This is my seventh Gemstones piece, a blog post featuring people who lead with an open heart and work to uplift others. I’m honored to have the chance to introduce you to the work of Haleema Bharoocha
Tell me a little bit about who you are?
There are a lot of aspects of how I define myself: strong, weightlifter, advocate, community leader. There were times growing up when I felt that I would only be seen as a Muslim woman because of the hijab I wear, but now that’s not at the forefront of my mind.
How do you define your work?
I go back and forth between activist, organizer, and advocate. Most accurate is activist and advocate. For example, working with BART is an example of advocating within the system to create change. I have a background in Sociology and that influences how I see the world. I am part of Gen Z (the top of it, as I just turned 22 this year). My undergraduate degree is in Sociology (Seattle University) which gave me the language to name the experiences I saw growing up — like gender-based violence and Islamophobia.
Tell me about Gen Z…
It’s a generation that’s had to grow up faster and, from the get-go, has access to technology so it’s a generation that is very politically and socially engaged, like working to make voting accessible to younger people and working to prevent gun violence. For example, we recently had a candidate town hall in Oakland where young people interviewed candidates and give their endorsements. There is a lot of engagement by Gen Z. Some well-known Gen Z leaders are Naomi Wadler, Isra Hirsi, Mari Copeny.
Tell me what is most important to you?
My community and creating spaces where we have access to safety –safety from gender-based violence.
I do this through my work at Alliance for Girls and in that capacity have been part of an Advisory Board where we are tasked with taking 50% of the police budget and coming up with a plan of what we’d do with the money to create safety. We’re examining what safety means for girls and how can we get it without police involvement. We’ve also been asking girls to define what safety means for them?
We’ve heard themes related to:
- Feeling a sense of belonging
- Having representation from people who look like them and share similar backgrounds
- Affirmative consent
I’m also working with BART to create safety during travel from gender-based violence and I have been working with community artists and members to discuss these very challenging issues that have been around for a long time, yet effective solutions have still not been found.
Now with the elections the issue of safety is also present on a national level with stores boarding up and people talking about coups happening. There is also the lack of safety with children being separated from their families under the current administration and even with Biden elected, the white supremacists may respond in ways that threaten our safety, so there are many ways the issue shows up for my community and in the work that is most important to me.
Deep political divisions exist in the U.S. What do you see as the way forward?
Looking specifically at the South Asian community and non-black people of color we talk about the issue as it’s just black and white and that has given us (South Asians and non-black people of color) a pass. But there is a way that we are complicit in upholding white supremacy and I’ve been doing work on this through South Asians for Black lives to have us look at how we have been complicit and the ways we can actively put our privilege on the line and diminish the deep divides. For South Asians, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and unpack our baggage. During the past few months with the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others and people saying, “I’m so shocked” shows me how much work we still have to do.
Even with that there are South Asians for Black Lives having conversations and kids who created a facilitation guide about how to have conversations about these issues with our parents to discuss issues like looting and what it means. There is a process that begins with developing an awareness, then educating ourselves, followed by an interrogation of how we have been complicit, and then taking action. The outcome has to be action to help create change. These steps are not an end goal, but rather part of an ongoing educational process.
I can recommend two videos that are very thought-provoking on this: one by a black person in the UK who did a video in JUNE 2020 which was a call out to South Asians and another video by a South Asian that talks about ways South Asians have been complicit in upholding white supremacy.
Tell me about your self-care practice?
I do Olympic weightlifting and cross fit. Olympic weightlifting requires a little more technique than power lifting. I started working out when I was 12 or 13 with my mom at my local mosque and then we went to an all-women’s gym and I worked my way up to the 60 lb. bar and I saw the staff starting to caution me, instead of encourage me.
I then moved on to cross-fit at the age of 15 or 16 and that was the first time I got to lift heavyweights. In high school I had a teacher who encouraged me to lift heavier and I really liked that. In cross fit, you do a lot of cardio, gymnastics, and weights so you never get bored and that’s what I really like about it.
They help me center and take a break from everything.
I also teach self-defense through Malikah. The movements are derived from martial arts but they are not a particular style/discipline. They are focused on how to get out of common situations related to gender-based violence (e.g., someone grabbing your hijab, someone having their arm around your neck). The training is trauma-informed and survivor-centered, meaning that we are explicit about participants not having to do anything they don’t want to do and for them to give consent to everything they participate in. We are aware of and sensitive to the fact that participants may have experienced gender-based violence and understand the impact that can have.
In addition to defending against physical violence we also teach verbal de-escalation: How to be specific when you are asking for help, engaging bystanders to intervene, identifying what is happening to you, repeating your request (aka “broken record technique”). When we begin the workshop, our framework and opening is to remind women that this is just one tool for protection, emphasizing that the onus for stopping gender-based violence should not be placed on victims/survivors.
What’s your favorite kind of work to do?
There are a lot of different topics I have a background in. As a Muslim South Asian person, I have lived experience and have done research on:
- Islamophobia and gender-based violence
- Bystander Intervention to interrupt islamophobia
- Algorithmic violence and how artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms target people of color.
I feel that not enough people know about these issues and understand these issues, so I do a lot of trainings and workshops on these topics.
Something I do for fun on the side is graphic design. All the graphics on my South Asians for Black Lives website are ones I’ve done. It makes everything look clean and nice. It’s a side and fun thing I do.
One of the best ways to learn more about my work is to visit my website.
To hear more from Haleema, join her on Instagram Live in conversation with Paula Farmer (@paulawritesreviews) of SILENT WATER PRODUCTIONS WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 2, 2020 at 3 pm (Pacific).