Ameena Qazi: Sister Lawyer

Ameena Qazi was in her first year of law school at Wayne State University in Detroit when a professor gave the female students fashion advice that amused her.

"She was telling us how to dress when we argue cases in front of a judge," says the Fullerton resident, who's the deputy executive director and lead attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations' (CAIR) Los Angeles chapter (which, contrary to its name, is based in Anaheim). "'They like to see pencil skirts and form-fitting blouses,' she's telling us women. And I remember thinking, 'No. I'm going to wear my trousers; I'm going to wear my headscarf. Judges should value us for who we are—and we are darn good lawyers.'"

Qazi has lived life loving to be underestimated. The daughter of a Pakistani immigrant and Wisconsin native of German-Scotch-Irish descent who converted to Islam, she's naturally unassuming and soft-spoken, and she looks far younger than her 31 years. "I'm a young woman who wears a headscarf. It's hard to get people to see what you offer," she admits. But beneath that soft demeanor lies a lawyer who has been at the forefront of civil rights in Southern California the past couple of years, especially when defending Muslims. In her five years at CAIR, Qazi and her staff have done everything from run civil-liberties workshops to help a woman who claimed discrimination at Disneyland [1] to going after the federal government over its role in the Craig Monteilh mosque-spy case. "Some people say we're hyper-reactive, but we actually try to perform triage before anything else," Qazi says. "People will call me and say, 'Sister Ameena, this happened to me.' They don't want to make a big deal. But that's disempowering—we should speak up. Even if we lose a case, it's not necessarily bad. No matter what the case, if it's something wrong, we take that stand in favor of the good. That is the victory."

John Gilhooley

Defending the rights of Muslims wasn't something Qazi initially set out to do. After earning her law degree, she worked on community projects, including an interfaith performance-art group that Qazi says still serves as inspiration for her courtroom arguments. But the self-admitted lover of the Bill of Rights became increasingly concerned about the legal problems Muslims in Southern California began to encounter in a post-9/11 world—unlawful monitoring, workplace discrimination, demagogic politicians, no-fly lists—so she joined CAIR. "I've always wanted to help out the little guy, and I got that from my parents," she says, remembering a story from her childhood about how her family once passed by another family living out of their van. "We went home, gathered food for the family and dolls for the little girls, and went right back and gave them those presents. And my Dad told us, 'What you have is a gift from God. It's not necessarily yours. Do what you can with it because there's no other way.'"

The incident happened in the South Bay, which is also where Qazi's latest legal victory occurred. In Lomita, the City Council had denied a permit for a new mosque proposed by the Islamic Center of the South Bay—Qazi's childhood house of worship. CAIR sued the city, alleging discrimination; the federal government helped to settle the case earlier this year. [2]

Qazi takes strides to diminish her influence. "I'm just a drop in the ocean of this movement," she insists. But she does take pride in letting Muslims know that their lives in this country shouldn't be one of fear. "When you use all these 'nots' to define you—not terrorists, not a religion of hate, not foreigners—it chips away at who you are," Qazi says. "But helping people stand for who you are—citizens, Americans, neighbors—that's an act of empowerment, and has a huge effect on everyone."

See our full OC Weekly 2013 People Issue

[1, 2] These sentences were modified on March 10, 2013, by request.

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34 comments
smcafeaulait
smcafeaulait

Thank you OC Weekly for such a great article!  I have seen this woman speak live and she is an incredible inspiration!  Thank you for recognizing her strengths, and for showing the true meaning of Islam!

MaherSawaf
MaherSawaf

I can read stories about discrimination against Muslims all day long and I wont sympathize cause after all Muslims are conservatives  and they are selective when it comes to other forms of discrimination like discrimination  against LGBTQ, discrimination against women rights...etc. they support many forms of bigotry and then whine when they are the victims! Hope to hear Qazi's opinion on such issues 

JGlanton
JGlanton topcommenter

Just another legal jihadi trying to bend America to Allah's will using faux victimhood.

