On the Dock
NOV 2001 - Apr 2002
Volume 7 Number 2
13 The Sisters' Struggle is Ours: America's First Muslimah Judge
Judge Zakia Mahasa's story epitomizes the barriers we have to face with the larger society and in the world. Her success story leads our focus on how all of us are a part of the sisters' struggle.
FOCUS: Committed to Excellence
12 All Grown-Up and Lovin' Dolls
13 Committed to Excellence
15 Wrap On!
16 Hip-Hop Reflections
17 News About Africa from Africans
3 Letter to the Editor
7 The Return of DC Hand Dance
21 SmartFun Gift Ideas
THE PUBLISHER’S POINT
4 The Sisters' Struggle is Ours
HISTORY/HERSTORY BLACK MEMORABILIA
5 Seven & the Divine You
A STORY FROM THE OTHER SIDE
6 We are One
8 Harlem, the Big Caramel Apple
9 Our Piece of the Rock
10 Where the Money is: Financing Your New Business
11 Cooking with Singer Gladys Knight
17 Let the Music Move You
18 Stress, Diet, and Vitamins
18 Combination Therapy from Hell: Alcohol & HIV
21 COMING UP
22 What Calls me Back
24 MAKING WAVES
Zakia Mahasa, the first Muslimah ever to be appointed to a judgeship in the American courts, never apologizes for who she is; instead, she gains respect and accumulates success after success by focusing on being outstanding at whatever she does. A powerful presence in the courtroom and a dynamic woman who knows her own mind, Mahasa has possessed a strong sense of direction and this drive to achieve since her earliest years. “When I was about four years old,” she smiles, ’’I was reading the newspaper. There’s a game, ‘Wishing Well.’ You’d count the letters in a name - - mine spelled out, ‘One day, you’ll be a lawyer or doctor.’ So I thought, I have to do really well in kindergarten so I can get into a really good first grade!’’
Mahasa’s fortunes have multiplied. With the power of that kind of determination and focus and her belief in Allah, she asserts passionately that what gives her the aplomb to pursue her interests and to be herself is her Islamic faith. "You really have to have a certainty and surety and confidence about yourself,’’ as a Muslimah, Mahasa advises. ‘’It carries me through everything I do. My way of life (as a Muslimah) is superior to anything out there. I believe Allah wanted me in this position.’’
Mahasa’s study of Islam began while she was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, where she was majoring in business management. She declared her shahadah a year later. “It was initially difficult for my mother,’’ Mahasa recalls. “I had a cousin who had a bad experience with the Nation of Islam.” But Mahasa knew her path and stuck to it, and by the time Ramadan came, only two weeks after her conversion, Mahasa says her mother ‘’had my meals ready at the end of the day!”
Mahasa’s father had more pragmatic concerns over his daughter’s conversion to Islam. Since Mahasa was headed toward law school at that time, he wondered whether there would be any place for a Muslimah in the circles of American law. Mahasa herself was not at all worried. She explains, “Islam really does free you of all that. If Allah wants it for you, nobody can take it away. I felt that as long as I looked professional and really knew what I was doing,” success would follow.
Mahasa’s father asserted that appearances are important in the legal profession, but Mahasa would not compromise her faith. “When I first became Muslim, from the very beginning, I was covered," she says. “At work I knew it was important to look professional. I dress well. I wear suits, skirts, dresses, and blazers. They’re longer, looser. I don’t wear over- garments to work, but it’s evident I’m being modest. My hair is always covered, but pulled back and out of the way. I did my research and I am convinced that I am properly covered; you can dress many ways and still be properly covered.”
Mahasa attributes much of her success directly to this refusal to betray herself or her Islamic principle in order to be accepted by or blend in with others. Of her iman, she says firmly, "I don’t wear it on my sleeve. But I don’t hide it. It’s who I am.” If you stand for what you are, even if it is different from the mainstream, Mahasa believes, others will respect you. “My being a Muslim doesn’t mean I’m standoffish or reclusive. I’m very approachable,” she says. Above all, she advises, in order to earn the respect of others, “You have to be good,” at what you do.
Mahasa excels at what she does. As Master Chancery in the Family Division of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, she presides over domestic cases, hearing anywhere from nine to thirty of them a day. These cases tend to be emotional and complicated, involving abused, neglected, and delinquent children. Mahasa unabashedly brings a healthy Islamic outlook to her work, believing that often the best way to propagate Islam is by example. In her judicial duties, she says, she approaches her decisions with care and only makes a ruling after serous thought. Mahasa makes it clear that people in her courtroom will be treated fairly: treated, in her words, “With dignity and respect.” She makes sure that those before her understand the court proceedings and the repercussions of what is taking place. “I’m very down to earth,” she says, “I have a conversation with them. It’s very important to me to see them as a person, not just a case number.” When she makes a ruling she keeps in mind that “people will know the person who made this fair decision was a Muslim. And they know Islam had something to do with it. It’s dawah.”
Fellow Master Chancery Linda Koban, who has worked with Mahasa for nearly 10 years in more than one capacity, remarks on Mahasa’s reputation in the Baltimore judicial circles. Mahasa, she says, is “very well-liked and respected. She has an extensive background in family law. She has a reputation for being very thoughtful about her decisions and caring about the people who come in front of her.” Koban recalls an incident when, as a lawyer, before either she or Mahasa were appointed to their judgeships, “I was representing a parent. She was representing a baby. A lot attorneys would have handled it differently. But she and I were sort of in it together, for what was best for the family, not willing to go along with what the state said automatically. She’s more sensitive to family preservation than most.”
