My Inherited Grandmother, MLK, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

My Inherited Grandmother, MLK, and the Pursuit of Social Justice January 14, 2017

*This is the written text of a recent speech given at an MLK Shabbat

passport-315266_1280by Nadiah Mohajir

I wanted to begin by sharing the story of the grandmother I inherited more than nineteen years ago. I met her when I was just seventeen years old at my friend Tariq’s home. I had imagined meeting a traditionally dressed, Urdu speaking, Pakistani elderly woman, – you know, the picture of a Pakistani grandmother. Instead, I met an outspoken, English speaking, cheerful, energetic vibrant career woman. She was simply known to all of us as Amma, a term of endearment in Urdu typically given to the matriarch of the family. Unable to contain my excitement, all I could remember saying to Tariq, in typical 17-year old bubbliness was “OMG, your grandmother even wears PANTS!”

I eventually married Tariq, we spent many days and nights with Amma, listening to her tell childhood stories of my husband and his brother. I watched her beam with pride as she met each of her great grandchildren, three of whom are my own children. But what I will remember most about Amma is her ability to make you her own the minute she met you. Our Amma was never stingy with her love and affection – no matter what your identity, gender, race, social class. Amma always connected with you on shared humanity. I remember the first time she met my own grandmother, she embraced her tightly and told her they were sisters.

Two years ago, at the age of 83, our beloved Amma returned to her Creator. In the days leading up to her death, we as a family convened around her, remembering her in all the ways she impacted us. It was during those precious conversations that I learned the details of her incredible journey to America.

Amma was born into a generation and in a country where education and career opportunities were limited for women – marriage and family were prioritized. Despite this, she never complained but rather quietly pushed through with her own feminism.

In 1974, Amma excitedly approached her husband with a wild dream – “We are going to America.” Her husband, our Pappa, bless his heart, chuckled at her – this was an inconceivable idea. Pappa asked her to return to reality – preferably in time for dinner. Kindly ignoring him, Amma persevered with critical hope – dreaming of this unfamiliar land, this promise of opportunity, and requested her brother to sponsor her. Mere months later, Amma was on a plane headed to Chicago, Pappa and her children to follow soon after she settled, secured employment and was able to sponsor them. She landed on a snowy day in Chicago, and our beloved Amma was just as determined as before.

After arriving at her brother’s house, she immediately asked him to teach her how to use the el train, so she could look for work the next day. For a second time, Amma was teased for being naive. “It doesn’t work that way,” she was told. “You can’t just learn the transit system just like that, let alone get a job the day you land.” This didn’t stop our Amma. She was on the brown line the next day, navigating the Chicago transit systems with just a map and limited English skills. That night, she came home and proudly declared that she had secured her first job in America, a mere 24 hours after she landed. Amma’s American dream was becoming a reality sooner than anyone anticipated. This American dream, that many others have also come searching for, including my own father, had been made possible by the struggles, the hard work, the many “firsts” of our American ancestors such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

Today we are gathered to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King. While we all know that Dr. King’s legacy is much more than his infamous “I have a dream speech” speech, these words are repeated over and over to our children as a cornerstone of American history and represent much of what he was fighting for, during a time when many believed it all to be inconceivable.

Dr. King had a dream that America would be a certain way: that a little black boy or girl could one day have the same opportunities as their white neighbor, attend the same schools and sit on the same buses. This dream inspired many around him: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, and many others to continue to push to demand equality, dissolve segregation, and build the America we know today. From civil rights to medicine to even going to the moon, many of the advancements that we know of in America today are because of our African American brothers and sisters and the foundation they laid for all of us.

And, more personally for me, Dr. King’s vision also facilitated that a woman, our Amma, could also dare to dream an inconceivable dream. It enabled her to come from a highly patriarchal society with limited opportunity, and instead be emboldened by her own conviction and belief in a better life for her own family, and with hard work and determination – actually achieve it – singlehandedly mind you.

And so, my family is the children of immigrants. We are doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers and activists and entrepreneurs. We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices and struggles made by our grandmothers, who came in the 1960s and 70s in search of opportunity. The promise of opportunity that their Muslim, brown skinned, headscarf wearing grandchildren and great grand children would have the same opportunities as their White peers. But we must never forget that we are also indebted to the struggles and resistance of the many Black slaves and civil rights activists – many of them also Muslim – that paved the way for our immigrant grandmothers to seek these very opportunities. It was through their fight for civil rights that America became the America that our Amma came searching for.

This same America, where today, my children learn Quran and about their faith in a beautiful mosque built by Muhammad Ali, on the South side of Chicago, the very roads that giants like Muhammad ali, Malcolm X, and Dr. King himself – led their movements. And it is on these same roads, where my house sits, that inspired me seven years ago to have my own version of daring to dream as I embarked on my social justice journey: building a nonprofit called HEART Women & Girls, which creates spaces for Muslims to learn about their bodies, sex, and sexual assault, in a way that is safe, accurate, free of shame, but also inspired by our faith tradition. We work alongside Jewish and Christian communities to build alliances, and address sexual violence together. We dream of a world where women and girls are valued for their character, and not for their skin color, body type, or what they wear. We dream of a world that women are free of guilt, shame, oppression, and violence, so they are able to make informed and empowered decisions about their sexual health in a way that aligns with their values.

And as with any social justice work, there are hard days. There are days when this work seems impossible, and just simply exhausting. Yet, the meaning of my social justice journey beginning on the very same roads these great Americans walked is not lost on me. To be surrounded by their histories and legacies, the institutions they built and movements they ignited, is nothing short of God’s plan for me: my family came here in search of opportunity, for a better life, but also as God’s greater plan for us to continue this search for Truth and Justice.

Dr. King’s search for Truth and Justice were founded on a simple principle that many faith traditions share: that all men and women are created equal, despite differences in the color of their skin, religious identity, social class, or gender and that we all have a right to belong. His entire movement was founded on this concept of shared humanity, and he once wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality…. Our struggles are really one: a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson he taught me is about compassion, which also happens to be a core value in Islam. Compassion that I believe, goes hand in hand with Justice, another core value in our faith traditions.

You see, compassion isn’t just about being kind. It’s about seeing the other person’s shared humanity, something that both Dr. King and Amma modeled effortlessly. And when you see that shared humanity, calling out for justice when you see oppression comes naturally. And so, compassion and justice are fundamentally linked – without compassion, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no compassion.

These values sit at the core of both our faith identities and our American identities. And while our unique identities might be different from our neighbor, it is our diversity that gives us strength collectively. God tells us in the Quran: “We have created you into many nations and tribes so you may know one another.” Likewise, an important theme in the Hebrew Bible is hospitality, and caring for others, as is noted in the Hebrew Bible: [God] loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothing. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners.

We must look past skin color, the headscarf, and the yarmulke, and build deep relationships based on our shared humanity, hope, and determination. We live in a time where xenophobia, islamophobia, anti Semitism, and racism are at peaks that they haven’t been in many years, but giving into these fear and threats is giving up our privilege of daring to dream: I for one, am not ready to do that. Not as Amma’s granddaughter.  Not as a Muslim woman. And certainly not as an American.

So let us know one another and come together – on this blessed day and those that we will have together in our future – in critical hope, in compassion, and in justice. I ask you to join me as we stand together in solidarity, and continue to fight for the dreams that our grandmothers dared to have and our forefathers died protecting.

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