KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting human rights globally, especially gender equity, religious freedom and civil rights in the United States. It pursues its mission through education, legal outreach and advocacy.
Rahmah A. Abdulaleem is the Executive Director of KARAMAH where she works to create a global network of advocates knowledgeable about the gender-equitable principles of Islam and are able to advance the cause of Muslim women’s rights in legal and social environments. Ms. Abdulaleem graciously answered questions via phone.
How did you find out about KARAMAH?
My sister was on the board of directors at Karamah for several years. That’s how I first found out about Karamah. My sister and I are only a year apart; we are really close. Her talking about it started piquing my interest.
What is an average day like for an Executive Director?
An average day now with COVID is different than what it used to be during pre-COVID. There are always so many different things you have to do. An executive director is really the public-facing person for any nonprofit organization, but at Karamah, we are so small that I do all of administrative tasks as well. Some executive directors are just public facing – they do all of the speaking engagements. They do all of the contact with other organizations. At small nonprofits, you are kind of a jack-of-all-trades, so you do the public-facing, but you do all of the administrative work as well.
On an average day, I could be paying bills, calling Comcast about our coverage, or preparing for a panel discussion later on that day. Because we have a Department of Justice (DOJ) grant, I could be responding to state or community leaders about helping Muslim survivors of domestic violence. That’s part of our DOJ grant, and it’s where I spend fifty percent of my time. It’s not a guaranteed fifty percent per day, but it’s fifty percent of my time spent over the course of a year.
I could be preparing to talk on anything related to Muslims in general, Muslim women in particular, civil rights, religious freedom, women’s leadership, gender equality, and gender equity. It could be presentations to students or to the community or preparing for presentations. It really depends on what’s scheduled. For instance, next week, we are scheduled to present a panel at the UN Committee on the Status of Women. This year, it’s virtual. In the past, it has been in-person. On Thursday, I have a panel discussion which I just got a flyer for. I have to prepare for it on Thursday, and then Saturday is Muslim Women’s Day, so we are also going to have an event then.
I already know next week is going to be hectic since we have three events that we’re working on! It really depends on the time of year. Come August, after Women’s History Month, it’s Black History Month. I am African American, so we do a lot for it, especially in these current times; we have done a lot about racism in the Muslim community.
From April into May, with Ramadan coming, I will be busy because it’s a time where we raise funds as a Muslim nonprofit during Ramadan. Then come June, July, we have a Law & Leadership Summer Program which is our flagship program. Unfortunately, this year, it’s going to have to be virtual.
I probably slow down in the August, September time-frame and then it picks back up in October because it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Then November, December slows down. It’s kind of ebbs and flows based on what’s happening.
My father always told me that I had a mission, and I kept saying, “I’m not in Star Trek or Star Wars, so why do you keep talking about missions?” But I worked for corporate America at a large law firm, and I used to work the same amount of hours. I was exhausted all the time because I thought, “am I just helping one company keep their money or to help a company make more money?” It is gratifying doing work that’s actually having an effect on people, helping the Muslim community. That is something that’s very important to me, so it is gratifying to feel that I’m doing something that has an impact on people I care about.
Is there anything you find interesting about KARAMAH that an outsider or someone who isn’t familiar should know?
I think that some people have the idea that we are some kind of left-wing feminist organization. I always like to quote our founder, Dr. Azizah Y. al-Hibri, because she makes a powerful statement. She says that “Culture divides us, but the Quran unites us,” and for Muslims, that’s so important because I think sometimes people think we are trying to reinterpret the Quran, to make it more friendly. Our position is always that the Quran is what it is, and it’s the people who have been interpreting it, who have been putting down their patriarchal or ultra-feminist views to try to make it something that it’s not. We believe the Quran, as it was revealed, is perfect, and it is gender equitable. I think that some people are always surprised. They say, “Wow! You guys reference the Quran in your work?” This idea that we are just some left-wing feminists saying, “Oh my gosh, you can do anything!” That’s not what the Quran is about.
Do you have any advice you could give if an applicant were to land an internship at KARAMAH?
Be prepared to do different things. I had some interns in the spring of 2020, and that’s a perfect example. I had someone who came from ABPA Institute. At first, she was only giving me a few hours and then she realized she needed more hours. She said she was going to work over spring break. If you remember the timing, spring break was right around the time that the country was closing down. She said she couldn’t commit. I said, “No, we’re doing virtual, and we have a lot of things to do.”
We really revved up and started doing videos, and we did more Ramadan programming, because we didn’t have our usual Iftar. I think that she started to enjoy it more and more, but it was because the internship wasn’t what she was expecting. She may have been expecting to have to do research or administrative work. I don’t think she thought it was going to be as interactive and so much on-the-ground.
