Raising Muslim women for tomorrow

Islam encourages us to use Allah’s Will and His words as our sole and objective measure, and our socialisation as women to want to appeal to male dominated ideals, whether this is done consciously or not, is oppositional to this.

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Islam encourages us to use Allah’s Will and His words as our sole and objective measure, and our socialisation as women to want to appeal to male dominated ideals, whether this is done consciously or not, is oppositional to this.

The moment I held my screaming, writhing, glowing red baby daughter, her ear-splitting cry signalled a change in my psychology. I became acutely aware of the overbearing duty of having to shape another human being. And while we may split hairs over the implications or semantics of this, essentially every parent or care giver will be responsible for carving out an identity for their off-spring, even if one is to adopt a hands-off, laissez-faire approach, your indelible fingerprint will be implanted on your child’s being, and there is no escaping this gargantuan of responsibilities.

This reckoning is something that has only intensified with time and age as my two daughters grow and absorb the world around them at an alarming rate. I’m made aware of how much I am needed to mediate their relationship with the world with all its real and daunting implications.

The only arbiter that has brought relief to this fraught process is and always has been Islam. In my faith I have found the answer to every seemingly impossible question, a way out of every moral quandary, a sense of joy, hope, and optimism for my daughters and their future, despite the odds.

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It is Islam I consistently draw upon whether she wants to discuss war and conflict over breakfast, whether we are talking about the planets and stars, or when I’m flippantly asked ‘what’s the point’. And the oldest is only five…

When I ask myself the inevitable question of what kind of women I want my daughters to be, I can only draw on my own experience and internal conflicts to begin to map this out. And naturally, as a woman, I started with my shortcomings and worked my way back from there.

As a 90s child who grew up on a solid diet of Disney and Barbie, and a subsequent disillusionment, I became automatically weary of mainstream media and the power it had to imbue damaging and lasting notions regarding their very sense of self. As a child of colour who had precociously internalised Eurocentric beauty ideals, I was keen not to expose my daughters to media which objectified women, or portrayed a narrow depiction of ‘beauty’ – availability to men – as their overriding value and worth. To put it more succinctly, I was hell bent on ensuring they did not internalise the male gaze.

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)”. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

The surveyor has long haunted my being and was sadly forefront of my mind when my daughter was born.

I still remember my earliest notions of womanhood being constructed around the shining appeal of a rosy cheeked and weak-of-heart fairy-tale princess and the teasing, will-he-won’t-he narrative which framed her existence. Worryingly, these stories are often falsely presented as empowering, coming of age tales that exhibit the very outer limits of female strength and potential.

To me, growing up, they were aspirational, and I had fetishised the idea of beauty and desirability even before I had the ability to rationalise these concepts. It instilled in me a habit to constantly try to fashion an image of myself which was consistent with these ideals. And this was at the expense of a true understanding of my own self, my interests and a genuine evaluation of my purpose as both a woman and a believer.

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And so, the watchful surveyor became a constant in me, a force which wrestled with all of my actions, even when done in earnest. It’s the ‘male’ surveyor which persistently caused me to value myself as a composite of everyone else’s opinions. Was I smart enough? Funny enough? Of course, pretty enough? At times it had caused me to doubt and question myself, trip over my words, and spend the rest of the day deliberating whether one acquaintance or another had perceived me as stupid. It had inhibited me in more ways than I care to imagine. And it was this almost crippling sense of self-consciousness that I am determined to liberate my daughters from.

How do we as Muslim women reconcile our socialisation, being made to be constantly aware of how we are perceived and how we measure up according to the yardstick of male desire, with the idea that as Muslims we must behave as though only Allah is watching. Because of course it is Allah who determines our worth – both in our barakah in this world and our destiny as celestial beings.

Islam encourages us to use Allah’s Will and His words as our sole and objective measure, and our socialisation as women to want to appeal to male dominated ideals, whether this is done consciously or not, is oppositional to this. Society’s ideals for women, which are driven by profit motives, are ever changing and unattainable. They are used as a tool to, at the very least, generate profit from our anxieties, and at worst subdue us. Allah’s everlasting laws are far aloft from this. Islam encourages us to continually work on self-improvement, and endeavour to better ourselves independent of how we are ranked socially or physically. And as I learned to purify my intentions and actions, and place Allāh as the sole purpose of everything that I did, I was struck by how much it rid me of the nervous and debilitating energy. How much more I gained both in myself and in respect to what came back to me.

This internal struggle that many Muslim women feel, and our self-objectification, is something I wish not to burden my children with. In practical terms, this means – until they are old enough to demystify things – we rarely choose a screen-based activity on the weekend, and I do not purchase dolls or much of the hyper-feminine paraphernalia that clutters the pink aisles of toy shops the world over, be it plastic lipsticks, head models, or Bratz branded merchandise.

