -
ALI: -- what NYCoRE is, tell us a little bit about NYCoRE.
ZONDON: So, NYCoRE is the New York Collective of Radical Educators. It's a groupof committed educators in all different forms, so whether it's after school, youth-based programming, even higher ed to, you know, public school educators 47:00that are committed to justice both inside their classroom, from policies, procedures, restorative justice, curriculum, all those things, as well as connecting justice to the outside world that our students and our communities, or the issues of justice are experiencing. And I -- I mean, I loved NYCoRE and I haven't been as involved in the last four or five years, but NYCoRE was like where I ended up having a true -- one of my truest experiences of community, like, just like in college where like we were committed to an issue, and we're organizing together and learning from each other, and this is when I was learning from other people in NYCoRE, so it was like, very powerful experience for me.
ALI: Okay. I'm going to pause again because I hear furniture moving upstairs,and I --
ZONDON: Okay. [laughter]
ALI: -- need to make sure that stops, so hold on.
ALI: So we're resuming the recording, it's still Friday, August 3rd, 2018. I'm48:00still Zaheer Ali, and [laughter] my narrator is still Wazina Zondon. And, so let's talk a little bit -- well you were talking about the school that you worked at. What was the name of the school?
ZONDON: It's called the Urban Assembly Institute for Math and Science for Young Women.
ALI: Okay, and you've been there since?
ZONDON: Well I am no longer there.
ALI: Oh, okay.
ZONDON: Yeah, so I was there until -- oh my gosh, when did I leave -- so, I wasthere from 2009-ish until 2016.
ZONDON: Sixteen, because I've been in the last year. So this is our last schoolyear, last September, so September 2017, I started at a new school, we opened a school.
ALI: Oh, okay.
ZONDON: Another all-girl, kind of STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art,Mathematics] public school similar, in a similar vein.
ALI: Oh, okay, okay.
ZONDON: So I was there until 2017, I guess, yeah.
ALI: Okay, and what is the school you're at now?49:00
ZONDON: So, my school is called the Brooklyn Emerging Leaders Academy, or BELA,yes, yes, yeah, and we are an all-girl public school that focused on STEAM, so Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, but I still play a similar role of sexual health educator, but I -- we call it "wellness" at the school, so I do both the sex ed in classroom, and also PE. [laughter]
ALI: Oh, awesome!
ALI: And what grades are you working with?
ZONDON: So, last year we had our first cohort in ninth grade, and this year, weenter a second year. So I'll do ninth and tenth grade this coming year, yeah.
ALI: Okay, okay. So this is high school.
ZONDON: High school, yeah.
ALI: Okay. And the pre-- the Urban --
ZONDON: Assembly Institute.
ALI: -- Assembly Institute was what grade?
ZONDON: Six through 12, yeah.
ALI: Oh, okay, okay, okay. All right, so let's talk about the project, ComingOut Muslim, tell me how this came about.
ZONDON: Yeah, so Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love started in the begin--50:00of January 2010. Right, 2010 -- 2011, January of 2011, because we knew -- and by "we," Terna [Tilley-Gyado], my counterpart, and at that time, we were just friends who met at GLSEN, and she's also Muslim, and she's a -- I'm going to say "but," or "and," she's a revert to Islam. But Terna and I -- which doesn't discount or discredit her Muslim-ness. But Terna and I, who's also an educator, knew that as educators, we're going to be entering the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 in that coming September, there's still just so much stuff, and gaps and knowledge and information and, on the heart level, and the brain level, that people just might want for themselves. And so, every year NYCoRE has a series of study groups called ITAGs, Inquiry to Action Groups, where educators or just people in general get to explore a certain topic and then create an action thing 51:00for it. And so we came up with the idea of an Interrupting Islamophobia study group.
