By Mahira Siddiqui • August 13, 2012•Writers in Residence
Zahra Billoo is the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area chapter (CAIR-SFBA), the nation’s largest American Muslim civil rights organization. As a community organizer and civil rights advocate, Billoo strives to promote justice and understanding at local and national levels. She represents victims of discrimination and advocates for positive policy changes that uphold civil rights for all. Billoo is a 2010 recipient of the San Francisco Minority Bar Coalition’s Unity Award and a 2011 recipient of the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California’s Public Interest Attorney of the Year Award.
In honor of the Muslim month of Ramadan, Billoo speaks about her experiences as a Muslim woman in the law.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law and social justice?
My earliest memory of career discussions is that of whether or not I wanted to be a doctor, as is the norm in many South Asian families. I learned quickly however that biology was not for me and that I enjoyed seeking out arguments. As such, the idea of being a lawyer followed. I knew as a child that I wanted to be a lawyer, so I charted my course and planned to make it through straight from Kindergarten through my J.D. The social justice piece came over time, as I experienced my teachers negotiating their union contracts, my father losing his job, rising college tuition, the two Gulf Wars and 9/11.
As a female, Muslim attorney in a post 9-11 era, what have you found most challenging about your work?
The most challenging thing about being an American Muslim female practicing civil rights law in a post-9/11 era is that there is far more work than there are resources or staff.
Related to being female - ongoing challenges include the fact that there are still many, many stereotypes out there about Muslim women. So often it is the case that before the work even gets started, the pre-work includes dispelling those stereotypes and being required to prove your competency in advance. A related challenge is that so many of the victims of civil rights abuses within the spectrum of national security, which is one of our office’s focus areas, are men. Accordingly, it is sometimes the case that we have to prove our competency to clients, who very much need assistance, because we are women.
Culturally speaking, did you face any challenges from your community when you first immersed into practice?
I have been both careful and fortunate in terms of the people I surround myself with. Careful because I believe that to succeed in this work, legal aid services and non-profit leadership, it is important for me to surround myself with family and friends who are supportive. After a 16-hour day, working a very difficult case and attempting to balance that with fundraising, it is simply not a good idea to be surrounded by negativity or cultural baggage. Fortunate because I was born into a family that facilitated my development and growth as a young Muslim woman. The same is true for my work at CAIR; to graduate in an economic downturn and have the opportunity to lead the local office of a national non-profit was not something I would have expected or could have planned for.
How, if at all, has your gender hindered a certain aspect of your work and how did you handle this issue?
Our base at CAIR is American Muslims who attend the masjid (Muslim house of worship) on a regular basis. That is not to say that we do not serve those who do not, but rather that this is where our strength and numbers are. So many of these spaces however are led by men. It can be challenging to seek to develop a relationship with leaders of a certain masjid, when they are all men and you are a young woman who they know essentially nothing about. It is then exacerbated by varying gender access to religious spaces. At times like this, surprisingly, I find it helpful to balance my feminist informed concerns with the concern of furthering my work. For example, I have been to mosques where they are hesitant to have a woman speak to the larger crowd. Rather then ending the relationship based on that, I have turned around and invested energy in building personal relationships in that community and proving my competency through our services. This helps relax people’s guard and actually leads to them becoming more open and granting access to their spaces.
Narrowing it down to one, what would you say is CAIR’s biggest concern or focus at this moment?
Empowering American Muslims would be the top priority I would identify for our CAIR office right now. To an extent, I would fold even civil rights complaints into empowering American Muslims. In light of increasing Islamophobia (anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment) from elected officials and right-wing activists, it is necessary for American Muslims to have access to and use the tools necessary to take control of their own narrative and demand equal treatment under the law. Civil rights folds into this perfectly, because empowered American Muslims not only know their rights but also stand up for them and seek out resources to help them do that. Furthermore, organized and vocal American Muslims are better able to engage the media and policymakers in furtherance of the change they wish to see.
