Student Featured in USA Today

By Ellie Reinhardt

Rana Abdelhamid ’15 was quoted in an article in USA Today on Oct. 10 in response to Bill Maher’s criticism of Islam on his talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher. Abdelhamid’s personal experience and her knowledge of this global issue inspired her to start the organization Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) and have made her one of the leading voices in the Muslim American community.

The USA Today article discussed the impact that negative comments made by the media have on Muslim Americans. According to the article, people in the media such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris are still vocalizing the stigma of those billions of people who identify as Muslim.

WISE was founded in the summer of 2010 by Abdelhamid as “a self-defense, leadership and mentorship program for young Muslim women in New York City,” according to its website.

“It’s an organization that really aims to provide young women with the skills they need to be professionally empowered, to be physically empowered, to be emotionally empowered,” Abdelhamid said.

Abdelhamid’s experience dealing with negativity towards Muslim Americans started when she was faced with violence in New York  because of her identity. Inspired by this experience and her background in Shotakon karate, Abdelhamid began working with 12 young Muslim American girls in her community that summer to help create a safe space for them.

“We talked about identity and about creating safe spaces. We talked about what it means to be a Muslim woman in the United States and how that contributes to our political and personal ambitions,” she said. 

From her time with these girls, Abdelhamid realized the impact she could have on her community and decided to continue building the program. 

“As soon as I worked with these young women I was able to realize how significant it was, particularly because one girl faced violence on the streets as I did. I realized this isn’t just about my personal experience but it’s about my community.”

Abdelhamid was able to continue her work in the Muslim American community with the help of the College and Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which helped her create WISE.

Abdelhamid has also worked with Professor of Political Science Erik Bleich on research about the representation of Muslims in the media after 9/11. According to the WISE website, hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs have increased by 1,600 percent since 9/11. Abdelhamid and Bleich are discovering the role media has played in this surge.

Their research shows that the media as a whole is not to blame for the negativity. 

“We are focused on the headlines and the tone of the headlines (positive, negative, or neither), but we cannot say much about how headlines affect society. However, we can say that the notion that the media has been largely negative about Muslims is wrong. So if there is Islamophobia in society (and there is) it may have less to do with media coverage than many people previously thought,” said Bleich.

Abdelhamid still raised concerns about the impact of the media in society. “The negative stories [in the media] affected me so much more because that’s what continues to come up in the news feeds…What happens is it increases aggression towards my community and it increases aggression towards people who are visibly Muslim, unfortunately,” Bleich said. 

“I think its very important with all the things that are happening in the Middle East and with everything going on in the world right now that people understand the implications of what they’re saying…a majority of the people affected by terrorism and the radicalization of these beliefs are Muslims and people don’t recognize that…People need to have a more nuanced understanding of what’s happening,” she added.

Abdelhamid has been the recipient of many awards in the past and most recently she was presented with the Leo Nevas Human Rights Youth Award from the United Nations Association of the United States of America. 

At a ceremony held for the winners, Abdelhamid was able to meet with prominent leaders in the Muslim community and the United Nations including Queen Rania of Jordan, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

“People [at the award ceremony] were thanking me for the work that we’re doing and I think for us, this is so important because it provides legitimacy for our work when there are some challenges that we face both inside and outside of the community especially as young people and as women trying to do this,” Abdelhamid said. “So having received this award provides us with credibility in that we’re being recognized by an international organization and we’re seen as an organization that should be taken seriously.”