And so, January 2011 until March, we held weekly study groups for two hours aweek with some readings, discussions, everything from Islam 101 to the gendered experiences of Islam, to the querying of Islam both based on political imperialist experiences of how Muslims have become "queer" or "other" in this country, to also like the LGBTQ experience, and then spending some time on curriculum development, or ways to interrupt Islamophobia in classrooms.
In the process, we met an art maker, theater maker named Laura Marie Thompson,who has a deep affinity for Islam. She's not Muslim, but she was born in Sudan and does work around, just kind of interfaith work and theater work, and so she noticed that Terna and I, on any topic or thing we're talking about, A, we like, work really well together, but had these -- just two different sets of experiences, mine being more cultural in my relationship to Islam, and Terna's 52:00on the spiritual, religious level, just having another affinity of sets of experiences. And so she was like, if you were just interested in doing something, I would love to do something with you.
So one of the things that came out of the ITAG was a visual gallery in June of2011 at the Middle Collegiate Church in the Lower East Side, East Village, where we had a visual gallery of what it meant to be "Coming Out Muslim" for pride, both -- you know, playing on the words of "coming out" as a Muslim, and "coming out" queer within a Muslim context, and we had asked for submissions, and we got things from around the world, some poetry, images, that sort of thing. But it was a lot more textiles, and just a visioning of queer Muslim identity at this church for a month. And that was met with great -- like, just in a way, people 53:00showed up to it that we had never seen, or never met. And the queer Muslim world particularly sometimes can feel very small and close-knit. And at that time, it was really just word of mouth that got queer Muslims to come around and hang out with one another. And so, Terna and I just saw people, we're like, there might be a need -- not even a need, but there might be something here, and we -- there's so much more that we, as Terna and Wazina might want to say or do.
So Laura Marie agreed to work with us over this summer, so that in October of2011, we could have this 3-D performance of Coming Out Muslim, we called it Radical Acts of Love. We didn't know what it would be, but it ended up being a storytelling performance. And the writing that we were doing as part of our weekly meetings, were like writing prompts, kind of questions that Laura Marie had for us as somebody who's on the outside of Islam, but knew that people often ask her, like as somebody who has a relationship to Islam, like some of the 54:00misconceptions and that sort of thing. And so she -- we started just writing about our relation to our faith, like our love of God.
Like Terna and I, one time were just sitting around, just eating lunch, andLaura Marie would just watch us sometimes, just kind of watch us banter, and like, collect some themes. And we were just talking, and then, I was like, you know one time, I was in eighth grade, I wrote like a letter to God, and my dad found it, and I told this story, and she's -- and Terna was like, that's so funny, at one time I wrote a letter to the Prophet, because like, he kept showing up in my dreams, so I like, wrote in this letter, and part of the performance in the earlier years of it, in 2011 was, I wrote -- I told my story about the letter to God that my dad found, and I just wanted an answer to like -- earth science class. And then Terna as part of the storytelling performance, ended up reading the letter to me that she wrote to the Prophet, which was really beautiful.
So, all that to say the storytelling performance came to be -- and the themesare about our family, our love of God, our love of being Muslim. You know, Terna 55:00talks about how she converted to Islam, because I think that's really fascinating to some people. And instead of it being just three days as the WOW Café Theater in the East Village, we ended up getting a request a couple of days after to do it at a university in Williams, Massachusetts, and we were like, okay, we've never done this, like, but act like we did do it. And we went to Williams College and kept -- started to get requests to do universities particularly. And we figured out how to transport the stage that we had made at the WOW Café Theater, because it's like a black box theater so you can transform and write on the walls, you can just make everything -- and our idea for Coming Out Muslim was that it was the internal kind of storyline in our hearts, and so it was very cozy, it had like -- you know, you just like sat on the floor. And so, we figured out how to like, take that.
