A Muslim Woman’s Guide to Empowerment
Often times when
you read an article that espouses a certain formula for “life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness”, the writer seems to be coming from a perspective that
clearly indicates that he or she is an expert in the field. When I was expecting
my first child, for instance, my home was filled with parenting magazines that
told me what I should and should not be doing to raise the perfect baby. Every
developmental stage was addressed and checked off. I was certain that I had all
the answers because I had dutifully studied the advice of all the experts. In
fact, it wasn’t until I had brought my sweet bundle home and he proceeded to
water the lawn on our new couch in the middle of his first real diaper change
that I realized that “experts” can sometimes be full of crock. Did that
revelation somehow lessen what I had learned? Absolutely not! On the contrary,
it taught me a greater lesson about life than all the experts put together.
Don’t just read—think critically.
I say this to
preface my true intent because the word “empowerment” is laden with multiple
connotations. To some, it is equivalent to the “evil wrath of feminism” which in
some circles is considered to be only one step away from lesbianism. To others,
it is the ability to control some aspects of your destiny, to have a voice, to
make a difference.
empowerment is balance, creating and sustaining harmony in all aspects of your
life. It is with this definition in mind that I’m presenting some guidelines to
help us all attain some form of empowerment.
Open a personal
It is absolutely
imperative for every woman to have a personal bank account. Many women leave
finances to their husbands, fathers, brothers. Regardless of who pays the bills
in your house or who brings in the money, every woman needs to have an account
that is hers alone. Even more important than that, every woman needs to sustain
that account by adding money to it each month. If you work, take some of your
income and put it away. If you don’t work outside the home, take some of the
household money you are given and put that in your account. Any monetary funds
you receive as gifts should be put into that account as well. Financial freedom
needs to be one of our goals.
Tear up the
Most Muslim women
know about the litmus test, whether we use that term or not. It is the test of
faith that is represented through the use or non-use of hijab. Wouldn’t it be
lovely to blame this test on the patriarchal society at large? Unfortunately,
women are often the ones that are propagating this silent civil war. As a
result, within the social context, there is an instant division of forces
between those who wear hijab and those who do not.
I will not
address the validity of either side here. I prefer to leave judgment in the
hands of the Almighty.
It is the test
itself that must be thrown out. “United we stand. Divided we fall.” Anything
that does not unite us will tear us apart, and there is no empowerment in
Get out of the
Women need to
move out of their realm of comfort. It’s a scary world out there if you’ve never
left the confines of your family, home, or community. The longer you wait to
explore the larger social and cultural environment, the more difficult it
becomes. You are the one to set your boundaries. You can make them small,
well-defined rock walls, or you can create a flexible, breathable mesh layer
that allows you to experience the different colors of the world while
maintaining your own sense of security. Join a gym or a playgroup. Attend your
children’s PTA meetings. Get a job. Volunteer. There are so many ways to build a
more diverse set of relationships. Look around you and be creative.
Be a front-seat
Unless you live
in a city where public transportation is readily available or you have the
monetary funds to hire a chauffeur, be prepared to get a driver’s license. It is
an absolute necessity in most parts of the United States. When a woman cannot
drive, she is utterly dependent on drivers around her for transportation. This
is a psychological trap which can proliferate a sense of isolation,
powerlessness, and dependency. Don’t go there.
dominant language of the land
There is nothing
more frustrating than being unable to communicate your own thoughts to those
around you. When you don’t know the language, you feel lost and alone, caught in
the confines of an invisible prison. Language help is usually available at
community centers, local schools, libraries. An interpreter is a good way to
transition, but it should not be seen as a long-term solution. Take
responsibility for yourself.
Listen to your
As I progress
into my thirties, I can see the differences between my experiences growing up
and those of my children. Having been raised in the states, I feel more
comfortable with the lingo of the younger generation than those who may be newer
immigrants. This does not, however, preclude me from falling into the generation
gap. The world is constantly changing and the issues our children face will
always be slightly different than ours. So how do we raise a new generation of
American Muslims when all we have is our own somewhat-outdated viewpoint?
I think most
people understand that we have to talk to our children. But talking can be
overrated—especially if it’s in the form of a one-way lecture. The only way we
will know what our children need is by listening to them. Life is hectic and we
spend so much time giving directions (Pick up your toys; Brush your teeth; Turn
off the TV; Eat your dinner) that we often don’t leave enough room for real
communication. I usually listen to my children in the car. That’s the only time
I have them in one place where they can’t run away or find more interesting
things to occupy them. Bedtime, dinner time, story time—find what works for you
and let your children have the stage. It’s amazing what you can learn.
when we are able to attach new knowledge to the existing database in our brain.
