March is National Social Work Month. This year’s theme is Forging Solutions Out of Challenges. One social worker who is forging ahead is Anderson Al Wazni of Raleigh, NC. Anderson’s research and passion explores Muslim women’s feminist identity and empowerment in her community and beyond. We sat down with Anderson to discuss her role as a social worker and future plans.
Why did you become a social worker?
My experiences in both my personal and academic life led to my desire to become a social worker. I have always been involved in either environmental or humanitarian work since high school, but I did not necessarily tie in my academic career into these interests. I began in religious studies but had a few life changing experiences during undergrad that set me on a path for social work. I was fortunate to receive a number of international scholarships that sent me to South and Southeast Asia to live and study amongst various religious groups and foreign languages that I was studying at the time. Traveling changes people for the better, as it opens your mind to bigger issues and brings into focus how interconnected people are. Policies that your home country enacts can have very positive or very detrimental impacts on people you may never ordinarily come in contact with. I began to shift my interest to international policy, but was also humbled by the work I saw by the NGOs and local ‘social work’ organizations in the field of human trafficking, rural healthcare, and environmental pollution. I think we assume that America has a more advanced model for social work, but that has not been my experience. The on the ground work I saw by social workers in India and Bangladesh was so progressive, and completely changed my view of what I, as a single person, could do to help bring about real, tangible change. Although I am still very committed to policy, I wanted to receive a clinical social work education that keeps the personal aspect in my work. I strongly feel that social work has the potential to keep the human face on issues that can easily become depersonalized and I wanted to be a part of this field. I began with a general interest in women’s rights and culturally competent healthcare, but as I gained experience in the field I ended up finding my specific niche in advocating for Muslim women and feminist identities.
Describe your role as a social worker.
I did not take the expected or typical path after completing my MSW, considering my school was clinically focused. I wanted clinical experience, but I always knew my work would trend towards the macro. I completed my thesis research on Muslim women who wear hijab, feminist identity, and body image and adapted this into an article. That was the launching pad for me to continue to write and speak on this topic, and I have made it my life’s work. I have always been passionate for writing and recognize the influence that the written word can have on opening people’s minds to problems right in front of them that they did not recognize, or by introducing them to people and ideas they may not have encountered. I feel through writing and speaking, I am best able to address “big issues” such as Islamophobia, countering radical ideology, and political propaganda that impacts the every day lives of people in our country as well as abroad.
What do you hope to see in the coming years from the field?
I would love to see a better integration and collaboration between policy advocates and clinicians. It’s not that this does not already exist, but I think as a field we have a ways to go. I have experienced a strong divide between the two where we get in our heads that to enact change one way is better than the other. The reality is no actual change happens if we don’t see how poor policy leads to poor mental health or that clinicians have tangible evidence of how policy negatively or positively impacts people in their every day lives.
Your research includes a study on Muslim women in America and hijab. Tell us more about your work.
My research was conducted amongst Muslim women who wear the hijab and what their experiences are with feminist identity, female empowerment, and body image. The way in which Muslim women who veil are depicted in our culture is deplorable and often unfairly shown as the embodiment of patriarchy, terrorism, and total subjugation of women. If you stop to consider when and how you see Muslims depicted in the media it’s never positive– it’s the abused housewife, the honor killing, the tyrannical man, or the terrorist. I have yet to see an average Muslim family in a commercial selling you toothpaste or as a regularly occurring character in a TV show in which their Muslim identity is not the focus. Yes, it is absolutely true that there have been radical political and ideological movements that have forced the hijab on women, but that is not the majority of nearly 2 billion Muslims on Earth, and that applies even less to American Muslim women. What people have not stopped to consider is how Western economic and political movements have outright exploited women’s rights groups and feminist imagery to sell us the image of what women ought to look like if they are “free.” There’s a really dark side to feminist history and colonialism in the “Islamic world” that we have turned a blind eye to. That has absolutely impacted how Muslim women are viewed in our current sociopolitical climate.
I have considered myself to be a feminist from a pretty early age and did not realize that once I decided to wear my hijab full time, my feminist card had been revoked. I wanted to hear from other women what their lives were like as a veiled woman in America. What did they think about feminism and women’s rights and how, if at all, does their hijab impact this? The data speaks for itself; Muslim women are no more likely to be oppressed by choosing to wear a hijab and many of them are outspoken on women’s rights. We are at a breaking point in our culture; with really hateful language being thrown around by people in public office and horrific hate crimes like the murder of the three Chapel Hill students amongst countless verbal and physical assaults reported every week. I’m not waiting around for politicians to get it together, the change starts with us and it begins by breaking down assumptions we have about each other. Muslim women who wear hijab and Muslim women who do not wear hijab are both allies in democracy, and it’s up to us to push past caricatures of who we are to work together to bring about change and genuine tolerance.
What are your future plans in your work?
I hope to continue writing and to branch out into public speaking in the next year, as well as reaching out to younger generations of Muslim women to help empower them to be proud and confident about their identity. Despite the intense and even ridiculous political climate we are currently living in, I do have a lot of hope for the future. With the current refugee crisis and rise of tyrannical groups like ISIS, there is a lot of work to do. I recognize I have a role both within the Muslim community as I do in the political and sociocultural world outside of it. I hope that my small contribution helps us to realize we have more in common than not and that Muslim women can help pioneer progressive change that we need. I am not Muslim and an American. I am an American Muslim and I am as committed to democracy, women’s rights, and eradicating oppression as anyone else.
Featured image credit: girl schoolgirl learn by Wikilmages. Public Domain via Pixabay.