But now it's been, since 2011, Coming Out Muslim kind of still exists, and we56:00oftentimes do a talk-back, or some sort of workshop before or after to help synthesize the themes, especially when we're going to campus, or wherever we're going, not even a campus. We are visitors, and we are Muslims, but we're not the Muslims who live there. We're not the Muslims from that community, and so there must be this like way to synthesize the people who are actually Muslim, and/or queer, or both, with the other allies and stakeholders. And this conversation about, it's not just about like, talking about Islamophobia, it's more -- it's a lot more about gender, it's a lot more about love, it's a lot more about, like immigrant, migrant experiences, and relationship to faith and to spirituality.
So, and it's just been, just a heart-opening experience for me where every timeI tell the -- some stories, and I -- some stories we tell over and over again, I feel more healed, as like a cathartic experience, not just, I love God more, I also love my parents more, and I'm grateful for them being my conduit to Islam.
And similarly with Terna, like I feel so bonded with her every time we tellthese stories. More recently, she got married a little while back, and it was a really hard experience, because it's just -- you know, as a lesbian, or as a 57:00queer person, she got married, and her -- you know, family, has all these -- exper -- relationship to our relationships. But she read a letter that -- I mean, she tells the stories, and it's like, sometimes I hear the same story brand new, like I just cry on stage, and people are like, haven't you heard this story before? I was like, I don't know, I just got so moved by what she just told me. And it's just yeah, it's just a gift to be able to do it.
ALI: Well, at the risk of -- and you can certainly decline --
ALI: -- what I'm going to ask, but, because you can say, it's part of theperformance. I want to hear the story about the letter you wrote --
ZONDON: Oh, to God?
ALI: -- that your dad found.
ZONDON: [laughter] So, I -- I didn't pray a whole lot as a kid, and my momalways encouraged me. Now as an adult, I find much more solace in actually doing namaz, but I didn't really pray, but I would always like write, I would write like letters -- actually, I would write to God, or I would like, pray -- that was my form of prayer, like putting your intention, right, out. And one night, I wrote a letter to God, just basically being like, I don't know if you exist, but 58:00if you do, I really need you to like, prove that you -- like, you were real. So tomorrow, you need to show up and like somehow give me a sign that you -- that you exist. And I had asked him to give me the answer, or something in my earth science class the next day. That was in eighth grade.
And I put the letter in a window, and where we lived in Queens, my bedroom wasin the basement. And so, my dad, every time he would take out the garbage at night, he would go past my window and look in to make sure my curtains were closed, so that like, you know, he was like -- they were afraid of like strangers looking at their daughter. So he -- I guess he must -- I -- we've never talked about this, actually, so he must have seen my note in the window, because while my curtains were closed, my note was on the side that you could see it.
So the next morning, I woke up, and there was a letter -- an answer from God,and it said, "Have faith, my child," that's all it said, and I was like -- I'm going to get emotional about it. And it was in my dad's handwriting, and I was 59:00just so embarrassed that my dad, like, knew I was stupid, because his eight-- you know, his eighth grader wants God to prove her-- himself to her, by giving her an answer, but also I was like so embarrassed that I had questioned all of his teachings, right, that my dad, in his faith, passed it on to me, and here I am like questioning it, but I asked God to show up. And then in class the next day, the answer, I got it right, and the teacher -- it was sedimentary rocks, and I was like -- I guess like, you know, there -- maybe there is or isn't a God, but like, I have -- my Dad has enough faith to believe in God for me, and faith in me, so that's -- yeah, the story so I'm like --
ALI: That's beautiful. That's an awesome -- you know, at the time, you've given-- I mean, your response. So you knew that was your dad's writing?
ZONDON: I'm pretty sure. I mean, like, it has to be. It was his handwriting.
ALI: Yeah. I mean, but at the time, at the time, did you -- what did you think60:00of the response?
ZONDON: You know, it only carries weight now, like "Just have faith," likethat's all it is. Like, there is no other way to like, get proof. And I don't even know, and I guess, I need to ask him now about it. But like, I don't know if he wrote it to make me think that God wrote it, or it was just like -- it was like, a conversation -- a silent dialogue between me and my dad. But I don't know if that's like what he intended, yeah.
