Rana Abdelhamid fosters self-defense instruction among MENA women

Plus, the former congressional candidate would be open to running for office again.

As the founder and executive director of Malikah, Rana Abdelhamid has been focused on countering hate-based violence.

As the founder and executive director of Malikah, Rana Abdelhamid has been focused on countering hate-based violence. Sandy Ismail

Rana Abdelhamid is a Muslim community organizer in western Queens and the founder of the women’s self-defense organization Malikah. In 2022, she challenged then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the Democratic primary for the 12th Congressional District, but she dropped out of the race after the redistricting process led to her residence being moved to a different district. City & State caught up with her to talk about the history of the MENA community in New York City, the racism and Islamophobia faced by Muslim women and whether she’s considering another run for office. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where is the MENA community centered in New York City?

I grew up in this neighborhood here in Queens, and it’s nicknamed “Little Egypt.” Now with more North African immigrants who have come here, people also refer to it as “Little North Africa.” There's also “Little Yemen” in the Bronx. And there’s also a congregation of mostly Middle Eastern people that are in South Brooklyn in the Bay Ridge area. Increasingly, there have been more Middle Eastern people in Staten Island as well. That has spilled over from the Bay Ridge area.

How have MENA communities in the city developed over the past 20 years?

We actually did a whole project on this, and there’s an exhibit open right now at the MoMA PS1 specifically about my neighborhood here in Queens, and the history of how we’ve grown and our small businesses, and the impact of NYPD surveillance and violence.

I remember my dad literally started a halal meat shop because there was no halal meat in New York. It’s kind of a wild thing to think about because now there’s like halal food on almost every corner. They worked really hard with nothing as a poor, working-class immigrant community to build mosques and build cultural institutions and build a newspaper and build small businesses and street carts. And they did that really with an appetite to preserve cultural heritage and tradition for the new generation. A lot of our elders we interviewed (for the MoMA PS1 exhibit) talked a lot about that.

Of course, they also talked about the realities of hate-based violence that they experienced. You know, my mom was a travel agent right after 9/11, and a group of people vandalized the store she was working in. She was so afraid to leave the store that day. People were throwing rocks at that store because the sign was in Arabic off of Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. I myself am a survivor of a hate-based attack. I’ve definitely experienced that kind of violence. And also the surveillance of the NYPD really haunted the community and created a sense of fear and stigmatization around the community. Yet we still were able to cultivate and build our businesses and build our presence and build our mosques.

You founded the organization Malikah to teach women self-defense. Are you focused specifically on teaching Muslim women who might be targeted by hate-based violence?

Absolutely. We do have a focus on serving and working with North African and Muslim women. And also, unfortunately, we have to partner with a lot of different institutions, because there’s a lot of hate-based violence impacting many different communities right now. So we work a lot with the Jewish community. We work a lot with the Asian American community. We work a lot with folks who are trying to be allies and positive bystanders. The reality is violence extends to different communities so we also do that kind of programming as well.

How has the MENA community asserted its political and electoral power?

I mean, we unfortunately don’t have that much representation electorally, and that’s something that part of my campaign really tried to change. I believe I was the first North African person to run for a seat of that caliber. When I ran for office, the race meant a lot for my community. People were very, very excited to see that kind of representation. A lot of people got involved electorally, where they had not been involved before. I know we do have a Middle Eastern person at the Assembly. But we have very, very little representation, if not none, at the city level or at the federal level here. We have a lot of work to do.

Why did you decide to run for Congress against then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and what led you to end your campaign?

I decided to run for office really at the end of the pandemic when I saw the ways in which my community was devastated by an unequal health care system, by an unequal food security system and by the housing system, and how so many small businesses in our community were being impacted. I didn’t see anyone being a voice for my neighborhood or my community – a community that’s been here for close to four decades now and that doesn’t have representation. So much of my race was about me being a North African person, about me being a child of Egyptian immigrants, being a Muslim woman, and seeing the erasure of my community on a political level in New York City, at almost every single level.

I ran on a platform that was rooted in my neighborhood. I launched my race in my neighborhood. Our base was filled with volunteers who were immigrants, who are working class, who came from ethnic minoritized backgrounds – and I was cut out of that neighborhood politically! The way the district maps were redrawn would have forced me to move to a different district or run against someone (Rep. Nydia Velázquez) whose values I was aligned with already.

You criticized Maloney for wearing a burqa in Congress while advocating for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Can you talk more about the stereotype of Muslim women as inherently oppressed and how Malikah is working to combat that?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the community saw the ways in which this narrative around a feminist approach to foreign policy – that weaponized feminism to perpetuate violence and war – actually harmed so many Muslim women across the globe and Muslim women in New York City. I have a deep relationship with women who were incarcerated by New York because they were accused of terrorist activity. At the same time, there was this other story that saw Muslim women as oppressed.

For us, part of that work is recognizing that this narrative does exist, while also holding that of course patriarchy exists in our community, just like it exists in any community. We are also addressing hate-based violence and racialized violence against against Muslim women that presents itself as anti-Muslim violence. It’s this very hard place to be in where you want to be able to do feminist work and you are doing work against gender-based violence, but also recognizing, unfortunately, that the state and the global war on terror weaponized that narrative to continue to harm Muslim women. I think the subject of that was misinformed, and the subject of that poorly painted a picture of our culture and traditions and our identities in a way that didn’t help us.

Would you ever consider running for office again?

The challenges that inspired me to run initially – housing insecurity, food insecurity, lack of representation for my community – are all issues that still exist and are issues that I am literally organizing around every single day still. And for me, it’s about what are the tools that are present for me to be able to create change for working-class people in New York City, in a city that I deeply love? So if the opportunity presents itself where it means that we have more access to power, then I would definitely be open to running for office again.

Are you like the Muslim AOC?

(Laughs.) That is so funny. I would say that I am my own person, although I do really admire my current representative and really value the politics that she advocates for.