Finding Her Place on Capitol Hill

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A message on a Maryland Muslim Women’s Whatsapp chat popped up on Soubia Balkhi’s cell phone.

“Register for the Annual Muslim Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, organized by USCMO.”

“What is that?” she thought.

Soubia is a teacher by profession and homeschools two of her four children. Two attend Al-Rahmah School, where Soubia is a student at the seminary. She didn’t vote in the last election. “I am not very involved,” she says.

On April 25th, she logs on her computer after Asr prayers and attended the webinar arranged by USCMO. A CAIR rep was on sharing tips. “Don’t be concerned if we meet with staff rather than your member of Congress. In many cases, this can prove to be equally or more productive.”

Then a man from Florida chimed, a woman from Ohio, then Texas. Soubia was surprised. People were coming in from across the country, paying for hotels, asking about rental cars. More than 400 people registered for the event representing 30 states. “That really motivated me. I live so close how can I sit at home when people are flying in to have their voices heard for the ummah.”

Ever since the election, she felt as if she was perpetually griping to her husband, friends and family —anyone who would listen. But that is where it would stop. She never did anything.

“I need to do this.” She called up her friend Assma. “What do you think about going?” Over chai, the two decided that they could do this. “I don’t know much but there is power in numbers,” said Assma.

Now, they just had to ask the husbands.

“As long as you go with someone,” said Soubia’s husband.

There was barely any traffic on I-95. Soubia and Assma drove down the Beltway from Catonsville. Parking the car at metered parking, they walked a block to the Capitol Visitors Center. With them was Assma’s 7-year-old son, the youngest member of the Maryland delegation.

Soubia wears niqab. She was expecting to be profiled by the security. “Like the TSA,” she quipped. “It was pleasantly surprising that I was treated like the rest of the visitors,” she shared. Security kept a young woman’s half filled bottle of perfume but they let her in. An elder from the group stood outside trying to finish up the sandwich she had bought with her. Security was not allowing any food or water in the building. “Don’t want to waste anything.”

The renovated Congress dome was stripped of the ugly scaffolding that had scarred the DC skyline for a few years. Hundreds of Muslim delegates from around the country gathered on the steps, after a morning key issues briefing and training session on May 1, 2017, before heading off to scheduled meetings with their elected officials, both in the House and Senate. They took photos, lots of photos.

The large delegation walked from “the Hill” to the Cannon building, holding up xeroxed signs: Maryland. First on the list of meetings was a stop at Maryland’s only Republican Congressman- Dr Andy Harris from the first district.

“Does everyone who which district they live in?” asked a sister who obviously had been doing this for a while. Very few hands went up.

A rather tall, lanky man in dark suit came and greeted the Maryland delegation.

“Are we just going to stand in the hallway? Won’t he invite us in? That is so rude,” grumbled a 16-year-old youth in a pale pink duster, as a custodian drove cleaning carts through the crowd and Dr Zainab Chaudry of CAIR geared up to speak to Harris’ legislative aide. Soubia agreed. She wasn’t expecting to hold a meeting in the hallway! Don’t they have a conference room? she wondered, as she watched team leader, Dr Chaudry, share talking points.

Was the Congressman scared of having Muslims in his office? It was not a good start of the day.

She needed some chai to focus as the walk through the labyrinth of the House buildings was exhausting.

The big ornate door housed overstuffed glorified cubicles. “I really expected them to be larger,” Soubia said, surprised.

The experience was totally different in her representative from District 2’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building. Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger’s legislative assistant, David A Heitlinger, came out and ushered them into the crimson colored room. A cool jug of water sat on an ornate round conference table. Soubia sat on the velvet couch and observed as members of the delegation presented their concerns about the Muslim ban, immigration concerns and asked the Congressman to support bills.

That small action of kindness made a profound statement on Soubia compare to the encounter with Dr. Harris’s staff in the hallway.

“Many of us just don’t know,” she says. Soubia never calls her district offices about an issue that she is concerned with. “I always felt that you have to have a political background to carry a conversation with the person on the other line. This wasn’t my territory. What are the etiquettes? Now, I am somewhat trained,” she says.