ALI: And it works both ways, right?
ZONDON: Yeah, yeah.
ALI: Because of the "my child part" can be read in both ways.
ZONDON: Yeah, yeah.
ALI: But that's pretty incredible that it wasn't a judgmental --
ZONDON: Mm-mm, yeah.
ALI: -- response, right?
ZONDON: Yeah, that's -- yeah.
ALI: It wasn't a -- it wasn't a -- you know, yeah.
ZONDON: There was no like, oh, I -- there was -- the stuff that I put aroundshame, yeah.
ALI: Like you weren't rebuked for asking that question.
ZONDON: Yeah, yeah.
ALI: That kind of says something about an openness that existed.
ZONDON: Mm-hmm, yeah.
ALI: That's pretty awesome.61:00
ALI: How -- how has the -- so the other question I had, how is yourrelationship, or what is your relationship with the kind of queer Muslim communities, or the queer Muslim community, especially in New York, or maybe even in Brooklyn, I don't know.
ALI: Because in -- unless I've -- unless we've missed it in leading up to theComing Out Muslim, we didn't talk much about your relationship with openly identifying queer Muslims. Maybe there was a relationship, but tell me a little bit about that.
ZONDON: I get -- I mean, I don't feel like -- I don't feel like I was part of aqueer Muslim crew of people until after Coming Out Muslim. And I don't want to give us too much credit either, but I think there was a moment -- and part of Coming Out Muslim" -- actually, our early performances -- was we would host just a mixer afterwards, at the Café, the space, the theater space, where people who 62:00identified as Muslim, or queer Muslim, anywhere in the LGBTQI spectrum, and our allies, particularly like White, non-Muslim allies, or like queer, you know, non-Muslim allies, would like hold the -- like be at the door, help make food, that sort of thing, and we would just kind of come together, and you realized like you would see all these faces of people you had never seen before.
And it was just like, we started to, like come together, and we would come -- itwas a lot of word of mouth; it wasn't like we were advertising because of safety reasons, and we still like, don't really have like a public Facebook page for the crew of people that kind of do get together to do Iftars together during Ramadan, to whatever, book clubs, that sort of thing is just all very much word of mouth. But prior to that, I didn't really have a queer Muslim crew. 63:00
There was a group of -- there is a group nationally that gets together justabout annually. It's the LGBTQI Muslim retreat that happens, was happening in Philly, and inshallah next year it will be out on the west coast, but for the last eight or so years, people have been coming together, people who are secular Muslims, have left Islam but queer Muslims, in all the ways you identify, and ally-- and partners, so that partners of those folks are invited, and it's a retreat. So there is, that crew of people is starting at almost a parallel time collecting, like collectively coming together.
I mean, I remember being in college though and looking up Al-Fatiha, thisorganization that was just like web-based community of people, and there was Imaan and other folks that were like out in London, and like, yeah, in London. But the amazing thing was that, I would -- when we started doing Coming Out Muslim, I met the guy who I, like, was obsessed with, Faisal Alam, right, about 64:00like -- and I was like, oh my God, he started Al-Fatiha, like I remember trying to be college and trying to get $6,000 from the campus organizations to bring Faisal to come talk, but it never happened.
But, it's just amazing to also, as we're collectively, Terna and I working onComing Out Muslim to meet our forefathers and mothers, in this like queer Muslim world, which has been like -- so, that, and I think it's just fate, and fateful combos of a perfect moment where people were willing, able, and desiring to come together, I think some of us did some healing in the process, like the same fear that I had about being around other Muslim girls, and you have to act pious, or you have to perform this particular way, I think some of us left Islam or were -- one degree separated from our faith for a minute. We still had faith in our heart, we might have still been religious, but part of what I love about being Muslim is there's this collective experience, and so I think some of us were feeling safe enough to come together again, and I think that's what Coming Out 65:00Muslim and a lot of this, more of the queer Muslim kind of, like coming together community-building has been in the last ten years or so.
