Rabia Chaudry may be best known for her role in the blockbuster podcast Serial, but as it turns out, that may be the least interesting thing about her. Her journey is unlike that of my previous interviewees — there are no stories about big law, six-figure salaries or full-time nannies (or tutors, or cleaners, or cooks). This story is much more relatable to the approximately 40,000 students who graduate law school each year, many struggling to pass the bar, find a job or pay the rent. But don’t mistake Rabia for a lawyer lacking in talent, ambition or tenacity. You thought you had it tough in law school? Imagine living with your in-laws, raising a child, surviving domestic violence and trying to figure out how to get divorced without being renounced by your community.
All that and I haven’t even gotten to the part about the headscarf. I’ve written and spoken about the drawbacks of being identified first as a woman rather than a lawyer. But what if an article of clothing made you feel invisible as a woman while broadcasting your religious affiliation? It’s not easy being a Muslim in America today, but Rabia is determined to embody what she advocates. Ultimately, her story is a lesson in finding what you’re passionate about within the law and making that your vocation — with a little sex, fame and murder along the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rabia Chaudry: I didn’t grow up wearing a headscarf; it was not something that we even thought about. I was born in Pakistan; my parents came here when I was an infant, and I was raised here. The headscarf is not really part of Pakistani culture. Traditionally, Pakistani women’s outfits come with long shawls. Women might cover their head with those, or they might not. If you go to Pakistan, you’ll see more women without their hair covered. Like any religion, Islam is practiced differently depending on the culture. We were practicing Muslims, prayed, fasted, did all that. But the headscarf was not a priority. I think I was in college when my mom started wearing one. Nobody pressured me, or my younger sister, to wear one.
Then, I got married. I had a daughter. I put her in Islamic school because there were a lot of things I couldn’t teach her — my Arabic is very poor, and I just didn’t have the time. In kindergarten, the girls’ uniform was a little jumper with a scarf. I would put on a scarf before I dropped her off at school, then, as soon I left, I’d take it off and go to my job in D.C. One day, I said to her, “You look so cute in your scarf — are you going to wear it when you grow up?” And she was like, “No, you don’t wear it, so why should I wear it?” And I realized, “I’m so hypocritical. I’m trying to teach her that these are the tenets of the faith, but I’m ignoring them myself.” That made me really think. After wrestling with this for a couple of weeks, I thought, “What the heck. I’m going to give it a shot.” It’s been about 12 years since I started. The first year, it was on and off. When I got comfortable, I decided to wear it permanently.
No, it was interesting. I was working with Health and Human Services in the general counsel’s office — I was working with a bunch of lawyers. Normally, as a woman in a professional setting, if you’re dressed nicely, you get some kind of notice. Men will smile, they’ll hold the door for you. As soon as I began wearing the scarf, it was like I disappeared. Walking through the hallways of federal buildings, people didn’t know what to do with me. They just didn’t. It was easier for them to just not look at me, not say hello, not make eye contact. In the office itself, the lawyers knew that they could not, or should not, say anything because of discriminatory issues. They never said a word. But a couple of the secretaries were like, “What is up? What is this? Is it a holiday? What are you doing?” It was funny, they were much more candid, and I talked to them about it. Other than that, nobody made an issue about it.
Well, when I tried to talk to the older attorneys about what I wanted to do in the future, a number of them said to me, “Listen, if you ever want to practice as a lawyer, you need to get out of here. Otherwise, you’ll sit behind a desk and write memos your entire career. You need to go out and get into a law firm.” I took their advice and started applying to small- to medium-size firms, and I got a job just fine. I had experience interning in immigration at a law firm, so I went into an immigration practice. In that setting, your clients are mostly immigrants — they weren’t the sort of corporate clients that might make an employer hesitate.
What was fascinating was the response from my clients. Most of my clients were South Asian, from poor backgrounds. Many felt uncomfortable when they saw me in a scarf. I had clients say to me, “We know you’re competent, but we wonder if the judge will take you seriously because of the scarf.” One client, a man wearing the long white robe that very religious Muslim men wear, came to my office along with his wife, who was wearing a headscarf, and said, “Listen, we would love to hire you because we know you’re smart. But I think I should hire a Jewish man — it would be better for my case.”
