by Hurunnessa Fariad

I saw maybe two other hijabi women (a woman who wears a headscarf) when I attended the International Religious Freedom Summit a few weeks ago. But I don’t think they were from the U.S. People from all over the world attend the summit, and with each passing year, I see more women and Muslims attending. Not only did I attend this year, but I was invited to speak on the main stage during a panel discussion. To be one of the first few Muslim American hijabis to speak on the main stage was intimidating yet indicative of a trend to be more inclusive and intentional.

I was invited to speak on the second day of the summit for a plenary titled “Women of IRF Leading the Way.”  Lou Ann Sabatier was the moderator, and my fellow speakers were Ambassador Suzan Johnson-Cook, Gloria Puldu, and Wai Wai Nu. It was a panel of amazing women doing incredible religious freedom work worldwide. I was honored to be on stage with them.

After the panel, we left with a renewed hope of learning and working with one another. We each had ideas to include the others in the work we have been involved in. As I left the green room, a few people were waiting outside to talk and take pictures with Ambassador Johnson-Cook. As I walked through the crowd, a woman approached me and thanked me for what I had to say and for my work at the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.  

I looked over and saw Lou Ann, who was all smiles because of the success of the panel. We were greeted by others who honored us with support and encouragement. As I talked with those around, I met a few more people who came over to discuss the panel. Two interactions stuck with me in a particular way. 

One was with an older Muslim man. He approached me and expressed the following sentiments, “I want to tell you how proud I am of you. I couldn’t believe that I was listening to a Muslim sister on stage represent us in such a positive and eloquent manner. Your work is important, and I’m glad to hear you speak on stage. Keep up the good work.” He stood out to me because he is a Muslim man who approached me to express his sentiments. This doesn’t happen that often, at least not in my experience. I have rarely had these types of conversations with Muslim men because some of them don’t engage in conversations with Muslim women. I greatly appreciated his kind words and encouragement.

The second interaction was with a young graduate student working for the U.S. government. She looked me in the eyes and said, “I just want to say how much your words resonated with me. I love the grassroots work you are doing on the ground, and as a woman, I love that you are making sure we are included.” Then I saw the tears in her eyes come rushing down. I froze in my thoughts. Why is she crying? What resonated with her? She then talked about my conversation on the panel with Gloria from Nigeria. She said my conversation with Gloria was quite authentic, and she wished all people could have such spontaneous and real conversations. 

I understood what she was saying. She wasn’t the only one. A few other people said similar things. I, like her and others, want to see real connections which lead to real relationships. We must hear and see people who are vulnerable with each other and who stand up for each other. That was the essence of what I said to Gloria during the panel. The core of who we are as human beings should be to see others as they are, respect them, and advocate for them as they are. As much as I loved sharing during the IRF Summit, I am even more thankful that my eyes were opened a bit more to help me see others. I hope I can encourage you to do the same. 


Watch the FULL IRF Summit panel: