In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
by Alouise Urness
Sumeya B. is a twelve-year old revolutionary woman. An only child of a Muslim father who was born Jewish and a mother who was raised Christian, she’s finding a unique path through her world. Sitting down to talk with her across our laptops at their Central Seattle home one rainy Saturday morning, I run a check of my new recording app, to make sure it will catch her words. “Oh, don’t worry, I have a loud voice,” Sumeya reassures me.
I ask Sumeya about her passions, and she pauses only long enough for a breath. “I started Wasat Youth because I don’t get to see a lot of Muslims in my day to day life, and I thought probably others were in that situation too. I mean, I there are some at my school, and some who have Muslim families, but…” Sumeya interrupts herself, “I mean, even when there are Muslims around, we don’t – especially the kids – we don’t have spaces to talk about being Muslim, about what’s happening to us.”
When Sumeya says “Wasat Youth,” she’s talking about a two month-old experiment within an experiment. Wasat is a hub for the Seattle Muslim community that’s not affiliated with any mosque or any ethnic group, formed about four years ago. It’s led by a cross-section of Muslim converts, immigrants, and children of immigrants. Wasat holds a weekly class and discussion at the Hillman City Collaboratory, and the youth space Sumeya describes is her addition to that event. The youth – just five of them, ages 12-14, so far – meet in a room separated from the adults’ class by a glass wall. Last week, they made a large poster board card for the recently vandalized Temple De Hirsch Sinai, which Sumeya and her mom were planning to deliver as soon as the rain stopped.
Sumeya credits the teachers at Seattle Girls School, especially her current teacher Wendy Ewbank, for sparking her activism. “At my school, they always say ‘you are the answers to the problems we face not later, but now.’” Sumeya takes this to heart, taking part in a get-out-the-vote efforts this past fall, attending a workshop on engaging media to combat Islamophobia, and authoring a letter to Governor Inslee and other elected officials about her concerns for the Muslim community. She rallied other Muslim kids attending the press conference in January to declare Washington a Hate Free Zone, getting them to sign on and help deliver the letter, which they did in coordination with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Sumeya also attended the Womxn’s March in January, and shared this reflection on power, inspired by that day, “There’s always two sides of power, there’s evil power where it’s like money, greed, power overtaking people, and then there’s community power. One thing I really learned this year was that it takes a community…when a community fights, it’s much stronger than just one person.”
At age ten, as a New Year’s resolution, Sumeya decided to try out wearing hijab, the Muslim women’s head covering. She didn’t have much understanding of it then, she says, but just wanted to get closer to her religion. Now, Sumeya calls her hijab her “silent activism.”
She wears hijab to school and everywhere else she can. She’s not allowed to wear it downtown because she was followed to the library once and, near the end of the presidential campaign, her parents asked her to take it off entirely for a while. Sumeya explains that they allowed her to dye her hair as a consolation for having to take off the hijab, “Which didn’t really make up for it, of course. I’m not mad at my parents, I’m upset that it has to come to this sometimes.”
Sumeya identifies most strongly as a writer, and credits her father, whose work includes a lot of public speaking, with helping her see the power of words and learning how to share them. “I feel like words are more powerful than most people know, words are the way to persuade people, to say ‘this is not right’, words are everything I have.” She read me some of her poetry, and one persuasive speech, in a voice that – as Sumeya acknowledged at the start of our talk – is meant for the podium, or the bullhorn. Here’s her reflection on having to take off her hijab:
My Hijab, It’s hidden in the folds of those artificial curls
that mom paid for to make me forget.
That when I go outside they see a bomb that turning my head is a trigger,
to an apology because wearing my Hijab my Religion to the world is a sin
because someone decided to call terror Islam.
Because someone decided that peace is a lie if you wear a Hijab.
So my purple hair is an apology.
A compromise for 911 the Boston bombing
something I did not do. One person, Not a Religion!
But what’s it matter that I am a girl, Never touched a weapon.
Because I wear what you call Burqa every day
so I must dye my hair to say
I am sorry.
One of the most unusual places she wears hijab is on the ice. Sumeya has been figure skating since she was eight. Once she took up covering her hair, she says, “it wouldn’t have made sense not to wear it when I’m skating.” Her mother designs and sews her skating costumes, and now incorporates the hijab into them. Sumeya’s favorites have been the costumes for her Maleficent and Ursula routines. “I have a thing for Disney, for the Disney villains. I like being dramatic, acting a bit. Skating is great like that, it’s a sport, and it’s a chance to be dramatic.”
Dramatic, loud voice, purple hair, Jewish heritage…words not often used in the media to describe a Muslim girl who covers her hair. But my guess is Sumeya has only begun to exceed expectations.
Alouise Urness always wanted to live down this one cute street on Beacon Hill, and now she does. She writes in the mornings before anyone wakes up, then goes about her days as a mother, duck herder, and community organizer.
featured image courtesy of Sumeya B.