In a light pink hijab, Afnaan Moharram spoke softly but intensely about her dedication to activism.
Moharram, a College and Wharton sophomore, was one of about 15 PennBDS students who worked to bring the national Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions conference to Penn last weekend.
Student members of the group, which was founded last year, come from various backgrounds. Though each have become active in different ways, they all share passion for their cause and the conference they organized.
College sophomore Sarah Shihadah, co-president of Penn for Palestine, enjoyed seeing hundreds of people from around the world share their activism stories at the conference.
“Each one of them is so passionate in working with human rights in their own way and so few are actually Palestinian,” Shihadah said. “They came into it by virtue of being human rights activists.”
Road to activism
Despite her Palestinian heritage, Shihadah didn’t get involved with Palestinian activism until she returned from a trip to Palestine this summer.
The trip didn’t proceed as smoothly as she had intended. At a checkpoint at the border of Israel and Jordan, she was detained and interrogated.
“They questioned me about my family’s identity papers and said that because my family was Palestinian, they were documented in the Israeli system,” she added, referring to identity papers carried by people born in the West Bank or Gaza.
“They kept me for six hours … they said things that weren’t true about my family,” she explained.
She described the incident as “humiliating,” but even so, Shihadah found the positive.
“I was thankful for it because that is how Palestinians are treated and in solidarity I [too] want to be treated that way,” she said.
She returned to campus, joined Penn for Palestine and was elected co-president for the upcoming year.
For College freshman Sahir Doshi, it was Africa that drew him into human rights activism. Although he hails from Mumbai, his mother’s family is from Uganda. He has spent a lot of time in Uganda and considers himself “as African as [he does] Indian.”
He learned avidly about the South African movement to boycott apartheid, and from there he began to learn about Palestine.
“I began seeing the parallels,” he explained. But Doshi admitted with a chuckle that the prospect of learning the whole history of the conflict daunted him. It was music that finally became his teacher.
Doshi explained that the songs of artists like Lowkey and Immortal Technique didn’t only contain references to Palestine — some were entirely about Palestine.
“[Lowkey] has entire songs, entire albums, which are like reading history textbooks on Palestine,” said Doshi, proudly sporting a black Bob Marley t-shirt. From there he eagerly consumed Middle Eastern hip-hop.
“This is the voice that people use to communicate from there,” Doshi explained.
Some PennBDS members have been involved in advocacy before PennBDS.
College sophomore Tahreem Chaudhry created a pro-Palestinian group at her high school in Philadelphia after Operation Cast Lead — the Gaza War in 2008 and 2009.
Behind the scenes
The students of PennBDS each have their own beliefs on the ideology behind the conference.
“I think it’s totally human rights,” Chaudhry said. She always wears a hijab, the traditional Muslim headcovering, and spoke passionately about her experiences with PennBDS.
“The only reason politics becomes involved is because of the controversy around the issue,” she added.
Shihadah, whose father was born in Gaza, explained another dimension of the conference’s ideology.
“It was started by the nonviolent civil society in Palestine,” she said, adding that the BDS movement is “Palestinian grown, not Western and imposed.”
Although the BDS movement originated in Palestine, College freshman Clarissa O’Connor was drawn to BDS by the fact that citizens around the world can partake in it and create change.
“One thing I like is that they keep emphasizing … that it’s not a matter of targeting all Israeli products,” Moharram said. She realized this by joining PennBDS.
One PennBDS member said the incendiary rhetoric leading up to the conference could stem from semantics.
“We confuse words,” said Doshi. “[Saying] Jews versus Palestinians — this is wrong,” he added and banged his hand on the desk to make his point.
*Family concerns *
Many PennBDS members have withstood criticism from their families, who worry about the consequences of their activism.
“I kept it a secret from my family for a long time,” Doshi admitted, describing how his father warned him about the dangers of being put on “a list” by the US government and ruining his job prospects. Eventually, Doshi told his parents that he was involved in Penn for Palestine — not PennBDS.
“My [dad has] had to fight really hard to make it, and I think he did that by playing by the rules,” Shihadah mused. “I think when he saw the controversy broiling around [the conference] he was nervous.”
Although Shihadah’s father initially hesitated, both of her parents came to the entire conference.
“I guess I understand [my parents’] concern,” Chaudhry said. Her parents, like Doshi’s, worry that she’ll end up being watched by the government. But she still continues with advocacy and only tells them what she feels they need to know.
Despite their families’ concerns, the students of PennBDS remained devoted to their cause.
“I want to do something that’s going to help people being oppressed, and I need to start doing it in college if I’m going to do it,” Doshi said.
These students plan to continue their case throughout college and beyond.
“Whatever I do with my life, I want to pursue it in the cause of justice,” Shihadah said. “It wasn’t Palestine first, it was justice in general.”
She added, smiling, that she was “never happier than when [she] was in the Middle East” and hopes to go back.
O’Connor also sees herself in the Middle East one day. “I want to go there and be a part of it.”
Chaudhry talked about her sympathy for causes like the Occupy movement and problems in Pakistan, where her family hails from.
“Hopefully the [Israeli-Palestinian] issue won’t have to continue my whole life. Hopefully it will be resolved,” she said.
Doshi plans to integrate music and activism throughout his life.
“We all have our own talents. I rap,” he said. “You can waste it … or you can use it for a long term good.”
Moharram has a road to future peace on her mind.
“It’s not us versus them,” Moharram said. “There’s so much more that brings us together than divides us.”
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