A Silver Tongue

Growing up in Macomb, Ill., a shy Haleemah Na’Allah ’21 took a book everywhere she went to avoid talking to people. Her mother, however, knew Na’Allah’s proclivities for deep thoughts. She signed up the then-sixth-grader for a local speech team, hoping to shake her daughter from her sheepishness.

“She wanted me to get out of my bubble,” Na’Allah recalled, noting the development was life-changing. “I fell in love with it and kept going.” 

It’s a major part of why Na’Allah enrolled at Bradley, where as a sophomore, the political science and philosophy major helped lead the university’s speech team, for which she is secretary, to first place at the National Forensic Association contest held in California. Bradley counts 42 team national championships, making it the most successful collegiate forensics team program in the country.

Na’Allah is the daughter of educators, Nigerian immigrants who moved to Canada, and then to Illinois, in 1996 to pursue higher education. The family always talked about news events. “It’s kind of an immigrant thing,” she said. “They wanted my sisters and I to be in tune with our environment.” Such awareness helped shape Na’Allah’s social justice sensibilities — she’s considering a career in public policy — while also giving her ideas for speeches. 

During last year’s national competition, she gave a talk on alleged abuses at the T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in Breaux Bridge, La. The school is known for getting many first-generation and low-income students into Ivy League universities.   

At Bradley, Na’Allah also is active with the Muslim Student Association. She wears a hijab, a head covering common among Muslim women and men. Her skills at speechmaking have helped her explain, not only the headwear, but also the faith to those who know little about either. The Quran instructs followers to wear the garments as a show of modesty. 

“People will ask if I always wear it in the shower or to bed and I’ll usually explain and joke around. Sometimes I’ll ask if they wear underwear or socks in the shower, and they’ll understand the comparison and laugh at themselves.”

“They’re misunderstandings, more often than not,” she added.  “Muslims are less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, so it’s very easy for someone to have these misunderstandings if they’ve never met a Muslim.”

In February, Na’Allah helped the MSA organize a campus event around World Hijab Day, a global event that encourages women of all religions to wear and experience the garment. Members passed out free hijabs at the event. Na’Allah is also secretary for Bradley’s chapter of the NAACP.

True to form, she wasn’t shy about educating passers-by.

“I love answering questions, because that means they’re going to get the right information,” Na’Allah says. “I’m pretty obviously Muslim, and I enjoy explaining things to people. They’re casual conversations, and we all come out better after.”

— Andrew Faught