A Muslim Woman’s Guide to Empowerment
By Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi
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.
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 of empowerment.
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 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 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.