This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.
Urooj Arshad is the associate director of Equity and Social Justice at Advocates for Youth. She provides capacity-building services to community-based organizations working with youth of color on reproductive and sexual health. She has also designed a project to address the reproductive and sexual health needs of Muslim-identified youth. Most recently she developed a program focusing on the health and rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth around the world. Urooj has gone through leadership training with the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute and with the Center for American Progress Women’s Health Leadership Network.
Sally Steenland: Urooj, you work on reproductive and sexual health issues with young American Muslims. What are some pressing issues these young people face?
Urooj Arshad: Many young people have felt stigmatized talking about sexual health, and there are not a lot of resources for them. Advocates for Youth is a national organization, and we decided it was a priority for us to work with the community. Our Muslim Youth Project seeks to build the capacity of organizations working on reproductive and sexual health issues with American Muslim youth.
It actually came out of a trip I took to Germany, meeting with a coalition of folks coming from all over Europe to talk about multiculturalism and sexual health education. A lot of the meeting was focused on immigrants and Muslim youth, but there was a distinct lack of Muslim representation. I felt that addressing this gap could be a model—not only in the United States but also for people doing this work in other places where there are large Muslim communities but due to lack of representation and resources, reproductive and sexual health are not addressed.
The big challenges American Muslim communities face are silence and stigma. Issues around reproductive and sexual health are either not talked about or not talked about in a way that is healthy. Silence and stigma can lead to negative health outcomes for young people, especially as they negotiate their lives here. All the information they receive from school and other sources can pose a dilemma as to what they’re supposed to be doing.
There is also a lack of cultural competence from mainstream providers. It could be community-based organizations. It could be schools. If you are a provider that’s worked predominantly in the Muslim community, you might not be able to address reproductive or sexual health issues. Or if you are a provider in the reproductive and sexual health community, you might not know how to address issues Muslim young people are facing. Because of this, what can happen in the American Muslim youth community can be quite dire.
SS: How do you lessen the silence and stigma? And how do you work with groups to become more culturally competent in dealing with American Muslim young people and their communities?
UA: In terms of silence and stigma, we provide resources and seed grants to organizations in New York City and Chicago, where there are significant Muslim communities. When we started the project, we wanted to make sure we were able to provide resources for those in the Muslim community who were interested in doing this work or were already doing it. Our first seed grant was to a local clinic in Queens, where our main contact person was already seeing a lot of young people. She’s South Asian and was going to the schools doing education on reproductive and sexual health, so they were gravitating toward her as someone providing these resources.
Our seed grant enabled her to bring together a group of 20 young women who became peer educators. They learned about these issues and tried to address some of the stigma, so they could provide leadership within the youth community.
In Chicago we work with an organization called HEART Women & Girls. The interesting thing about them is that they do larger health work within the Muslim community. Through our work with them, they focus specifically on reproductive and sexual health. They’re working with college-aged young women—Muslim young women. They’re also developing a tool kit for providers interested in taking a curriculum or training and making it applicable to Muslim youth. It’s about building leadership and then using that leadership to provide cultural competency. They also do a blog—that’s another way to address the silence and stigma. The young women are blogging about their experiences and crossposting and getting the word out that these issues are pertinent to the Muslim community.
Through Advocates for Youth we have a listserv of about 100 providers. We offer technical assistance in terms of resources that can be helpful to them.
SS: You’ve previously used the term “double identity” to describe many young American Muslims. What do you mean?
UA: A lot of Muslim communities are immigrant communities, so they still have some of the cultural and societal values of back home. Young people grow up with that set of values, but they go to school here and have friends and hear a different set of values. I think it’s mixed messaging for them and can cause a bit of a crisis in how they’re supposed to represent themselves as full people and lead their lives here in the United States. It’s a crisis around their identities.
SS: Those are pressures that come mainly from within a young person’s family or community. But especially since 9/11, there are outside attitudes and prejudices that affect young American Muslims as well. It’s now been more than 10 years since 9/11. Are outside attitudes changing?
UA: Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice definitely impacts the American Muslim community. I think that’s partly why the Muslim Youth Project was founded because, in the context of 9/11, a lot of these communities experience additional layers of stigma. Places such as New York City and Chicago, where there are significant Muslim communities, are sort of under surveillance, and I think that adds pressure.
