THE BIG Interview: Shahana hanif

Shahana Hanif is an activist, writer, performance artist, community organizer, and Bangladeshi Liaison for City Council Member Brad Lander of District 39. Newest York recently had the opportunity to speak to Shahana over the phone about her writing and her advocacy on behalf of the communities of which she is a part.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How you think about community engagement in general?

I belong to a big close-knit community, the Bangladeshi enclave in Kensington, Brooklyn. I think growing up there kind of set the scene, but it wasn't until I was diagnosed with Lupus, a chronic illness that I talk about quite openly, that it all came together for me: community, care, and trying to get the entire community on board when it comes to issues like chronic illness, alongside other intersectional stuff around belonging to a lower income community and other political issues in a Bangladeshi neighborhood. And this was around 2008. And so the activism didn't really begin then in the same way that I'm involved right now. It started through writing. I started writing as a kind of outlet to get rid of my anger and frustration around how the community wasn't responding in a way that I felt was appropriate.


How was community responding?

Because it's so close knit and everyone knows each other, so many people were coming to visit me. I was in the hospital for two, three months, so there were a ton of visitors, but also a lot of commentary around weight, and a lot of gendered comments that maybe impacted my self esteem. Even when I got back into the neighborhood, back at home, when folks would talk to me they weren't really talking to me. Like they'd want to know me but they'd look past me, kind of. So there was something about being sick and then physically disabled that had done something to the way people were understanding me. At the time I was only seventeen. So there were these things about being a young woman and having a chronic illness, and then being Muslim also, that were so intersectional and life-changing that I hadn't really thought about prior to that in the same way at all.


So you had this experience yourself, and then realized no one was going to create this change if it wasn't you?

Or that I had to do a lot of the talking. I had to basically gear up to now talk about this that would make folks more understanding or more accommodating. It wasn't just the community – it was also the medical institutions. I remember then also applying for paratransit, and how difficult navigating all of that was. And I'm from here, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and it felt like I knew how to navigate the city in really effective ways.


You mentioned having to explain a lot to the community. I'm curious how you think about some of the emotional labor involved there?

Oh yeah. I grew up very shy and quiet – and introverted – so initially I just kind of took in a lot of comments without ever pushing back, which is why writing was so important to me. Because on one hand while my community wasn't understanding, my friends weren't either. They would just only see my physical state, I had such a difficult time talking about it for obvious reasons, but I did want to call everyone in and share and whatnot. So through writing – I started Shahana with Lupus, which is on Blogspot. And some of the posts I've actually deleted, because I was going through them not too long ago, and they're very open, and candid. So that was a tool to inform friends, and archive my experiences. I had done a photoshoot with a cousin who had taken pictures one day, in just a state of how I looked – to remember that, but also to carry that with me and for friends to kind of see that other perspective. I found writing to be a creative space for me to not just say everything as matter of fact, but also to go into the nuances that oftentimes in conversation are difficult and jarring. And in writing, even if it's jarring, the reader is kind of forced to take it in. 


I was going to ask about writing online – you made the decision to have this blog be public, something that the rest of the world can see. I'm curious how that was received in what is otherwise a very tight-knit community.

The readers weren't necessary the community. Because the community I'm talking about, and who I now closely work with, are limited English-proficient, and my blog is in English. I've been including more Bangla words that are weaved into some storylines, so putting my work online – and this was in 2009/2010 – was really a way to find a new community. I think the internet for me was a supportive place. The internet comes with so many things, but for me, to find an alternative space that was rooted in social justice, that was rooted in alternative models of care and love – that was something I found online.  

And 2010 was drastically different from now, so I didn't have that many readers. And even still, it's something I do very casually. It's not something that's so widely read. But for folks that do read it and engage with it, I've found a lot of support, and I'm also moving into different mediums.

Like on Instagram: right now I'm in remission, and I look like I'm a very-able bodied. No one can look at me and say, oh, you have Lupus, or you've had XYZ surgery, nothing. I look totally normal, quote unquote normal. So I do a chronicle of my hospital visits, because I'm still undergoing treatment, just continuous doctor's appointments. And I chronicle all of that through the hashtag #TheSickWait. And I sort of take my friends and my Instagram following through this journey of what my appointments look like.

I'm trying to do more creative nonfiction outside of the blog, so I have a piece coming out in this Muslim women's anthology in – they said February, but it could get pushed. I'm working on a piece about my first ever solo travel to Bangladesh for an extended period of time, and I explore chronic illness in that too, and feminism. And I'm hoping that will come out some time in April. 

Monthly I try to publish a more straightforward piece on activism and the state of the community, because I work right now part-time – well, everything I do is sort of part time, giving me the flexibility to do my doctor's appointments and take care of my body in a way that is good for me. The full time model doesn't work for me the same way that someone in corporate works. Experimenting with a lot of work styles to fit my Lupus stuff has been really good. Part time I work for Council Member Brad Lander, who's the Council Member that represents [City Council] District 39, where I live in Kensington. I'm the Bangladeshi liaison, so I kind of wanted to uplift some of that work and missing links and resources and engage in a dialogue on that. So my plan is each month to publish something either on the Muslim community broadly or Bangladeshis in New York City.

