Downstairs in the University of Washington’s law library, student Malak Shalabi often found herself walking by class photos from years past. In the school’s early days, virtually every face staring back was white. Most were men.
“There aren’t many Muslim people. Period,” said Shalabi, 23. And, “throughout the years, I (didn’t) see a single (law school) graduate who was wearing a hijab. That’s kind of when it clicked for me.”
On Sunday, Shalabi is to expected be among about 170 students in the University of Washington School of Law’s 2021 graduating class — and among the first to wear a hijab during the law school graduation ceremony.
She may be the very first. It’s hard to say for certain — the class photos are usually taken when students enter the program and may leave out transfer students, school officials said. But after flipping through every class photo, Shalabi contacted past graduates via social media and asked the law school librarian and school administrators if they knew of any other Muslim graduates who wore a hijab. At least one student wore a headscarf, someone said, but they couldn’t remember if she wore it at graduation.
On why being among the “first” matters, Shalabi says: “No one should be discouraged because they don’t see a space for them in a particular field.”
Shalabi’s accomplishments were paved by years of intense commitment to her studies and interest in aiding the Muslim community as a legal professional. But, she said, she felt her hijab, a visible symbol of her faith, was used against her by classmates and professors. People who met her in law school often assumed she was born outside the U.S. (she was born and raised in Houston). She was mistaken as an interpreter and a client —moments that felt “infantilizing,” she said, “where I’m not taken as seriously.”
It wasn’t the first time she experienced discrimination. But those moments stand in stark contrast with how she sees herself: “I wear (the hijab) as an understanding of a religious commandment,” she said. But she refuses to allow others to reduce her identity solely to her headscarf. “My faith, definitely it guides my entire life practice. But to see me as ‘that Muslim girl’ is unfortunate … because otherwise you’re missing out on everything else I have to offer.”
Shalabi was raised by her mother, Nida’a Hamza, who traveled from Kuwait to visit family in the U.S. in the early 1990s when the Gulf War broke out. Hamza, a teenager then, was unexpectedly forced to stay. In the U.S., Hamza studied to become a dentist. And like her daughter, she made a conscious decision to wear a hijab.
Shalabi, the eldest of five siblings, attended a private Islamic school in Houston through fifth grade; she felt “uplifted” there, she said, and was surrounded by teachers who encouraged the students to take pride in the community. When she switched to public school, those messages disappeared. Classmates excluded her. In high school, when she moved to Washington, she took up skateboarding and played drums. She was in a talent show. The way she describes it, Shalabi didn’t want to be “the dork.”
In 2014, the summer after her junior year in high school, they traveled to Jordan, where many of her family members were living as refugees from Syria. They had fled after a pro-democracy civil uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 turned to civil war. She learned about the revolution from people who had experienced it — and began thinking more deeply about her faith and sense of purpose as a young Muslim woman in the U.S.
She made a commitment to wearing a hijab and emailed a handful of friends to tell them. Some stopped acknowledging her in the halls of Jackson High School in Mill Creek, where she lived.
Hamza, her mother, talks at length about the importance of raising her children, especially her girls, to be independent; Shalabi points to her mother as her most powerful source of strength and inspiration, someone who taught her to see the world through a lens of compassion.
But Hamza knew firsthand how Shalabi would be perceived by peers — and cautioned her against mimicking women she’d met in the Middle East without thinking carefully about the commitment. Hamza wanted Shalabi’s decision to wear a veil to be completely her own.
“Even when she did wear it, I was like, she may take it off,” Hamza said. “The opposite happened. When she came back (from Jordan) she was like, ‘I just found myself, this is who I am, and trouble, here I come.’”
In high school, Shalabi found room to be herself in English teacher Dan Geary’s class. Geary encouraged Shalabi and his other students to research topics they found important, so Shalabi delved into U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics.
Geary talked with Shalabi about developing an open mind and about how to use and value her own opinion to interpret what she read.
“She’d bounce ideas off me and she’d express her frustration. And I pointed out to her that if she’s going to do anything, if she’s going to be heard, she has to be well-informed and educated,” Geary said. “It’s kind of cool to think that intellectual intrigue (she learned in high school) may have inspired her to keep moving forward and look at law.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Washington Bothell, Shalabi met representatives from UW law school, who hosted an event at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, the largest Islamic center in Washington. Shalabi said she was accepted through the university’s early admissions process.
Early on, she connected with a professor whose empathy reached her in a way that made her feel respected, she said. But in other courses, like a civil procedure class where she learned about legal rules and standards, she was disturbed by how common it is for professors to teach a sterilized version of important legal cases.
For instance, when she learned about a post-9/11 case, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, involving a Pakistani-American man, she said the class spent little time discussing the broader political context under which the man was being investigated, or the pervasiveness of surveillance and attacks on the Muslim community — including harassment and crimes against women who wear a headscarf, which has made them a target in the U.S.
Another time, a professor mixed up her name with that of another Muslim student. “I’m infinitely grateful for these opportunities (at UW) … but these were real issues.”
The higher level of education you reach, the fewer the people of color there are — and in particular, women of color, said Lisa Castilleja, director of inclusion initiatives, community outreach and alumni relations at the law school. Castilleja was an informal mentor to Shalabi at UW.
“If UW law is the right school for you, know that things are changing,” Shalabi said. “Just go in strong.”
“It was the same issues (when I went to law school) and we’re still struggling with it, which is frustrating to me,” Castilleja said. “But I have never regretted going … because what you can do with the degree is unbelievable. And she is going to be a leader in her community, there’s no question in my mind.”
Shalabi, who will study for the bar exam after celebrating at home with her family on Sunday — the law school’s graduation ceremony is virtual this year because of the pandemic — said she agrees with Castilleja.