We were getting this audio in, and we have to make sure to do a write-up. We had to get somebody to do a podcast for us during Ramadan – who was doing it during Ramadan. It wasn’t like something that was prepared before Ramadan. “We’ll send you the podcast, you need to ensure it’s cut down.” The things she ended up doing, I think she was excited. “This is not what I expected,” she said. I always tell the interns: “Here are some general things you might do but I can’t guarantee you that if all you want to do is this certain particular and narrow issue, that that’s what you are going to get. I just don’t have control over what comes in the door.”
Currently, with COVID, we’ve been super busy. Like every other organization, we have all of these webinars. I get invited to a ridiculous number of webinars that I can’t cover, so I allow the interns to decide amongst themselves who is going to go to a particular webinar. I’m not going to say, “Ali, you do this one, and Amir, you do this one.” I might suggest someone who has told me they have a particular interest. I might say, “This might be something you’d be interested in.” But they have put together a whole spreadsheet and they negotiate between themselves on who covers what, depending on what time the internship is. They have been really flexible if there are webinars that take place late in the evening, or after their time, or on the weekends. The interns say, “Oh, I really want to go to that. Can I cover it?” If there is someone to cover it, I am always happy to let someone go if I don’t have to go to it. Usually, if the webinar does not absolutely need the executive director there, I am usually sending one of the interns.
I feel like through COVID, the interns have had experiences learning about so many different areas because there’s always something that’s coming up about grants. People who want to be a grant writer, I say, “there will be several grant fundraising webinars that you can go to.” A lot of people say, “I am only interested in gender equity, or gender equality.” I know I’m going to get a bunch of those. Some people are into domestic violence or sexual assault or women’s issues in general. Those [webinar topics] are going to come in. They always have different things that I’m getting invited to that I can send the invitations forward and say, “I need someone to attend this and summarize.”
Interns are just not going and saying they were there. They have to send me a summary because most of the time, I use their work at some point later. I had interns who were doing summaries for me over the summer about racism – we had a lot of racism webinars. I then turned around in October when someone asked me to do a four-part series on racism. I said, “I have all this research ready. I can go back into my Google Drive and find all of these racism summaries that I can use.”
I always tell the interns: I know that sometimes you don’t think that I use them, but you’d be amazed! I use almost everything that you guys go to, because I don’t send you to something that I’m not interested in using later on.”
A lot of interns are getting class credit so it’s easy to tell your professor, “I went to a panel on this and here’s the summary, and I did some research for Karamah on this issue – here’s a summary for that.” Sometimes there are articles that I’ve found – I’m usually very good at finding articles during the time between interns – so I say, “Ahhh, there’s no one here to summarize them!” I keep a running list, so when they come, I can give them ten articles that came up since the last interns left. “Can you summarize these as well?”
It has been very rewarding for most of our interns. I haven’t had an intern say to me, “This is not what I want.” It depends on how many hours they have [to give]. Some people can only do 10 hours per week, and 10 hours equates to maybe two webinars and social media. I usually always hire at least one intern to only do social media. It really depends on what’s available and what’s happening, how busy the interns are, and what kind of interests they have.
What are some of the benefits of an internship at KARAMAH?
You really learn what happens at a nonprofit. Nonprofits are kind of like the super-secret space that sounds cool and people say, “I want to work at a nonprofit. I want to work in human rights.” Do you know what that actually means?
The benefits are working and having an internship before your real job, which can really give you an idea of what those people actually do. Unfortunately, since internships aren’t required, sometimes people never get an idea of what they’re doing until they are there. Then they say, “this is not what I thought it was going to be. This is miserable.” Internships give people an idea of “Do I want to be a lawyer?” because this is a nonprofit that is [comprised of] Muslim women lawyers. If you don’t want to read legal things, maybe you don’t want to be a lawyer. If you have a particular interest in a certain subject but then realize the type of work you end up having to do, you might not want to do it.
I tell people all the time, I never wanted to be a family law attorney because when I was in law school, I represented a Muslim woman during her divorce and that was traumatizing to me. I said, “I can’t have real clients,” because I said to myself, “what can I do to get her out of this situation?” Some people realize what you have to do, and they say, “I don’t think I can do that.” Having an internship gives you a chance to get a view of what working at a nonprofit is like. Unfortunately, right now, you are at a DC-based nonprofit, but you aren’t in DC. Sometimes when interns see what nonprofit life is like in Washington, D.C., they say, “Hmm… I had a different idea of how glamorous or un-glamorous it was going to be.”
