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NOTE (Tuesday, March 28, 2017): This article has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Robbin Chaber Allen’s name.
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For Sabeena Ali, the current climate in America for Muslims, who have found themselves increasingly being verbally and even physically attacked due to their religious beliefs, is far from new.
Sabeena, of Newtown, said she feels like the country has reverted to the 1980s in the way it is treating many of its citizens. The mother of three daughters and wife of Iftikhar, Sabeena and her oldest daughter Ayesha spoke with The Newtown Bee recently about life as American Muslim women.
According to The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), over the past two years American Muslims have found themselves at the center of heated social and political debates. ISPU’s American Muslim Poll 2017, released March 21, involved interviews done in January with 2,389 respondents, including Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic people, as well as some who were not affiliated with any faith.
Among other findings, this year’s poll found that more than two in five (42 percent) of Muslims with children in K-12 school report bullying of their children because of their faith. This compares with the finding that 23 percent of Jews, 20 percent of Protestants, and 6 percent of Catholics find themselves in similar situations.
In addition, Muslims are more than twice as likely — 30 percent, according to the ISPU poll — as Jews (13 percent), Catholics and Protestants (both 11 percent) to be stopped at the border for additional screening. In addition, most Muslims (67 percent) stopped at a US border say they were easily identified as a member of their faith group, compared with 32 percent of Jews and none in other groups.
The Ali family regularly travels to Canada, where much of Sabeena’s family still resides.
“We have been fortunate,” Sabeena said, “that we haven’t had additional screenings.”
The family certainly noticed a difference when they were returning from Canada in January, she said. On January 27, one week after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, he signed Executive Order 13769 which, among other points, banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for at least 90 days.
While Canada was not among the countries named in the president’s executive order, Muslims have nevertheless felt an atmospherical shift.
“The immigration officers were more tense, and extra vigilant,” said Sabeena. “Usually we get ‘Welcome home’ or ‘We’re glad to see you,’ but this time nothing, absolutely nothing. I think the whole culture of immigration has changed.”
Her daughter felt similarly.
“Whenever we go to the border we get scared we won’t get through,” Ayesha said. “That slowed down during the Obama administration. It was a shock to see that we were going back there again.
“After a few days,” said Ayesha, “we realized they may be asking dumber questions, but it’s really the same.”
A Feeling Of Unease
Sabeena Ali says she has felt comfortable within her current hometown — “There has been nothing overt,” she said recently — but there is still a feeling of unease.
“People have made comments on Facebook, not to me directly, but I know what they’re talking about. I’m not stupid,” she said. “However, I do think that overall, people have been super,” she added.
“People don’t mean to say stuff, but it comes across because that’s what they believe,” offered Ayesha.
“It’s not that their intention is to do something, or say something, or even to demean,” said Sabeena. “It’s just that that’s kind of what they believe, and how they grew up, and they just don’t have a filter.”
For someone in a minority group, “or whatever people want to call us now,” said Sabeena, Muslims have always felt that sentiment.
“We’ve always been told that it’s in our head, though, that it’s only in our thoughts, and that it isn’t what the person saying them to us meant,” said Sabeena.
Being Muslim is just their way of life, according to Ayesha.
“We live with good manners, we like cleanliness, and praying is part of our routine,” she said. “Fasting is hard for me — it’s hard for everyone — but we do it. And family values are important.”
The Alis currently do not have a local mosque that they regularly attend. They’re still looking.
“At this moment we don’t have a mosque, but a lot of times we go to Ottawa for our celebrations,” Ayesha said. She laughed then, saying it’s no different than those who haven’t figured out which church or synagogue they want to attend. “We’re still shopping around,” she said.
It can sometimes be difficult to acclimate to different communities, she said.
“People are in their own little niches, and it can be hard to feel like a community,” she said. “When we go to a mosque and focus on our worship, it’s very nice, but the social aspect is not always as appealing. Each mosque, like churches, has its own culture.”
The Alis are of Pakistani descent. Ayesha would like to find a mosque that is appealing to her family’s culture. Until then, the family does the majority of its worshiping at home.
“Finding a mosque can be a lifelong struggle,” Sabeena said. “But it doesn’t have to be the end all, be all. There is a lot to be said about praying in your own home, in your own space.”
Sabeena, like many Muslims, has often found herself praying in parks, or while in her own vehicle.
“Any place on this earth, I can pray,” she said, “as long as it’s clean.”
Growing Into Faith
The foundations of Sabeena Ali’s religion have grounded her throughout her life, she said. She grew up in “a very small rural town in New Brunswick, Canada.” Her family was “pretty much the only nonwhite family in the neighborhood.”
In mid to late 80s, she grew up hearing people tell (or yell at) her that her father took their father’s job, to “go back where you came from,” “you don’t belong here” — the same thing so many people still have thrown at them today.
It wasn’t until she began attending university that she found people who were more open and accepting, she said. Her college years, she said, were “pretty relaxed.
“Nobody cared” about her religion, said Sabeena.
“The type of sentiment that we’re having here is pretty much the type of sentiment I grew up with,” she said. “I grew up with what’s happening now. I feel like I’m back in the 80s. It’s really been a struggle all my life.”
The Ali family moved to the United States in the mid 1990s, after Ayesha was born. They have been living in Newtown for nine years total — 6½ years currently, and three years prior to a three-year stay in Danbury in between. The family also lived for a few years in Stamford.
“We’ve moved around a lot,” said Ayesha, who also said that while she was growing up during the first decade of the 21st Century, “you just didn’t announce that you are a Muslim; not after 9/11.”