Well, I was expected to be a doctor. I was pre-med in college, just like my sister and almost everyone I knew. In my junior year, at Maryland, I realized that I’m really, really bad at chemistry, and that I’d be screwed when I took the MCATs. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. As graduation approached, I hadn’t told my parents that I wasn’t applying to med school, and a close friend who had also been pre-med told me, “I’m not going to take the MCAT. I’m just going to sit for the LSAT and see how that goes.” So, I was like, “I’ll just see how that goes too.” I don’t know if it was kind of a natural thing — I always wrote a lot, I love to read, I like to yap — but on the LSAT, I scored in the top two percent, or thereabouts. Immediately, a number of schools reached out. Howard and Mason, both of which were close to me, were like, “We want to accept you based on your score.” I think there was a diversity thing going on, but it was just so easy. I never even had to apply — I just kind of got in.
I think it’s necessary and important. Especially for someone coming from the Muslim and South Asian communities. We have more lawyers now, but, for example, on 9/11, we had very few attorneys in the community to deal with the fallout. I do believe in affirmative action. There’s a reason it exists. I ended up going to Mason, which was conservative and had very little diversity — maybe three or four other people of color in my classroom. I might have been the only other South Asian I saw.
I went in thinking I was interested in practicing corporate law. My first summer, I interned in MCI’s litigation department, and it was terrible. I just thought, “I can’t do this.” The following year, I had internship offers from the Washington, D.C., Public Defender’s office and a medium-sized immigration firm, which was close to my home. At that time, my daughter was very young — one or two years old. I really wanted the public defender internship, but I didn’t do it because the hours were really intense, and I couldn’t do it with a young child. I really did not want to do immigration, but I took that internship because I needed the credits and it was convenient. And once you’re in, you’re sucked in. And actually, I enjoyed it. I found it to be really meaningful.
I still had a semester of college left.
I fell in love with this guy during college. I was 19, he was five years older and in graduate school. My parents both believe in education for women. My mother was the principal of a girls’ college and didn’t get married until she was 27 — that’s an old maid in Pakistan, especially back in the ’60s. So my parents were like, “You’re going to finish graduate school, then you’re going to get married. At least wait until you graduate college.” After waiting a few years, we really wanted to get married — it was more of a Bollywood thing than a traditional thing. Marrying when you’re 21 years old was horrifying to my parents. They thought it was way too young…and they were right.
I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, especially because I did not expect the first marriage to be the way it was. His family came over for the wedding, and I’m talking about parents as well as four other siblings and their families. They all got temporary visas but never left; we ended up all living together. I had not grown up in that situation. The marriage turned out to be very oppressive and abusive. I had no outlet to go to my family — I essentially fought with them to get married, and I just didn’t want to go back to them and say, “Oh, this is what really happened.” I didn’t tell them for years; I was very lonely. Going to law school kind of saved me. It gave me a chance to get out of the house.
Physical and emotional. I can count the physical abuse on one hand, but it was vicious every time. The first time was within a month of the wedding. I had my daughter (a honeymoon surprise), before our first anniversary. She became my focus, my little best friend and the reason to get up every day. I really learned a lot about domestic violence in all of this. I did not come from a family where there had ever been domestic violence. I never expected I could be a victim of it and it made me realize that you just never know. I would go to work, to school. People considered me a very confident person. It could be anybody, really, who’s privately dealing with things — it could be your boss, a powerful person. Having my daughter made law school harder, but she made my life easier. It gave me a reason to keep going.