ALI: So, you touched on it a little bit, but what -- what does it mean -- whatdoes "Coming Out Muslim" mean? Like why -- and why you're choosing to phrase that, that way?
ZONDON: "Coming Out Muslim" really was about making visible very invisibleidentities for us. So, for me as a Muslim, I know that where my -- what my parents look like and where I come from is what people think of Muslim. But then they also have this idea that being queer and Muslim is irreconcilable, or you cannot reconcile them, and that they are somehow like, polar opposites. And so, for me it was about, saying yes, I can be both queer and Muslim, and they work; 66:00they work really well together.
For Terna, I think a large part of it was, also as a Black woman, or someone --she identifies as an African reared in America, but she is read as a Black woman, and her Muslimness is invisible. Her Muslimness is invisible to Black people; her Muslimness can be invisible to Muslims, I mean, like South Asians and people who look and act Muslim, right, or who we think of of Muslim, and also her queerness, for a large part, is also invisible.
And for both of us, our love of God is always invisible, particularly in LGBTQcircles where everyone's so progressive, and rational, and academic, because we equate rational thinking with academia and being smart and intelligent, where the truth is, I have this deep love for Allah, and God, and some of my decision-making comes from my religion. And we in this country particularly think about, if you make decisions based on religion, you are barbaric, you're 67:00backwards, you're like a -- you know, you're not smart; you're not intelligent. And so for us, it's also about being like, no, like, we are intelligent, smart people and humans and women, and we are also irrational, and irrational's not a bad thing, especially as a woman like, to be thought -- said, like you're irrational because you're like so emotional. But like, I'm okay with being irrational, because on that religious -- on that spiritual plane is where some of my decision-making is made. And so for us, it was like, owning that.
And for me, specifically, was about talking back to the LGBTQ, progressive,non-Muslim, and, I'm going to say, White crew of people that were in my life. Coming Out Muslim was not about airing dirty laundry about like, "Muslims are so homophobic." And yes, Muslims can be very homophobic, and sexist, and racist, and all these other things, but it really wasn't about that for us, it was more like -- you know, we make space and make it okay for progressive Jews, and progressive radical Christians to exist, but we don't hold space for Muslims to be on their journey. And more and more, I think about making the request of 68:00like, allies, or stakeholders in interfaith spaces that like, the successes of queer Muslims are not going to mirror the successes of LGBT Jews, or Christians, and like, our wins will be different, but there'll be like, wins across the board, no matter what.
ALI: It's interesting, because when you were talking about your -- and we'll sayin quotes "coming out" story --
ZONDON: Yeah. [laughter]
ALI: -- in high school, you said like, it wasn't much of a coming out. It wasvery seamless for you. And so, I'm connecting that with you phrasing the project as "Coming Out Muslim," like did you -- you know, these are two identities, and which one do you feel you've had to be more explicit about in making known to people?
ZONDON: I think I have to make my Muslimness known much more. Like my tattoos,funny enough, like have some -- it's all family stuff, but the tops of my 69:00shoulders are like, masjids, or the tops of like, you know, the little domes, and to me, like they're certain markers, because I don't wear a scarf, I don't have a hijab. I also -- again, I think I look very White, and sometimes, people are like, no, we just know like you're not Black. You know, like you're not White either, but I'm like, I don't know. So there are certain things, markers, that I think I put on my body often to like, just kind of -- like, yes I am Muslim, and also to other Muslims as well who are like, oh, you don't look Muslim. Like really? You've seen all of us -- right, and that's everybody, like, you know. The same way I get told, like "You don't really look Afghan." I'm like, that's cool, [inaudible]. [laughter]
ALI: How has the project evolved since you began performing it?
