Interview and foreword by our guest writer, Jihan Aiyash. Jihan is a research assistant at Karmanos Cancer Institute with the Department of Oncology at Wayne State University. She is working on her Masters in Public Health with an interest in social factors of health.
As an Arab Muslim woman, I have certain privileges that non-Arab Muslims don’t have. I don’t have to prove “how Muslim I am” to anyone. So going into this project, I wanted to interview someone whose identity does not fit the stereotypical mold of a Muslim woman: fair-skinned, slim, and of Arab or Desi background.
Although Hazel can check off some off those boxes, she opened my eyes to the parallel lived experience of being a Latina Muslim woman. Hazel was a joy to talk to and we ended up comfortably conversing for two hours! I feel so honored that she sat to do this interview with me.
How would you like people to know you?
My name is Hazel Gómez and I usually get a lot of quizzical looks when I say my name. There is this notion that a “Hazel” and a “Gómez” do not fit with what I am wearing. There’s this assumption that my name should be more Arabic-sounding, and that’s fine for the converts who choose to change their name. It wasn’t the route for me. Personally, I see my name as an opportunity for dialogue, for engagement with people who may not have ever met a Muslim, or who may have their own preconceived notions of what a Muslim is or where a Muslim is from. I am a Latina Muslim woman who chooses to cover, who is not from the places many assume Muslims are from. I am Puerto Rican and Mexican and I wear my heritage very proudly. I am a community organizer (before we elected a community organizer as president and normalized the term). I am a mother of two young boys whose names, Musa and Haroon – Moses and Aaron – inspire me to be like the mother of Prophet Moses and Prophet Aaron. I am a wife to a man who does not doubt my toughness and pushes me to always strive to be a better version of myself.
As Hazel Gómez, what’s your greatest source of strength, motivation, and drive?
My greatest source of strength comes from the love of my grandparents and most likely their prayers, may God envelop them in His mercy. They are the ones who taught me what it means to be a warrior, what it means to be giving, what it means to stand up for what is right, and most importantly, what it means to always turn to God in every situation. My maternal grandmother would constantly remind me that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. When I became Muslim and learned that this was also a concept in the Qurʾān, it was comforting to know that I had been raised with such an Islamic principle.
As for my source of motivation and drive, I do what I do because that’s what my faith teaches. We are supposed to strive for what is best and always work to improve ourselves and the society around us. For me, I am trying to bring about positive change by starting with my family. My sons push me to strive to create a world for them that is more tolerant, more peaceful, more loving, more Prophetic.
Can you share an experience that has changed the core of who you are or, perhaps, how you view yourself?
As a Latina, my identity and culture have shaped not only how I view myself but also how others interact with me. On top of that, I am a Muslim woman who chooses to cover in this society, which adds on a whole other layer of challenges. There have been times when I have been extremely frustrated and disappointed in Muslim-majority spaces of a particular ethnic group. They’ll stereotype me as a Latina just like the media stereotypes them because they look a certain way or come from a particular country.
I have heard it all – from “you graduated college?!”, “you have such fair skin so you’ll have no problem getting married”, “you aren’t strung out on drugs!?”, “you really didn’t have children as a teenager?!”, “you’re the exception amongst your people.”
You know how the media loves to play the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim trope? Now imagine having to deal with Muslims who typecast you in the Good Latina/Bad Latina narrative. It’s exhausting. The only thing that keeps me sane and grounded is the verse from the Qurʾān where God says: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allāh is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Acquainted.” Being Latina and being Muslim are not mutually exclusive – they overlap and have made me who I am today.
Have you ever found support in a person or place or thing that you would not have expected to?
A few years ago, I found an amazing opportunity to study the Islamic Sciences in Andalusia, Spain. But as soon as I saw the tuition, boarding, plus flight costs, my heart sank – there was just no way I could afford to dish out a few thousand dollars. One day, I was talking to a friend about it and telling her how I wish I could attend. Lo and behold, within a week, she had raised all the funds for me! I was floored!
The messages of encouragement from Muslim teachers, colleagues, peers, friends from around the world were so inspiring to me. They believed in me, they knew my deep desire to study sacred knowledge, and they made sure I could attend. To this day, my time in Spain has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As a Latina with West African, Native Taíno, and Andalusian ancestry who grew up having mixed feelings of the colonizer that was Mother Spain – Madre España as we say – it was healing to be upon her land and study my Muslim faith; a faith that one of my ancestors most likely practiced.
What does resilience look like for you? In what situations do you find yourself needing it most right now?
Resilience is not wallowing in the negativity that happens to us but instead using the lessons learned to lift ourselves up and in turn, be able to help others. We can’t let bad experiences define who we are. Learn from it and try our best to grow from it. As women, we need to be there for one another. It is critical to be surrounded by people who remind us of our strength on those days when the world feels like it is falling on our shoulders. We have to remember that we are not alone, and we should always have one another’s back.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever been taught? By who? How do you set a boundary between giving and receiving?
In this era of the selfie, of selfishness, and “it’s all about me”, the wisdom of my grandparents is what holds me down in the chaos. I was taught to always be giving – be giving of my time, to feed people, give in charity even if it’s only a dollar. Growing up, we didn’t have much in the worldly sense, but my grandparents always gave. I would see how when my grandmother cooked, the food seemed to be never-ending; the little money she lent would come back even more in unexpected ways; the time she gave to others filled her with joy. My grandparents gave and gave and gave, but yet family always came first, and we were never without. Looking back, it was truly amazing to watch my grandparents be such beacons of light, Allāh bless them.
What is the best part of your day?
A hot, strong cup of café con leche in the silence of the early morning to give me that boost of energy and comfort.
Describe your favorite outfit. What’s your personal dress code?
My favorite outfit is a flowy dress layered with a long cardigan, donning a comfy solid-colored jersey scarf or colorful pashmina scarf on my head, and wearing my very Mexican leather cowboy boots or a pair of Jordans.
What is something that you think is often misunderstood about the idea of being a “strong” woman?
People assume that being a strong woman means tearing others down in order to climb the ladder of success or to be a man-hater in order to draw strength from that anger or rage of being wronged. That’s not what a strong woman is! That’s living a life that is not fully one’s own. A strong woman exudes courage and confidence, a strong woman lifts others up wherever she goes, a strong woman keeps her focus on God as she navigates her way in this world. But a strong woman is also surrounded by people who help her see her potential on those days when she doesn’t feel her best. To be a woman of strength is to own who we are, flaws and all. Own it, push to be better, and keep God as the end goal.