Zainab Asad (pronounced “Zaynub”), Youth Activist
By Krista Martinelli
Youth activist Zainab Asad talks about a different type of racism that she has experienced as a Muslim American. “Because I wear a headscarf, I’m very distinguishable and my religion is outright shown in public. I get a lot of dirty looks. People have said to me, ‘Take it off.’ In high school jokes were made. I didn’t pay it much mind back then but looking back I realize that microaggressions like these are how Islamophobia and a lot of the common occurrences of racism against Muslims becomes so common. There are so many terrorist jokes – that’s just a given.” Asad recalls walking alongside a schoolboy one time who made a beeping noise like a bomb was going to go off in her backpack. “He was in my class. I’m not very confrontational and I kind of take things lightly. My friends were more offended than I was.” She wanted him to know Muslims aren’t so bad and that they can take a joke. “So I showed that I could take a joke which opened him up and gave me room after that to teach him about the implications of what he was doing.”
Asad, a sophomore at University of Florida and 19 years old, is a rising star. Just listen to the power of her words in the below video of one of her speeches at a Black Lives Matter rallies. She speaks poignantly, accurately and motivates people to take action. I would not be surprised if she rises to a prominent position or heads for a political career when she gets older.
We talked about why it’s important to protest right now and to say “Black Lives Matter.” “I think especially because black folks in general have faced so much injustice – this country has been built upon the black people who were enslaved. Black people have been at the forefront of so many movements . . . the women’s movement, the movement for those with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ movement, the civil rights movement. So many of our communities are here in this country because of the black and brown revolutionaries. I’m a Pakistani American Muslim. And I, along with my fellow humans, we are indebted to the black community. It’s our turn to speak out for them specifically. If you don’t speak out right now against the atrocities that have happened, you are being racist. This group has been hurting so long, and if we deny that, another black person could die.”
Asad lives in Boca Raton and is waiting to hear about whether she is going back to the University of Florida (or, due to COVID-19, taking classes online). She attended Atlantic High School in Delray Beach. I met her at a peaceful march in Delray Beach last month. She was one of the speakers at the rally (listen to part of her speech below). She and I walked several blocks back to our cars together after the rally. I was very aware of the “dirty looks” she was getting on our long walk for just wearing a headscarf.
In the below video which I took at the Delray Beach, FL rally, my view of Zainab Asad was blocked, but you can hear the audio of her resounding speech.
“I have spoken at 3 rallies,” says Asad. She spoke at one in Miami at Biscayne Boulevard, in which the ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) Council for Social Justice partnered with the Miami Dream Defenders. She spoke twice that day, giving the same speech. She spoke at the Delray rally, which was put on by an organization called EJS (Emanuel Jackson, Senior) Project. And then the third one was an interfaith rally in Miami at Liberty City at the Al-Ansar Mosque. There were a lot of religious and civic leaders there, including Senators, other government officials, and interfaith religions represented – Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others.
“I think it’s obvious that white supremacy is a big problem in this country and has been from the beginning. Starting with Native Americans, then with the enslavement of black people – white people live in a society that’s so separate and so unequal to everyone that’s not them. They have had the luxury and the privilege to never have any fear, of where they’re going or what they’re saying.” She adds, “White supremacists now have found their way to the top. To understand underprivileged communities, you have to educate yourself. There is this advantage that you have that you can feel entitled and deserving of your advantage. It’s an internalized sense of superiority. Not to negate the existence of any possible hardships in a white person’s life but any problem that you, as a white person, may have is not because of your skin color. I think it’s so important, especially because white people are in such positions of power, to speak out against it, because you are the ones that are running this country.” Asad says it’s time for white people to acknowledge that they have been privileged and that it should “all be equal for everybody.”
She goes on, “Minorities have been speaking out for so long. For decades, they’ve been saying black lives matter. It feels like we’re finally being heard.” Asad is hopeful of her own younger generation, making a change.
“What are the steps you recommend for someone who wants to live in a way that’s actively anti-racist?” I asked her.
