It was 4 a.m. on the day of the Women’s March that Linda Sarsour and her national co-chairs realized how big the event they had spent 20 hours a day planning for two months might actually be.
Six hours before it was set to begin, in the cold, pre-dawn hours, a crowd of protesters more than a city block deep had already assembled in front of the stage in Washington and a “steady stream” of people was arriving.
“It was the most remarkable thing I have ever seen,” Sarsour said.
The Women’s March put Sarsour, one of the highest-profile Muslim American activists in the country after climbing the ranks of New York City politics, squarely on the national stage.
Despite a barrage of hateful messages and violent threats targeting her on social media since, Sarsour has continued a punishing schedule of activism as she has sought to bring her heightened profile, and a new sense of what is possible, to a range of resistance movements that are developing in the first weeks of President Trump’s administration.
Within 24 hours of returning to New York after the Women’s March, Sarsour was meeting with organizers for the People’s Climate Movement march, scheduled for April, she said.
And since Trump issued an executive order halting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, Sarsour’s activism has been highly visible: She joined protesters at the Los Angeles airport days after the ban was announced, marched with Yemeni businessmen across New York last week and emceed a major rally in Manhattan’s Battery Park to oppose the ban.
She also became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations against the Trump administration. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Jan. 30, is one of dozens challenging the ban. A federal judge in Seattle imposed a temporary stay on the ban Friday that was still in effect Tuesday, when a hearing was scheduled to take place before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The CAIR suit, Sarsour v. Trump , says that the president’s executive order is “overtly” discriminatory and “officially broadcasts a message that the federal government disfavors the religion of Islam.”
It lists more than 25 plaintiffs, including a dozen foreign nationals who are unnamed, many of them students or religious leaders directly affected by the ban, separated from spouses or family members abroad or unable to obtain U.S. citizenship under the terms of the order.
Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, said it took courage for Sarsour to become the face of a high-profile lawsuit challenging the Trump administration.
“We are living in a new era of civil rights advocacy,” he said. “It takes leaders on the front lines who are willing to be there, to take the pressure, to take the hate along with the spotlight, to make a difference.”
Sarsour’s role as a co-chair of the Women’s March brought with it an onslaught of personal attacks through social media and conservative news outlets. Her critics have attempted to tie her to terrorist groups, called her anti-Semitic and accused her of infiltrating the liberal movement.
“My response to the right-wing trolls and the media outlets: I am not going to be silenced,” Sarsour, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, said in a phone interview. “I am going to continue this work I have done for 16 years.”
She called on her “fellow Americans” to be “more-critical thinkers.”
Many of her accusers say she is an advocate of sharia, or Islamic law.
“That sounds scary to people,” she said. But she said she does not think sharia law should supplant American laws, as some suggest.
She, like many other U.S. Muslims, regard sharia as a guide for their private religious practice, she said. “I don’t eat pork,” she said. “I don’t drink alcohol. I pray five times a day.”
She said efforts to make these private worship rules seem more insidious are attempts to “criminalize” Muslims for following the tenets of their faith.
Last week, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born American author and critic of Islam, appeared on Fox News and called Sarsour a “fake feminist” and questioned her defense of sharia law.
“There’s no principle that demeans, degrades and dehumanizes women more than the principle of sharia law,” she said.
Her comments were made in response to a 2011 tweet from Sarsour that resurfaced and was circulating on social media. In it, Sarsour compared Hirsi Ali to Brigitte Gabriel, the leader of Act for America, an anti-terrorism lobbying group. “Brigitte Gabriel = Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away — they don’t deserve to be women.”
Sarsour called it a “stupid tweet” and said she has no memory of writing it but said she could have. “I am a brash New Yorker,” she said. “I’m not going to defend it.”
She has debated both women on radio or television, and she called them “notorious Islamophobes who are working for the right wing.”
At the essence of their conflict, she said, is the idea purported by both women that the Muslim faith is inherently misogynistic.
