Future lawyer finds herself immersed in two worlds

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By Debra Talcott
Legal News

When Cooley Law School student Dewnya Ahmad Bazzi was invited to contribute a chapter to “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim,” she felt honored to tell her story about playing basketball in high school and college while wearing the hijab-the traditional head covering that Muslim women wear as a sign of modesty.

“The editors of the book contacted me about being a contributor, and when I learned it would be about 40 Muslim women, all born and raised in the United States, all under 40 years old, all educated, and all willing to share their stories with the world, I immediately accepted,” says Bazzi, who looks forward to graduating from Cooley's Auburn Hills campus later this month.

Bazzi's chapter, titled “Sporting Faith,” describes her decision at the age of 8 to put on the scarf, and it recounts the reactions she received over the years while playing sports in clothing that covered her arms to her wrists and her legs to her ankles.

Despite criticism and even hostility from spectators, coaches, opponents, and even some of her own teammates while playing on the basketball teams at her high school in Dearborn and later for University of Michigan-Dearborn, Bazzi says she never once wavered on her decision.

Instead, she hopes her words and actions have inspired others to stand up for their own beliefs.

“I took their negative attitudes as motivation,” she writes. “Every time I put on my Nikes, I knew I had something to prove.”

In the academic arena, Bazzi has also proven herself. While studying for her J.D., she has served as founder and president of the Cooley Muslim Legal Society, president of the Intramural Sports Organization, president of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society, as well as a member of the Diversity Committee, the Jewish Law Student Association, and the Women's Lawyer Alliance of Michigan.

Bazzi credits her parents, Ahmad and Fatmeh Bakri, for instilling in her the value of education and for setting the example of hard work.

“They never pressured me to be anything I didn't want to be. They told me to follow my heart and get the best education possible. I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was a young girl defending my sister to my parents,” she says.

Witnessing her father's dedication to his business, the Caffina Coffee Corp., Bazzi says she has a passion for business law. She sees herself focusing on business transactions, sports law, and nonprofit work in the future.

“It is also a dream of mine to be able to do pro bono projects that will help advance the Muslim community. At this point I feel the most important thing is to spread understanding about what Islam really is,” says Bazzi. “I hope that in a few years, once the economy and the uprisings in the Middle East get better and the image of Muslims is not so distorted, I would like to open a law firm and offer scholarships to young Muslim prospective lawyers who have the same passion as I do. I would also like to empower the youth in my community and give them the avenues to do whatever it is they want to do in life.”

Bazzi says her experiences at Cooley have prepared her well for these future roles.

“The staff is incredibly helpful; they treat you like family,” she says. “I enjoyed walking into school each and every day.”

Her two favorite classes were Business Organizations with Professor James Carey and Constitutional Law with Professor Daniel Ray.

“Both professors are extremely challenging, but they did a great job relaying the information in a fashion that was easy to remember.”

Bazzi hopes her memory will serve her well in late July, when she takes the Bar Exam. In the meantime, she stays busy putting in the suggested 500 to 600 hours of quality study time in the weeks leading up to the exam.

“I am taking a commercial bar prep course which I attend for four hours in the morning. After that I take a break and go to the gym. Then it’s back to the books for quiet individual study time,” she says.

While Bazzi follows her daily routine, she continues to try to educate others about what it means to be Muslim and to overcome any misconceptions they may have about her faith as a result of listening to mainstream news sources.

“The media is simply uneducated about what Islam really is,” says Bazzi. “They are reporting things that are false or misleading.”

To combat those misconceptions, Bazzi implements what she calls a two-tier process for teaching others.

“First is just to treat everyone with the utmost respect and to carry yourself in the way that Islam teaches so that people will notice. I love talking to people on a daily basis about sports, politics, religion, and other basic topics so that they understand that I am just like they are. Yes, maybe I dress a bit differently, but at the end of the day our values and morals are very similar.”

Bazzi recognizes that she is only one person, but she firmly believes her individual actions have an impact on how others will view all Muslims.

“I have become very good friends with classmates for whom I was the first Muslim they had ever met. They view the entire Muslim nation the way they view me — it is human nature. So I believe one person really can make a difference.”

The second way Bazzi tries to dispel the myths about her religion is through organized forums that are educational, interesting, and fun.

She explains that the Cooley Muslim Legal Society hosted a “ground zero debate” and an interfaith dinner, the two largest events put on by student organizations on campus.

“I refuse to believe that people want to be ignorant; they just need a place, a person, or a forum to get educated on specific issues,” explains Bazzi.
John Nussbaumer, dean of Cooley's Auburn Hills Campus, is proud of what Bazzi has accomplished in law school.

“Dewnya has done more to promote understanding, harmony, and respect among very diverse students than any student I have worked with in my time at Cooley,” Nussbaumer says. “In addition to her leadership in organizing our interfaith dinner-which drew more than 140 people from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities to break bread, learn about each other's cultures, and listen to a wonderful panel of lawyers from all three faiths talk about the common threads that bind us all together-she helped translate our 10Core foreclosure education program into Arabic to make it accessible to the Middle Eastern community.

Her exemplary leadership has led to her selection as our Alumni Distinguished Student Award winner.”

Bazzi specifically wants others to know that the tenets of Islam teach peace and understanding, not violence and hate.

She wants others to know that women are not oppressed, but rather highly respected in her religion.

She also says Sharia law is nothing like its portrayal by the American media.

Upon hearing the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, Bazzi reacted in much the same way as Americans of all religions.

“When any tyrant and mass murderer is captured, it is a wonderful thing. I feel for the parents, children, and other family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. I hope this will give them a bit of closure. I think that bin Laden was a terrible man who will be judged by God and face the consequences of his actions in the hereafter. True Muslims stand against what bin Laden preached.”

As an American Muslim, Dewnya Bazzi finds herself immersed in two worlds.

Calling herself “a full-blown practicing Muslim,” she follows the “Five Pillars of Islam” that serve as the foundation of Muslim life: faith in the oneness of God, daily prayer, charity for those less fortunate, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, which she completed at age 20.

Bazzi describes her life as an American with strong ties to Lebanon as “balanced” and says her family blends the best of both cultures.

“We live in America, we follow American law, we eat burgers and fries, and we go to the movies. However, our weddings have Lebanese music, we eat Lebanese food, and we sometimes speak in Arabic.”

Bazzi's parents still reside in Dearborn, as do her siblings. Amal Bakri has a master's degree and is a teacher, Hyatt Bakri will take the MCAT in June, and Ali Bakri attends U-M Dearborn. Bazzi's husband, Fouad, works in correspondent banking for Comerica, and she describes him as an amazing man who is just as supportive of her endeavors as her parents and siblings have always been. The one exception to that support occurs during football season.

 “I am a die-hard Michigan football fan,” she says. “My husband is an Ohio State fan. So you can imagine how fun football season is in our home!”
But football provides only a brief diversion from serious world affairs. For Dewnya Bazzi, the wars in the Middle East are doubly troublesome.

“Our troops are dying every day, and our family members in the Middle East are dying every day. We as Muslim Americans must deal with both sides, and it is very hard and sad. I hope that one day we can all live together without fighting.”

Bazzi had the opportunity to share these sentiments after being invited to the State Department in Washington, D.C. in March to meet with Farah Pandith, who serves as special representative to the Muslim Communities in the Obama administration.

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