Zahra Billoo

On the more exciting days, I have the opportunity to work with the media to amplify our community’s voices and with elected officials to ensure they know what their Muslim constituents think and want.

CAIR-LA Banquet 11-16-13

Who are you?

I am a baker and community organizer. By training, I am a lawyer. Growing up in Southern California, I almost always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. It was a suggestion from others that I adopted, one they made because I enjoyed arguing and talking far more than was expected of a Muslim girl.

My parents are Pakistani American, and devoted themselves to raising practicing American Muslims who were both knowledgeable about their religion and confident about their identities. We went to the masjid nearly six days a week and spent as much time memorizing Quran and learning about Islam as we did our school homework.

After returning from Hajj with my family at age 7 I began to experiment with wearing hijab. For me, at the time, it was as much about emulating my mom who had also just begun to wear it as about the pretty fabrics and colors of the different hijabs we had brought home.

2001 and 2002 were critical years for me. I had just begun college, and everything around me was changing quickly. I was thrown into both combatting Islamophobia and anti-war organizing all at once. My casual hijab became a symbol, representing 1.5 billion Muslims whether or not I wanted to.

Graduating from law school in 2009 proved challenging. The job market for lawyers had essentially dried up. There was an opening at the local CAIR office, where I had relationships after a past internship and volunteer experience. They were looking for a Director and I was looking for work. The opportunity to make a career of the activism I had squeezed in between classes was too good to pass up.

Nearly five years later, I couldn’t be more grateful for the choices I’ve made, the support that has enabled me to do my work and the mercy of Allah. In my work at CAIR, my day-to-day includes direct services for individuals facing civil rights violations, providing trainings to educate American Muslims about their rights and our allies about our community’s experiences, managing the operations of the office and fundraising within the community to develop support for our work. On the more exciting days, I have the opportunity to work with the media to amplify our community’s voices and with elected officials to ensure they know what their Muslim constituents think and want.

In my free time, I have taken to baking. We joke about opening a bakery called, “Bake Against the Machine” when I retire from civil rights work. For now, I find that decorating cakes and cupcakes not only helps me take a mental break from work but also is a nice way to make people happy.

Today, the Bay Area is home. I live in Sunnyvale with my husband Davi Barker, a writer and artist. When people ask me how I am able to do this work, I credit him for keeping me sane, grounded and emotionally sound. Of course there is also our cat, Lupe [Occupy] Fiasco. We named him after a celebrity figure who is using his celebrity for positive change and the Occupy movement that was coming together when we adopted him.


Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice. If you are a (wo)man, you take it.”

This quote speaks to me because it serves as such a concise reminder that we must work for what we want.


Islamic Perspective:

What Ayah of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
“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 Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (49:13)

I believe this verse explains that our diversity is intentional and to be celebrated. It also goes further and speaks to the fact that all people, irrespective of race, gender or other differences, are judged equally by God as to their righteousness.

What Hadith do you wish more non-Muslims knew about? Why?
“Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim]

I always come back to this hadith because it reminds me that we have a religious obligation to work for justice.


The “Ten”:

What is your favorite book?
Return of the Pharoah by Zainab Al Ghazali

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
My parents. They have given everything they could to facilitate opportunities for their children.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
To be patient.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
Things will change four years from now, for all Muslims as well as for civil liberties generally. Enjoy your freedoms while you have them.

5. What are your hopes for your daughter(s) and/or son(s)?
That they be activists and community organizers.

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
I lost my cousin to a rare disease when I was 20. Then my childhood best friend was in a car accident when we were 22 and she is now permanently disabled. Both have taught me to always be mindful of the fact that life is fleeting. Accordingly, I work to make every moment count.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
I worked through both college and law school and wish I had been more thoughtful about saving more during that time.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
I make an effort to be around people who push me to be better. It’s also equally, if not more, important for me to continue the regular practice of my faith including even just praying, fasting and giving charity more regularly. Lastly, I attend classes so even if only passively I’m constantly working towards learning more about our faith.

9. How do you bring about real change?
Through grassroots mobilization. It takes people, lots and lots of people to make an impact. Real change cannot be accomplished unless we are working together.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
Humanizing and personalizing the American Muslim struggle for civil rights.


Zahra’s Video:

Justice is a Warm Cupcake from Roldan Lozada on Vimeo.

More about Zahra: