Zainab Chaudary

After spending three years living and studying in Europe, this Jersey girl had an epiphany: that instead of belonging nowhere, I, in fact, belonged everywhere.


Who are you?

When I was younger, I used to think I belonged nowhere. I was raised very Pakistani, with a keen sense of my culture, language, and religion. But I was also raised very American, with friends who valued, creativity, open-mindedness, and passion.

After spending three years living and studying in Europe, this Jersey girl had an epiphany: that instead of belonging nowhere, I, in fact, belonged everywhere.

Writing is the language of my soul, though I also speak Urdu, German, and French. My day job is in politics, working for a Member of Congress and fighting for civil liberties behind the scenes. By night, I am The Memorist: writer, thinker, geek, polymath. I’m also a freelance blogger, writing a monthly column, “The Geekologist,” for Love, Inshallah, and am an occasional contributor to Altmuslimah. I’m also the Communications Director for the Council on the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP), and I’m working on my Master’s part time.

I function best when juggling multiple plates. Preferably, plates filled with biryani.

Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:

It’s so hard to choose, but I’m going to cheat and pick two:

“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
― e.e. Cummings

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.”
― Dorothy Parker

I hold these two principles very close to my heart, and they color much of my writing: always be authentic, and never stop being curious. e.e. cummings was the first poet I loved, because he was subversive and his poetry was beautiful and very much impressionistic. It is not accessible to everyone, because he throws rules like grammar and punctuation to the wind. But we who love his work step back from the words a little and try to feel them instead of read them, and just like an Impressionist painting, the disparate parts make up a picture. Dorothy Parker I love because of her sharp wit and her acerbic, wry, and somewhat heartbreaking observations on life and love.

Islamic Perspective:

What Ayahs of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
My favorite Ayah is from Surah Baqarah (2:143)
“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you. And it is only to the end that We might make a clear distinction between those who follow the Apostle and those who turn about on their heels that We have appointed [for this community] the direction of prayer which thou [O Prophet] hast formerly observed: for this was indeed a hard test for all but those whom God has guided aright. But God will surely not lose sight of your faith – for, behold, God is most compassionate towards man, a dispenser of grace.”

I feel that the essence of Islam for me is distilled in these words. As someone who has lived her life right in the middle – east and west, practical and passionate, logical and creative – I wish more people understood the importance of maintaining themselves against the polarizing magnets of extremism on both sides (ultra conservative and ultra liberal).

What Hadith do you wish more non-Muslims knew?
My favorite Hadith is a combination of two that I’ve often heard: one is of a prostitute who, seeing a dog dying of thirst, removes her shoe and fills it with water from a nearby well so as to quench the dog’s thirst. Through this action, the prostitute is given a place in Heaven. The other is the story of a pious woman who mistreats her cat, and because of this cruelty, is given a place in Hell. The combination of these two Hadiths relays the importance of never being judgmental of others and of treating all creatures and human beings – great and small, rich or poor – with kindness and mercy. Allah is the final judge of a person’s action, and we have no knowledge of the complexity or hidden qualities of the people around us.

The “Ten”:

1. What is your favorite book?
“Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. I can pick this book up anytime and be reminded vividly of childhood, innocence, and that one summer that propels us deliciously into adulthood. His use of language and nostalgia is exquisite.

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
My parents inspire me with the love they give unconditionally, and with the sacrifices they’ve made for us over time. They teach me to give and never stop giving to the ones I love. My brothers inspire me: the one I lost for his effervescent kindness, and the one who still lives for his tenacity and maturity. Anyone who encourages my writing inspires me by giving me courage.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
My mother taught me the importance of being flexible, adaptable, and learning to compromise. She inspired my love of reading and encourages my intellectual curiosity. These things not only make me strong, but have taught me how to be strategic. She is what makes me powerful.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
You’re confused right now because you know who you are, but the people around you aren’t quite there yet. Be patient and don’t let it confuse you; they’ll catch up eventually.

5. What are your hopes for your daughter and son?
If I have children, I’d want them to be courageous, adventurous, brave, and constantly curious. There are kids who have had unique experiences through “hack-schooling” – a new form of homeschooling that I think builds those characteristics in children and allows them to not be afraid of their own intelligence and their own capabilities. Watch Logan LaPlante’s TEDx talk and be inspired.

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
Losing my younger brother to an unexplained illness when he was just 15. As much as grief has affected and colored my life, it has also shaped my inner strength. If you can survive something like that and still manage to find joy in life, you realize you have grit that you might never have known existed.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
I think whatever happens in life – both good or bad – happens for reasons that we may not perceive immediately. So I try not to have any regrets. I do wish I had not lost track of my dream of writing, but have found it again in life. And because I lost it for a while, it holds greater value to me now. The regret holds its own value.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
Working towards meaningful change and always keeping the greater collective good in mind has been what keeps me going. I’ve realized that I attain satisfaction not through monetary or material success, but through working on projects that have meaning and make an impact. I try to keep that always as my goal, and because of it, I never mind working behind the scenes or not getting credit for something I’ve done. It keeps me humble and satisfied.

9. How do you bring about real change?
I try to introduce unique ideas or ways of doing things in order to make people think differently. If I can shake up just one person’s thought process, I’ve successfully planted a tree that may one day yield a forest.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
My writing and my words. And hopefully that Pultizer I’d like to win one day 😉 (InshAllah!)

Video Message from Zainab:


More About Zainab:

Sabina Khan-Ibarra is the founder of Muslimah Montage, a platform for women to share their own stories. Muslimah Montage’s profiles are now a part of altM. She is a writer, activist, women’s rights advocate and active member of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.


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