A Muslim Woman’s
Guide to Empowerment
By Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi
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.
For me, 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
Open a personal checking account
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 litmus test
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 disarray.
Get out of the house
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 driver
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.
Learn the 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 children
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.
Embrace lifelong learning
Learning occurs 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 mentality
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.
Allow yourself 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
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 topic.
Welcome your new hyphenated identity
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 welcome others?
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.