Ameena Qazi was in her first year of law school at Wayne State University in Detroit when a professor gave the female students fashion advice that amused her.
"She was telling us how to dress when we argue cases in front of a judge," says the Fullerton resident, who's the deputy executive director and lead attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations' (CAIR) Los Angeles chapter (which, contrary to its name, is based in Anaheim). "'They like to see pencil skirts and form-fitting blouses,' she's telling us women. And I remember thinking, 'No. I'm going to wear my trousers; I'm going to wear my headscarf. Judges should value us for who we are—and we are darn good lawyers.'"
Qazi has lived life loving to be underestimated. The daughter of a Pakistani immigrant and Wisconsin native of German-Scotch-Irish descent who converted to Islam, she's naturally unassuming and soft-spoken, and she looks far younger than her 31 years. "I'm a young woman who wears a headscarf. It's hard to get people to see what you offer," she admits. But beneath that soft demeanor lies a lawyer who has been at the forefront of civil rights in Southern California the past couple of years, especially when defending Muslims. In her five years at CAIR, Qazi and her staff have done everything from run civil-liberties workshops to help a woman who claimed discrimination at Disneyland  to going after the federal government over its role in the Craig Monteilh mosque-spy case. "Some people say we're hyper-reactive, but we actually try to perform triage before anything else," Qazi says. "People will call me and say, 'Sister Ameena, this happened to me.' They don't want to make a big deal. But that's disempowering—we should speak up. Even if we lose a case, it's not necessarily bad. No matter what the case, if it's something wrong, we take that stand in favor of the good. That is the victory."
Defending the rights of Muslims wasn't something Qazi initially set out to do. After earning her law degree, she worked on community projects, including an interfaith performance-art group that Qazi says still serves as inspiration for her courtroom arguments. But the self-admitted lover of the Bill of Rights became increasingly concerned about the legal problems Muslims in Southern California began to encounter in a post-9/11 world—unlawful monitoring, workplace discrimination, demagogic politicians, no-fly lists—so she joined CAIR. "I've always wanted to help out the little guy, and I got that from my parents," she says, remembering a story from her childhood about how her family once passed by another family living out of their van. "We went home, gathered food for the family and dolls for the little girls, and went right back and gave them those presents. And my Dad told us, 'What you have is a gift from God. It's not necessarily yours. Do what you can with it because there's no other way.'"
The incident happened in the South Bay, which is also where Qazi's latest legal victory occurred. In Lomita, the City Council had denied a permit for a new mosque proposed by the Islamic Center of the South Bay—Qazi's childhood house of worship. CAIR sued the city, alleging discrimination; the federal government helped to settle the case earlier this year. 
Qazi takes strides to diminish her influence. "I'm just a drop in the ocean of this movement," she insists. But she does take pride in letting Muslims know that their lives in this country shouldn't be one of fear. "When you use all these 'nots' to define you—not terrorists, not a religion of hate, not foreigners—it chips away at who you are," Qazi says. "But helping people stand for who you are—citizens, Americans, neighbors—that's an act of empowerment, and has a huge effect on everyone."