In her words: raising a Muslim daughter in America
Editor’s note: I first met Ranna Abduljawad while on assignment for Reveal, a public radio show from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The show’s producers wanted to find out how the Muslim American community was reacting to the recent presidential election, and what they expected from the new administration. Ranna and her family were wonderful ambassadors, and I’m pleased to share some of her thoughts and insights on social engagement, faith communities, and the experiences of Muslim Americans with our readers. Before you dive into her interview, be sure to watch her TEDxFSCJ talk about raising a Muslim daughter in America. – AH
Renaissance Woman: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Would you introduce yourself to our readers?
Ranna Abduljawad: My name is Ranna Abduljawad and I am a vice president in the technology sector for the major financial corporation Merrill Lynch. I have lead many fundraising campaigns on behalf of the company as well as outside the company for other nonprofits organizations. I have served as a member of Bank of America LEAD (Leadership, Education, and Advocacy & Development for Women).
I was born in Washington state but grew up in the West Bank. My time in Palestine encouraged me to understand conflicts as human problems that require people to step up to solve them. I spent some time volunteering in refugee camps in Palestine, which compelled me to advocate for refugees and their struggles.
I currently serve as an executive board member at the Atlantic Institute of Jacksonville, a nonprofit organization that aims to facilitate interfaith dialog in the community and bridge cultures around the globe. I’m also a committee member of FRRC (Floridians Responding to Refugees) and was recently one of the TEDx speakers and served on a TEDx Panel discussions as well as helped organize and emcee Palestinian Women empowerment discussions. I was also recently accepted to be a board member in AACC (Arab American Community center of Florida).
RW: You’re involved in a lot of extracurricular charitable activities. Will you tell us about those and why they’re important?
RA: I got involved with Floridians Responding to Refugees because I know being a refugee is not a choice; leaving everything you know and own behind to escape oppression is not a choice. I have seen it with my people back home and I have seen it here with Syrian refugees and I felt obligated to do whatever it takes to help.
“Being a refugee is not a choice.”
RW: A lot of work you do is about battling stereotypes. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Muslim Americans and Muslim American women in particular?
RA: Wow, where do I start? There are a lot of misconceptions, unfortunately. People view my religion as oppression. It’s not. When people are practicing their faith they are often seen as oppressed people. For example, Muslim women with head scarves (what we call “Hijab”) are always viewed as oppressed when in reality they are lawyers, doctors, teachers, have their own opinion, and make their own decisions—one of those decisions is to wear the Hijab but they always find themselves explaining why they wear it and if they were forced to wear it.
A misconception is that our religion teaches hate. In reality our religion teaches peace, loving your neighbor, not harming a soul, and respecting others. That is the message I want to share with everyone loud and clear. Evil people exist in any religion, non-religion, country, etc. But let’s not paint them all with one brush based on an individual’s actions.
“In reality our religion teaches peace, loving your neighbor, not harming a soul, and respecting others.”
RW: You gave a TEDx talk in Jacksonville in November 2016 about raising a Muslim daughter in America. Why did you decide to give that TED talk?
RA: I never understood the challenges of being a parent until I had my daughter. You want your kids to grow up in a safe environment, and lately, for Muslims kids, it’s very hard not to be affected by what you see and hear on the news and by people around you who judge you based on your faith. Just the thought of the possibility that my kid would be bullied based on that scared me. A lot of my friends and family faced discrimination because they are Muslim and I am always worried about them but to know your own kid is going to go through it just puts things in a different perspective.
RW: What did you learn from the TEDx talk?
RA: I learned the importance of connecting with people through your story. TED is a great platform for getting your message out and it also give you the confidence to talk about it more because once you step foot on that stage, you know you can stand on any stage and relay your message. It was such a great opportunity that I will be forever grateful for.
RW: What was the response like from the community?
RA: It was a mixed response but mostly positive. I knew it was worth it when I was approached by a women right after my talk and she asked me if she could hug me. We hugged for a long time while she cried. She then looked at me and thanked me for sharing my story and opening her eyes. That was enough for me to know I made a difference through my speech even if it was one person. My Muslim community was very supportive. We need to shed light on what is really happening to the Muslim community.
RW: In your TEDx talk you’re very hopeful and optimistic about the future for all communities, yet 2015 saw the highest number of anti-Muslim assaults since 2001, and the Islamic community has recently been targeted in all sorts of ways (discriminatory policies, hate speech, etc.). Have your ideas/expectations changed since your TEDx talk?
RA: My ideas changed but my expectation remains the same. I am very hopeful. I see day by day the executive orders banning Muslims are losing. We need to be louder and stronger. Our voice need to be amplified more than ever.
RW: What are some of the biggest issues facing Muslim-American women today?
RA: Muslim women are easy target in America. It’s easy to identify a Muslim women based on her attire and, specifically, her head cover. They are being harassed not just verbally but physically.
RW: Who are some of your heroes? Who inspires you?
RA: I have a lot of heroes. Anyone who stands up for justice and against discrimination is my hero. You don’t need to be famous or a public figure to touch people’s live and make a difference. If you see a Muslim person discriminated against in a plane or grocery store or school and you stand up for them YOU ARE MY HERO.
My daughter is my biggest inspiration. I got involved even more in the community once I had her. I wanted to pave the road for her and teach her to fight for what’s right so every day when I look at her I ask myself, “What would my answer be when she asks me what did I do to stand up against Islamophobia?” When I think I haven’t done enough I get up and do more.
“I wanted to pave the road for her and teach her to fight for what’s right.”
RW: Are there any other points you’d like to make or topics you’d like to touch on?
RA: The ideology of racism has changed and it’s no longer about skin color or race. Treating anyone poorly based on what you are fed from the media, their faith, their language–that is pure racism and hate. When you start classifying “us” vs. “them” when “they” are part of this country and “they” helped shape this country, then you are part of the problem and not the solution.
Also, in regards to refugee crisis: refugees are human and need our help. Americans were also against accepting Jewish refugees during WWII, believing they could cause a communist threat in the country. DO NOT LET FEAR stop you from doing what’s right. DO NOT let history repeats itself.
RW: Do you have any resources you would like to share with our readers?
RA: Our local mosque here in Jacksonville, ICNEF (Islamic center of North East Florida), invites the community every month to join them for a special evening to getting to know Muslims, share dinner with them, have discussions, as well as answer any questions. I highly suggest non-Muslims attend and learn what Muslims are about outside of what we are fed from media outlets.
Also, if you would like to help Refugees re-settling in Florida please reach out to FRRS (Floridians Responding to Refugees), like their page, follow their work, and help when you can.
Atlantic Institute of Jacksonville also offers great learning events and bridge people together through hosting interfaith dialogues. It’s a great nonprofit that truly works nonstop to bring the community together regardless of their race, faith or background.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.