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The President wears a hijab

The President wears a hijab

While Safiah Chowdhury is just the second-ever Muslim woman to head the AMS, she hopes people will come to know her for what she accomplishes during her term in office rather than for her religion.

2010-11 AMS President Safiah Chowdhury.
Photo by Tyler Ball, BFA'11

Alma Mater Society (AMS) President-elect Safiah Chowdhury, Artsci’11, credits her family with preparing her to be a student leader. “I was always very bossy,” she says with a laugh. “I come from a very large family. I have four siblings, and I’m the fourth out of five. You really need to assert yourself when you have so many siblings.”

Chowdhury, along with her “Team CHR” (Chowdhury, Hartley, and Rudnicki) running mates —Vice-President (Operations)-elect Ben Hartley, Artsci’11 (of North Vancouver, BC), and Vice-President (University Affairs)-elect Chris Rudnicki, Artsci’11 (of Ottawa, ON) — rolled to victory in the February AMS elections. They captured 54.5 per cent of the undergraduate vote despite all of them being from one faculty. In winning the election, Chowdhury became only the second female Muslim student to serve as AMS President — Taz Pirmohamed, Artsci’95, being the first in 1994-95.

Chowdhury first got involved in student activities during her high school years at Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where she grew up. She also served in 2006-2007 as president of the Canadian chapter of the Muslim Youth of North America, a charitable group that offers programing for young people ages 12-18. 

In her senior year at high school, Chowdhury applied to McMaster, Waterloo, Ottawa, and Queen’s, but puzzled about which school to choose, and so one of her teachers advised her to draw up a “pros and cons list.” The strategy worked. Says Chowdhury, “She said that based on the way I was doing the list I was inclined upon Queen’s. She said, ‘It seems like you’ve made your decision.’”

The first thing Chowdhury did when she got here was volunteer with the Queen’s University Muslim Students Association (QUMSA), and later the AMS Social Issues Commission. “I didn’t live in residence in first year, and my housemate was in the QUMSA. She got me involved,” Chowdhury recalls. “I also applied to be an intern and got hired by the Social Issues Commissioner, who was Jeff Brown, Artsci’08.

Despite working in different capacities with the Social Issues Commission over her first three years at Queen’s, Chowdhury says the job of AMS president was never really on her radar, even though several people suggested to her at the end of her second year that she seek the top job in the student government. At the time, Chowdhury was already a high-profile campus figure because of her involvement with QUMSA during a year that was marred by Islamophobic incidents on campus. “September came I was still thinking about [running], and then I met Chris [Rudnicki], and it just came together from there.”

Even as the 2009-2010 school year was drawing to a close, Chowdhury was still saying her team’s election win “hasn’t quite registered yet” despite the fact the news had spread far and wide. “I have been getting a lot of messages from a lot of people from around the world, like friends of my parents and relatives. I also showed up on a few Muslim blogs. They were noting the significance of my win in terms of not only me being Muslim, but me being a visible Muslim—wearing a hijab, as well as the experiences that I’ve had on this campus.”

Chowdhury says although some people see her win as momentous and noteworthy, she herself thinks it isn’t an indication that Queen’s is post-racial or beyond everyday acts of discrimination. Personally, she feels the best is yet to come. “I’d like the year to be noteworthy, not just simply my win being the noteworthy aspect of the coming year,” she says.

She hopes to use the AMS’s leverage to induce a positive atmosphere on campus where students’ views are reflected in administrative decisions.

“I think that there are certain things you can do by ensuring all programing is accessible to everyone, and ensuring all students feel represented in AMS programing,” she says. “When the AMS president sits on so many boards and attends so many meetings, I think it’s important that he or she knows what the students’ interests are and keeps them as their Number One priority, beyond any of the other bureaucratic stuff.”

Jane Switzer was co-editor-in-chief of The Journal in 2009-2010.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]