“It feels less intimidating,” she says. Soubia also no longer felt like an outsider. “This elected official represents me too.” “The new president. That is what prompted me get up off my seat- it was wakeup call.”

“It was liberating being in the same room. I felt like I have a voice even though I didn’t say a word. When I heard [Dutch’s] staffer agree on the topics that we mentioned, it made it real,” she says. “Half the time we don’t know how to engage with those in government. It sounds much more complicated than it is.”

As the meeting stretched through the afternoon, a brother from the Imaam Center carried two slices of pizza from the Longworth cafeteria to make those who needed to take their medication had something to eat.

“I had realized there upon seeing thousands of people coming to address their issues and I had every right to do the same. Uncles, Aunties, the young and the old quickly grasped onto that realization -- everybody was speaking and explaining issues that are very important issues that concerned the Muslim communities throughout Maryland. Many of the Congressmen were absent and we spoke to their staff. Most of them were uninformed and surprised about the information that we would present to them,” added Zaynub, a 16-year old attending for the first time.

Soubia wanted to stay the entire time but had to head home. Her children were waiting to be picked from school. Assma and Soubia walked out the Cannon tunnel, its walls decked with artwork from students from across the country.

The rest of the delegation got on an underground tram that took them through the House buildings. There are two sets of subway cars. The newer, window-enclosed subway cars service the Dirksen and Hart Senate buildings. The older, open-air subway cars service the Russell building.

Staring up at the roof of the Congress building, Zaynub was reminded of the brutal history of slavery and the treatment of the indigenous people. The rotunda, 96 feet in diameter and 180 feet in height located in the center of the United States Capitol on the second floor hails the conquerors. Statues of former presidents, and leaders from individual states, stood shoulder to shoulder, cast in white marble and bronze.

A bust of Winston Churchill stares at her. “It’s daring you to ask for your rights.,’ jokes Zaynub. They hurried past the statue of Sam Houston under the scarlet drapes and the black and white floor. The Rotunda canopy featured the painting entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, but if they stopped to look at it they would miss their meeting so they scurried. “My feet are swelling,” she says. They had at least 14,000 steps clocked on a Fitbit.

As they crossed the temple devoted to white men, Zaynub thought no wonder many of them only see the world through their point of view. She asked if there were any women represented. Apparently there were one or two, but they were now in a very modern building. A fruitful meeting with the Van Hollen staff awaited them in the Hart Building.

“The idea of attending, representing, and stating our concerns at the Capitol to US Senators was very imposing. As the meetings began, I noticed that the grandiosity of the meetings in my mind and hesitancy to speak to the senators and staff on Capitol Hill quickly began to fade,” says Zaynub.

A pair of pink flats was tucked into a corner outside Senator Van Hollen’s conference room. Zaynub came out barefoot. The delegation was using the space for their Zuhr salah after their meeting.

Senator Ben Cardin’s End Racial and Religious Profiling act of 2017 (S. 411) was on the list of asks compiled by USCMO. The delegation had to stop and thank the Senator and bring up their concerns about some local CVE programs.

An intern led the delegation to the large conference table. “Her name sounds oddly South Asian but you can never tell these days. Was she Muslim or wasn’t she? The elders in the group asked a hundred questions. Turns out her parents were Muslim. In one generation between when her father arrived from a city the intern could not pronounce without doing some serious verbal gymnastics, she didn’t identify as Muslim.”

Senator Ben Cardin’s legislative policy director came and spoke to them at length. Zaynub shared a Muslim youth’s perspective, punctuated with personal stories of her friends and the effects of profiling on them. A mother in the delegation shared how she was scared for her young son and profiling of Muslim students on school campuses.

The Maryland delegates prayed in the Senate conference room after meeting with Cardin’s staff.

As the men prayed in one area, Zaynub snapchatted, “Creeping sharia in Senate!”

“I think I am going to post this on Twitter,” said Zaynub.

The days ended with a reception at the brick covered St Mark’s Episcopal Church a long walk from the Hill. As the group straggled in the tail end, a Pakistani American doctor from California was announcing his run for Lieutenant Governor.

What a day. #