She continues to let others bring up the subject of religion.
Being blind has overshadowed much of the issues she would deal with as a Muslim.
“But when I’m with a group of blind people, the Muslim part comes out,” she said.
While she says she wouldn’t speak up as a child, these days any time religion comes up, “or someone starts badmouthing the Middle East, I’ll speak up and say ‘No, don’t say that,’” she said.
Ayesha’s blindness does impact her wardrobe, however. The 22-year-old dresses more conservatively than her mother, who alternates between wearing robes on some days and different styles on other days. Ayesha tends to wear more American clothing — loose pants, shirts that often go to at least her elbows — and does not wear headscarves.
“Ayesha is more conservative, but there are still no tank tops, no big necks,” said Sabeena. “It’s always American clothes that are modest.”
Her oldest daughter wears hats to cover her head, she said, because even a scarf interferes with her hearing.
“She relies so much on her hearing,” said Sabeena. “A scarf will actually muffle her hearing.”
The two younger Ali daughters, said Sabeena, began following the act of covering their head at age 13, which Islam says women should do starting at that age. They too, said Sabeena, also opt for the more American look.
“And that’s fine,” she said. “As long as it’s modest, as long as you’re not showing yourself off, it’s OK. I would rather my family grow into their faith. I would much rather have them be spiritual and solid on the inside, and dress as they wish as they become stronger in their faith.”
The Alis felt residents of Danbury were a little more open to them. With a more diverse population calling the city home, people appeared to have fewer preconceived notions, said Sabeena.
“They meet you for who you are, and then you move on,” she said. “If you like each other, great; and if you don’t, then that’s fine. You just move forward with life.”
Ayesha, who graduated from Western Connecticut State University in 2016 with a degree in professional writing, with a concentration in creative writing, agreed.
“I think people are more open to seeing new people on the street, and saying ‘Hi,’” she said.
While Newtown residents may take a little while to warm up to newcomers, Sabeena said, they do come around if they like you.
“The friends that I have, and the people that are with me, they just 100 million percent support me, and are with me, and I’m with them,” she said, smiling.
“When we first moved here,” Sabeena said of living in Newtown, “it was difficult to get to know people. I do find that people stay in their little groups. People are very hesitant to intermix, or try to get to know other people. “
Getting involved in school activities related to her children helped.
“People got to know me as a person through our children’s activities,” she said. “But still, it’s very hard.”
“Pretty much most of my adult life, I have been involved in issues of equality and better understanding in community and culture, and cohesiveness,” said Sabeena. “That’s kind of been my informal life goal, teaching my kids that, and then being able to have understanding between people.”
“We love living in Newtown,” she continued. “Overall, Newtown is a great town to live in.
“What I think is needed, really, is the next step: an across-the-board acceptance within the schools. I just think when it comes to bullying, and accepting diversity, I just don’t think Newtown has that exposure.
“But once they get to know you, it’s a good town to live in,” she said. “More understanding needs to happen. Not ‘Kumbaya’ rallies … that’s fine, the interfaith stuff is beautiful, but I think we need to move beyond that. We really need to move on to understanding and getting to know each other as individuals.”
On the other hand, Ayesha says she has seen change in Newtown, including within the school system.
“Praying is hard, especially when you have to do it during school,” she said. She recalls incidents when she was in sixth grade, arguments with fellow classmates, and restrictions on head coverings.
“Now my sister wears her hijab at schools,” Ayesha said. “She also has the courage to tell people to stop [talking negatively about Muslims, or teasing her], and the teachers support her.
“It’s a lot different,” she said, adding that there has never been thoughts of the Ali children not attending public schools due to their religion.
“For my family, the idea has always been that we should stay in public school and deal with these issues.
They’re going to come up,” Ayesha said. “You can’t just hide.
“It’s like my being blind,” she continued, “Just face it.”
Sabeena has been working with fellow Newtown resident Robbin Chaber Allen for approximately 18 months to co-host a group called Keeping The Faith.
“We choose some nonprofit organization, and we collect items for them,” Sabeena said. Among other outreach efforts, Keeping The Faith did a winter clothing drive for Bridgeport Community Closet, a personal care/hygiene collection for the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury, food drives for FAITH Food Pantry, and recently did Birthday Bags, she said, for the children at the Women’s Center, who may not have anything waiting for them on their birthday.
The boxes were collected in February, and donors were asked to provide not only fun favors and/or activities such as nail polish, face masks, lions, teen coloring books and markers, but also gifted cake mix and frosting, cake candles, paper plates and plastic forks, streamers, tablecloths, and even balloons and candies to the recipients.
Sabeena is also involved in Newtown Forward, a local advocacy group that formed within days of the 2016 elections. She and Ms Chaber Allen are co-chairs of Newtown Forward’s Advocates for Diversity and Unity Subcommittee. The subcommittee’s mission is to advocate for Fairfield County individuals whose rights are under threat due to sexual orientation, skin color, religion, gender, income, ethnicity, or immigration status. The committee also seeks to celebrate people’s differences, to ensure an environment of mutual understanding and respect.
It’s the perfect committee for the mother of three to be involved in, considering one of the life lessons she continues to teach her children.
“I tell them to be confident in who they are. Know that what they have and who they are is what makes them. Your foundation is what makes you. Your faith is going to be what gets you through difficult times. And you need to be okay with who you are.
“On the flip side,” she continued, “my thing to them is also this: If you are looking at people and expecting them to accept you for who they are, then you must accept them for who they are. You must have that open mind to have that conversation with them.
“Don’t make judgments before you get to know someone.”