We hit a weird wall four or five years into it — I was still living with the whole family, in a shared bedroom in a basement, but my ex and I had stopped speaking to each other. Our daughter was four at the time, and I said to him, “Listen, we can’t raise a family in a basement. We have to think about moving out.” And he said to me, “I’m never, ever moving out.” This was back when nobody in our community was divorced, and I couldn’t even stomach the idea. In those years, I centered myself on God. I became focused on prayer — it was an outlet, a way to meditate and try to figure out what to do with my life. For six months, I prayed intently. It was like, “Listen God, I don’t know what to do. Should I stay for my daughter’s sake, or I should leave? Give me a sign.” Then one day, my sister-in-law came to me and said, “Your husband wants a divorce, so we want you out in 30 days.” I was like, “Okay, that’s a sign.” I started preparing to find a job, get an apartment, to figure this out. None of that came to pass, because one night everything fell to pieces. I left the house in the middle of the night with a couple of bags. My daughter was still there; I couldn’t take her. The police had come, but in a very literal way, God answered my prayers. I didn’t have to make the decision, it just happened.
It really did impact my ability to take the bar. I suddenly found myself with no money and no job, only a car. I had to move in with my parents and immediately find work because I had legal bills — I went through an eight-month child custody battle. I never had the money for the prep course, never got a chance to take off work and prepare for it. I took the exam three or four times. I took it first in Virginia and failed by just a couple of points. I took it in Maryland and the same thing happened. Then, in D.C., I passed one portion of it but failed the other by a couple of points. But in D.C., you didn’t have to take the whole thing over, so I retook the portion I had failed, and on the third try, I finally passed. That process took about two years — two years of being a single mother working full time.
When I graduated, I still was working at the firm where I had interned (in the immigration practice), and I continued on there for a little bit. The pay was very low, and after 9/11 things went really south in my workplace. There were other Muslims there, but our boss and much of the staff were not, and things got pretty emotional. It became very difficult due to some of the things that were said. So I left.
It was interesting, because this was a firm that was primarily South Asian and there was never an issue like this before. We’d worked very comfortably together. It was just when 9/11 happened. We watched it online together, horrified and I kept thinking, “Please don’t let it be a Muslim, please don’t let…” But immediately, the other conversations going on were, “Of course it’s a Muslim. Muslims are the only ones who are terrorists.” It felt like demonizing all of us. And then the questions: “Why are Muslims full of rage?” “Why are you guys always terrorists?” But I wasn’t an activist yet. I was a mom trying to get through my day; I didn’t have answers; I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the world. I felt stuck and felt like everyone who is not Muslim thinks we’re all crazy. So, I didn’t feel comfortable working there anymore.
There wasn’t any discrimination in the sense that we felt like we were going to get fired or anything like that. But it was hard to have a conversation around this thing, and this thing was very, very big — we were only about 10 miles from the Pentagon. I thought it would be easier to leave, so I did. Then the whole marriage thing fell apart. I picked up some small jobs and contract jobs as I was trying to get through the exam — I spent four months stamping documents at an army base; it was crazy. Then I got a really good position with the General Counsel’s Office at Health and Human Services and worked there for a couple of years.
I think so, although my mother is very strong-willed and politically and socially aware. As a teenager I would always hear her talk about our conflicts. We went to marches, Palestine marches, Chechnya, Kashmir. My father did not. He just didn’t think about those things. But my mom did, and she talked to us about it, so there was this sense of social responsibility — that there are things happening in the world that we have to think about and do something about. After 9/11, there was a vacuum in the Muslim community. We had no response, we were not organized, we didn’t know what to do. It was mostly us running around saying, “Islam is a religion of peace. Please don’t hate us.” And that didn’t work very well. I had to do a lot of soft study. People would say to me, “Well, what your religion says about non-Muslims is to kill the infidels, right?” I was like, “No, it doesn’t,” then thought, “Let me go figure out what it actually says.” Or they’d say, “Islam says women are inferior.” I would respond, “Absolutely not. I wasn’t raised like that.” But then I had to go and figure it out. It took a couple of years of trying to really figure out what was going wrong — how the messages were getting mixed up, both outside and inside the community. Then I began writing. Writing was my first activism, or advocacy, tool. When I went back into immigration practice, some of my clients were women who were from domestic-violence, or otherwise very vulnerable, situations. So I started writing about these issues, working with nonprofits and doing pro bono work, and it grew from there. At that time there weren’t a lot of Muslim lawyers, and I felt a responsibility to help.
