I’ve known Safia since I was a child. Our first encounters would be in London since the early 80s. My elder brother would hang out with her elder brother, and I would hang out with Safia. However, it was during the trip Safia and her family made to us in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the Hajj that we really connected and strengthened our friendship.
Safia, for as long as I could remember, has always displayed such grace and dignity in her demeanor. She carries herself with such elegance, one cannot help but be drawn into her presence. She has an aura around her of an angelic charm. Soft spoken, delightful and a hidden sense of humor are three ways I could describe Safia– but of course, she is a whole lot more than just this.
And this whole lot more was displayed exemplary when one situation led Safia to take that leap of faith to stand up for what she believes in. That one step became a huge deal, and a sole picture of hers went viral all over the world.
So, how did it all begin?
The political climate in the US had become tough for the Muslim, with President Trump having just implemented the ‘Muslim Ban,’ which didn’t allow for Muslims to come to the US from several Muslim countries. A large group of people in the US took it upon themselves to protest against this discriminatory ban and started to lead protests in several cities all over the countries.
The night before, Safia and her husband Usman, were spending time online trying to get as much information about the Muslim Ban protest that was being held at the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). Even though Safia had a huge desire to attend the protest to make her voice heard, she felt at the time that perhaps she may not make it, as she couldn’t leave her sons home alone.
However, as the evening progressed on, she started to feel frustrated She had made arrangements for a babysitter to come and watch her sons, while she would go with her husband to the protest. “I knew big crowds make an impact, get more coverage on the news. I know Islam teaches us to speak up against injustice. Which friends were going? Does Usman have Sunday school? Can we go tomorrow? In the end, we planned to postpone our parenting duties for one day so we can go to the protest. I wanted to make my voice heard. I cared about the Muslims.”
Having made it to the protest site, Safia and Usman realized it was time for the mid day prayer later on in the day. They knew that if they didn’t leave the protest site soon, they would not make it back home to pray on time. So as they were walking back to their car hurriedly, they happened to see a large circle of men and women, holding hands, protecting the Muslims who were praying inside the circle. Safia and her husband decided to quickly join them as they were on the last cycle. They were a little late and so missed the group prayer, causing Safia to pray on her own. I asked Safia what it felt like to be in that moment and she shared the following narrative:
“When I saw the human circle, I was excited. Being able to see something with your own eyes that you just heard about and see pictures on Facebook and Instagram just made me so happy. But what made me more energized was that I didn’t have to hide myself in the car and pray. I felt safe enough to pray outside and not have people gawking at us. Instead there were people of different backgrounds respectfully holding hands to make sure we get to pray in peace. It had been a very long time since I was able to pray in such peace and not feeling rushed.”
She went on to mention that she didn’t feel scared in that moment. There was something very peaceful about being surrounded by random men and women that allowed her to pray. It was definitely a very emotional moment as Safia recollected her experience:
“I literally just lost myself in the moment reminding myself to not rush because I don’t need to. You have people protecting you and God is protecting them and us. As I approached to pray, I was overflowing with emotion. There was so much love and kindness that had overtaken the air and hearts of everyone there. I knew the Trump supporters were close by, but they were very few in number, and the love and kindness of the others were flooding the area and made the Trump supporter miniscule in my eyes.
Quite a few Muslim women were praying and in the middle, I saw a woman who I will never forget. She was a middle aged non-Muslim woman, with eye glasses and short hair, and was kneeling with the other Muslim women, hand clasped together in contemplation and prayer. God knows what she was praying but my heart melted and my eyes welled up because I realized that it is not that hard to unite and pray together, it’s a natural motion and spiritual feeling that we are born with as we are taught and this was a great example of that. I couldn’t help but kiss her on the head before beginning my prayers. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing today. I get emotional just thinking about it.”
Being caught up in the moment, Safia didn’t feel anxious or worried, despite the fact her three son were at home. She was so caught up in the moment, in this display of human love and concern towards one another. There were men and women of different faiths, race, age and background, but they were all united. The human circle that had formed around Safia and Usman stayed there till the two had finished their prayers. Safia was very humbled by the fact these people made the effort to stay that long. She felt so much at peace at being allowed to pray with freedom and without fear as opposed to praying in her car when out in public. She felt very protected, by both God and the people in the human circle.
