What a privilege it was to interview Mariam Rauf, one of our Spring workshop facilitators! It was not so much an interview as a conversation about life, the kind of talks that you have with a close friend. Ever since I interviewed her for an article about 2 years ago (?), I have always enjoyed talking with her. She is quite endearing. It is that Leo-effect that you want to hate but just can’t because its infectious. Yes, I am comparing the Leo-charm to a disease because according to the horoscope experts, Leos and Pisces (myself) should not get along. Those controlling lions try to get their paws on vulnerable fishes who love their freedom. I only like her because I have been infected by her virus.😉
If I was to name the characteristic that attracted me, it would be her effusive warmth. She could easily be the goddess of the hearth, a Baloch Hestia. But thank goodness, I am not a dead Greek poet who writes stories about unidimensional goddesses. Because we all know that people are complicated, especially women whose ruling planet is the Sun. Whatever that means. So to attribute Mariam with only one characteristics would be an oversimplification, clearly a travesty. She is also emotionally mature, perceptive, intelligent, open, honest, thoughtful, self-aware, compassionate, unapologetic (!), confident, well-spoken, professional, and gorgeous. Why comment on her beauty? Yes, I am very superficial when it comes to physical beauty but I am actually commenting on her energy. She has this radiant energy that is conveyed through her glowing face. When she said that she thought I was older, or what were her words exactly, “younger looking older woman,” I was well a bit annoyed. But I couldn’t stay angry for long. All she had to do was flash that absolutely possessing smile and I just melted. I had already forgotten the insult. Well, sort of. I could see why her husband, Jon, was smitten with her. How could he not be? She is Mariam Rauf.
You probably think that I have a crush on her. If only. I usually like people who are not good for me because I am emotionally stunted. No, I adore her because she brings out the best of me. She is so present that one is forced to be in the moment with her. This is rare in our society which always looks to tomorrow. Somehow she allows or tenderly encourages people just to be. I could see why her clients would feel appreciated. At the same time, this unique trait enables her to be content with her accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong. She is not stagnant. She constantly transforms herself to be the best person in the present. However, she does not force unreasonable expectations of herself as she should be. She is always becoming her best self now. It is quite a remarkable attitude from which everyone could learn. And her barometer of success is not fame, money, or position in life. Rather, she judges her accomplishments based on what role model she has become for her family, community, and society. My kind of hero.
The conversation we had was definitely not straightforward. The first question was designed for people like myself, absolutely annoying A-types who always need to visualize a plan before living their lives. And she answered that question in Mariam style, sort of bohemian, lets see what-happens-in-life style. You would think I was frustrated with her response. Well, I was initially, but eventually I was intrigued and of course, baffled to be in the presence of someone so different from me. She is quite mesmerizing. No, she is just being Mariam.
As with the previous interviews, Mariam and I just talked about the questions but she typed her answers after our conversation. If I had to transcribe, I would never enjoy these interviews. And I do enjoy them especially when I am talking to women whom I respect both professionally and personally.
Sam: In 10 years, how do you visualize yourself - i.e. what are you doing, where are you, who are you with, etc.
Mariam: I have never been a planner, so it's hard for me to say where I'll be 10 years from now. My work to address gender violence and help build a community centered around supporting survivors, instead of blaming them, is a life-long commitment. I believe world peace starts at home and that we can end gender violence in one generation. I hope you can join me in this mission.
Sam: Trauma is a very important theme in your life - is there a personal or singular event that has informed your understanding of this powerful word?
Mariam: I went through a really difficult year a few years ago. There wasn't one traumatic experience, but a lot of the trauma I had experienced in my life up to that point finally caught up with me. It was my first year working at a domestic violence organization full-time. I was exposed to traumatizing issues daily. I was getting triggered which was leading me to trigger others. I didn't have an understanding of what was happening to me until we had a consultant train us on trauma-informed care. That training started the healing process for me. With help from therapy, I also started the difficult task of looking within to see how I was contributing to my unhappiness. Understanding my own lived experiences has helped me to build my self-awareness and be more empathic towards others. I'm a constant work-in-progress, but am proud of how far I've come to better understand myself and others.
Sam: What traits do the people you admire/inspire you possess? Do you see these traits in yourself? If not, do you want to develop them?
Mariam: I appreciate people who are honest, open to talking about their lived experiences, and great listeners. It's probably no surprise that a lot of my closest friends and heroes are therapists and trauma experts in the gender violence field. I am especially drawn to women who are self-aware and have a genuine commitment to building safer communities while helping each other in social justice work. I believe I have these traits, but they need constant maintenance and polishing! Leading by example is important for me. Working with survivors has made me become an engaged listener. As a trainer, I've learned that being open and honest about my own experiences helps others in the room open up about themselves. I often ask others in the gender violence field to practice what they preach – I try to live with that same philosophy.
Sam: How does your Baloch identity help you find meaning in your work?
Mariam: I decided to become an advocate to help survivors of domestic violence because I wanted to use my fluent Balochi to help limited English Baloch women living in the US. I didn't want language barriers to prevent the women from seeking help. Understanding how these barriers, along with cultural ones, make what is already a difficult situation more difficult informs my work to this day.
My Baloch identity also reminds me of what it feels like to be "other." I carry a lot of privilege as an 1) able-bodied, 2) cis, 3) heterosexual, 4) college-educated, 5) US citizen, 6) who speaks fluent English 7) without an accent (among many other things). However, in most spaces, I am usually the minority in a minority. The Baloch people are not a recognizable household name, so people often make assumptions about the languages I speak (those I speak without an accent and those I speak with an accent), my immigration status, my religion, and even my beliefs because of how I look and talk. I know first-hand how much pain and damage can be done when we make immediate assumptions about others. I use my identity as an example of why it’s important to not make assumptions about survivors, and why we should build relationships and provide the space for people to identify themselves to us first.
Sam: How does your identity as a Muslim woman inform your worldview?
Mariam: I understand what it is like to be targeted by those who have more power, whether it is the US government or media. The Muslim ban has been devastating and has directly impacted my family members and close friends. Things weren’t great before the ban, either. I have personally been racially profiled at airports and at work. I find myself getting more and more fearful of what I call “flying while Muslim” on domestic and international flights.
I have also witnessed Muslim survivors of domestic violence get criminalized by the media just because of their religion. I have listened to people pity Muslim women for wearing hijab; many of them refusing to see how women’s bodies are policed everywhere, including in the west. Regardless of where women (and girls) live in this world, we are constantly being told how to dress. The message is the only thing that’s different: sometimes I’m told to wear more clothes, other times I’m told to take off more clothes. I use my identity as a Muslim woman to declare one thing: all decisions about my body are mine to make alone.
Mariam Rauf is the Director of Client Empowerment at Sakhi for South Asian Women. Mariam works closely with local and national leaders to address gender violence and the unique challenges faced by survivors in Asian communities. Prior to joining Sakhi, Mariam spent almost a decade at the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP) in Washington, DC. At DVRP, she led the organization’s communications, training, and outreach programs. Before joining staff, she was on DVRP’s board of directors including serving as board president. Her professional background includes time as a public servant with the U.S. government, where she stressed the importance of cultural competency and humility, while advising officials on policy decisions involving regions in the Middle East and South Asia. Mariam is a proud Baloch and intersectional feminist who spends her free time photographing the streets of New York.