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'My faith is at the center of who I am' | Women4Change director discusses her heritage, faith during AAPI Month

For Rima Shahid, being Pakistani, Muslim and a Hoosier are not mutually exclusive. With Women4Change, she helps create positive changes for all Indiana women.

INDIANAPOLIS — May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and WTHR is celebrating diversity by highlighting local leaders in our community. 

Inside Rima Shahid's Indianapolis office, her personality and passions are hanging all over the walls.

In one frame, at the very top, is a quote from the Quran saying, "My success is in the hands of God." Below is an illustration of historical women leaders saying "nevertheless, she persisted." Lastly — and maybe Shahid's favorite — is a magazine cover of Reggie Miller.

Shahid is proud of her Islamic faith and Pakistani heritage — something she learned from her parents.

"I am really blessed to have parents that taught us from a really early age to be politically and civically engaged," said Shahid, the executive director of Women4Change Indiana.

Credit: Rima Shahid
Rima Shahid with her parents and siblings growing up in Indianapolis.

Shahid's parents emigrated from Pakistan. Her father came to Indiana in the 1970s, and her mother followed in the 1980s. Together, they created a community and raised a family.  

"They taught us what it means to be an American. The importance of voting, the importance of being involved with government while teaching us their mother-tongue, Urdu, and reminding us to always be proud of who we are and our heritage. These are lessons I now get to pass on to my three children," she said.

Growing up, Shahid sometimes faced pushback about her religion and culture. She can remember being in kindergarten when her parents pulled her out of school because they were visiting family in Pakistan. She said some of the students asked if she was going to a different planet or needed a spaceship.

"One time in seventh grade, a few days after Eid, I had henna on my hands. My science teacher made me stand and wash my hands over and over and over because he said we weren’t supposed to draw on our hands and I could not participate in lab unless I washed off my hands," Shahid said. "People were saying to me, 'your skin is the color of dirt.' I've also been told 'your eyes are the color of dirty grass.'"

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It's something Shahid said still happens today to her own kids, as xenophobia and Islamophobia continue to rise.

"I think people don't realize that being Pakistani heritage, being Muslim, and being an American are not mutually exclusive. I am all three. My faith is different, then my nationality, and my nationality are different than my heritage. I think there are times where that has been challenged and unfortunately continues to be challenged," she said.

Before settling in Indiana with her family, Shahid lived in the Middle East for more than 10 years, where she worked as a trade development officer at the Pakistan Embassy in Bahrain.

She lived there during the Arab Spring, a cultural revolution that started in 2010. 

"So many Americans take our democracy for granted, and when you are on the flip side, and you are having Molotov cocktails thrown at your window, and when you are responsible as the trade development officer and cultural attaché for the Pakistan Embassy in Bahrain for helping bury an 11-year-old child for being the wrong sect while playing soccer — you remember as imperfect as our government is, as problematic as our history has been and our present has been, we start with 'We the People.' Don't take 'We the People' for granted," Shahid said.

Credit: Rima Shahid
Rima Shahid, right, stands with her daughter in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

In 2015, Shahid returned to Indiana and served as the executive director for the Muslim Alliance of Indiana.  

Shortly after in 2017, she became the first CEO of Women4Change Indiana, a nonpartisan nonprofit to fight for Hoosier women to be more involved in their communities.

She said women represent about 51% of Indiana's population but represent less than 24% of elected officials in the Statehouse.

"My hope is that we have more women in decision-making opportunities and places of power. My hope is that we have a Statehouse that is representative of Indiana," Shahid said. "I look forward to the day when I can walk into the statehouse and say, 'Madam governor I have a question.'"

Credit: Rima Shahid
Rima Shahid speaks at the Indiana Statehouse on behalf of Women4Change.

Most recently, her team helped pass three key pieces of legislation, including a bill about consent, banning the practice of shackling incarcerated women while giving birth, and expanding Medicaid access for women postpartum from 60 days to 365 days.

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As Shahid continues to advocate for Hoosier women, she reminds others to think before passing judgment and to not base someone's culture on TV shows or movies.

"Meet a Hoosier Muslim. Talk to them. Get to know them. You'll be surprised. It's so important for us to know one another," Shahid said. 'There is richness in our diversity. There is richness in our differences, and it makes life fun and interesting."

Many times when people think of APPI, they think of the larger counties in the region. Instead, Shahid challenges people to expand beyond that.

"When we think about celebrating minorities, and we think about recognizing minorities, and we think about getting to know the different people that make up a different subsection, challenge yourself to think who is a part of this group and get to know them," she said.

Learn more about Women4Change Indiana here.

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