a conversation with Nadiah Mohajir
Nadiah Mohajir is a lifelong Chicagoan, Pakistani-American-Muslim, mother of three, public health professional, reproductive justice activist, and anti-sexual assault advocate. She is the Co-founder and Co-Executive Director for HEART Women & Girls. For over a decade, she has led the organization to provide sexual health education and sexual violence awareness programming and advocacy to thousands of individuals, organizations, and campuses across the country. HEART has broken many cultural barriers, raising awareness and advocating for important issues such as sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence, and media literacy, and ultimately aims to dismantle the stigma, silence, and systems that prevent individuals from seeking information, healing, and justice.
DBN: Tell us about HEART, your role at the organization, and the kind of work you do.
Nadiah: HEART is a national nonprofit. Our mission is to promote sexual health, uproot gendered violence, and advance reproductive justice by establishing choice and access for the most impacted Muslims.
We work at the intersection of gender-based violence, reproductive justice, and Muslim communities. Reproductive justice is advocating for people to have self-determination over their bodies: they have the right to parent or not parent their children, and that they have the right to parent their children in safe and sustainable communities that are free of violence.
My role as co-founder and co-executive director of HEART means that I've been there since the beginning. I do a little bit of everything, but our general programming model is actually in our acronym: Health, Education, Advocacy, Research, and Training.
DBN: What inspired you to create HEART?
Nadiah: Fourteen years ago I was a consultant at the Office of Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. My boss at the time assigned me a project to develop a campaign or a program that would reach Muslim women and girls. We designed a day-long health and wellness day for mothers and daughters where they came together and talked about self-esteem, sex, healthy relationships, peer pressure, all of that kind of stuff. It was a really big success, and a lot of the people who attended wanted information on when we might have another.
We started talking to Muslim institutions, sex-ed orgs, and people who donated to causes like that to really understand if there was a need. There was a gap– mainstream sex-ed organizations were not meeting certain community needs because they were using one-size-fits-all approaches. Muslim institutions barely had any resources or programs available, and if they did, they were very limited in scope and not taught by professionals who had an accurate medical understanding of what they were talking about. From there, we worked to bring public health education to a hard-to-reach population.
We had to merge core Islamic values around justice, compassion, equality, and women's rights with public health education and say, “What would it look like for us to bring these two worlds together?”
DBN: A lot of the subject matter HEART covers can be considered controversial for Muslims, South Asian, and Arab cultures. What kind of societal challenges have you faced since you started this?
Nadiah: There are challenges in building a nonprofit and there are challenges in working in the space of reproductive justice and anti-violence work. Most of the time, nonprofits dissolve after a couple of years because it's incredibly hard to sustain a nonprofit, especially when you take into account building a board, acquiring consistent funding, and developing the infrastructure.
More often than not you'll see nonprofit staff underpaid and mistreated. I wanted to build a nonprofit that’s anti-racist, anti-oppression, and values people over tasks. It’s hard because funders want the big ‘sexy’ impact you’re making, which you can’t do without funding for a properly compensated and supported team. It’s a tough cycle.
Then you have the challenge of being a South Asian Muslim woman also trying to do this work. Mainstream Muslim institutions do not typically have Muslim women in leadership positions in a way that is meaningful and authentic. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but most of the time women are tokenized. Often, one of the challenges that I've experienced is people don't know what to do with me because I'm a Muslim woman of color who has a vision, who has a plan, and who has a way of doing things.
Most of the time I get the condescending response, “Oh, that's cute. You're a mom with three kids, and that's so cute. You're just trying to do this, like, after-school program and like, it's just so cute, right?” I get that kind of attitude. Then I get the kind of attitude, “Oh, but you're not working hard enough, and that's why you have a struggling budget or not enough staff or you're not traveling. The other executives that I see are always on the road and you're not hustling.” Of course, all the executives they use as an example were all men who have a nanny and a wife at home. There's no understanding of the struggle of being a woman of color and a Muslim in the spaces that we're in. Couple that with being involved in reproductive justice and gender-based violence work. We get a ton of pushback.
The people who are the most threatened by this work are cisgender men. One of the biggest battles that we fight all the time is these grown men yelling loudly about how ‘unislamic’ we are. They're threatened by us teaching women and girls about their sexual rights, and they are twisting our words and manipulating our work to basically say, “Oh, because they do their work with an inclusive lens, [meaning we believe that all people (regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity) should have access to health information] they’re insinuating that you can be LGBTQ+ and Muslim.” Look, we're not here to make a religious claim one way or another. We're not scholars. We're not going to sit here and say yes, it's allowed, or no, it's not allowed. We're saying that you belong regardless, no matter what your identity is. It's critical for everyone to have access to that information. It's kind of like these folks are just so threatened by the fact we're doing this work in a way that has never been done before. There's that too.