ZONDON: So for -- the request for performances, which I would love to do moreand more and more all the time, it's like, when I think about what's my dream 70:00job, the sex ed piece is always, is definitely a dream job, but I think I'm just getting like, older, and just like, tired. But I was like, every time I do Coming Out Muslim, I'm like, this is what I want to do all the time. And I -- so, the performances continue, but they're not as often. But both Terna and I end up doing things around like speaking gigs, performances, just one-off ways of representing Coming Out Muslim, I think. And I can't lie, I, more than Terna, and I know why. And I know why that is. I am like this palatable light girl, and Terna is a Black woman, and I think there are some levels of racism still at play, subtly. All the visual things that I get to be a part of, like, you know, videos, or -- on social media, it's Wazina.
And both Terna and I at different moments have decided to not use our last name.Well, we never went back and changed the website. Our last names are on everything, but both of I -- both of us for safety's sake, have taken our last names 71:00off in different moments. And in the recent year-and-a-half, I've made the decision I'm not going to, because you look up Wazina, you're going to find it anyway. So the -- so we have evolved by doing one-offs, but I'd like to always do more. You know, I always -- I would like to do more. I would like to also -- both of us think about doing the next step of Coming Out Muslim, whatever that may be. Because we've also grown from sharing our story, and the themes that are in Coming Out Muslim still hit close to home for everybody, something to grow from as a listener, but we also feel like we would like to tell a different form of stories, and eventually, maybe we'll do a second version, but we don't want to be contrived about it. Because we didn't expect anything of Coming Out Muslim. And the next step, the next thing we do, I always want to have no expectations, no backwards planning, as just for the sake of what feels right for us to do.
ALI: Have you collaborated with other artists? Because you've describe it, it72:00sounds like a two-person show.
ALI: Have -- so you're nodding your head.
ALI: So tell me about your collaborations, or planned, maybe, collaborationswith other artists.
ZONDON: Yeah. So part of Coming Out Muslim is just, there's a lot of music, a"soundscape" that we have, which -- really because, the ideas was just to -- in between every story, so it's like two simultaneous one-women shows happening. So Terna tells a story, and there's about a 15-30 second clip of music from that time in our life that makes sense for that theme. So like there's, just the songs of our like, teenage years, like Ani DiFranco, I have a lot of Depeche Mode, Boy George, this stuff just gets woven in. But there's also moments in the performance where you talk about the first surah that Terna learned. There's pieces that I have -- and I start the performance speaking in Farsi, or Afghan Farsi, Dari, and there's Afghan music woven in. And so, and we also start the 73:00performance with the azaan [adhan] at all times, because the lighting of the show also is meant to match the five prayer times, and the feeling of it, like starts kind of like, pre-dawn, there's like a sleepiness to it, and then it gets like really punchy, and then it gets like kind of sad, and dark.
So we've collaborated with an artist named Alsarah, of Alsarah and theNubatones, and she was -- is a friend -- now she's a friend of ours, but she was a friend of Laura Marie Thompson, the perfor-- the theater-maker, because she was trying to learn Sudanese from Alsarah, and they were friends, and Alsarah was helping us set up for a performance one day, and we were like, okay, we should do a cue-to-cue. We should read -- like we'll set up the music, and we were like, oh, but we always start the performance with the azaan [adhan], and we always ask the local person, or the MSA, or imam, or somebody -- who will call the azaan [adhan] for us? And it's always a guy, right, or a chaplain, or whatever, and it's always beautiful to hear it live, but we want it live. 74:00
So, and Alsarah was like, well I can just do it, since you don't have the personhere, and Terna and I were like waiting for our cue, you know, like, okay, the azaan [adhan]'s going to happen, and Alsarah called the azaan [adhan]. But she was like, singing it. And we're like, oh my fucking god, like we've never considered having a woman call it. And that's so much of our own internalized stuff, and it's just so beautiful. And we're like, what if, instead of -- because we always had a recording of the Surah that Terna talks about, what if Alsarah just reads the Surah out loud, or hums the song that I think has to do with my grandmother? And so we've collaborated where she -- where it's possible, can live, sing in the back -- call the azaan [adhan] in the background, do the Surah, do -- hum some -- we changed a couple of the songs that she kind of sings, there were like traditional Sudanese songs, or like, you know, like, songs in Arabic. And when she's not there, we have it recorded. We have 75:00recordings of her, and I have a friend who's seen the performance many times from the very beginning to now, and when Alsarah is involved, she will come, because she's like, I come for her. And I was like, I know.
