by Tasnim Alshuli
From the Editor: Tasnim Alshuli, a blind Muslim Arab-American woman, is a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on STEM education (primarily mathematics education), cognitive science, and visual impairments. She is also a teaching assistant and a research assistant at the University of Arizona. Tasnim serves as the Chair of the NFB Muslims group, the Treasurer for the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona Student Division, and is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona, Tucson Chapter. Tasnim received a NFB Scholarship in 2018 and an NFB of Arizona State Scholarship in 2017. Tasnim loves the outdoors, making art, photography, creative writing, spending time with family and friends, and so much more. You can reach her at [email protected]. Here is her article:
Which of your self will you choose? Which of your self will be accepted? And which of your self is included in the nation of our beloved Federation?
Although these questions have not been asked and are by no means intentional, in my experience they have been indirectly and unintentionally implied.
It all started in 2017 during a huge transition in my life. The early days of 2017 were a time of big decision-making and new beginnings. I was just a year old in the Federation in the Charlotte, North Carolina, Chapter, and the humongous decision to move across the continent to continue my doctoral studies was looming over my future. Aside from finding a program, a home, and getting situated, I knew deep down that I wanted to find a community, a family that would be as welcoming in the new state of Arizona as I was welcomed and embraced in North Carolina.
Naturally I reached out to the Tucson Chapter. After a few rings of a number listed on its website, Mr. Bob Kresmer, with his friendly and welcoming voice, answered. I right away felt as if I was speaking to my grandfather on the other side of the phone. After introducing myself, the excitement in his voice increased, and the encouragement to be involved was greatly echoed in our conversation. Mr. Kresmer instantly became a dear mentor and someone who I still look up to. Mr. Kresmer encouraged me to apply for the NFB of Arizona state scholarship for that year—the deadline to apply for which was vast approaching. With no time to spare, I jumped on this opportunity. I don’t know why, but I was strongly confident that I would receive the 2017 NFB of Arizona scholarship.
A mental vision came to my mind of me, one of the two scholarship winners, meeting all NFB of Arizona members at one time during the convention. This vision was very encouraging and heartwarming, as if it were a welcoming party just for me in a new place, which was exactly how it turned out for me.
This very vivid vision motivated me to start my essay and application immediately. During the application process and as one of the requirements, I met with the current state president, Mr. Donald Porterfield, on the phone while standing right outside a door of a local mosque (house of God) where a religious gathering and prayer was going on inside. It was one of the summer evenings of the Holy Islamic Month of Ramadan. Our conversation lasted for more than an hour, during which I got to know the affiliate and specifically the Tucson Chapter through the lens of the Arizona president. During and after the conversation, I had a feeling of welcoming and sense of celebration of me being a newcomer.
One of the questions for the applicant in the interview was to see if I could attend the three-day state convention, which was the first weekend of September. I hesitated immediately because I knew that one of the Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha, fell on the convention date.
Eid al-Adha, or the Day of Sacrifice, is a holy day where Muslims commemorate the story of Prophet Ibrahim’s (Peace and blessings be upon him (PBUH)) test of faith, when Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Prophet Ismail (PBUH). As Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) was about to do what he was asked, God had placed a ram (i.e., sheep) in place of Prophet Ismail (PBUH) for Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) to sacrifice instead. Eid al-Adha is also the holiday concluding the period of Hajj (the pilgrimage to the holy city Mecca in Saudi Arabia) and right after the Day of Arafah (or Day of Standing), which is the last day of Hajj where the pilgrims stand on Mount Arafat praying and asking for God’s forgiveness. Day of Arafah is not just for Muslim pilgrims, but Muslims around the world observe this holy day by praying and asking for God’s forgiveness, and it is one of the holiest days in Islam.
So I asked if I could be excused for one day or at least a couple of hours on the specific day that Eid al-Adha falls on because of my religious observances. Unfortunately, one of the requirements is to attend the state convention in its entirety when you are awarded a scholarship, or you will be disqualified.
My primary intention for applying for the scholarship, although it is a great financial help, also was a means of connecting to my new community in Arizona. It was certainly a great honor to be recognized with this award and at the same time to join as a new member of the community.
Reassembling my identity for the sake of belonging had me struggling between my right hand and my left hand: my beliefs, values, celebrations, and practices versus the newest family I chose. So, I chose in that instance, my new family—only for the sake of meeting my newly adopted community in the new world I was embarking on.
My vision came true in every sense. I was welcomed within the Arizona affiliate with honor and pride. The 2017 convention was the first time I was introduced to everyone. I felt blessed meeting so many members from Arizona, and I felt like they were happy to meet me as a new member and as a scholarship winner. They were very accommodating in that they were very understanding of my need to step out to pray during the day. Also, unsuspectedly, Kathryn Webster was the representative from the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) at that convention. I was so happy to see her there. I actually had met Kathryn briefly in North Carolina at the time when she served as the student president of the North Carolina Student Division. It was nice to see someone from my past family, making me feel more at home in Arizona.