Brain cells or neurons are connected to other brain cells through synapses.
There are billions of neurons in the human brain and research indicates that
those individuals with higher levels of education have more synaptic connections
in the area of the brain that is used in higher thinking and reasoning. In other
words, lifelong learning keeps the brain fit much like aerobics keeps the body
fit. That perfect shade of lipstick may fade by the end of the evening, but a
beautiful mind is always in style.
Beware of group
The psychology of
a group is very different from the psychology of an individual. Social groups
can be exhilarating and protective as well as judgmental and dangerous. Groups
tend to emerge from similarities in philosophy, backgrounds, education,
faith—any descriptor that bonds people together while distinguishing them from
others. A group can get much more accomplished than an individual alone, but it
can also stifle critical thought. Keeping in mind that people often don’t behave
the same in large social settings as they would within an interpersonal realm,
it is important for women in social groups to encourage diverse perspectives and
embrace viewpoints that may be different from the majority.
the luxury of your mistakes
Experience is the
greatest teacher. When we think about the important moments in our lives, we
like to remember festive occasions. Major milestones like graduations, weddings,
births change the course of our lives, but it is through our mistakes, the
analysis of our errors, that we often learn the greatest lessons. “To err is
human.” And yet most of us may still cringe when we recall those errors because
we don’t want to focus on past regrets.
Let go. Allow
yourself to be human. When a past error haunts you in the middle of a sleepless
night, be thankful for it and forgive yourself.
In the same vein,
if we find it hard to forgive ourselves, we often find it harder to forgive
others. I don’t believe in the saying, “forgive and forget” because it denies us
the power that comes with experience. So instead, I value another ideal.
Forgive, learn, and move on.
Remember that the
flesh of a human being is haram
As Muslims, we
like to focus on halal and haram. We will drive five miles out of our way to buy
halal meat, but we find great pleasure in eating each other alive. I’m talking
about gossip of course. What an emotional rush we get when we pass along juicy
tidbits of our neighbor’s torrid lives! It is an addiction which we have all
reveled in at some time or another, and this may be the hardest thing to give
up. But personal and social empowerment requires that women find a way to lift
each other up spiritually and emotionally, not peck away at each other like
rabid vultures. When you catch yourself going down that road, veer to another
Welcome your new
While working on
my near-defunct PhD, I visited a university in Oklahoma where I met a very nice
woman in the admissions office. It must have been a pleasant conversation for
the most part because I have no recollection of it. It was only towards the end
that she made a remark that has stayed with me to this day. Let me just say that
after living in the United States for over twenty-five years, I’m pretty
confident in the duality of my ethnic identity. So, when the nice lady said,
“I’m so glad you’re here”, I thought she was welcoming me to the university.
However, upon further investigation, I realized that she was not welcoming me to
the university, but welcoming me to the United States, because “you know what
they do to women in Pakistan”. Considering that my personal experiences of my
homeland were filled with some wonderful memories of cousins and grandparents
(as well as some not-so-wonderful memories of dysentery), I wasn’t sure that I
wanted to pursue that line of thinking. Some years later, another very
enlightened fellow indicated that he really disliked those “other American
people” who did not welcome immigrants to his country. When he met immigrant
families, he always went out of his way to make them feel at home. On the
surface, this sounded lovely, but being a first generation immigrant, this
“welcome mat” philosophy always seemed to reinforce the idea of being an
outsider in American culture, even if we had grown up on US soil. How many
generations must pass in the United States before we become American enough to
Then, the answer
came to me.
First, we have to
welcome ourselves. This means that we have to acknowledge that we are no longer
a single ethnicity within a homogeneous population. We are all hyphenated
Americans. We need to build upon our heritage, not deplete it. That requires,
again, critical thinking. What traditions do we want to keep and which ones are
we willing to accommodate? How do we raise our children to value both
ethnicities without sacrificing either? These are not questions that can be
answered by “experts” because they involve personal reflection and family
values. However, as hyphenated Americans, we need to respect the commonality in
both cultures. This is the home you have chosen. When you focus on common
values, not cultural backgrounds, you lay out your own welcome mat to diversity,
tolerance, and friendship.