A "Badass" Muslim Woman

Leading the Portland Muslim Community Since 2001


It all started when…

The second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center that September morning in 2001 as third grader Hanan Al-Zubaidy was getting ready for school. She lived in low-income housing in a predominantly white neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, with her parents and two younger brothers.

Backpack in tow, Al-Zubaidy emerged from her room dressed in a basic tee and a black headscarf, a hijab, wrapped around her hair. “You cannot wear it today,” she remembers her mother begging. Ignoring the plea, she continued toward the front door.

Encouraged by the rest of the women in her family, Al-Zubaidy recalls wanting to wear the headscarf as early as age seven. “I wanted to be like my mom and grandma,” she says. She had just started covering her hair regularly the first day of school that year.

“But that morning my mom did not want me wearing the headscarf,” she recalls. “I was very adamant; I didn’t care what other people thought.” Refusing to take off her hijab, Al-Zubaidy proposed a compromise with her mother.

The eight-year-old arrived at school dressed “like one of those red, white, and blue rocket-ship ice cream things,” Al-Zubaidy says. Her mother Asraa had “decked her out” in a white headscarf, a ruby-red dress, and royal-blue leggings. She attended school on September 11, 2001 as a patriotic “hijabi” – a Muslim woman who regularly wears the headscarf.


The charity pillar of faith

Born in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp, Hanan Al-Zubaidy was three years old when her family emigrated to the United States in 1996. She became a U.S. citizen in 2005. Today the Portland State University graduate student mentors primary-age children at the Portland Montessori School and young Muslim women through her mosque, the Imam Madhi Center in Beaverton, a nearby suburb.

Iranian-American Maryam Khatami, 19, became close with Al-Zubaidy when they met through the mosque as teenagers.

“Hanan exceeds the role of a great community leader,” says Khatami.

Islam promotes five central tenants: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Al-Zubaidy says charity, or zakat, resonates most strongly with her. As youth coordinator, she involved young Muslim women in various fundraisers to help the homeless community, refugee families, and other marginalized social groups.

Her relationship with Khatami went beyond sharing community service after the younger woman lost her father to cancer in 2014. Khatami remembers slipping into depression. She stopped attending mosque, she says, and lost interest in school. Al-Zubaidy reached out, encouraging her to join in on hikes and stay connected to the youth group.


To cover or not to cover

Many Muslim women wear a hijab as a part of their religious practice. Zainab Salbi, Iraqi-American and women’s studies scholar, points out that in some countries, “there are as many Muslim women who do not wear the hijab as Muslim women who do.” Khatami had worn it since the first day of first grade in Iran, but in the U.S. it set her apart from other students. Classmates made fun of her. “Take that turban off your head,” she recalls one student yelling in seventh grade.  “There were a lot of racial slurs, a lot of name-calling.”

However, Khatami continued wearing the headscarf until her junior year of high school––one year after her father died. Around that time, she thought about dropping the headscarf as part of her usual dress. That spring, she began her own research of Islam, particularly concerning beliefs about dressing modestly and covering women’s hair.

Al-Zubaidy helped Khatami with research but encouraged her friend to choose her own path. She said she would support whatever choice Khatami ultimately made. In the end, Khatami decided to take off her hijab. However, she wears it while in mosque or during prayer. Al-Zubaidy was the first person to know about Khatami’s final decision.

“People in the community were not going to be happy about a decision like that,” Al-Zubaidy says. “My goal was to make her feel comfortable because ultimately, it’s a personal decision, it’s Maryam’s decision.”

Khatami began attending mosque again. Last spring, she graduated from Beaverton High School. With Al-Zubaidy’s encouragement, Khatami enrolled at Portland Community College with hopes of becoming a marriage and family therapist.


badass muslim woman

Grateful for Al-Zubaidy’s unwavering support, Khatami identifies her friend as a strong female leader who has helped her through, what she says, was one of the toughest decisions of her life. This strength, Khatami recognizes is what makes Al-Zubaidy a “badass Muslim woman”. The title, she explains, refers to independent, young, female Muslims who fight against racial and Islamophobic bigotry. These women stand up for themselves and encourage others to exude that same confidence.

Blushing and biting her lower lip when she hears this, Al-Zubaidy’s humility shines through. She meets Khatami’s admiration with a smile: “I kind of, maybe, would possibly consider myself a badass Muslim woman,” she says.

“Hanan is the most badass woman, and Muslim woman, I’ve ever met,” Khatami says. “She knows how to set people straight, she knows how to stand up for herself and her religion, and she has helped me do the same.”

“I know so many badass Muslim women doing so many amazing things,” Al-Zubaidy says. “Until they all get the recognition they deserve, my work is never done.”