“There are Muslims and regimes that oppress women, but I believe that my religion is an empowering religion,” Sarsour said. “I wear hijab by choice.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated Act for America a hate group.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization, said Sarsour has been vilified by many groups that claim radical Islamists are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government at every level. The same groups have targeted Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, and Muslims in many leadership positions, Potok said. They have been emboldened by the Trump administration, and are benefiting from the “massive confusion” between what is real and not real in the news, he said.
“If you want to believe all law enforcement agencies are infiltrated by radical Islamists or that Obama was secretly a Muslim or that there’s a plot to impose sharia law in American courts, there are plenty of quote-unquote news sites that will tell you it’s so,” he said.
Of late, Sarsour said, two of her sisters have taken turns monitoring her social-media feeds throughout the day and deleting threatening and offensive posts that appear, she said.
“I don’t care if someone posts that Islam oppresses women,” Sarsour said. “But I don’t want to see anything vulgar that talks about rape or chopping people up or ISIS members. I don’t want to see blood.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.
Sarsour has received threats in the past and had a personal security detail assigned from the New York Police Department last year after someone published her home address online, she said. She no longer takes public transportation by herself.
But this year, in the days leading up to the Women’s March and since, Sarsour has also received a groundswell of public support.
An #IMarchwithLinda campaign started on social media, and support came from organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo.
Sarsour said she has also received an outpouring of support from the Muslim community, including one group that raised $3,900 through an online crowdfunding platform so she could take a vacation, something she said she has not done since 2010. She may take one now, she said, and invite some other organizers who work long hours and can’t afford a trip.
Many express gratitude for her leadership during a time when anti-Muslim sentiment has been surging. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor at University of Wisconsin Law School who studies Islamic law and has followed Sarsour’s career, said she was proud to see a Muslim woman at the helm of a movement representing a wide swath of American society.
Sarsour defies stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed, she said.
“She’s strong, articulate, a mom — everything that every other woman was at that march,” Quraishi-Landes said.
Sarsour, 36, grew up in Brooklyn the oldest of seven children. Her Palestinian parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Her father owned a corner store.
Sarsour went to a predominantly African American high school, an experience that informed her political agenda later on, she said. At 17, she entered an arranged marriage.
When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, she was a young mother enrolled at Kingsborough Community College, with plans to become a high school English teacher.
The impact of the subsequent investigations and counterterrorism efforts were swift and profound in the Muslim neighborhood where she grew up.
“I saw coffee shops being raided and different men being taken by law enforcement,” she said.
She started volunteering as an English translator helping Arabic-speaking families get legal services.
She continued down the career path of connecting immigrant and refugee families with services — and speaking up for their rights. At 25, she became the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, where she still works.
She has focused advocacy on civil rights abuses and criminal justice issues, calling for an end to unwarranted surveillance of Muslims in New York and the police policy of stop-and-frisk, which enabled police to search people for vague reasons.
She was also part of a coalition that succeeded in getting two Muslim holidays added to the New York City public school calendar.
Some Muslims have criticized Sarsour as a self-promoter. But the activist brushes aside such remarks, saying she has been proud to represent a “community who has been silenced and unheard living in a post-9/11 America.”
The Obama administration honored her with a “Champions of Change” award, and she has gained much of her publicity as an activist who also works on issues affecting other groups.
In recent years, she has become active in the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting similarities in the treatment of Muslim and black Americans by law enforcement.
She helped organize a Muslim response to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer.
Last year, she co-chaired a 250-mile march from New York to Washington to call attention to racial profiling and police brutality. She also was involved with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
As her work has brought her farther outside the boroughs of New York, she has thought about setting her sights on more national work, including a possible bid for Congress.
In the short term, she wants to write a book and continue organizing, registering voters and helping people become more involved in government. “I want to help prove to fellow Americans that democracy works when we participate,” she said.
Her main focus now is “to be an opposition to Trump for the next four years,” she said. “That will keep me very busy.”