Photography by Laura Segall

No Hijab Required

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: People Issue: January 2018
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In a swift two years, activist Shayna Stevens converted to Islam and rose to prominence in the Council on American-Islamic Relations Arizona. Is it tokenism, or something more?

The four-member board of directors of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Arizona (CAIR-AZ) includes two civil rights attorneys and one neurosurgeon – two Muslim, one Sikh. Rounding out the quartet is Shayna Stevens, a liberal, feminist, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights, tattooed, 25-year-old education activist whose milky complexion and sapphire eyes make her look like a Gilmore girl.

Well, if the Gilmore Girls went to the mosque. Two years ago, Stevens added another qualifier to her identity: Muslim. Given her politics, it’s surprising she chose a traditional organized religion like Islam; for the same reason, it’s surprising she’s settling so well into the local Muslim community and CAIR-AZ, an advocacy and civil rights organization.

“We have great leadership, but we also need to ensure that we bring on board someone who will also have the civic engagement piece,” CAIR-AZ operations coordinator Yolanda Medina says. Stevens, who is executive director of the Arizona Students’ Association and has years of community organizing experience, was a natural fit. “We need more representation of Muslim women,” Medina says.

Stevens’ journey to Islam was a difficult one. The youngest of six children, she was raised below the poverty line by a single mother and had a transient childhood in Maricopa County. Stevens’ father took the kids after her mother descended into “self-medication.”

In fourth grade, she had a new home and, soon after, a new religion. While her mother’s home had been nonreligious, her father got involved with a nondenominational Christian church and brought the family into the evangelical fold. Initially Stevens loved church, which provided her with her first stable community. But soon the “religion of love” that welcomed her became a tool of oppression, she says. She and her siblings were forced to attend church four times a week. As punishment for misbehavior – like the time her dad caught her reading Harry Potter and ripped the book to shreds – they were instructed to “knock doors,” aka proselytize.

Stevens at a rally to support the DREAM Act on August 31, 2017, in Downtown Phoenix; Photography by Laura Segall
Stevens at a rally to support the DREAM Act on August 31, 2017, in Downtown Phoenix; Photography by Laura Segall

“I would, like, sit on the corner of a neighborhood and just cry because I didn’t want to do it,” Stevens says. “I’m going door to door and telling all of these people about God... In my heart, it was being removed from me.”

While studying education at Northern Arizona University in 2011, she found a new religion: activism. After an inspiring Arizona Students’ Association speech, she decided to get involved. “That was really the first spark for me – seeing that these other people before me had done so much work to make it possible for me to be where I was,” Stevens says. Using the canvassing skills she acquired as a reluctant evangelist, she organized voter registration drives and a campaign to end sexual violence. She was appointed executive director of ASA upon graduation.

Around the same time, “I started dating a man who happens to be Muslim,” Stevens says. “I had in my mind that I’m not going to get in a serious relationship until I have a degree… But you plan, and Allah plans, and Allah is the best planner. That’s what the Qur’an says.” Stevens was drawn to Moroccan immigrant Hamza El Anfassi’s activism bona fides. “He’s been a part of the Arab Spring,” she says. “He was there for the Egyptian revolution at some point.”

El Anfassi never asked her to convert. He showed her a verse in the Qur’an that said they could get married without her
conversion. However, after their first Ramadan together, he told her if they had children, he’d want to raise them in Islam. “My first reaction was, ‘I don’t care.’ Because I didn’t have this connection to religion anymore.” She started researching and, after several months of reading, watching religious debates online and talking to imams (Islamic scholars and religious leaders), she decided that not only could her future progeny be Muslim, but that she wanted to convert – or “revert,” as Muslims say – herself.

“For me, the beauty in Islam really came from the way that women are portrayed in the history of Islam in the Qur’an,” she says, referencing a hadith (teaching from the prophet Muhammad) that emphasizes the importance of mothers.

She acknowledges that the way Islam is practiced around the world, particularly in theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, is in many cases extremely oppressive. It’s a case of humans corrupting divine intent, she says. “When I talk about being a Muslim and being a feminist, I’m not looking at what Saudi Arabia has done to my religion. I’m looking at what the prophet did with my religion, the way that he uplifted women, and the way that he put women in leadership positions.”

Stevens was moved to tears when she first heard a recording of the Qur’an. “I felt God,” she says. She said the shahada, a testimony of faith, and joined the roughly 23 percent of American Muslims who identify as converts, according to Pew Research.

Stevens’ family stopped speaking to her after her conversion, save for a sister who frets that she will go to hell and implores her to reread the Bible, and her mom, who is in a better place. Her friends were shocked.

“I was like, ‘Are you sure that this is you that is converting? You’re not doing this because you’re dating Hamza?’” says César Aguilar, a friend from NAU. “We had a deep discussion about it.” Aguilar was concerned about the hijab, a head covering worn by many Muslimas for modesty. Stevens doesn’t wear it, save for visits to the mosque and prayers. “I’ve never felt like if I don’t wear the hijab, I’m going to hell,” she says. “I’m very privileged in the way that I can look at my religion and choose how I interpret it.”

Medina says Stevens is a key part of CAIR-AZ’s plans – inclusivity and evolution of what it means to be a Muslim in America – and dismisses the notion that she’s a token Caucasian. “We should be happy that there is somebody different from us who is willing to speak up for us. She recognizes her white privilege,” Medina says. “Sometimes we need people like that in our organization. If somebody is being attacked, we want somebody to represent us from different backgrounds. Not just brown, not just black… so people can listen to us and hear our stories.”

It will be interesting to see where Stevens’ story goes next.

Four in 10 Muslim-american adults are white*

Source, Pew Research Center 2017

*However, immigrants from the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region and Iran do not have an explicit option to identify as Arab, Persian, Kurdish, etc., or to identify with a particular place of origin in place of a racial category. In the census, respondents who specify a country or region of origin in MENA instead of a specific racial category generally are counted as white; historically, the U.S. government has classified people as white if they have “origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.”

Note: Results repercentaged to exclude nonresponse. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding White, black, Asian and other races include only those who are not Hispanic; Hispanics are of any race.
Source, Pew Research Center 2017