Henrico County VA

Women of faith

Locals take on unique challenges, spurred by beliefs
Anjum Ali leads discussions with groups in Henrico County and other counties as she works to help increase cross-cultural understanding.
The world marked International Woman’s Day on March 8 by celebrating the economic, political and social accomplishments of women. The special day falls during the month that’s also set aside to honor women in history.

Women continue to make history today often by accepting new challenges and taking on important leadership positions.

Anjum Ali and Jessica Stewart of central Virginia are two minority women who have taken on unique roles in their communities. Both said their faith is what motivates them to work to try to make a difference.

Anjum Ali – Born in the U.S., she has lived and studied in Saudi Arabia and Canada. She earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French culture and a master’s in Islamic studies. She moved to Richmond 12 years ago. She is Pakistani-American.

A connection may start as two people in a grocery store’s produce section talk about selecting the best peaches for a cobbler. Or a connection may start when one woman compliments another woman on the scarf she’s wearing.

Anjum Ali, a Muslim, has been part of such conversations that started as polite exchanges and led to a better understanding between two people.

Ali is a board member of Initiatives of Change, which operates Hope in the Cities. That group started in 1990 in response to the need for racial healing in Richmond.

She also founded SpeakingUnites, which provides training and workshops about Muslims and Islam.

Henrico County organizations including a mental health agency and a domestic violence alliance have called on her to help with training or to lead conversations about diversity and inclusion.

Her passion is building understanding and trust across cultures, classes, races and especially religions.

“I just feel that maybe I’ve had a little bit of a talent to be able to convey to others what Islam is really about,” she said. “Sometimes I like to say, ‘I would be proud to show the true face of Islam.’ “

Ali, who spent several years in New England, said she is sometimes surprised and appreciative of how polite people are in Virginia. Polite conversations can be excellent starting points for changing hearts and minds.

“I like to be treated with courtesy and politeness. And isn’t that what we should all be trained to do anyway because there is something that ... on that initial meeting that can open the doors towards people reconciling their differences,” she said.

Ali is part of a growing immigrant and native-born Muslim population in central Virginia and the country.

Pew Research Center demographers estimate there were 2.75 million Muslims living in the U.S. in 2011. The Center estimates that less than .5 percent of people in Virginia are Muslims. Ali estimates about 20,000 Muslims live in the Richmond region.

As the Muslim population grows, people’s curiosity increases. Many wonder what it means to be Muslim. That interest feeds popular culture such as the controversial TLC television show, “All-American Muslim.”

When asked about the TV program and how it relates to her life in the Richmond area, Ali laughed, then she gave the region a good rating as a place to live and practice her faith.

“I have had a relatively positive experience here,” she said.”I have had maybe only two or three, at the most, incidences where I felt that people were acting a little bit hateful or hurtful because of my faith or my identity as a Muslim. But overall I think central Virginia is a very interesting place to live.”

She added that life here is not perfect. “There are doors that are definitely closed to you … but at the same time there’s a lot to be said for the fact that people are trying more and more to slowly move their way into being more open-minded.”

Jessica Stewart – Born in Charles City County. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in English and women’s studies. She will earn her master’s in elementary education from William & Mary in May. She is a Chickahominy Indian.

Charles City County, Henrico County’s closest neighbor to the east, was a secure and comfortable place for Jessica Stewart to grow up. She was surrounded by extended family and many other Chickahominy Indians.

She grew up wanting to become a teacher like her two great aunts. Now, Stewart is a student teacher in New Kent County as she finishes her graduate work in elementary education.

Stewart also grew up wanting to be the first female chief of the Chickahominy tribe.

“I’ve always wanted to be on the [Tribal] Council, always wanted a leadership role,” she said. “I want to be the chief. I want to be the first female chief of our tribe and it’s something that I’m definitely going to work towards because I don’t want the fire to be put out. I want to keep it going.”

At 26 years old, Stewart is laying the foundation to reach her second dream.

She is the youngest member of the Chickahominy Tribal Council. She traveled to England as part of a delegation commemorating the 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown. Stewart spends much of her time building awareness of Virginia Indian culture. At a recent multicultural event at the Science Museum of Virginia, Stewart, assistant chief Wayne Adkins and others shared Chickahominy’s history and traditional dances.

Dancing at Pow Wows and other events is one way to teach others about her tribe, but Stewart said dancing also is a way to demonstrate her deep Christian faith.

“It’s connected to my faith. When I dance, it’s a prayer for me. It’s praise for the Creator and very, very spiritual when you enter the dance circle,” she said.

Virginia’s Indian population is 0.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census. In Charles City, which is the Chickahominy’s home county, the population is 0.3 percent. It’s the same in Henrico County.

With such a small Indian population, making sure their history is remembered and honored is a challenge Stewart and the Tribal Council must face.

“Virginia has such a rich history … I just don’t want that to be forgotten … that we were very instrumental in the formation of this nation, this great nation, and we did work together to build this. And I don’t want that to be lost in the shuffle of things,” Stewart said.
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