Activist Linda Sarsour, 38, was co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March and is a board member of the Women’s March national organization.
How did you get involved in the Women’s March?
I was one of those women that commented on the first Facebook page that was all white women and that had written a description: “We stand with black women.” I didn’t see in the description Muslim women. And I felt like: Really? We just came out of an election where this president made Muslims the cornerstone of his smear campaign. So I wrote, “This looks like a great endeavor. It would be great if you included Muslim women.” All of a sudden, my comment goes viral. The next day, Tamika [Mallory] calls me and says, “Listen, we’re bringing you into this so you can make sure that your people are represented.” I was like, “I don’t have it in me, people” — I was so depleted after the election. And they were, like, “Look, Linda, if you’re not at the table, what other Muslim lady, Muslim organizer are we going to find?”
Being a Muslim American activist, I’ve been targeted by the right wing in a way that is very dangerous. I’ve tried to shelter my kids. One day my daughter asked, “Mom, you think that you’ll get shot?” I was, like, Whoa. Of course, I’m like, “Nope. That’ll never happen in America.” But there’s a lot of risk.
Does it ever make you rethink what you’re doing?
I’ve reflected on that question many times. But I always think to myself: What if I didn’t do this work anymore? It would send a message to people in my community that it’s not safe. That I have come to terms with the fact that we’re just never going to be wholly free. That this country’s just never going to accept us for who we are. And I don’t want to send that message. I haven’t given up on my country. I believe in the potential. I believe in the Constitution. I believe that this is the land of religious freedom and that that applies to Muslims. And if I have to make it apply to Muslims with the work that I do, I’m going to do that. And it’s going to require that my family and I have these hard conversations.
In addition to right-wing attacks, you’ve also gotten criticism from the left, with people charging that you’ve said there’s no room for Zionists in the women’s movement. ...
That was actually a headline of a piece in the Nation. This is what the media does because it’s clickbait. I remember a rabbi friend of mine calls me up, like, “Linda, I can’t keep defending you.” I was, like, “What are you talking about?” She said, “There’s this thing in a Listserv I’m on, about Zionism and you can’t be feminist.” I was like, “Did you read the actual piece? It’s not my quote.” What I did say, and do stand by, is if you are a woman who claims that you are a feminist, but you don’t support access to health care for women in Palestine or access to the same opportunities we have — because that was the context of the question I was asked — then you’re not a feminist.
Bringing together 50 women from different issue areas and trying to reconcile differences among those different issue areas to support policies that we can build consensus around is not easy. We don’t always agree on everything. Unity is not uniformity.
... and criticizing you and Tamika Mallory for not denouncing Louis Farrakhan.
KK, the crazy part about the Farrakhan thing is I never met the Minister Farrakhan, never been in a physical space with the Minister Farrakhan, never breathed the same air. The reason I got called into the controversy is being part of an intersectional movement that tries to have nuance on these complicated conversations. The call was for Tamika to denounce the Minister Farrakhan. And then the call was for all of us to denounce the Minister Farrakhan. I don't denounce people, KK. I never even denounced Trump. Because we are all trained in Kingian nonviolence. And what we've been taught is that you attack the forces of evil, not the people doing the evil.
We came out and said we unequivocally reject anti-Semitism. We reject homophobia and all that good stuff. But for some people, anything short of a denunciation was not going to be enough. We have updated our unity principles to explicitly include Jewish women, we have a steering committee of about 20 women, three of whom are Jewish women, and a program that includes Jewish women. And it's been because of the relationships and the dialogue that we have that is not public. But the media likes conflict; there isn't the same commitment to telling the resolution of the conflict.
I am also a flawed leader. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to say things I may not understand have hurtful impact on people. I always call people to call me in, to educate me. And to love me enough and to see my contributions in a way that, when I become better, our country becomes better. I can call other people in and say, “I just learned something new. Want to learn with me?”