DBN: Do you find that you get more pushback, equal pushback, or less pushback from Muslim women or Muslim men?
Nadiah: Women who are cis and are visibly more Muslim–via hijab (head covering) or abaya (floor-length gown)–and have been classically trained in Syria all tend to have more credibility in Muslim spaces. So what we have noticed through our work is that a lot of those women who have that credibility in the spaces tend to serve as the gatekeepers. They are usually the ones who are uncomfortable because of topics we cover or don't think a partnership or talk will work because some people on our staff don't wear hijab.
In the past, I’ve been asked if I’ll have my staff wear hijab when they come to certain spaces. That's complicated for us because the majority of my staff identifies as survivors and policing dress is rooted in rape culture and victim blaming. I have a staff of very smart and strong Muslim women who are capable of making informed decisions for themselves about how they want to show up in certain spaces. It's not our culture to shame or police someone for the ways in which they dress. It's important for them to be comfortable and dressed in ways that make them feel good.
To your point about men or women, I'd still say that men are still in the majority in terms of being the ones that are very vocal in their critique and in their distaste of our work. I think the difference is that women have a tendency to work more subtly and passive-aggressively. They may not be outwardly vocal in their critique of us, but they will do it other ways by erasing our name from things. They’ll intentionally leave our name off flyers. It's too risky to be affiliated with us or even just admit that we exist.
DBN: How does all of this affect you personally?
Nadiah: The fatigue and burnout are real. It's really exhausting to constantly have to fight with the people you're trying to serve and have to constantly explain why your work is important, why it's worth investing in.
There's grief associated because there's a lot of loss that you experience when you're doing this work. People you thought were your friends, your community, they disappear.
A lot of people have distanced themselves from me because they don't agree with what I’m doing, and what hurts more is when they actually do agree but they distance themselves to protect their own brand or their own credibility. Friendships have been lost, community has been lost. My circle of people has greatly diminished and the number of social events that I actually show up to has greatly diminished. I do get anxiety over it because I've felt betrayed or forgotten by a lot of these people.
Though, I don't want to make it all doom and gloom. You become more focused on finding your people, and when you find them it really is a gift. Finding my community through my colleagues and HEART’s supporters has really changed my world in a positive way.
DBN: What were some coping mechanisms, if you had any, that you would turn to when you were initially trying to cope with the stress of the changes around you?
Nadiah: Crying is really important. I started therapy which has been really important for me, both with my personal relationships and professional life. Executive coaches are really good because it's like the fusion of a consultant and a therapist in one. They help you unpack and build towards certain goals in a way that, for me, has been really critical to being able to survive in this work. Finding the right funders has also been really important. Potential funders have said some outrageous and offensive things to me, so when you find ones that are committed to your vision and your mission, it falls into place a lot easier.
DBN: Reflecting on where you started versus where you are now with HEART, what is surprising to you about your journey, and what has been the most rewarding part of your journey?
Nadiah: I did not expect to lose so many people. I didn’t expect the dual relationships, where you're doing work in your local community and people now know you as part of this organization AND as just a woman in the community. I also find myself reflecting on how my brain works differently now–if you present a problem to me, I’ll automatically start to come up with solutions for it. I'll do this for any random thing now, like with my daughter going through the college admissions process, or even when I'm cleaning the snow off my car. I remember even when my youngest was a baby, I would stay up with him and he'd cry all night and I would be crying with him because I was just so exhausted. I would start thinking about what it would look like if I created a system where moms give back to each other; where an older mom comes and night nurses for the younger mom.
As for what has been rewarding, I think watching my team in action really makes it all worth it. Seeing really brilliant Muslim women come together and do their thing. It’s like magic.
DBN: What advice would you give to someone who's experiencing hardship?
Nadiah: I would probably say to trust and ground yourself in your values so you have something to gain inspiration from when you're at your lowest point, or when you've experienced a failure, it doesn't define you.
There is always more than one way of doing something, even though the world would like to tell you that there's only one way of doing things. So for me, I can't tell you the sheer number of people who told me I was doing it wrong and that I was doing leadership wrong. I was thinking about organizations wrong and I was thinking about all of it wrong. And lo and behold, I just had to do my research to find the right funders and right coaches. Just because the approach you take to something may not be mainstream doesn’t make it wrong.