I know you're a also co-founder of the Muslim Writers' Collective here in New York. Could you talk a little bit about that project?

The official cofounders are the siblings Ayisha Irfan and Hamdan Azhar. At the time when I got involved I wasn't exploring any performance of my writing. It was really Hamdam, who I knew through the interwebs, who was like, "you should just perform your work." So I thought about it, went to the first event, and I was one of the last ones to go because I was still very curious to know if I should do this or not.

I just really liked the openness of the space and just the diversity of Muslims who were in the room, everything from hijabi to nonhijabi... and the networking. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that in a Muslim space, and it was also young – it was a young Muslim space.

So I really liked it and I felt passionate about it, and right after that event joined this collective effort to make MWC what it is to date. So for two years, basically until I left to Bangladesh, I was curating the list of performances and pushing our team to think about what's good for us, what can make us better, and it's been tremendously amazing. I went to my first one after coming back from Bangladesh – I think it was just two weeks ago, and I performed a piece there too, and the crowd is incredible. There's an incredible energy. Over a hundred people come to this open mic, and the January one was over 200.

Just this need of young Muslims or Muslims in general to gather in a space together that's creative, that's open to new performances... because sometimes there are performances where old-timer writers are like, what was that about? And not understanding. But it's like people who are in the writing process who want to share stories but are too afraid to because other spaces aren't as welcoming, or other spaces won't understand nuances of the writing. So a lot of first time performers perform at MWC, and then also just seeing performers who perform many, many times and have gotten their pieces published or moved into other spaces like Moth. 


On the topic of the community more broadly: I'm curious how you've seen it change over the years in response to, for lack of a better phrase, the new reality of a post-9/11 New York.

There are nuances here. When 9/11 happened, I was in the fifth grade. On one hand, with any incident that happens, 9/11 and then more recently the Port Authority explosion – I think many folks are moving along and not necessarily saying 9/11 happened to us and then XYZ is happening to us because of that. And the social justice movement community that I belong to is very focused on tying all of these incidents and policy legislation that came because of 9/11. Like the iterations of the Muslim ban aren't new, right? They were also implemented after 9/11, through profiling that impacted men perceived to be Muslim, including in the Sikh community.

These are things that we like to remember when we're thinking about how to push back when it comes to legislation like the Muslim ban. I think that we have come a long way, but any time that legislation comes, community is hard to move, for me. The political education is constant, which is why I'm always like, "we need to talk about this again." And we need to be reminded again. But in terms of seeing where the city fits: Muslims, Muslim young people and Muslims in general, are scattered through city agencies. And not just through local government but also the Human Rights Commission, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Mayor's Office of Community Affairs, not to mention all of the non-profit work through groups like DRUM [Desis Rising Up and Moving] and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities that have a broader organizing perspective.

Not every group is organizing. A lot of groups are doing advocacy, but we do need groups that are organizing. We need an organizing component to push communities beyond their comfort zone. And that's hard – the organizing piece is hard because folks are pretty much relaxed. I know a lot of people were sharing this time last year when folks had gone to JFK and the first iteration of the Muslim ban was being formed. So many people were mobilized through that moment. A lot of my activist friends were like, we have never seen something like this where moms and dads, our moms and dads, are coming to JFK in this way.

That's an important moment. And right now many of us are thinking, myself included, about how do we keep folks in that grind, in that thinking, rather than going back into playing a passive role. Also around all of the deportation cases that are coming up and the detainment of activists. For example, Ravi Ragbir and others from the New Sanctuary Coalition.

I don't think ever before like now I've had conversations about deportation in my family. Like we all know that chain migration is so important to immigrant communities. And how so many people came to the US to begin with. So even talking about chain migration and migration history is now more flourishing than ever before. The fact that I was able to talk to my parents about the activist Ravi Ragbir getting detained – he's not been deported and has been actually brought back to New York – but about what that trajectory looks like and why that fight is so important.


It's come up a few times, the idea that your parents or parents are interested – is the subtext that a few years ago people of your parents' generation in your community would not really have been interested in having this conversation?

Well I don't want to say that because a few years I wasn't organizing. Groups like DRUM grew out of a 9/11 context, so there has been organizing – and they're a really good group to look at for that organizing model of organizing Muslims, South Asian people, and Indo-Caribbean communities. So it would be completely wrong to say that organizing wasn't happening or that people weren't talking about it.

But for my context, I know in my family, this hasn't been talked about as openly. Even people coming into our home wanting to know how they can get engaged in the fight – sometimes people can't show up to protest but you know, through monetary ways and writing a letter, there are just so many ways that people can contribute and are contributing now. So I think right now I'm always in a state of hopefulness and not necessarily like, people won't be moved, or no, this won't happen.


I was going to ask you if you were optimistic, but you've just answered that.