Initially, a lot of my writing was directed toward the Muslim community, so I wrote for Muslim outlets. I would write about issues that I thought the community needed to educate themselves about. So initially, it was okay that I referenced Islam. But it was part of my own framework: How do you orient yourself in the world? How do you identify yourself? That became how I identified myself. Where do I seek my authority? Also, I thought we were getting a lot of things wrong in our own community about what the religion says versus how we behave. A few years passed, I got remarried and moved to Connecticut, where my second husband was studying at the Hartford Seminary. The Muslim community there was small, but there was a really amazing interfaith community. I got very involved in community outreach. That’s when I started speaking to non-Muslim audiences. I would get invited to churches, synagogues, police stations, colleges. All local. But even in those situations, I’m a woman wearing a headscarf and so it’s like, there’s no escape. No matter what I was talking about, that’s what people would see. But I wanted people to understand that this is how I orient myself. If someone misunderstands my faith, then I’m going to throw a few things their way that might be totally unexpected and might shake them up, so they understand that I can be assertive, I can be vocal. I am allowed to have an opinion as a woman, and I can do what I want as a woman. I actually derive the authority for that from my religion. And that was important to me.
Before Serial, I had a bit of a public profile, but it was limited to the Muslim community, the activist community or the interfaith community. I was already writing for Time and other outlets, so I knew what it felt like to write something and have really ugly comments. Serial took it to a global level, and I’m still learning. There are good days and bad days. There are days when, because the subject matter is so personal, I react emotionally — maybe too emotionally. But for the most part, I realize that in order for me to function, be productive and have any impact with my work, I have to filter it out. I turned off the comments on my blog because I thought, “If you guys want to discuss my stuff, discuss it somewhere else. This is the message that I’m trying to give the world. I’m not gonna let you muddy it.” On Twitter, say, if people are abusive to me, I will eventually block them. I will sometimes tell them to F off, and then I’ll block them. And I’ve become comfortable saying, “I’m not here to be abused. I don’t abuse other people and I don’t give you permission to do it to me.”
I think people are filtering what they’re seeing from me. There was never a difference in my family in terms of gender expectations. My parents never made me feel like, as a girl you do this, as a boy you do that. I mowed lawns. I built stuff with my dad. I know how to put up drywall. My brothers were expected to do laundry and cook, and I was expected to be able to paint the house. We did it all. So I’ve never thought of myself as limited by gender. I don’t think I should act a certain way because I’m a woman. But I know that a lot of women in the public eye, who are competent, publicly competent, get this. Somebody like, for example, Hillary Clinton. If you’re slightly too assertive, you’re a bitch. If you’re not assertive enough, you’re a wallflower. And oh, let’s look at her haircut and what she’s wearing. This is a battle a lot of women face in the workplace, in the public eye, in the media.
Having said that, once in awhile, I do get feedback from people in the Muslim community saying, “Act like a Muslim woman. Be a little more modest. Don’t use bad language.” I feel like that comes from a profound sense of discomfort with a person being human. Sometimes, in faith communities, we forget that we are human, and that we should be allowed to be human. I’m not going to let somebody take that away from me. If you don’t like me, you don’t have to read my stuff. It’s not complicated. Just ignore me. Go on with your life.
It’s interesting. I’m a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. When I was accepted, I was like, “Gosh, I definitely don’t belong in this cohort.” Alums of that fellowship are an incredibly impressive group of people. The women on there are doing amazing things. They work in high-level positions in the Pentagon, at the White House, you name it. There’s a Truman women’s group. I went to couple of the meetings and was fascinated to see these incredibly high-powered women sitting in a room sipping wine and just kind of joking. But we would go around the room and talk about our challenges at work. And overwhelmingly, these powerful women reported back that their biggest challenge at work was dealing with sexual harassment or having to negotiate their femininity in a way that’s neither too aggressive nor too submissive. Fighting back advances, dressing a certain way — it was all related to them being women. It was just crazy to me.
