December 12, 2007 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
Born in Lebanon to refugee parents, BMCC associate psychology professor Maram Hallak had spent her youth fleeing from one war zone to another. In time, she made her way to America, settling in New York – a single mother “with three children to raise, little English and no resources.”
She worked at minimum-wage jobs, frequented food pantries, went on welfare – and eventually found time to complete her schooling and earn a doctorate. By the time Hallak arrived at BMCC to take up her teaching duties, she was ready for some peace in her life. The date was September 1, 2001.
Peace at last
“Ironically, just a few days before September 11, I’d been thinking how wonderful it was to have left the middle east and live in peace,” Hallak recalls. In the aftermath of the attacks, her euphoria crumbled as she saw that “terror is not confined to a single region.” She worried too about her place in the community – how she would be perceived in a post-9/11 world, given her Lebanese roots.
“Then I realized I was being selfish,” she says. “I was thinking about myself while ignoring the much more compelling needs of a small community of female Muslim students at BMCC.”
Their backgrounds made conspicuous by their traditional attire, the students had long been victimized by stereotypical views of Muslim women as submissive and intellectually weak. Now they faced a new wave of bias and prejudice. Hallak was asked to counsel them and help them cope with their often difficult experiences.
“These were strong, resilient, smart women who fit no particular stereotype,” she says. Her experience led her to expand her scholarship and service work “to address the issues and sometimes desperate needs of a population virtually unknown to psychology.”
Since then, Hallak has done extensive research and written prolifically on the psychology of Muslim women. She has also emerged as a leading scholar in a related area that is closely linked to her life experiences – the psychology of non-violence.
A way of life
Hallak’s formal interest in the topic originated during my doctoral studies, at the University of Rhode Island. In search of a dissertation topic, she learned of an experimental program in non-violence and peace studies. “It meshed perfectly with my own background and experiences,” she says, “The timing couldn’t have been better.” Her participation in the program gave rise to her dissertation, which focused on evaluating non-violence training programs.
“The more I study non-violence, the more I see it as a way of life, not something to be confined to a specific situation or condition,” she says. “It has great relevance whether I’m teaching general psychology or counseling a student. It’s something that stays with you forever.”