By: Ana Tarlas
Bakhtawar Mirjat was returning to Washington, DC from Pakistan after Thanksgiving break. Before the flight, she took off her hijab.
“I got through security without a blink,” Mirjat said. “It was the easiest flight I’ve ever had.”
She didn’t want to take it off. But she didn’t feel safe anymore.
“It was sad to say, but I was relieved to take it off,” she said. “Just this one piece of cloth on my head made people look at me in a different light.”
Mirjat moved to the United States from Pakistan when she was three-years-old. She said her parents were longing for the typical American dream all immigrants and refugees have. On their most recent travels, Mirjat said her parents were stopped at TSA for two hours because they were returning from Pakistan after a family wedding.
At a young age, Mirjat saw her parents participating in Islam awareness advocacy by attending conferences for NGOs. Inspired by her parent’s political activism, Mirjat started to join her parents on their endeavors.
“I was always looking for some ways to bring about justice for Muslims in general, so I started going to conferences with my parents,” Mirjat said. “We went to this one conference in Chicago called the Universal Muslim Association of America.”
Mirjat wanted to bring communities together the same way her parents did. She said when she turned 18, she started looking for ways to be involved with NGOs by being a part of their board and planning organizational events. Eventually, Mirjat became the youth activities lead for the NGO her parents introduced her to.
The NGO work introduced Mirjat to a lot of new people with different relationships with the Muslim religion. Bringing people together as a result of her advocacy work was rewarding, and pushed her to continue. She said she met people from all over the country, immigrants, and refugees, who had previously lost their sense of community or home. By connecting through advocacy organizations, they found a sense of home with many others by sharing their religion.
“It was very heartwarming to see people coming together on the small basis of religion, even though everything else about them was so different,” Mirjat said.
Now a sophomore, once Mirjat came to AU, she wanted to bring her advocacy experience with her.
“Coming to AU I was looking for another sense of community, and I felt it was lacking because we do have such a small Muslim population,” she said.
Mirjat explained that the Muslim Student Association (MSA) was the only prominent club for the AU Muslim community. And while she felt that the MSA is a strong club, it focused on a social community instead of speaking or acting on a political basis. Mirjat felt the activism side lacking.
Mirjat discovered a small coalition built during the 2016 Spring semester. The Islam Awareness Coalition was created during a week-long event with the Arabic club and other organizations on campus, but was not officially a campus organization. Mirjat later founded the coalition and established it as an organization, with herself as the president. The mission of the Islam Awareness Coalition is to build inclusiveness within the campus, and to reach out to non-Muslims to teach them about the Muslim community.
“I think this field of activism is becoming much more open to everyone and not just Muslim women and not just Muslim people,” Mirjat said. “So many people are joining together and building coalitions and building bridges.”
But Mirjat said that with that support also comes a lot of hatred, and tolerance for hatred. Mirjat, an immigrant herself, said President Trump’s rhetoric about banning Muslims is scary and a dangerous declaration.
“He’s using the Muslim word, that scapegoat, to put the strategic ban on the countries that are not supporting him,” she said. “It’s kind of scary to see that one person has this power to ban people of this one specific religion.”
Though Mirjat says she is not personally effected by the ban, her family members in Pakistan are. A cousin of Mirjat planned to immigrate to the US once she finished her PhD program.
“The day of the ban she called and said, ‘Do you think I’ll be able to come now?’” Mirjat said.
Though the ban does not affect Mirjat’s personal citizenship, it is a topic her organization will advocate against. Mirjat says that she knows it is her duty to stand up for Muslim rights, or else the injustices will continue to progress.
“All she wants to do is help people,” Mirjat said of her cousin. “It makes no sense that someone would want to ban her for that.”