I remember, I had started wearing a scarf at that point, and when it was my turn to speak I said, “I absolutely experienced sexual harassment from clients and from my boss before I started wearing a scarf. Once I started wearing a scarf, people just turned me into an object. I was like a bookshelf. I was an inanimate object, not a sexual object anymore.” I explained that I no longer experienced those issues, but my heart broke for these women. And I was livid. I don’t know what to say to young women who are in that space, and I hate, hate, hate putting the impetus on women to even deal with dressing a certain way or talking in a certain way to deal with these issues. It just makes me so angry that we have to think like that. I don’t know what the answer is, other than speak up — we have to. If you are good at something, take credit for your work. I also have become very cognizant of the way I write, and I’ll give you an example. I was writing a tweet back to somebody this morning and I said in my tweet, “I think X, Y, Z.” And then I thought, you know what? I don’t think, I know. I took out the “I think” and made a declarative statement. You have to learn to start making declarative statements and stop being apologetic.
It was hard, and it still is some days. On one hand, obviously, you want to be appreciated for your work and your brains and what you bring to the table. On the other hand, we’re all human and we like to be appreciated. It feels good to have people say, “Oh, you look nice. Aren’t you a pretty lady,” as you’re walking down the street. There’s this weird kind of desire for a little bit of both, without it getting to the point of feeling uncomfortable or harassed. This is going to sound so weird. I’ve always loved my hair. It has been kind of like my prize possession. I was always playing with it — I’d color it, curl it, use monstrous loads of hair spray — so putting it away was really hard. And if I wear earrings and a necklace, nobody can see them anymore. But it elevated me, in a sense, when my clients and my boss stopped joking about taking me out on dates or about my physical attributes. My initials are R-A-C, and my boss used to call me “the rack” behind my back. That’s really inappropriate. All of those things stopped.
Muslim women tend to have these girls’ hangouts and kick it. We dance and get dolled up just get it out of our system. But also, in the last five or six years, there’s been a rise of something called Hijabi fashion. And if you Google it, oh my God, there’s this entire industry of wearing a scarf while being incredibly fashionable — stilettos, bright red lipstick, all blinged out. So there’s an alternative to feel feminine and pretty when I put on a scarf. I’ve kind of embraced that, so I’m at a happier place now. I think the first couple of years I was like, “This sucks. I’m a young woman and relatively attractive and nobody realizes it anymore.”
I think it goes back to allowing ourselves to be human. This idea of lean in, lean out, helicopter parenting. No, it’s about doing the best you can day to day, sometimes hour to hour. Sometimes your kids will have cereal for dinner and — guess what — they’ll be fine. As long as they’re protected and you love them, it’s okay. You have not failed. We have to stop. Part of the issue is that society does this only to women. How many articles and books are written about fathers failing? It is almost always about women, how are mothers not doing it right, or how we should do it, or how to balance career and family. There might be times you can’t give 100% to your job. And you know what? Your job will probably be okay. Same with a house. I’ve learned to let go.
When I was a single mom, I had much more control — it was just the two of us in a one-bedroom apartment, I could keep it clean. Now, I have one room in my house where I could have guests at any given time. There’s no other room in my house that’s like that. You just cannot enter. And it’s okay. I’ve given myself permission to not judge myself so harshly. I cook three or four times a week, but I don’t cook every day. I used to feel like I had to cook every day and give her a homemade lunch. But you have to decide what’s really important. If things don’t get done one day, it’s okay.
But the thing is, you actually don’t. Unless you actually think your daughters will look back and say, “Man, my mom was a bad mom.” If you really think that might happen, then you ought to think about what you’re doing. But I know my daughters. When my eldest daughter was little, I was in law school. I was working. I was single. She had a lot of frozen dinners. Later she had a lot of home-cooked meals. Looking back, my daughter’s not going to say, “Man, those frozen dinners — my mom didn’t love me.” As long as I know that I am doing the best I can and my family sees that, it’s okay. I also am very cognizant of the expectations we have of women, especially in the South Asian community. I don’t know how much you have experienced it, but when you are a daughter-in-law in a South Asian community, what’s expected of you is ridiculous.
