When we were deciding who we wanted to be MuslimGirl’s FIRST EVER Baddie of the Month, we realized that it had to be someone that represented the fire we hope to inspire among our readership. If we’re talking the true definition of “badass,” a game-changer that’s stirring things up, and a real force in the #MuslimGirlArmy — then Sana Saeed is it. She’s someone you want to keep an eye out for, just as good as her eye for the hard-hitting issues that strike a chord in our community. Last year, she recognized a problem in the Muslim Leadership Initiative’s Zionist-funded trip to Palestine and brought it to the surface. She literally coined the term “faithwashing” — now permanently embedded in the Muslim-American lexicon — to describe the tactic of painting the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a religious conflict to distract from it being a colonial one. On top of that, Sana’s resume is legit crazy: currently a producer at AJ+, she has also been an editor for the The Islamic Monthly and islawmix, as well as a columnist for Al Akhbar English, former contributor for MuslimahMediaWatch, and former contributor and Editor-in-Chief at KABOBfest. As if you weren’t already impressed enough, Sana has been published in BBC, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and AJ Stream, among many others. Her work has tackled a huge range of topics, including life as a Muslim in the West, sexuality, civil liberties, and more. Most of all, Sana is, without question, our inaugural BOTM. Say hello.
WHAT WAS SANA SAEED DOING 10 YEARS AGO?
Ten years ago, I was spending Friday nights at the local Chapters-Starbucks, reading the opening sequence to Romeo and Juliet with my best friend, Amanda. The opening sequence is this incredible back and forth, these taunts, of thumb biting. And for us, since we had first read the piece, it was an incredible way to insult someone. And we often did that: just curled up under one of the fiction sections and exploring either personal favorites or forbidden books that would force reddened faces and immature, thunderous laughs. Ten years ago, I was waiting to hear back from five universities across Canada; I was waiting to see what course my life would take. Ten years ago, I was struggling to pass physics and crushing on all the wrong guys — two things I still battle with.
ON HAVING A COMMUNITY
I had never had a community. Many — if not most — Muslims living in the U.S. and Canada can pinpoint their community. Even if they’re not involved in their community or even fond of it, they can say they have one; there’s a reference point. For myself, I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and part of the reason I write is to make sense of everything that I, well, sense around me. This forces you to adapt to quickly changing situations, climates, and even people. I’ve wandered from groups of people and to that I owe a great amount of my intellectual, religious, and emotional growth. In regards to having a community of Muslims for me to hold a reference point, to lay some claim of kindred ownership — it’s been a bit of a blessing to not have one. Because not having that single community with whom I grew up, with whom I have those funny and not so funny mosque stories, makes it easy — even when it is difficult in so many ways — to want to be a part of any community. It doesn’t always work — the Bay Area’s proven tough! — but you learn, trip, get up, and grow along the way. Because of this, I thirst to know more Muslims, more communities, more perspectives. It both challenges and cements my faith.
ON ENGAGING THE “HARD CONVERSATIONS”
Our community is at a critical juncture here in the United States. I worry that our leadership — as the history of minority communities susceptible to assimilation to whiteness in this country dictates — will becomes entrenched in the establishment and its institutions.
ON CHALLENGES IN HER FIELD
Having a man with less of a public presence say the same exact thing I’ve said, or something with less substance, and get the writing gigs, get the jobs, get the speaking gigs. This sounds arrogant, but I state this as an experience many women in this field have undergone. The male voice has an authority that the female voice — in political analysis, in leadership, in journalism — just doesn’t carry, except in rare cases. Overcoming these challenges is an on-going process. I’ll get back to you on that. And, honestly, haters gonna hate. That keeps me sane and driven.
ADVICE FOR MUSLIM WOMEN TRYING TO GET AHEAD
In my own experience, I’ve taken the advice of Conan O’Brien when he left the Tonight Show: to be kind no matter what. Be kind, do what you do best, grab opportunities and create them and ally yourself with other women. Don’t take bullshit from anyone, and hold steadfast to what you believe and know. Do not doubt yourself, but do not be arrogant, either. Humility is a virtue but one that is so incredibly rare. Do what you do for God and to better your communities — both Muslim and non-Muslim — and to better yourself as a human being. Lead a life that is transformative. Constantly look at who you are, who you were, and how you’d like to change. And always, always, always remember what Imam Shafi’i once said:
“Never do I debate a man with a desire to hear him err in his speech, or to expose the flaws in his argument, and thus vanquish him. Whenever I face an opponent in debate I silently supplicate, ‘O Lord, help him so that truth may manifest itself in his heart and on his tongue. If it be that the truth is on my side, may he follow me; and if the truth be on his side, may I follow him.’”
Do not be afraid to follow.
ON THE PERSONAL IMPACT OF 9/11
I was 14 when the events took place, and immediately I was put on the defensive. I had to become a sort of ambassador of my faith, especially since I wore the hijab for 13, almost 14, years. I had to answer questions I didn’t even know the answers to; I had to continue being a strong Muslim in the face of spiritual weaknesses I was trying to mend. Before those events, I saw myself as a citizen of the countries I had lived in, whether the U.S. or Canada — a part of their social and cultural fabrics. After 9/11, I realized how precarious, and, ultimately, useless that position is when its so-called privileges can be taken away from you just because your skin isn’t the right color or you don’t believe the right things. The past 14 years forced me to confront issues of justice and the direction of our community and to make sense of all the accusations that were being thrown across my ears, in front of my eyes. I turned to writing. I used to be a creative writer, but with age I turned to non-fiction because I wanted to make sense of what I was experiencing, what I was hearing, and what I was feeling. Writing is an incredible way to learn — and so by writing myself, I began to learn.
WORST “SIDE ENTRANCE” MOMENT
When an outside Islamic organization organized an otherwise great event on my university campus. They rented one of the biggest lecture halls on campus, where I had several classes, but they made the women go through a completely different entrance (I didn’t even know that door opened) on the side of the building. When we entered the hall that could hold 600+ people, they had created a bizarrely large barrier by propping up a long piece of fabric. I couldn’t even concentrate on the speaker because I was mesmerized by the absurdity of my lecture hall being divided like that. I just laughed it off and probably later ranted passionately to friends.
BADDIE ROLE MODELS
My mom. She loves Spike Lee movies. My first-year Feminist Theory professor, Marguerite Deslauriers, who helped put in my a critical perspective on feminism — she was a staunch feminist but so incredibly aware, it seemed, of the privileges ever-present in feminism. I don’t self-identify as a feminist but I certainly appreciate the breadth of its scholarship.
My ‘Honor Brigade’ — they know who they are, and that title is completely sarcastic.
And Daria. That’s who I aspired to be as a kid: Daria. How am I doing?
WHAT MUSLIM WOMEN NEED TO CREATE CHANGE
Thick skin. And a strong hold of your faith. Pray. Pray often. It was prescribed to us for our own good. And, yes, it is often a struggle to remain steadfast in our prayers, but the soul needs nourishment, and you are only as good to your communities as your soul is nourished.
WHAT WILL SANA SAEED BE DOING 10 YEARS FROM NOW?
Serving the community, pushing the status quo, and finally having that dinner with Drake. But I’ll probably still be struggling with physics.