The first day of Eid al-Adha, which was during the 2017 NFB of Arizona State Convention, was a time of struggle and solitude for me even though I was physically surrounded with kind, welcoming, and generous people. Keeping up with the schedule of the convention, going in and out of sessions, was very exciting and very energizing. Nevertheless, sitting in those sessions/meetings, I kept on withdrawing and continuing to remind myself that I’m witnessing one of the happiest, joyful, blessed, and peaceful days of the year: to mentally force the holiday into existence and allowing myself to mentally observe and experience it while at the same time physically sitting in a room discussing topics centered on blindness. Islamic holidays and practices are usually very social and collaborative. If you are not in the mosque, you are usually with your family, friends, and loved ones: praying, sharing love, joy, and great food. Instead of being surrounded with the celebrations of the holiday, I was internally chanting, all alone, the prayers and joyful verses of exultation and remembrance of God, our Creator, and verses of our endless blessings that God has bestowed upon us. Mentally screaming at the top of my lungs with the happiest tune and joyous verses; internally smiling the biggest smile, while at the same time wiping the tears falling from my eyes and pressing my aching heart.
For me the holidays are a very big deal. Even though I have passed a quarter of my life, I still feel as if I am five years old, waking up at the earliest possible time along with the sun, anticipating the joyous day.
I knew I couldn’t stay quiet, so during my speech accepting the scholarship award and recognition time allotted for me, I announced to everyone that the day before, that same day, and the day after are days of Eid al-Adha, which is one of many Islamic holidays that Muslims observe. I wanted to share that joyous news with my new family, so I had a sort of celebration along with them all. With that, I finally felt that I didn’t have to choose which of me belonged. Members of the Federation were congratulating me as well as wishing me a happy and blessed day. Just at that beautiful moment, I finally felt accepted and included as a blind Muslim woman.
Since this experience, and along with others where my religious observances were hardly recognized or even taken into consideration, I eventually convinced myself that there is something that needs to be done, and I want to be the one who leads it. I want to be the voice here who encourages my beloved NFB and other communities in America and beyond to become familiar with the true Islam as a faith and its beautiful message, practices, observances, and holidays. Certainly I want to keep people from falling for the negative notions spreading in the media. I want us all to recognize and keep in mind the Islamic practices, observances, holidays, and other holy events just as we do with other religions when planning for events and activities such as state and national conventions. Most of the NFB affiliates, chapters, divisions, and groups would not even consider scheduling a convention over Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc. We also should refrain from Federation events over Eid al-Adha, the Day of Arafah, Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr (or the Day of Breaking the Fast, which is a holiday ending the month of Ramadan and starting a new Islamic month.)
After my commitment to speak out and do something, the journey began. I got the opportunity to meet other Muslim NFB members the following year during the 2018 convention in Orlando, Florida, where I was also honored and blessed to be one of the thirty National Federation of the Blind scholarship winners. I, and others, expressed the idea of creating a group where we can all gather and be a support for one another. As a result, a WhatsApp group was generated to create a sub community within the National Federation of the Blind. We were an informal group with the intention of just coming together, and what brought us together is our identity as Muslims and members of the Federation. Despite the two links that bind us together, we are a very diverse group of Muslims from all over the world living in the United States and Canada with various experiences and backgrounds. We proudly embrace our diversity and unity.
However, in early 2021 we found it urgent that we create a formally-established group under the National Federation of the Blind. We reached out to President Mark Riccobono for permission to establish a formal NFB Muslims group on March 8, 2021. Very shortly after, the NFB Muslims Group became an official group, and I am currently serving as the chair. Our group is working on an agenda to push for more recognition, inclusion, and equitable policies within the Federation for blind Muslim NFB members. The purpose of the NFB Muslims Group is to provide advocacy and education related to challenges and opportunities unique to blind Muslims, to change negative perceptions about Islam in the blindness space related to service animals and other areas, to increase access to information in accessible formats for blind Muslims (e.g., Braille Qur’ans and texts), and to serve as mentors and supports for one another.
A listserv under the Federation has also been created, and anyone is welcome to subscribe by writing [email protected]. The listserv is used to share any updates and news, helpful resources, and our meeting dates and information. Since mid-March of this year, we have been meeting weekly on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Arizona time on Zoom. Our membership is slowly increasing, and we welcome more members. And as always, all are welcome.
This beautiful journey I have walked, with God’s grace, has not weakened me nor discouraged me from advocating, alongside others, for access, recognition, and inclusion. It actually has allowed me to continue walking with strength. In order for individuals to belong, we must recognize and accept who they are, where they come from, and what they bring with them. After recognition, we must make spaces for these individuals to belong. This is exactly what happened in our case. President Riccobono recognized our identity and has provided us with the space to advocate for inclusion within our Federation. What strengthens the Federation is the willingness to embrace diversity and stand along with individuals, as well as empowering and inspiring these individuals. And that is how the Federation is continuing to build itself. Assalam alaikum warahmatu Allah wabarakatuh: translated as, “Peace, mercy, and blessings be upon you all”.If you would like to continue the conversation around identity, inclusion, and belonging, as well as Islam and Muslims within the NFB, or to join our group and meetings, I would love to hear from you. You can always reach me at the NFB Muslims group listserv at [email protected] or using my personal email address at [email protected].