Can you speak about your experience in the lawsuit CAIR-SFBA filed against the Department of Justice challenging their warrantless use of GPS tracking devices that were targeted against American Muslims?
In 2011, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Yasir Afifi, challenging the government’s unwarranted use of GPS tracking devices. This was not a new fight, but was only beginning to be felt by the Arab, Muslim and South Asian community. Law enforcement had been using these devices since the war on drugs. While we were still in the initial phase of litigation in our case, the Supreme Court took up an older challenge to the practice. CAIR filed an amicus brief with the court on the issue; it was the first time ever that a Muslim organization had written itself a brief for the highest court in the United States.
What is the update with the Abercrombie & Fitch employment discrimination suit?
The second lawsuit in 2011 was on behalf of Umme-Hani Khan, against Hollister Co. and its parent company Abercrombie & Fitch. She was fired after several months on the job for refusing to remove her headscarf, in 2010. We are currently in discovery. This lawsuit surprised people as much as the GPS one did, because so often we do not believe these things occur in the Bay Area. Yet at the same time these stories surprise us even more as advocates because they give so many others the courage to step forward and share their own experiences. It was frightening for me to learn about how many other women had experienced similar employment discrimination and not said anything.
What do Muslim women need to do in order for their voices to be heard?
We need to raise our voices. While I agree with the theory that there is bias and prejudice that impacts whether or not we are heard or given the space to speak, I would argue that more often than not there are willing audiences who are left unsatisfied because we don’t put forward our own voices. We need to take the reins and control our narrative; this means seizing opportunities and even seeking them out. Muslim women need to speak up more, doing everything from writing OpEds to attending interfaith events. If we don’t tell our story, there are plenty of others who are far less qualified waiting in the wings. That’s not a future I want to set up for my daughters.
A concern for many Muslim women: how do you manage to keep a good work life/balance?
I struggle with maintaining a work-life balance. As I’m writing this, I’m completing a nearly 80-hour workweek and scheduled to begin another one tomorrow.
It’s insane and I lose track of my hours. I am attempting to learn that all of the work will never get done. Being a workaholic and loving what I do is a difficult combination. To those ends, sometimes I just have to walk away for the night. Having a supportive family is helpful in these circumstances because they are understanding of my absences, but I also cannot take them for granted.
My mentors tell me that if I burn out, I will not be able to do this work for very long. So stopping work to focus on myself every once in a while is also for the cause.
More along the same lines, how do you unwind after a hard day fighting the good fight?
I am blessed with a supportive family and that is how I unwind, spending time with them. There is something to be said about coming home to a partner who understands you are exhausted because you are doing work that you are hopeful will help the world. I also have a cat, who we’ve named Lupe Fiasco because we’re such big fans of the hip hop artist. Simplistic as it sounds, playing with him after a hard day at work is incredibly therapeutic. I’ve heard similar stories from civil rights attorneys who have dogs.
My other method of unwinding is dessert. This is probably not the best thing for me in the long term. I find comfort in food and when I’m struggling with difficult circumstances, I seek solace in chocolate.
What are your expectations and hopes for the “now” generation of Muslim, female attorneys?
It is difficult to be hopeful for any “now” generation of attorneys in light of skyrocketing tuition and debt load as well as ever shrinking job prospects. That said, when approached by aspiring attorneys for advice, I recommend they follow their hearts. The need for legal aid is increasing, particularly as it relates to the American Muslim community. With changes in the national security landscape leading to draconian set backs in civil rights law and ever changing immigration regulations, the American Muslim community will need to produce lots of legal aid resources internally so there are competent and culturally sensitive attorneys available to address these challenges.
I still remember the days when American Muslim women were being dissuaded from going to law school and instead being ushered into medical school and the teaching profession almost exclusively. That has changed, a lot. I am hopeful that this next generation will shatter stereotypes, wearing their religion on their sleeve (or their head in some cases) and serving their clients, be they corporations working through mergers or individuals being harassed by the FBI.