By Gustavo Arellan, OC Weekly
Ameena Qazi was in her first year of law school at Wayne State University in Detroit when a professor gave the female students fashion advice that amused her.
"She was telling us how to dress when we argue cases in front of a judge," says the Fullerton resident, who's the deputy executive director and lead attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations' (CAIR) Los Angeles chapter (which, contrary to its name, is based in Anaheim).
"'They like to see pencil skirts and form-fitting blouses,' she's telling us women. And I remember thinking, 'No. I'm going to wear my trousers; I'm going to wear my headscarf. Judges should value us for who we are--and we are darn good lawyers.'"
Qazi has lived life loving to be underestimated. The daughter of a Pakistani immigrant and Wisconsin native of German-Scotch-Irish descent who converted to Islam, she's naturally unassuming and soft-spoken, and she looks far younger than her 31 years. "I'm a young woman who wears a headscarf. It's hard to get people to see what you offer," she admits. But beneath that soft demeanor lies a lawyer who has been at the forefront of civil rights in Southern California the past couple of years, especially when defending Muslims.
In her five years at CAIR, Qazi and her staff have done everything from run civil-liberties workshops to sue on behalf of a woman who claimed discrimination at Disneyland to going after the federal government over its role in the Craig Monteilh mosque-spy case.
"Some people say we're hyper-reactive, but we actually try to perform triage before anything else," Qazi says. "People will call me and say, 'Sister Ameena, this happened to me.' They don't want to make a big deal. But that's disempowering--we should speak up. Even if we lose a case, it's not necessarily bad. No matter what the case, if it's something wrong, we take that stand in favor of the good. That is the victory." (Read more)