Doing internships gives students a little peak inside of what life is like, so you can see what you actually want to do. Even virtually, you will say, “Is this what she does all day?” or “I thought this was a super low-key job and she is emailing us on the weekends!” Yes, you kind of never shut it off. To me, to work in the nonprofit space, you have to be very dedicated. Some people have this idea that they’re punching a clock and then they are done. But really, it’s not like that. It’s much more of you have to check out what other people are doing, you have to go to other people’s events, you have to support other nonprofits.
Even right now, I spent the last couple of days on the [national conversation and issue of] crime against Asians and hate that’s going around. “We have to put up a comment about that.” We’re dedicating the anti-discrimination day, which is Sunday, and it needs to be all about what’s currently happening. You never know what is going to come up, that you have to jump in at the last minute and get stuff done. I tell people that even virtually, you’ll still get an idea of what it’s like to work at a nonprofit.
Is there a memory or story that stands out from the work that KARAMAH has accomplished to date?
I always go back to the same memory – I’m sure people are sick of hearing it. When I first started at Karamah in the fall of 2017, they already had a grant from the State Department to do a leadership institute in the Philippines. Being in the Philippines for those two weeks, that’s when I really realized that this is the work I wanted to do. I saw the impact that our educational institute was doing for these women who were from Mindanao, which is an historical Muslim part of the Philippines which I knew nothing about. Going there and learning about their rich culture and their history in Islam, and to really be able to share with them about leadership… my part was leadership, but other people were doing just Islamic law and conflict resolution. Seeing how we affected lives, I keep that memory. “Wow, I actually see how I affect people in what I do.”
That has probably been the biggest thing I did, three years ago, which is really being able to travel with Karamah to have an impact on Muslim women around the world.
If you could go back in time to when you were a student, is there anything you would do differently?
When I was an undergraduate, I would’ve taken more advantage of all of the opportunities that Duke University offered to do things that were outside of my comfort zone. I did a little bit of that in going to a lacrosse game, or going to a women’s soccer game, but I never went to the theater. I never really experienced all of the free stuff that you have in college. I really regret that because I was more of a student who was hanging out with my friends; and it’s what all college students do. You don’t really take advantage of the sheer magnitude of things that are available to you on a college campus.
Law school was such a short experience for me because I started in the summer and I finished in two and a half years (I didn’t want to freeze to death in Michigan). I did take more advantage in law school by taking things that were just of interest to me and not saying, “this is the path to becoming a certain type of lawyer.”
I was very much into, “Oh, I took a Jewish law class, I took family law, I took intellectual property.” I took everything that was of interest to me. Looking back, would I have gone to the University of Michigan? I probably still would have. What I tell people all the time is that in hindsight, should I have gone to a school that might have given me more money instead of going to a state school as an out-of-state student, and paying for a private education? But I can’t say that it was the wrong decision because going to Duke and Michigan has really changed the trajectory of my life. I got to a fork in the road and made a decision, and I don’t think if I could go back that I would change those decisions to go to Duke or Michigan.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
The last thing I would add is for future interns: actually read about the organizations before you start. I sometimes think that people hear “lawyers” and then automatically think that we’re going to be in the courtroom. No, we don’t provide direct legal services. At least check out what’s on the social media, check out what’s on their website to really get an idea of what the organizations are currently doing because that will help you in the long run for any organization. This ensures you are not coming in and saying, “I thought you guys were doing something totally different,” and we’re like, “If you knew anything about us before you got here, you shouldn’t be surprised about what we’re doing.”
Just make sure that you do adequate research about your organizations before you decide to say, “I’m interested.” Don’t just pick them because you want an internship – actually be interested in what the organization is doing.
Would you place more weight on web research or word-of-mouth and dialogue with someone who works there or is familiar with an organization?
I always like people who know someone who has been here before because I know that they’ve already gotten the scoop on what I am like, what working at Karamah is like, what interning is like. I don’t really care about grades – grades are not the end-all be-all to me. It’s the wanting to be here, it’s the interest that you’ve shown. I always ask for a writing sample and then I say, “Why would you give me a writing sample on something random?”
The passion you’ve shown for what I’m doing is always more important. People usually always say, “I know so-and-so who interned last summer.” I respond with, “OK” and if you still apply, that’s a good recommendation for me. Sometimes I have contact with former interns and I text them, “Hey, so-and-so just came up,” and the former intern says, “Oh my gosh, I told her all about it and that’s why I told her to apply.” I say, “OK, good.” As long as it’s a positive experience that they are passing onto other people, because I want everyone to have a positive experience. I don’t want people to say, “You don’t want to work for Karamah.”
Some nonprofits get that kind of reputation that you don’t want to work there, they are crazy. I never want people to feel like that about Karamah. A recommendation from a former intern is always great in my opinion because that’s an extra plus when I’m looking at you. “You know someone [who used to work for Karamah], good!”