Empowering Muslim Americans in the Workplace: An Interview with Zahra Billoo

No Ban No Wall
May 12, 2017
Gabriella Lifsec

What inspired you to choose your current path?  
I come from an immigrant family and grew up in a home that was very connected to the Muslim faith, and the combination of both of those factors have really helped shape my work. I remind myself often of the privileges I have and benefit from, and what I believe is my obligation to utilize my privilege and care for others.  
Could you describe for me, what you see as the priorities for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and your responsibilities in regard to these priorities? 
Absolutely. Our priorities include protecting the rights of American Muslims and others, enhancing the understanding of Islam, and empowering American Muslims to be engaged in the civic process. In terms of my direct role in that work, as executive director of a small nonprofit, I get to do a little bit of each of those things in addition to nonprofit management and fundraising. My days can include advising people on legal issues, working with members of the media to amplify our community’s stories and perspectives, advocating to elected officials and making community education presentations. 
How can we empower Muslims in the US in terms of labor and the workplace? 
Some of our work has to do with employment discrimination and harassment concerns. It has been really powerful to work with labor in those settings to think about worker’s rights more broadly than many traditionally do. That includes the right to practice your faith in the workplace and not be fearful that their employer, manager or supervisor will harass them. More broadly though, outside of the direct employment context, labor has a long tradition of mobilizing masses of people and that is incredibly powerful as a way to push back against the present state policies, hate crimes and other things. Recently, we’ve been really appreciative of the organizing SEIU has done in terms of comprehensive immigration reform but also challenging the Muslim Ban. 
There has been a lot of news coverage recently surrounding anti-Muslim acts in the U.S. Have you personally seen how the election of our current president has impacted people, or have you worked with people who have suffered discrimination since the election? 
I would say it’s both. My work advocating for people who have been impacted, working with individuals who are experiencing hate crimes or hate incidents, but I’m also a member of the community I serve, so often times I will hear stories about what people are experiencing anecdotally. 
Today, it would seem, that many societies want to be free and independent and there are problems when we try to impose our thinking on others. Can you describe some areas where you have felt imposed upon? What would you say to those that believe your views impose upon them?  
My response to that would be that my views are about my life choices, that I make. And there isn’t anything that I do that anyone can point to, or actually provide evidence of, where I am attempting to get other people to live the way I do. This is true for my family, my community, but also my fellow Americans. For me, an important part of being an American is the ability to live the way every individual chooses. 
As a successful Muslim woman, how do you feel about the progress with women's rights generally and specifically within the Muslim community? 
I struggle with the question of women’s rights everywhere. Violence against women is a reality in so many of our communities. It is not unique to any faith group or any ethnic group or otherwise. As an American woman, I am as concerned about rape in the military, as a I am about rape on college campuses, as I am about any abuse of women specifically in the Muslim community. I don't think of any of these things as unique or separate, but rather part of the larger ongoing epidemic of women coming under attack.  
On campus, I am part of an organization called COLA (Cornell Organization for Labor Action), and I was wondering if you had any advice or tactics that you use in your work or daily life that you use to promote labor action? 
I think it’s really important to assess which strategies are being used, and then find ways to collaborate across strategies. When I was in college, many times I was committed to specific strategies to the detriment of others. It took me time to learn that we need people in the negotiating meetings as much as we needed people outside protesting and vice versa. One without the other could never be as powerful. 
Did anything happening this week specifically that you would like to share? 

This week we’re watching to see how Trump will react to having lost Muslim ban 2.0. We are hopeful about continuing to win against him, but at the same time, concerned that he is persisting rather than backing off. 
Do you think the current administration is able to do anything to stop anti-Muslim acts or is it more of a grassroots issue in your eyes? 
I think that the most important ways to fight back are through the grassroots and through state legislation. Progressive states like California and others, have a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say we will not be complicit in the targeting of immigrants, Muslims, black people or anyone else.