We’ve heard from young people in New York that because of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stigma, they feel they have to represent themselves as “model citizens.” Let’s say something is going on at home. They don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to influence the way that people view their family.
And then the other piece is just general anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stigma in terms of how that adds to the pressure and creates even more of an environment for them to not fulfill their dreams and to not live healthy and productive lives.
You know, I’ve thought a lot about whether it’s changing. I mean it has been 10 years since 9/11, and I think we do see a rise in Islamophobia again. It could be a small thing that becomes a huge issue. So for example, the debate around Park 51 near Ground Zero or the TV show, “All-American Muslim,” that lost Lowe’s as one of its sponsors (which then was boycotted). You wonder, “Where is this coming from?”
I think it might be related to the election of President Barack Obama and a sort of general increase in racism and anxiety in the country. That ties into anti-immigrant sentiment, which ties into anti-Muslim sentiment. And with the recession it’s a lot easier to go after marginalized communities.
SS: Let’s talk about diversity within the community. We know that American Muslims are not monolithic, that there are all kinds of differences. Can you give us some nuance to contrast to a monolithic view?
UA: Absolutely. We encompass so much of the world, and we have differences. People who were born in the religion versus people who convert. People who identify as religious versus people who identify as more cultural or secular. And of course there are different sects in Islam itself.
There is a progressive Muslim movement, which I think in some ways takes example from other religious communities. For example, an organization called Muslims for Progressive Values cares about LGBT rights, even though they’re not only focused on that. But they are inclusive of LGBT rights and define themselves as progressive. I think it’s a growing movement of, for example, all-inclusive mosques around the country, which welcome LGBT people and welcome women in a more equal way.
Some of that is really exciting. I was giving examples before of HEART Women & Girls, which does broader work. You start to see change when a more mainstream organization takes on issues that are more controversial, and I think that that is happening with HEART Women & Girls. It’s happening with Muslims for Progressive Values, who are going to be doing more LGBT work. They had a reception where they had people such as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is an LGBT rights supporter, as well as the first Muslim elected to Congress.
And there is the queer Muslim working group that just had its second annual LGBT Muslim retreat. I was reflecting on when we first started doing these retreats 10-plus years ago, and at that point our focus was, “We’re here, and we can be LGBT and Muslim.” That was our baseline. At the retreat that just ended this past week, people were having conversations about showing up for congregational prayer. There was prayer five times a day for those who want to pray. The kinds of conversations we’re having now are, “How can people be on time to congregational prayer?” It’s a very different conversation from 10 years ago, when we were very loose and had maybe a prayer space, and that was exciting in itself.
There is starting to be more room as we push out from the LGBT community, and the progressive movement takes our issue forward. And then, of course, there are scholars such as Siraj Kugel, who has done a book on Islam and homosexuality, and Amina Wadud, who has done work around feminist interpretations of the Koran and of the Hadith, the prophet Muhammad’s life, as an example for Muslims.
SS: The progress you just described, especially regarding LGBT equality, mirrors in some ways changes within other faith communities and society as a whole. Some are saying that gay and lesbian issues and reproductive rights issues are becoming decoupled, as LGBT issues move ahead and reproductive issues stay stuck. Would you say that’s true in American Muslim communities? Or is that not the case?
UA: There is movement around women’s rights, but it’s stuff such as who leads prayer or the mixed-gender space, and definitely that is connected to LGBT rights. I have not heard so much about what’s been happening around abortion rights.
SS: You work on reproductive rights and reproductive justice. And you have said that it’s important to include faith in this work. Why is it important to include faith in reproductive rights and justice?
UA: It’s important because there is this line that has been created, which says you can only do this work in a secular way—or if you’re religious, you don’t support this work. The religious right has taken over faith and religion, and left no space for people of faith who support reproductive rights and justice. It does a disservice to our work and polarizes our communities. We saw in Prop 8 the way communities were polarized. I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is an artificial line. There are people who support our issues, and we need to be more vocal about how to put the conversation of faith back in our work and create those alliances.