MaherSawaf
MaherSawaf

Question: why do Muslims feel exaggerated jubilation when they erect new Mosque? 

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

i would not, could not, in the rain. not in the dark. not on a train. not in a car. not in a tree. i do not like them... you see. not in a house. not in a box. not with a mouse. not with a fox. i will not eat them here or there. I DO NOT LIKE THEM ANYWHERE!

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

not on a train! not in a tree! not in a car! DAMN! let me be!

Darleen Castro
Darleen Castro

You would not could not in the rain? In the dark? On a train?

Ryan Schlitz
Ryan Schlitz

What about while wearing a fine silk blouse?

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

not in a box. not with a fox. not in a house. not with a mouse.

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere.

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

It's only when ppl start shoving waffles down my throat.. without syrup.. and telling me not to eat breakfast burritos that I even consider griddled breakfast food in the first place. At least the crepe guys stick to themselves and the pancake guys don't think I deserve pancakes unless my mom made them.

Drü Barrios
Drü Barrios

But I understand your sentiment. I don't like griddled breakfast food at all. Waffles, pancakes.. syrup, no syrup.. whatever. I don't even really understand crepes, but eat those if that's your thing. I'll probably just stick to a breakfast burrito with a caffeinated beverage and be done with it all.

Ryan Schlitz
Ryan Schlitz

I like waffles a lot. Like I mean a lot, lot. I think they are far superior to pancakes. I could list the reason's why, but I don't feel I need to explain myself to anyone. Also unlike pancakes, they don't require syrup to be good. They are delicious all on their own.

OC Weekly
OC Weekly

Hanse: The OC Register called—they want their wackjob reader back!

Lon Hall
Lon Hall

I am a devout Christian and doing anything but loving muslims is against the command of my God. Every human being is a special creation of God and to devalue any one of them is to devalue their Creator.

Felipe de Pierola
Felipe de Pierola

it is precisely because of comments like the earliest ones posted that muslims in the united states are so persecuted from practicing their religion by constructing mosques, reciting koran scripture, or dressing in traditional garments. this discrimination is shameful, wrong, and reminiscent of sorrier times in our nation's history

tarekshawky
tarekshawky

Great article about one of our most amazing, and most humble local heros! So proud of you Ameena!  

shazia17
shazia17

Thank you so much to OC Weekly for writing this inspirational story.  And thank you to Ameena Qazi and the entire team at CAIR for speaking up for the civil rights of those whose voices would otherwise not be heard. 

smcafeaulait
smcafeaulait

@MaherSawaf  such an unfair statement!  I am a proud muslim woman.  I have lived half my life in the mideast and half my life in the U.S.  Many of my closest friends are gay or lesbian.  

I find your basis extremely interesting considering most religions, including Christianity and Judaism discriminate against LGBTQ.    Isn't the US now in a Marriage equality turmoil.  I am ok with you debating but please debate with valid points.  Thank you....

JGlanton
JGlanton topcommenter

Remember when Qazi worked so hard to force Disney to let their greeter wear a hijab on the job, in violation of Disney's 50-year dress code and branded theme?  Yeah, the one who is "chipping away at who we are" is Qazi, not the other way around.

JGlanton
JGlanton topcommenter

@MaherSawaf  I'll bite. That's an easy one. According to Muslim scriptures, a land that has a mosque built on it becomes Muslim land and must forever remain a mosque. And thanks to the efforts of Ameena and other CAIR members like her, free from the prying eyes of western law enforcement. Forever. That's cause for great rejoicement.

MaherSawaf
MaherSawaf

@smcafeaulait @MaherSawaf Exactly.. Muslim and Christian conservatives are Identical. Unfortunately I had to deal with them both in very unpleasant experiences. they probably different the way they dress and talk but both share the same bigotry.....during my stay in the US i was amazed after I saw  how detached is the Islamic community from the rest of the US and how it is torn apart by so many illnesses and yet seems that Muslims have nothing else to care about but building new mosques!!  as if all their other issues have been resolved    ... about the MidEast being a haven for LGBTQ I think you are joking right?

 
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