I am! I'm really committed to staying in my community. I really believe that it's important that the work isn't just online but also offline, and really rooted in grassroots conversations and connections, and so the first step in all of this work is getting to know who your neighbor is and who lives in the neighborhood and the nuances. Because sometimes I feel disconnected because I was born and raised here – I feel better English than I speak Bangla. I do speak Bangla and I went to Bangladesh to learn how to read and write the language. When I'm connecting with Bangladeshis, I'm doing so in Bangla, or the immigrant community, because there are more educated-slash-English speaking Bengalis.

And [it's about] really staying on top of issues that are coming up. Port Authority is coming to mind because it's so fresh and recent, where the perpetrator of this explosion was connected to Kensington, and that brought me to see how is everyone doing, is there extra surveillance in the community right now because he was connected to one of the mosques in the neighborhood... There were a lot of journalists in the neighborhood, and people weren't prepped to talk. We hadn't yet even had a chance to have a conversation to just sort of do a temperature check of where everyone's at. So that was a hard week. But we ended up, through many meetings and just touching base through the advocacy groups in the neighborhood, and then the mosque leaders, and then other sort of leaders from various associations and regional-based groups, we came together and then did a solidarity action on that Friday, which was interfaith and included the voices of city agencies and then resources around knowing your rights.


It's a really good example of an offline engagement. Do you worry sometimes that the offline piece gets forgotten?

Oh yeah, for sure. Right now we're in a time of digital campaigns, and around activism there's a lot of celebrity activism now, and many people whose journeys as activists and organizers were jump-started through belonging on online spaces, which is incredible. I'm constantly inspired by it and how many of us connected with people who vibed with us, who are on the same wavelength when it comes to a justice analysis,. But really then putting those words into practice.

Online spaces, for me, can also be grassroots too, because I think about when I was more sick and disabled I couldn't do this work. If I'm talking about almost ten years ago, I was not engaging the same way. I would not be able to because of how inaccessible it is – organizing requires very much the walking, the talking, going up and down the stairs, and it's a very physically moving kind of a work.

The internet, for many of us in chronically sick spoonie communities, enables us to do this work from home. So there are positive elements and challenges to both models. But I feel like for those of us who are trying to push immigrant communities who are not often online: who is seeing your messages? And how is your message being received to them?

When the Port Authority stuff was happening, I would go into the neighborhood, I then later give some updates online and just give a broad update like, this is where we're at, this is what we need, and mobilize through that. So people online who were concerned and weren't necessarily getting this deeper news from the neighborhood from other news outlets were receiving it from an activist, an organizer who wass on the ground. But I know that the people who I was checking in with weren't necessarily reading news messages online.

So there's just this complexity of sharing messages across different mediums and in different ways, which I think is necessary. So I don't like this model which is only deep diving in this community – I like working with both talking to somebody and then taking a message, and summarizing, and posting a broader update on policy-related things. Both are needed. 


I'm curious how you've seen people who are not in the immigrant community in New York, who are not Muslim, who are not personally members of these communities, who are nevertheless appalled by what's been happening with the administration - how have you seen people from outside the community be effectively engaged?

For one, I've seen this in just district 39: we have GOBK, Get Organized Brooklyn, which came about as a result of the Muslim Ban iterations and the leadership of Brad Lander. I think the effective ways have been to build around solidarity and building alliances between neighbors. Going back to the Port Authority stuff, we had progressive rabbis speaking at the rallies. This was an important moment of solidarity and alliances, where our neighbors are committed to talking about and pushing back on these harmful pieces of legislation and harmful acts of hate crimes that are happening, that are routine. For me, one of the biggest parts is to pay up, not just being in this invisible space of solidarity, but to donate money to the groups that are doing the work.

And then when incidents happen where my space or other spaces like mine can't be in the limelight or in the spotlight, for there to be a strategy for them to get involved. One case I'm talking about is a complicated legal case where the man involved in the case is very powerful and has lots of money. He's Bangladeshi, and we were like, "If he sees us, we're going to be on his radar." So if we have an advocacy group or a model like GOBK where it's nonimmigrant or they're not directly impacted – like they won't get hurt if they become known – and also [thinking about] white privilege: if they're on the line, that shows really tangible solidarity. So we're thinking about the ways that non-immigrant folks can show up and I think those are two effective things.

I really appreciate having groups like GOBK in Brooklyn, where they talk about ways to support neighbors. There are so many Muslim and Bangladeshi and other immigrant communities in District 39 and scattered throughout New York. And during the time of Riaz Talukder's check-in with ICE: the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Initiative, they're like a group of white allies – it was really powerful to see to take the lead in mobilizing other communities to this space to really understand what a check-in with ICE can look like, what the results can look like, and then what we need to do as a follow up. And the same with Ravi Ragbir's case.

But then also I've noticed in some cases where immigrant communities and black and brown communities don't come, like don't show up in the masses in the same way I've seen white allies come to spaces. So I sort of worry about like, now what, where's our community? What are those challenges that are preventing people to show up to things? What are ways for us to improve in the outreach effort?