One writer explores the identity of Muslim-American women
By Mariah Kline | Photos by Joshua Mimbs
With an exceptional education and a passion for pursuing diversity, Aaisha Hamid is blazing a trail like no other. In April, her second book, “Unveil Me Slowly,” will be released, and she will recognize some of Louisville’s highest achievers at Trailblazers 2019, an inaugural awards ceremony. By drawing from her unique life experiences, Hamid’s goal is to create works that women like her can identify with and provide a clearer voice for an often misunderstood identity group.
Hamid was born and raised in Louisville to parents who immigrated to America from Pakistan. Though she’s mainly lived here her entire life, she’s had a somewhat unorthodox educational experience that included exposure to many different cultures within the community. She attended a Baptist Christian elementary school, an Islamic middle school and an all-girls Catholic high school. Hamid then attended the University of Louisville, where she was part of several organizations ranging from the Latin American Hispanic Student Organization (LAHSO) to the Women 4 Women student board.
“Having an education like this was very intentional because I wanted to be a part of groups that didn’t look or think like me,” she said. “I wanted to expand my own thought process as well as offer different identity groups exposure to someone they might not have otherwise interacted with. From an early age, identity is something I have always been hyper aware of because I’ve always stood out. I think my inability to be a part of just one world has helped me become more in tune with other ideologies and groups of people.”
After graduating with degrees in psychology, political science and paralegal studies in 2016, Hamid began working for Hogan Lovells, one of the top 10 global law firms in the world.
“My current role as inclusion coordinator enables me to be a part of a small team that works to create a diverse and inclusive environment for all of our lawyers and business service employees in our American offices,” Hamid explained.
She is in charge of all of the diversity survey data that the firm completes, coordinating all internal diversity events for their 28 affinity groups and also managing the departmental budget.
“In some ways, my work with Hogan Lovells and my writing go hand in hand,” she said. “In 2012, I received the Jones Research Scholarship from the University of Louisville and utilized that to publish my first book on an arguably controversial topic at the time. ‘Faceless: Two Worlds Collide’ explores the news story that came out regarding the Kill Team, a group of soldiers in Afghanistan who killed innocent civilians. After seeing the reaction from family and peers I went to school with, I wanted to research and write a book that attempted to eradicate the stereotypes on both ends. My book garnered some international attention from Pakistan and Canada, which in turn led me on a brief tour in those areas.”
“There is a certain mystical element that provides a surreal tone that dips between the worlds of reality and illusion. I found myself there.”
Since publishing her first book, Hamid has become increasingly interested in working on a more intimate and personal issue.
“I wanted to address the role of Muslim American women in society and the idea of our agency,” she said, “(especially) amidst a media that sometimes diminishes our existence to that of the hijab (scarf) that has become a trademark of our identity.”
This past year, Hamid received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) to make the project a reality. “Unveil Me Slowly,” her collection of poems written throughout the last few years, will be released on April 13.
Though writing has always come naturally to her, the path that led Hamid to poetry was unexpected.
“I was never a huge fan of poetry growing up,” Hamid admitted. “I worked on a minor in creative writing at UofL, which offered me plenty of exposure to it, but it has never really struck a chord with me. I have always seen it as being too emotional, ambiguous and, in some ways, elusive since its interpretation is subjected to the experiences of its readers.”
Hamid’s attitude toward poetry changed about three years ago when her mother suffered from an aneurysm rupture that left her partially immobile.
“I went through a really difficult time period and poetry helped me escape,” she said. “I read a lot of work by international women poets such as Parveen Shakir and Forough Farrokhzad. They spoke to me in a way that was emotionally moving and ignited a passion to recreate my narrative.”
Hamid became particularly fascinated with the sensual imagery and diction used in their writing.
“There is a certain mystical element that provides a surreal tone that dips between the worlds of reality and illusion,” she explained. “I found myself there. And in writing about many of the things I felt, I was able to resonate with a number of women who had gone through similar experiences – and that is, in part, because the human experience is more similar than we realize. Because poetry strips a person bare and makes them vulnerable, it is easier to feel emotions other types of writing aren’t always able to elicit.
“‘Unveil Me Slowly’ is essentially about identity and attempts to paint an intimate portrait of everyday life, sensuality and womanhood on a battleground of religious, cultural and societal expectations,” Hamid said. “I feel like our society has drawn a very thin line between sensuality and sexuality. Sensuality is about being aware of yourself as a woman, which I think is often evaded when it comes to Muslim women because people are afraid of associating the two together. One of the things I am very passionate about is women’s empowerment, and something I have often noticed is the lack of literature that young Muslim American girls have to turn to when trying to formulate their identities and understand womanhood.”
With “Unveil Me Slowly,” her aim has been to convey her own emotions and articulate them in a way that other women can relate to.
“I want my book to not only vocalize things that I sometimes have difficulty expressing, but I also want to give a voice to something that is often left unnoticed and untouched,” she said. “I want Muslim girls and women to have a story that resonates with them. In conversations about diversity, people often forget the intersecting sections that offer different experiences and narratives. I think in some ways my work will be relatable to a large collective, but in other ways, my identity group will be the most likely to understand what I am trying to convey, and that is the goal – to offer them poetry that sings their story on topics ranging from love to collectivist family cultures.”
To officially launch “Unveil Me Slowly” and honor individuals making a difference in the community, Hamid is hosting Trailblazers 2019: Celebrating Local Changemakers. The event will take place in April in conjunction with the release of her book and include a R.O.A.R. (Resilient, Outspoken, Ambitious and Refined) awards ceremony.
“I think success and successful people are often glamorized in contemporary society, so I want this event to be all about people being immersed in the stories that are often unheard,” Hamid said. “I want to showcase the obstacles that people had to overcome and the struggles they underwent to get to where they are. I want success to feel attainable for everyone, and I want our youth to realize they can have it all while staying true to who they are.”
“I feel like our society has drawn a very thin line between sensuality and sexuality. Sensuality is about being aware of yourself as a woman.”
As she looks forward to celebrating the honorees and her own accomplishments as well, Hamid reflected on what inspires her in others.
“I am inspired by the unsung heroes in our world who face adversity and battles but do not allow their injuries and defeat to deter them from fulfilling their dreams,” she expressed. “I think there is something very powerful about warriors who attain victory after numerous falls. It is easy to win and arrive at our destination when we are all walking on a leveled playing field. It is the obstacles and the manner in which we handle them that I think ultimately defines our character and spirit.”
For the inspired, intellectual and creative Hamid, there is seemingly no limit to where her career could take her, and that uncertainty is precisely what she credits for bringing her this far.
“One of the biggest lessons I have learned over time is to be open to change,” she said. “I did not imagine myself doing or being where I am five years ago… I think people often feel like a failure when they are unable to adhere to their initial plans. It was when I finally accepted defeat without feeling like a failure that I was able to make something out of my situation and life.” V
To learn more about Aaisha Hamid and preorder “Unveil Me Slowly,” visit aaishahamid.com. To register to attend Trailblazers 2019, email email@example.com.
Toxic Cultural Tendencies
By Aaisha Hamid
Do not mistake me for a gentle stream
of water flowing down a ravine –
my quiet demeanor
is not the hidden docility
you so desire in a woman
Just below the surface,
past my long lashes
batting in boredom
guised as coy flirtation,
lies a typhoon of emotions
which restlessly stirs,
and occasionally sparks
the fiery passion simmering inside
The volatile waves
that rock in mounting agitation
threaten to tip over the second
my rage, carefully confined,
finally breaks free to bask
in the scalding, but glorious
rays of freedom