And it's been really, really powerful, because it's part of the larger story ofmaking visible invisible layers, of, you know, of our identities. Women can call the azaan [adhan], and yet I think it's just tradition that is -- and some interpretations of Qur'an said that women shouldn't be, but I think it's just tradition that has caused just men to call the azaan [adhan], but I think women can and ought to, and it's just really beautiful to have even the most, I think, traditional Muslim men kind of be like, oh, yeah. I've never heard it not in a -- I've only ever heard it in a man's voice, and it's just kind of nice to have that.
ALI: What has been the responses of Muslim audience to your -- your show?
ZONDON: It's been majority good. I think, by a good, great, well-received,76:00because I think people always come in, oftentimes, especially Muslims, and especially -- I don't think just straight, cisgendered, you know, hetero Muslims, I think also queer Muslims come in being like, all right, let this be like another one of those sad narratives, you know, because there is a singular story, really, about who Muslims are, and queer Muslims especially, and I think everyone's always like, oh that's -- that is better -- warmer than I thought it would be. I think straight Muslims especially who might be a little skeptical -- no, we're not saying that this is what Islam is and needs to be; we're like, this is just two queer Muslims' experience of Islam, and I think we're a lot safer for them than they expected to be. We're not like, in your face. And we -- and I don't -- and I think most straight Muslims are not so on the side of LGBT, but are tolerant, won't be confronted. No one will be like, "Dude, you saw Coming Out Muslim, so like, do you think they should be, you know, living or dead," or whatever, like, it's not a contentious, like controversial thing, 77:00which is really nice. We want to be accessible. We only want people to like grow in their heart from it, and find their own common ground, and I think that is a -- that people get that. And for queer Muslims I think also, it's an invitation to be -- to own more and more, if they haven't, like you can be both. And it's just very -- it can -- it's just very personal.
Then we've also had Muslims be not okay with Coming Out Muslim. In oneuniversity -- one -- yeah, college, university, locally, we had kind of like a protest by the Muslim Student Association, and some pretty harsh words, like, kind of thrown at us during the talkback. But also, I don't want Muslims to be -- even the ones that are challenged by this, to be demonized or vilified, because the truth is, there are Muslims who are not okay with it, there's like non-Muslims who are not okay with it. So that's okay with me. It was a growing 78:00experience to have this young man, the head of the Muslim Student Association, get up, and like, basically like, say like, if you were in any of the five countries that I studied Islam in, you'd be beheaded, and I'm okay with that. He said it in front of like two to three hundred people. A lot of the professors brought their students. And it was a moment for people to see, this is what's at stake, and this is why we need to do this; this is why people need to be on the side of ally-ship, just for the -- because there is no singular narrative in Islam, and there's no singular narrative on like queer experience either. And so, there's a necessity for it to happen. But, so there's -- that's one of the worst in-persons.
ALI: What was the response to that comment?
ZONDON: A few minutes later, one of the Muslim -- like one of the girls, or thewomen part of the MSA came up and like, sort of apologized for him. And then, 79:00but also was like, but you know, like, as your sister in spirituality, I'm looking out for you, so like, you know, just be like -- she was still, like, not pro-LGBT. And Terna's beautiful response was, "I accept your sisterhood." And like left it at that. [laughter]
And there was like -- and then there was somebody who was part of like the -- inthe LGBT student group who got up, and kind of said something, just about like, the importance of ally-ship and that sort of thing. And I didn't think that comment about like, being beheaded and that sort of thing, like I was like -- well you have -- I did say like, there's no singular narrative, but -- and thank you. But for days after, it really shook me that like, that -- like, I get hate all the time. I get really -- people are like so, strong behind a computer screen, so I definitely make the mistake of reading comments, but an in-person one also, it really shook me that the level of like intensity of hatred, and that my existence, like my -- just one person's existence can really kind of 80:00shake so many people, like, it's both powerful, and also like saddening.