SS: What’s a good way to do that?
UA: I’ve seen it work. For example, the Gay & Lesbian Task Force has their Creating Change Conference, the biggest LGBT conference in the country—and for the past few years they’ve done an initiative that brings together people of faith. They have actively created a space within the conference for people of faith.
I was just at a transgender health conference in Philadelphia, and for the first time they had a Muslim prayer space. Even if just a few people show up, the fact that the space is there starts to provide that kind of context and say, “Look this space at this particular conference is really important.”
And vice versa, it’s about people who come together around faith to have these issues be integrated as well. For example, I just finished my American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute Fellowship, and I was the first “out” person. It was the fourth cohort they’ve had, and it wasn’t easy. We had some hard conversations, but at the end I realized there are allies there I never would have met. If I had said, “This is a predominantly straight Muslim space, I don’t belong there,” I would have missed out. Knowing that there are allies in those communities has been really helpful. It’s about finding allies in religious spaces and seeing if they can support our work.
SS: We know that faith is not monolithic. Different faiths have different beliefs and cultural practices. How do we get unity without uniformity? And how do we work together effectively without diminishing the ways in which we are different?
UA: I like that: “Not uniformity, but unity.” The Friday sermon at the LGBT conference was around that. I think we can bring our various perspectives to the table and see where some movements have been effective. For example, I think the Jewish community has done an amazing job of integrating these issues. When you think “Jewish,” you don’t think necessarily conservative. Muslims can learn from that, considering that we come from a similar trajectory of religion—that is something we can learn from. Interfaith work is important because if mosques, for example, are part of an interfaith community, they’re more likely to be inclusive. They’re more likely to be LGBT- and women-friendly. There’s definitely a lot of value that comes from doing this work.
SS: You’re part of several leadership institutes. What are you learning from your participation?
UA: The first thing I think of, honestly, is relationship-building. The American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute was my first attempt to see where the straight Muslim community is and what leadership looks like for them. The way they build up the fellowship is amazing because it allows people from all different backgrounds and with different relationships to faith to come together. I appreciated having that space and knowing that our differences might not be what set us apart. Again, it’s the “Not uniformity, but unity” piece. We come from very different backgrounds but are able to enhance our work.
With the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, that’s something similar I’m hoping to get—how do you work across faith, how can you learn from each other, and how can you have each other’s back when you need it? It’s also a way to take a step back from your everyday life and work, and figure out creative ways of addressing these issues and having a long-term vision. Sometimes you get caught up in everyday and are working from a very reactionary space, and this is a way to connect with each other for the long haul.
SS: So much of what we do is on the defensive. We do rapid response to misinformation and attacks—but we also have a vision of the kind of life for women and men and children that we want to see. When you look at your work, both long term and short term, what’s exciting to you right now?
UA: It’s an amazing time to be working with young people. There’s a vibrant youth movement, whether you look at the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement. It’s an exciting time and a scary time because the economy is stressing people out. But this is where people are pushed to be their best and fight for what they think is important in the world. Because I do youth work, and I’ve always been a big advocate for young people, it’s exciting to see the possibilities and where young people can push the framework, both domestically and globally.
It’s exciting to build those global and domestic bridges. That is something I’m really interested in. Right now I do half-international, half-domestic work, and the way social media is helping bridge some of those gaps is exciting.
I was in Pakistan a few months ago. Our work is going to look different there because you’re struggling with structural issues such as lack of water and electricity, and minority rights being marginalized by the government. A lot of the LGBT and reproductive justice work sits within that, and people want a more secular space.
But here in the United States, people organize around Muslim identities because that is something they feel they are being marginalized by—being Muslim. For a long time I thought, “I don’t know where I sit. Where do I belong?” Now I realize I can be part of both. The world is becoming smaller with access to media. We’re able to have more complicated thoughts, and we’re able to hold more complicated spaces. To me that is exciting.
SS: It sounds like you’ve got a foot in each world, or in many worlds, and you’re helping us all learn from each other, which does sound exciting.
UA: Yeah, it’s exciting!
SS: Thank you very much, Urooj. It was a pleasure to talk. We learned a lot.
UA: Thank you so much.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.