The Beauty and Tragedy of Being a Black Muslim Woman in COVID-19 – Sagirah Shahid

By: Lolla Nur, Freelance Community Journalist

“Being from a low income family and a black person and Muslim woman, there’s already a lot of things systemically that mess with you emotionally,” Sagirah Shahid said over the phone, in a matter-of-fact tone, casually listing off the hardships she has had to experience in recent weeks, months, and years. 

Truthfully, the last two years have not been so kind to Shahid, a Minneapolis poet and community member. In that time, her grandmother passed away and she has ridden through waves of financial difficulty, being an underemployed artist and writer. And in recent months, a loved one went missing — all extremely traumatic experiences. 

When news of the pandemic hit Minnesota, Shahid, who lives alone, experienced a myriad of emotions including “extreme panic” and fear of losing loved ones. But she reminded herself of her resilience, despite the emotional triggers COVID-19 began to bring up. 

“We [the African American and Muslim community] already have historic traumas and systemic racism stacked up, and my whole life having to just work through the trauma has given me an advantage,” Shahid said. “I’ve been prepared for this moment, ironically.”

Coping with a Pandemic

Two years ago, Shahid was able to partake in her grandmother’s janaza — the pre-burial process of washing, clothing and perfuming the body of a Muslim who has died. While a crucial rite of passage for Muslims, those who die during the pandemic will not be buried with Islamic burial rights, due to physical distancing measures. 

Shahid expressed that the janaza process was spiritual for her, and that being able to partake in the ritual offered her closure in grieving her grandma’s death. 

“I feel sorry that other folks won’t be able to have access to that closure,” Shahid said.

When the lockdown began in mid-March, the first thing Shahid thought about was her family and loved ones, as well as low-income people in her community and those with chronic illness. She began calling and checking in on relatives, making sure loved ones had access to supplies and were informed about the specifics of quarantine measures.

“[I have] family [members] who have asthma,” she said. “I worried about my cousins, if they’ll be able to get food for their babies. I kept [asking myself] ‘Will people in my family be ok?!’”

And yet, oddly, Shahid’s moments of panic in the last month-and-a-half have led her down a familiar path. 

“When I went to the grocery store, it hit me that I already know which things are the most popular during a crisis and what will run out fast,” she said with a hint of surprise in her voice. “I knew things like how cabbage has a lot of Vitamin C, and what foods have a long shelf life, what kinds of herbal remedies and mixtures to make. I knew all of this because of my grandma,  because she tended to natural healing; I didn’t know I had this wisdom.” 

The Artist Struggle

Shahid also began to feel anxious about how she’d make money as an under-employed artist and writer living by herself during the initial stages of the state-wide quarantine.

“I thought about my income. My art practice — doing workshops, teaching and performances. All those things were put on pause,” Shahid said. 

Nearly a month-and-a-half ago (as of this publication), Shahid started working for Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE) — a nonprofit that uses storytelling and civic engagement to empower Muslim women’s voices. The job opportunity came right on time for her, ironically coinciding with Governor Walz’ lockdown announcement. 

She acknowledges that having a near-part-time job has offered her more financial stability than in previous months, and that this is a form of privilege. Still, Shahid’s anxieties haven’t disappeared — especially as an artist.  

“As a practicing artist I am still in the low-income bracket,” she said. “And that’s just the artist struggle.”

Using Art to Create Digital Social Connections 

Another aspect of Shahid’s wisdom was to reach through her connections on social media to create arts and healing spaces for her friends and online followers. She started a public Facebook group  — “Sunflower Room” — on March 19th, just a few days after Minnesota declared a statewide peacetime emergency and restaurants and schools began shutting down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Hundreds joined within the first several days and its membership rose to almost 1,000 in three weeks, a testament to the need for connection and healing during the quarantine. Shahid said she hadn’t expected the group to grow so quickly.

“I was writing poems for myself at first and then I invited friends and they invited their friends,” she said. “It’s poets, composers, dancers, bakers, gardeners…You don’t have to be an artist to join, it’s just a positive space.”

Many of the posts are emotionally vulnerable, and some express anger and grief. Shahid said she set up the group to be open from the start; the intent was to create a safe space. 

“My thing is all emotions are valid, we’re not gonna shame folks,” she said. “It’s been so affirming… It’s been truly healing and a lot of folks have felt like they were in a creative rut because the [coronavirus] has been so traumatizing, but being in a process of co-creating has helped.”

A snapshot of Sagirah Shahid’s “Qasida Ilhan” project. This is a poem written and submitted by a Twin Cities community member for Representative Ilhan Omar.

Another project Shahid has been able to continue while living in isolation during the pandemic is the Qasida Ilhan project, snippets of which Shahid often posts on her Facebook page.  

Describing Qasida Ilhan, Shahid states:

“It’s a 99-part communal poem, written by residents and visitors of Minneapolis in 2019. The poems were written at different Minneapolis sites and also submitted online in an act of solidarity with Representative Ilhan Omar and folks like her who advocate for our communities at the risk of their own wellbeing.” 

Resilience and Radical Faith

As a poet, a writer, and member of different communities, Shahid said her resilience during this crisis can be beautiful, but it’s also a tragedy. 

“[A]s an artist and black woman I’ve learned resilience because I haven’t had a choice to be black and Muslim. You don’t have a choice,” she explained. “But I feel so prepared for getting through this part. I am more aptly prepared emotionally for this moment than I realized, and this isn’t to negate the terror I have,” she said. “But that’s the tragedy.”

Even though Shahid has gone through traumatic hardships, she says faith has provided her with the tools she needs to keep persevering. She describes herself as a “Muslim in process” who struggles with faith “all the time but I can’t be anything else.” Still, being a Muslim woman gives Shahid an opportunity to continue deepening her relationship with Allah, particularly during COVID-19. Islam provides her with a framework to aspire for hope, even during the difficult times for her and her community, she said.

“I have to have this radical faith and trust that this will pass and we have to have radical optimism in the future,” Shahid said. “This is where Islam comes in for me because Islam teaches us even in the last days, you still have to plant a tree, you keep having radical optimism because we always have to have that hope in possiblity, that faith.”  

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