“First it starts at home. Be willing to have those conversations in your house. In your social circles. Confront racist jokes. We’re now having to learn and unlearn things. For example, I recently discovered the origins of ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’ as a racist rhyme with the original song including the n-word in it instead of what I knew as a child as the “tiger”. Songs with racist historical backgrounds are just one instance of how We’ve been conditioned since a young age to think that racism isn’t as bad as it was. Because black people aren’t enslaved right now, we think they’re living an easy life. But because of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, modern slavery is happening right now.” Asad goes on to say that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except in the context of punishment for a crime. “Prison labor is thus modern slavery. Blacks are disproportionately jailed and forced to do work for little to no pay for massive corporations involved in the prison-industrial complex.”
Getting educated starts at home, she says, “if you sit and acknowledge your discomfort. Learn to speak out. Everyone wants equality for all people and for people to be treated right. Approach everyone with love and acceptance and openness. Be open to confrontation and being called out for mistakes that you made. Recognize the ways that you are being privileged in your society and then confront them in your social circles. This is how you enact change.”
“If that racist child becomes a racist lawyer, a racist doctor or a racist police officer, what they believe becomes reality.” Some practical steps, according to Asad include: sign the petitions that are going around to get justice, donate to the grassroots organizations who are doing the work every single day, support black-owned businesses, diversify your social media feeds and who you buy from, check in on your black friends, neighbors and family. Reflect on your everyday actions. Call your state and local officials. And vote! Raising your voice is raising your vote. Vote in your state and local elections. We put these people in power who are currently carrying out injustice.”
Zainab Asad was born and raised in South Florida. “My mom was born in New York. My Dad came here from Pakistan when he was about 20.” Asad is studying sociology at the University of Florida. She’s doing it on a path to medicine, also considering law right now.
As someone who wears a hijab, Asad is faced with prejudiced looks “here and there.” Also, people like to say, “Aren’t you so hot?” And “I’m going to take it off you.”
I asked her what the reason is for wearing a hijab. “The significance is it’s a representation of modesty. The term ‘hijab’ is all encompassing for men and women, (and men cover up to their ankles). The point of it is to have a form of modesty, a soul-to-soul interaction. It’s about just seeing someone for their personality rather than judging someone based on their looks.”
As a young person (19), Asad has a lot of hope in her youthful generation and a lot of pride in them as well. “We are very open and loving. Very accepting of everyone and accepting of each other. This is not to say that there are no problems.” She points out that a lot of these big social movements have started with young people. She says that it’s “not a shock that young people are leading the movement.” Thanks to social media, “we are equipped with mobilizing, and well-versed in the digital world.” She mentions the recent Tulsa Trump Rally, which was marked by so many empty seats. Those were young Tik Tok users who intentionally reserved the seats, two tickets at a time, making sure Trump played to an empty crowd. “We’re fed up with the problems we have been left with. We want to learn. We have gone out of our way to educate ourselves. We want that respect. To learn, to unlearn, to teach the people around us, and make a change. I’m very proud of the great young people making a fuss about everything that’s going on,” she says.
Asad comes from a big family and has five siblings. They are very family oriented. She was born and raised in Florida and has 4 brothers and one sister. “We have a small business. It’s a shoe business called Comfort Shoes in Boca Town Center and Step In at the Mall at Wellington Green.
She has big goals. “My goals for the world are more love and more acceptance.” As for her own goals, she says, “I would love to finish my undergrad with flying colors and get into med school.” She will then decide on whether to pursue law or not, possibly getting into an MDJD program. “My ultimate career goal is to have a non-profit similar to Doctors Without Borders.” Her plan is to travel to disaster-ridden areas around the world, places like Yemen right now, that really need our help. “If I pursue law, that could be a useful background to help move social issues forward especially in the U.S..”
One more thing. Asad says, “Anyone who is reading this and has a different view, I’d like you to remember – don’t shut off people who have different views from you. Social media and the media in general becomes an echo chamber when we only listen to those who agree with us. We tend to have confirmation bias, searching for resources that further support our side and polarize us from the other end of the spectrum. It’s important for everyone to have a civil conversation, even with people who disagree with you, with open and loving arms. Be willing to unlearn and learn. Be kind and open minded in the way that you are learning and teaching. Don’t just unfollow people and not listen. Remember – don’t just shut out the opposite side. We are here to change the minds of those who do not see our vision. Otherwise we’re just preaching to the choir. To garner the numbers, aid others in empathizing with the movement. Then, we will actually make some real change.”