Safia wishes she had time to talk to the diverse group of people who had formed the circle. By the time she was done with her prayers, these very people merely just dispersed and went about their own ways. If given a chance, Safia would love to thank each one of them for doing something so selfless, not aiming to seek recognition, and doing what they believed in: protecting the rights of the minorities in the US, displaying patience, kindness, humility and a steadfastness against injustice.
This experience has definitely changed Safia. Her perspective on life altered this very day. In her own words:
“After the experience, I know I may sound like a broken record, but I am at peace and more hopeful- hopeful that no matter what type of leader we have in the country, we have the people behind us with their love and common sense of what is fair and just. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to go. It is very rare that I leave my kids to go to events, but this was definitely worth it. This experience has empowered me to continue to wear the hijab proudly I have gone back to praying outside, rather than hiding myself in the car, with no fear. Even my husband was very touched at the kindness of people even though he tends to be the more cynical one.”
She went on to elaborate how her life has changed as she developed a new found perspective towards the other Muslims out there:
“This experience reminded me that more than ever before we need to take out the time to stand up for each other. Stand up for Muslims. Stand up for minorities and those that are marginalized. But in little ways we can all make a difference. Don’t be afraid of being yourself, talk to others in the grocery store, volunteering at school, at work, or even saying “Good Morning” at the park with a big smile. Show others that we are humans just like everyone else and we get angry when people are being treated unfairly and we are happy when we are all kind to each other and even agree to disagree.”
Little did Safia know, but the photographer who took her picture of her praying inside the circle, turned out to be ChiveXP, who is an Oscar winning photographer (do check out his pictures Instagram!). The picture was posted on his Instagram account, amassing 23000+ likes and before anyone knew it, the picture had become viral showing up all over our Facebook and Instagram feeds.
It was Safia’s nephew, Yusef, who showed her the picture. She didn’t realize the impact the picture was having on people all over the world. As she recalled, that moment inside the prayer circle for her was a very private one: one between her and God. Though she was aware of the paparazzi and photographers clicking away at the time, nothing prepared her for what happened once the picture went viral.
When I asked Safia what it felt like to see the picture going all viral, she responded as follows:
“Personally I’m a private person especially when it comes to wanting to do things that please God alone. We believe to only want reward from God and not to show off and expect credit or praise from others. So that was my initial reaction. However a friend of mine was very happy to see my picture and he reminded me that he thought it was an inspirational photo. It was me Being Unapologetically Muslim. And ‘in time like these, the simple act of praying in public is powerful’. As soon as that was mentioned to me, my perspective changed to if this does any good then let it spread, God Willing.”
I told Safia how much the picture impacted me. A female Muslim who observes the hijab living in the US enduring such warmth and love from the other Americans around her. Seeing how much hatred and animosity that is being spewed out in wake of Trump’s presidency, it’s reaffirming to witness such an event. There are lots of great people out there indeed who are full of love.
While closing our talk, I simply asked Safia to share that one piece of advice she would like to give to others out there. It was difficult to share just one piece, so she shared a couple.
“Be proud. Be kind, not hurtful. Just do what you have to do and keep trying, persevere and not give up. Remember most people are good and will be supportive when needed. Love trumps hate. Please pray for all those that are suffering in this country and around the world where their voices are not being heard. Pray openly don’t be afraid and pray hard for all of us, for peace and for those that are marginalized in this country and those that are suffering all over the world.
I also would like to thank God because He is the Most Compassionate. I want to thank the crowd that day that were on the side of human compassion. You remind me that maybe there are people in this world that will not disappoint and gave me hope in people again. I’d like to thank my mom who taught me my faith and reminds me till this day how to be an unselfish person and that in the end service to people will reap great reward, reward maybe in this world but definitely in the hereafter.”
On that note, I cannot help but be in awe of Safia. Her convictions, her principles, her determination have won me over. But then again, as I am taken back to our early childhood years, remembering upon our own friendship that’s full of respect for each other, I cannot help myself from being so extremely proud of how far Safia has come.