ALI: So, and I guess this is a good transition, I think, to talk about how andwhere you have found your sense of place, of home, and community, and I'm going to start with a very kind of superficial, are you still in Brooklyn?
ZONDON: I am.
ALI: Are you still in Crown Heights?
ZONDON: Mm-mm. I'm in Flatbush now.
ALI: Okay, so tell me what it's like living in Flatbush.
ZONDON: So Flatbush is only about a mile and a half, two miles from CrownHeights. And I really love it. What I love about Flatbush -- I'm on the border of Flatbush, Ditmas Park. What I love most about it is that it feels a lot less -- I feel my role, like my fear of being a harbinger of gentrification a lot less here, because it's always been very mixed. And I'm also not very far from Coney Island Avenue, and there's like a large South Asian/Bengali crew -- you 81:00know, stores, restaurants, halal meat. And so, there's something that feels -- it's nice to be in a diverse kind of community, where there's like a crew of like, you know, Latinos and other folks, but also to know there's like Muslims, like -- you know, an auntie wearing like, a dupatta, like that sort of thing, I like that. And again, I know I don't look that way, or I don't get read by them that way, but it's really nice to have that mix in Flatbush. And I'm also still as close to Prospect Park as I was before, if not closer. [laughter]
ALI: And so, how, if I were to ask you, what are the ways you identify yourself,or what are the communities you feel like you are either a part of or affinity with, how would you answer that?
ZONDON: So I took a lesson from Terna, and I always say I'm an Afghan raised inNew York City. And I say that because when I tell people from New York, they're like -- you know, there's an answer to that question of "Where are you actually from?" So, it answers that part, but also the New York City piece centers me as, 82:00I'm a New York City kid. And also acknowledges that, for me, like, I always tell them that I grew up in the boroughs, or grew up in Queens, and I live in Brooklyn now, and that's still New York City. New York City is not to say "I live in Manhattan." And so, for me, I identify -- I use that, and then yeah. And when I say Afghan, it almost always tells people that I'm Muslim, so I -- but I do own my queer Muslim-ness, that's almost always in any bio that I have, or something like that.
ALI: Okay. Is there anything else that you -- I feel like we've covered everything.
ZONDON: No I think you covered everything, yeah, yeah, thanks for seeing me [inaudible].
ALI: Thank you so much for this.
Oral History Interview with Wazina Zondon
Wazina Zondon was born in 1982 in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. She began working as a sexuality educator while attending the State University of New York at New Paltz. She continued her work in the field after graduating, including with the Planned Parenthood in Newburgh, New York; the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York City; and the Urban Assembly Institute for Math and Science for Young Women in the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood of Brooklyn. She also co-wrote and performed the series Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, which was inspired by her experiences as a queer Muslim woman.
In this interview, Wazina Zondon discusses her family, growing up in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, and attending the State University of New York at New Paltz for college. She speaks extensively about her identity as a Muslim Afghan queer woman; her work with Terna Tilley-Gyado on their performance series Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love; and their collaboration on the project with musician Alsarah Abunama-Elgadi (interviewed for this collection on August 31, 2018). She also talks about working as a sex educator, especially in New York City public schools; moving to the Crown Heights and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn; and her concerns about gentrification. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.
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.
CitationZondon, Wazina, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, August 02, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.24; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love
- Afghan Americans
- Children of immigrants
- Coming out (Sexual orientation)
- Cultural pluralism
- Islam and the performing arts
- Muslim educators
- Muslim families
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Flatbush (New York, N.Y.)
- Flushing (New York, N.Y.)
- Queens (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories