Debate is an art Mariam and Maher Mahmood have practiced since childhood.

From an early age, their father, Syed Mahmood, included them in discussions about local events, national politics and news from around the world.

The conversations could be tense - Syed liked to play devil's advocate and butt heads over controversial issues.

But the longtime Woodbury resident knew that difficult conversations are often the most important ones.

"It was just providing them the tools to empower them," he said. "Then they will reach to the level where they can find whatever their passion is."

Their passion ended up being law.

The sisters recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School with multiple awards.

"My dad really brought us to the conversation, asked us difficult questions and challenged us," said Maher, who completed her law degree at 22. "I think that's what sparked our curiosity and interest in doing this type of work."

At their commencement ceremony May 13, Maher was among the recipients of the Mondale Hall Engagement Award and received a Minnesota Law Equity and Diversity Award, which recognizes students' contributions to a more welcoming environment at the university.

Mariam, 26, received an award from the Minnesota Justice Foundation in recognition of her public service. She logged more than 150 hours providing legal assistance for domestic violence and divorce proceedings at a legal aid office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she spent her final year of law school and now lives with her husband and daughter.

Erin Keyes, dean of students at the U of M Law School, credits Mariam and Maher's accomplishments to their shared combination of intellect and emotional intelligence.

"Law is not simply deciding who's right and who's wrong, it's giving people an avenue to feel they can be heard within this large and often times overwhelming legal system," Keyes said.

"If law could be done by computers, we wouldn't need people in the conversation. They both understand that human connections, conversations and feeling included are key not only in legal education, but in the legal system and whether clients feel that they have access to the legal system."

Different paths

Although their journeys to law school differ, both women attribute their passion for law to their faith.

"As a Muslim woman, the ideas of justice and fairness are really important," Maher said. "I wanted to practice my faith in what I do. I thought law school would be a perfect outlet for me to practice my passion, plus practice my faith, which teaches to implement justice and fairness every day."

Maher will start her career at a private firm practicing civil law. But she and Mariam said they hope to leverage their degrees as advocates for people people at risk of falling through the cracks of a sometimes overwhelming legal system.

Of the issues the sisters hope to address as lawyers, immigration is the most personal.

Maher and Mariam were born in Saudi Arabia.

Their family lived in India before their father accepted a job in Woodbury in 2003.

When the White House delivered a now-halted executive order in February restricting travel from several other muslim-majority countries, Maher saw an opportunity to initiate the type of difficult, but important dialogue she grew up with.

As president of the Muslim Law Student Association, she helped organize an event to discuss how the executive order contended with the U.S. Constitution.

More than 200 students, law professors and community members showed up.

"I wanted to reach out to everyone, not just appeal to a particular group of people, because then I'm just preaching to the choir," she said. "I think law school is the perfect place where two people who completely disagree with each other can have a professional conversation about what's going on. Both sides can be completely right, but it's a matter of discussing it."

The event echoed Mariam's work on the university's Diversity Week committee in 2014. As the committee co-chair, Mariam helped organize three days' worth of speakers and programming focused on legal professionals' role in issues like race and gender.

As a lawyer, she said she hopes to challenge misconceptions people might have about people like her.

"Muslim women, and Muslims in general, aren't really represented in the legal field," she said. "We've contributed a lot to America, because we are American. So, I think it's important for the community to see a Muslim woman defending anybody or representing anyone."