Syeda (Fiana) Arbab
Syeda (Fiana) Arbab is a master of global affairs student with a concentration in sustainable development and a minor in peace studies. She is a Bangladeshi-Muslim-American woman invested in work that uplifts marginalized and oppressed groups through an intersectional transnational feminist analysis. Fiana holds a BA in psychology and women’s and gender studies with a minor in sociology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She served as the statewide youth organizer for the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, where she worked with youth in Flint, Benton Harbor, Detroit, and tribal communities across Michigan. She also conducted legislative analysis on youth justice and led the policy fellowship program for Georgia Shift, a nonprofit that encourages marginalized youth in Georgia to participate in democracy. She serves as the Graduate Student Union representative for MGA students and a student associate for the Mediation Center of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. She is also a founder and board secretary of the Michigan nonprofit Rising Voices of Asian American Families as well as a board member of the Michigan Student Power Alliance. She is passionate about immigrant and refugee rights, anti-racism, gender equity, and decolonial methodologies for sustainable peace and development.
“I believe we will never move forward, beyond our histories of trauma, without transformative justice through reparations, recognition, and recovery."
How did you first become interested in civil or human rights?
The first time that I can remember being struck by a conscientious rage for civil and human rights was in ninth grade. I remember coming across a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, and the prevalence of girls being denied education around the world. After hearing Malala's story, I recognized the sanitized bubble I had the privilege of growing up in. Being a young, Bangladeshi, first generation immigrant, Muslim woman in a relatively conservative household, I had never had to consider a life without education. Many would consider me to be quite similar to Malala based on socially constructed identities, and would consider me as the exception to the rule, that I did not have to face such patriarchal and fanatic realities. The reality for me is, however, that the complexities of my upbringing never once included my education as a woman, as a human being, being held hostage. Both my mother and father valued my education extremely highly, not only for the sake of status and being dignified in the community, but so that I could have an informed sense of self and sense of the world around me. I couldn't believe that education could be denied over something as inconsequential as being born a female person.
Over time, I learned that gendered inequities in education span across developing and developed countries; the faces are different, but the underlying logic of exclusion is the same. Throughout the years, my attention has oscillated between civic engagement opportunities like voting rights and representative governance, to more abstract conceptualizations of human rights like decolonial theory and counterhegemonic practice. However, my rage to demand equitable education for girls is always in the undertow.
From what or whom have you drawn inspiration?
I have always been inspired by my mom and dad. They demonstrate utmost strength, flexibility, commitment and compassion towards humanity in even the smallest, everyday things that they do. I don't think I would be who I am today without having both of them to teach me. I am also inspired by my beloved friends and comrades, who fuel my passion for social justice through the work they do in their respective fields and intellectually motivate me with every new idea or vision they share with me.
What is the specific emphasis of your research or work? What issues do you feel most determined to address in your future work?
As a transnational person with a background in racial justice work, I am drawn to projects dealing with immigrant and refugee rights/ services through a decolonial lens. My scholarly background in psychology, sociology, women’s and gender studies, and global affairs, coupled with my practical experience as a grassroots organizer and NGO practitioner, make me well-suited for policy work at the intersection of advocacy, peacebuilding, counter-narrating, and strategizing towards more inclusive futures where everyone can thrive.
Currently, I am working to unpack and address Notre Dame's colonial history through various modes of inquiry and engage a spectrum of voices to understand how to do justice to those on whose land we teach and the students we claim to dedicate our scholarship to. I am determined to address the ways in which coloniality maintains the logic of exclusion, dehumanization, and injustice.
What obstacles do you perceive as the most challenging in your work?
This conversation is layered for me, because I identify with intersectional identities. Across my communities, the number one concern for me is internalized and interpersonal racism. Anti-Blackness in the Bangladeshi, Muslim and (dominant) American communities I participate in is real. We cannot progress as a people without addressing anti-Blackness, in particular, in all of our communities in the United States and globally. I would also want to discuss the colorism prevalent across communities, that is distinct from anti-Blackness, but relevant to, the hegemony/ proximity to Whiteness desired in marginalized groups.
Additionally, across Bangladeshi, Muslim and American communities we do not address sexual assault and domestic violence enough. Rape culture must be exposed and deemed intolerable collectively, and perpetrators must be held accountable within communities– not just discussed in theory. And lastly, most generally, it has been challenging to maintain hope for change with so many compounded realities of harm. The deeper I dive into my work, the more overwhelmed I become with our past and present, making it difficult for me to ideate about what a better future could look like.
What paths forward do you see as the most promising? What questions do you feel are the most important to answer in order to find a path forward?
I wish we could collectively, as a people, learn our histories and effectively promote restorative justice and healing practices to truly move past traumas from genocide, slavery, massive rapes and rampage, and hegemony. I believe we will never move forward, beyond our histories of trauma, without transformative justice through reparations, recognition, and recovery.