Rabia Chaudry is a Pakistani-American attorney, author, and podcast host. I first learned about her while listening to the first season of Serial, a groundbreaking podcast that covered the disturbing case of Adnan Sayed. Since then, Rabia wrote a book about his case called Adnan’s Story. She then started her own highly acclaimed true-crime podcast, Undisclosed, and she is now also co-host of The 45th podcast, which looks at important developments coming out of the White House that merit a second look.
Rabia was born in Pakistan and came to the United States as an immigrant. She serves as a fellow for the New America Foundation and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Rabia has dealt with a variety of challenges in her life, from being a survivor of domestic violence to being a Muslim American leader in a context of rampant Islamophobia.
I sat with Rabia to learn more about her journey and where she draws her deep passion for justice. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. For the full conversation, download our episode from my podcast Spirited through Apple, Spotify, Sticher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Simran Jeet Singh: Who are you at your core? What drives you every day?
Rabia Chaudry: I think of myself as an American Muslim, a mother, wife, and advocate. My mother always pushed it into us that: “Look, your time in this world is really limited. What are you going do with it?” And I always have felt this real sense of urgency, like, “I’m running out of time. I'm running out of time — and there are things I want to do.” I think that's what drives me: a sense that there's not enough time in anybody's life to do all the things they want to do, and so I've got to get on it.
Singh: Where does that sense of urgency come from? Can you tell us a bit about how you were raised and your own spiritual formation?
Chaudry: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan. My father came to the United States first. My mother and I joined him about eight or nine months later. I was still an infant when I came to United States. My dad is a veterinarian, and he eventually began working the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means that most of our lives we grew up in rural agricultural communities in different parts of the country. And every two to three years, he would get transferred somewhere else. I grew up in a lot of small town-type of places where there weren’t a lot of Muslims. In fact, the first kind of Muslim community I was around was when I was in middle school and high school — that's the time we settled in an area where there were other Muslims.
Having said that, I grew up in a home where both my parents are practicing Muslims. My mother was always by the book, whereas my dad was more like, “it's about the spirit of the religion.” We as a family did fast together, we prayed together. As Pakistanis, our life was shaped more by cultural practices than deeply Islamic practice. I got married pretty young. I was in college when I got married. It was in an abusive marriage; it was a really difficult marriage. That was the point as an adult, when I was 20 or 21, when I turned in a really serious way to my religion just so I could get through it. That’s when faith became important to me.
Singh: Can you talk a little more about that? What was it about your Islamic faith that provided you comfort during a period of abuse?
Chaudry: When I entered this marriage, my father was fine with it, but my mother wasn't particularly thrilled with it. And very early on in the marriage, within weeks, when I started being assaulted by my ex-husband, I felt like I can’t tell anybody, like my parents didn't want me to do this and I went against her wishes. So I can't tell anybody. I felt so deeply ashamed. I just couldn’t tell anybody. And the only person I could turn to was God. And so I began praying in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep. I would get up at 3 a.m. and just commune with God by myself.
Singh: How did your parents react when you told them? Were they open and supportive?
Chaudry: They found out when the whole thing just fell apart after five years. I had to leave the marriage in the middle of the night. It was pretty traumatic. My father is one of those people who, I don't care at what point I am in my life, he will be like: “You can always come home.” So that was never a thing. My mother was like, “let’s get revenge.” She was really upset. And I had a daughter at that point, too. And I had a 4-year-old when the marriage ended, so you know, I just wanted to handle things in a way that made it best for my daughter without regard to all the adults involved.
There’s also this cultural thing, where that generation of parents raised you to think they would disown you, even though they probably never would. But the fear of that was always there. And I didn’t want my parents to hurt either, though. They come from a different world. My expectation was that they would just act in that old-school way, but it’s not true. A parent is a parent.
Singh: Do you think these experiences shaped your passion for justice? Where does that come from for you?
Chaudry: I trace it really to my mother. She would always say to us at the dinner table this idea that is based in a Muslim tradition: “When you die, you will be held to account for what you did with your time, what you did with your youth, what you did with your health. All the gifts that God gave you — you are not entitled to any of it. But when it’s gifted to you, what did you do with it?”
The whole point of all that is to do something for somebody else with it. I remember hearing that so many times. My mom would say “God is going to take hasaab [account], and he’s going to ask what did you do with it? What did you with all the time I gave you and the education and the skills and all that stuff?”
I’ve experienced a lot of things, which then adds to my arsenal of empathy for others – and how do you then look away from that? I just feel compelled to do something for other people. Earning money is important. You have to raise families. You need stability. You have to take care of your parents. But it can’t just all be about you. What a terrible life that would be.