The Daughter of Mohammad
A version of this story was originally published for Off the Page in September 2015.
In 2010, at Virginia Commonwealth University, upon meeting her she introduced herself as a Pakistani American and an ethnic Pashtun, her family's origins emanating from the Swat Valley. “Ever heard of it?” she asked. “It’s the place causing most of the trouble.”
The geographically stunning Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province had indeed become a bastion of Islamist extremism and militancy. In a country with the third-highest Muslim population globally, groups like the Taliban—whose Pakistani affiliate has ebbed and flowed against a tide of government-directed military offensives—still assert their fundamentalist vision of God's will in this ancient valley.
But the region is also home to Malala Yousafzai. In 2012, this now-famous teenage girl defied the radicals’ ideas and bullets. In 2014, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy for women and human rights.
I became acquainted with Zain in the context of an interfaith dialogue at VCU by way of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry. Beginning in late 2009 and running off-and-on through 2013, our student center hosted what we intentionally called a Holy Books Conversation. The community included Christian and Muslim students encountering the Bible and the Qur’an as a way of encountering each other.
We thought of our conversation as providing a literal and figurative table. Like a respectful guest, religious curiosity mixed with genuine openness toward the other faith's scriptures. All the while we allowed for the very natural passion to share one's own scriptures with the other like a generous host.
In truth, the peacemaking vision was larger than dialogue. Could we break down religious and cultural barriers and bring people nearer to God and to each other? In some small way, by following Jesus's example, we Christians were participating in God’s expansive heart to bless all the families of the earth—including Zain’s.
At 20, Zain's independent mind and tenacious spirit would be quite obvious to anyone having met her. Not known for a gushingly warm persona, her Pashtun-influenced hospitality nonetheless materialized in the form of delicious baked goods for our Baptist student center.
Meanwhile, to respect her family’s honor, she told me, and in keeping with her first-culture customs and, some Muslims say, out of religious obligation, Zain wore the hijab. Her headscarves ran the gamut from the simple, classic, stark-black version to the more patterned and fashionable varieties.
In a later plot twist, Zain would stop wearing the hijab during her last year at VCU. Ultimately, she told me, she had come to view the hijab as a strongly patriarchal imposition, a culturally divisive symbol, and a distraction from women’s issues that matter far more significantly.
This Muslim immigrant was tough like that.
For instance, during our Christian-Muslim dialogues she would not easily concede the discussion to the young Muslim men—no matter how adept they were at quoting this-or-that religious scholar. Instead, she would usually make some razor-sharp quip like: “I’m trying to look at this text anthropologically, not merely religiously."
In December 2012, over the semester break, Zain dropped by our student center for an unexpected visit. Sorrow and grief were splashed all over her beautiful, light-brown face. Her dad was dead.
A few weeks earlier, Mohammad Taib had been shot and killed in a Food Mart convenience store off the Midlothian Turnpike in the Greater Richmond area. It was a store he had managed for 18 years, surviving several robberies and two previous shootings.
Like many first-generation immigrants, Zain’s dad and mom spent much time and energy decoding a litany of everyday cultural puzzles. These included the language barrier, employment options, their children's education, and the social understanding to make life work in the land of the free.
For the Muslim immigrant, in particular, religious identity often complicates an already challenging assimilation. Ammar Amonette, a friend of mine who has served as the imam of the Islamic Center of Virginia since 2006, says that he believes many Muslims in the U.S. typically feel the need to conceal some aspect of their religious identity. Well before Donald Trump's presidency and the executive orders, Muslim immigrants and non-immigrants alike knew that the considerable price-tag for religious freedom in post-9/11 America is varying degrees of suspicion and mistrust, discrimination and hate.
Additionally, Mohammad had performed his daily grind in an American convenience store. This was much to the dismay and even disdain of many of his fellow Muslims—some of whom thought it haram (religiously forbidden) to be peddling alcohol and other vices. For Zain's father, the economic opportunity of America was also not without its hefty price-tag: religious compromise and cultural humiliation.
Four years later, it is impossible to forget those annoying fluorescent lights flickering in the kitchen of the Baptist student center as I said good-bye to Zain. I remember offering my condolences to her family as I thought, What her immigrant father sacrificed for her and for her hopeful flourishing in this hostile world was measurable yet immeasurable.
After Zain graduated from VCU, she moved to Shanghai where she worked for a season in the marketing department of a Hong Kong-based publisher. She also taught English to Chinese children through an ESL program. In 2015, she moved to Kigali, Rwanda, for a teaching stint with the Peace Corps.
On the day after Mohammad’s death, Zain's brother told The Richmond Times-Dispatch, “He never wanted anything for himself."