Yeah, they’re ridiculous. I have been told to my face, “You have certain roles you have to fulfill.” And I say, “No, I don’t. I am not committing a crime, or a sin, if I don’t cook every day. You have to get over that. That’s your problem, not mine.”
First of all, I have a lot of very accomplished female friends who are South Asian women in their mid- to late-30s who have not gotten married and literally just sit around waiting, thinking, “When I get married, my life will begin. Until then, I will live in an apartment with a roommate.” And I’m like, “You can buy a house, you can travel, you can have a life. You are having a life right now. Stop thinking ‘I’m waiting to start a life.’ You have a life, live it.” Marriages can be good and bad, and we should not rely so much on them as a milestone in life. I know, with family expectations, it’s hard. But a lot of working women now are living on their own, so even if their parents have expectations, they don’t have much control. It’s just psychological control.
My second husband was five years younger than me, was born and raised in Canada. His family is from Pakistan, born and raised in Canada. As Western as I thought you could get, but it wasn’t true. He was raised in a family where women had very defined roles and men had very defined roles. And when we got married, he had expectations of me. His mom was always a stay-at-home mom. I said, “I’m a working, single, divorced mother. You can’t have the same expectations.” We have to get over the idea that there’s one way marriage should look. Marriage is like everything else. One day he might have to pick up some slack, and another day I’ll do it. I don’t think we should be locked into roles. There could be a time when my husband loses his job and I have to step up to the financial plate, and vice versa. There should be enough flexibility in a relationship to roll with the punches — but those conversations have to happen before the marriage. Your marriage can look like a lot of different things, as long as both people agree.
Well, I say that, but I definitely do more around the house than my husband does. There’s no way around that, same with my daughters. But that’s specifically because for the last four or five years, I’ve worked mostly from home doing consulting work. He works full time, and I acknowledge that. Next year, I’ll begin working with the United States Institute of Peace, and I will have to be at the job every single day in D.C. I’m going to have to put on pants and get out of the house every morning. And my husband’s wrapping up a project, so he might be home. That might change who picks up the kids and who makes sure dinner is ready. We have to be flexible enough to do that. But it took a lot of growing pains to get there. It took a lot, a lot, a lot, of pain for me and my husband to get to the point where he realized that his expectations were not based in reality. I compromised too, because I understand how he was raised, but I’m not his mom and he’s not his father.
Adnan’s case is a personal endeavor. It has never been my work or part of my career. We spoke a couple of days ago, and he’s more hopeful than he has been in 17 years. That’s a good thing, but at the same time, you also have to be prepared in case things don’t go your way.
[Editor’s Note: The Baltimore City Circuit Court issued an order on Friday, November 6 for Mr. Syed’s post-conviction proceedings to be reopened. This marks a major victory in Mr. Syed’s push to be granted a new trial.]
In terms of my professional work, I stopped practicing law a few years ago and have been working in national security policy. I worked for a couple of years with the New America Foundation; I’m still a fellow. I ran a project there that worked on social media skills for activists around the country. Next year I have been an amazing fellowship with the US Institute of Peace. It lies at the intersection of faith, vow extremism, and all these things that I think about a lot. Basically, I’ll be studying the role of interfaith actors in preventing sectarian violence in Pakistan and Myanmar.
And because of the overwhelming response we’ve gotten from Undisclosed, and because there are tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted people in prison, we — myself and my colleagues, Susan Simpson and Collin Miller, two lawyers working with me on this who are the brains behind the operation — will be taking on other wrongful-conviction cases. And we will have another season next year.
First of all, I believe in authenticity. You can’t say, “I want to work on this issue — it’s glamorous and cool. I want to be doing this, but I have no insight.” My work has grown organically. And once it started doing that, my writing caught people’s attention. So my advice is: Tell people what you know. Tell people about your experience.