America's First Muslimah Judge

America's First Muslimah Judge
Zakia Mahasa, Master Chancery in the Family Division of the Baltimore City Circuit Court
by Nadirah Z. Sabir, Azizah magazine.

Zakia Mahasa, the first Muslimah ever to be appointed to a judgeship in the American courts, never apologizes for who she is; instead, she gains respect and accumulates success after success by focusing on being outstanding at whatever she does.

A powerful presence in the courtroom and a dynamic woman who knows her own mind, Zakia has possessed this drive to achieve and strong sense of direction since her earliest years.

"When I was about four years old," she smiles, "I was reading the newspaper. There's a game, Wishing Well. 'You'd count the letters in a name--mine spelled out, One day, you'll be a lawyer or doctor.' So I thought, I have to do really well in kindergarten so I can get into a really good first grade!"

Since then Zakia's fortunes have multiplied with the power of that kind of determination and focus and on her belief in God. She asserts passionately that what gives her the aplomb to pursue her interests and to be herself is her Islamic faith.

"You really have to have a certainty and surety and confidence about yourself," as a Muslimah, Zakia advises. "It carries me through everything I do. My way of life [as a Muslimah] is superior to anything out there. I believe God wanted me in this position."

Zakia's study of Islam began while she was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, where she was majoring in business management. She declared her shahadah [profession of faith] a year later.

"It was initially difficult for my mother," Zakia recalls. "I had a cousin who had a bad experience with the Nation of Islam." But Zakia knew her path and stuck to it, and by the time Ramadan came, only two weeks after her conversion, Zakia says her mother "had my meals ready at the end of the day!"

Zakia's father had more pragmatic concerns over his daughter's conversion to Islam. Since Zakia was headed toward law school at that time, he wondered whether there would be any place for a Muslimah in the circles of American law. Zakia herself was not at all worried. She explains, "Islam really does free you of all that. If God wants it for you, nobody can take it away. I felt that as long as I looked professional and really knew what I was doing," success would follow.

Zakia's father asserted that appearances are important in the legal profession, but Zakia would not compromise her faith. "When I first became Muslim, from the very beginning I was covered," she says. "At work I knew it was important to look professional. I dress well. I wear suits, skirts, dresses, blazers. They're longer, looser. I don't wear over-garments to work, but it's evident I'm being modest. My hair is always covered, but pulled back and out of the way. I did my research and I am convinced that I am properly covered; you can dress many ways and still be properly covered."

Much of her success Zakia attributes directly to this refusal to betray herself or her Islamic principles in order to be accepted by or blend in with others. Of her iman [faith], she says firmly, "I don't wear it on my sleeve. But I don't hide it. It's who I am." If you stand for what you are, even if it is different from the mainstream, Zakia believes, others will respect you.

"My being a Muslim doesn't mean I'm standoffish or reclusive. I'm very approachable," she says.

Above all, she advises, in order to earn the respect of others, "You have to be good," at what you do.

Zakia excels at what she does. As Master Chancery in the family division of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, she presides over domestic cases, hearing anywhere from nine to thirty of them a day. These cases tend to be emotional and complicated, involving abused, neglected and delinquent children. Zakia unabashedly brings a healthy Islamic outlook to her work, believing that often the best way to propagate Islam is by example.

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