Mahasa does emphasize the importance of family. When there is no family support, she observes, a child has little chance to succeed in life. Seemingly benign offenses, she explains, such as truancy or running away, can quickly escalate into other problems. Although such misdemeanors are clear warning signs, the system too often overlooks such children. Mahasa says, “The family is the crux of civilization. If the family does not work right, society isn’t going to work right, either.” Most painful for her to see, Mahasa confides, are those cases “when you’ve tried everything, and nothing’s working” for a child. “You look into their eyes, and they’ve hardened.”
Until recently, however, she felt less appreciated by her Muslim peers. Early in her career as a lawyer, she felt disheartened by the lack of confidence local Muslims had in her legal skills.
Mahasa, the mother of an adult son, works hard to keep children from getting to that point. “I’m co-chair of a committee to look at it holistically,” she reports. “We’ve gotten together police, educators, the court system,and groups who work with juveniles to see if we can come up with some kind of cohesive solution.” The year-old panel targets children in need of supervision by looking at the strength of current statutes along with community-based programs that are family-centered. Other projects Mahasa wants to tackle include providing services to address problems many families face: keeping teens focused, domestic abuse, and homelessness. “We want to determine how to make our communities better able to identify and deal with those issues,” she says. She is also currently working on resurrecting a mentoring program for junior high and high school girls.
Mahasa’s sense of responsibility for others dons not end at the United States’ border. She chairs Mercy International, an emergency relief organization based in Detroit that has satellites across the United States as well as in Kenya, Kosova, and Bosnia. Mercy International provided victims of earthquakes with much-needed food, tents, water, medicine, and clothing. The organization was recognized by President Bill Clinton for being at the vanguard of those offering emergency services in Kosovo, and it has also helped to build factories in Bosnia and Somalia, as well as a school in Kenya. Mahasa sees its mission as giving a hand up more than a handout. “Usually when there is some catastrophe we try to provide services. Our focus is to make those people self-sufficient.”
Not surprisingly, Mahasa is popular and well respected in Baltimore society. Until recently, however, she felt less appreciated by her Muslim peers. Early in her career as a lawyer, she felt disheartened by the lack of confidence local Muslims had in her legal skills. “They would overlook me and go find a non-Muslim lawyer. I don’t know what it is,” she sighs. Finally, though, in recent years, she says, “Muslim have come to recognize I have something valuable to add to the community." One of the awards Mahasa finds most meaningful, out of the many she has garnered over the course of her career, is one given to her by Muslims. “When I was elevated to this position,” she says, “a group of Muslim women gave me a dinner and a small scroll; they presented me with a beautiful Qur’an.”
Another of Mahasa’s favorite awards is a “Family Pride” award presented to her by her family upon her graduation from law school. This award recognized her hard work and her determination. Getting through law school was not easy; by the time she entered, Mahasa says, she was married, “had a child and worked full time. I would leave work at 6 p.m., and was in class by 6:30 p.m.” In spite of this schedule, she says proudly, “I had dinner cooked almost every night.” Mahasa says a combination of persistence and a good support system - - her parents - - were essential to getting through school.
After law school, Mahasa practiced criminal law and personal injury law for two years. She soon shifted to practices that allowed her to concentrate on her area of passion: the welfare of women and children. For four years, Mahasa represented abused and neglected children through a legal aid bureau. Later, at the House of Ruth, she represented victims of domestic violence and became the managing attorney of the legal clinic there. From there, she moved on to her present position as Master Chancery, where she has been for three years.
Although busy and successful, Mahasa is not all work and no play. She has enjoyed being a conscientious mother to her son, who now wants to follow in her footsteps and practice criminal law and civil litigation. “From the age of three on, I made a concerted effort to make sure my son was exposed to political activism. I really wanted him to learn how to think critically,” she says, adding laughingly, “he was to question everything. And he did - - he is the bane of my existence!” She finds time to tend her garden, (which has space reserved for her day lilies and oriental lilies) and to indulge her interest in reading such authors as her favorite, Toni Morrison. She exercises, practices yoga for her health - - and she travels. Mahasa has been to Bangkok, Singapore, Thailand, Kenya, Egypt, and the Caribbean. Closer to her heart than her other travels, she made hajj in 1999.
Even now, having achieved a position at the top of her profession and having created a personal life that is comfortable and fulfilling, Mahasa shapes plans and gives thanks to Allah for her blessings. Some of these are personal; divorced from her son’s father, she confides that she sometimes thinks about remarriage, reminding us, “I think that marriage is very important.” She also looks forward to increasing her knowledge of her religion and thinks, “I would like to go to a country and immerse myself in the study of Arabic and Islam.” Having said these things, her sense of community responsibility, concern for others, and advocacy for her faith inevitably creep back into her conversation, and Mahasa cannot resist adding, “I would also like to be involved in improving human conditions and the viability of Muslims in America. I would like to be a part of making Islam a way of life that is respected on a national level.”
Knowing her religion for herself, having a commitment to excellence in her field and, most of all, being forthright about who she is as a Muslim woman, Mahasa already sets an excellent example. And what is more important, Mahasa provides an inspiration to all men and women to set and strive towards their own goals, and to go openly and proudly into the world on their own terms.
We reprinted this article with the permission of WOW Publishing, Inc. and Azizah magazine.
Some Islamic Terms Used in This Article
Shahadah: The first of five pillars of Islam. The open declaration of faith that there is nothing worthy of worship, except God, and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Ramadan: The third pillar. The month of fasting and abstention from food, drink, and sexual relations during the sunlight hours to heighten one’s spiritual strength and awareness.
Iman: Faith and belief in Islam.
Qur’an (Koran): Muslims believe that God revealed this book to Muhammad.
Hajj: The fifth pillar. The pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) that Muslims perform, if possible, at least once in their life.
Though not used in the article, the other two pillars of Islam are: “ Zakat”- charity and “Salat”- the five daily prayers.