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I do not own or use any snapchat inspired filters on my phone, nor encourage them to take selfies as I do not feel they should deem their outer appearance as something that is worthy of their time or effort, let alone to present them with an airbrushed image of themselves as a sexualised cat. While many of these items perpetuate beauty standards that are so ubiquitous as to be considered totally benign, they are all ultimately constructed to appeal to the most base of male instincts. And they are often pandered to innocuously, and without any sense of self-examination or questioning.

The visual narrative that we as women are woven into means that a majority of women feel inadequate presenting themselves to the world in their own skin and become dependent on external crutches such as make-up in order to feel acceptable. I would never want my daughters to absorb this notion that they are incomplete or insufficient as they are.

And although many people interpret my move away from mainstream culture as a reactionary, retro ‘Taliban’ inspired ‘burn all the VHS’ ethos, I am continually motivated by the positive affects of this that I see on my two daughters who are currently enjoying being kids, and not being encouraged to pout holding up peace signs with their hips jutted.

Of course, they are not impervious to the world around them, and after one series of sustained exposure to Disney princesses, my daughter later looked at the pale side of her inner arm thoughtfully. ‘I wish all of my body was this colour mama’ as I tried not to physically wince.

He who does not live in the way of his beliefs starts to believe in the way he lives”

Umar ibn Al-Khattab

This inevitably means that my parental choices are framed as over-zealous, belligerent, and devoid of any joy. I’m often asked whether I fear my children will ‘miss out’ be it on Frozen, or Halloween or Christmas – despite having two young girls who lead full, happy and inquisitive lives. These questions are almost always presented by fellow Muslims, who cannot see beyond the secular monoculture and who base their understanding of happiness and success on western paradigms.

My desire to root my children in a reality that is removed from the mirage of popular culture is coupled with my desire to embolden them to think and feel independently and not be pigeon holed into social expectations of them as women or social agents. I despair at the thought of pacifying them by paying homage to certain cultural practices, purely for the sake of fitting in – and sending a message to them that they must feed this latent desire we have to be accepted, on any terms. I do this so they seek their own models of success that aren’t rooted in misogynistic notions of gender or in a way that doesn’t place Allah’s pleasure as their rubric.

It also means that, being conscious of the ability of language to inform meaning and value, we have expanded it so that when I tell my daughter she is beautiful, she knows it means she has a capacity to be brave, thoughtful of others, and to work hard to achieve something. When she asks me what value-driven terms like ‘ugly’ mean, I remind her that they have no meaning outside of their malicious intent, and are words made up and weaponised against others. And I pray this means that these words can not wield the same power over them – whether it be from the beauty industry, or those who will make them feel less than because they might refuse to make themselves visually accessible to men.

Do not force your own customs upon your children for they are in other times than yours”

Ali RA

Our focus on language, more importantly, extends to the way we present Islam to our children. As a British Pakistani who has always had an uneasy relationship with my cultural heritage, as I grew and shed the cocoon of culture I undoubtably gained a deeper understanding of my religion. Being made to feel I should pledge allegiance to a concept of a nation state made up of borders imposed by self-serving, racist men, was never something I felt I could embrace. And the cultural practice that exists in that region, and many others, of reciting the Quran as empty, hollow sounds meant I was never able to engage with Allah’s words, and at one point viewed its recitation as a chore.

My initial indifference towards Islam was rooted in a total misunderstanding of what it meant to be Muslim and often a conflation of cultural practices with religious ones. When my daughters, who are growing up in an environment rich with the Quran, are listening to surahs we often discuss the meaning and implications of the ayahs or verses, in a language that is consistent with their own. I am conscious of how much of a role Surah Fatiha will play in their grounding in the deen – through them being able to connect with Allah in their daily salah – and so we discuss what it means when we say Allah is the Most Beneficent and the Most Merciful, how do we connect what may appear as abstract concepts to our children’s material world – what can we see around us that shows us His Beneficence? Who are the people on whom Allah bestows His Mercy and what do we learn from these people and their journeys? These are all exercises that children, who have a natural affinity to storytelling and riddle-solving love and respond to.

Indeed, We (God) offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant.”

(Qur’an 33:72)

I see my role as a Muslim parent as one that is much more complete compared to what my own cultural practices might dictate. I don’t see my responsibility to teach Islam to them as restricted to the outwardly, more ritualistic practices. Rather than adopt the short-sightedness of certain cultural interpretations, I very much hope to expand my children’s understanding of it in an effort to get them to adopt Prophetic qualities as I believe was intended. This means being more socially and environmentally conscious.

Hierarchies based on race and culture have no place in Islam and should be rooted out of Muslim culture, and the idea that some of Allah’s creation can be better than others based on anything other than taqwa – a quality visible only to Allah – is antithetical to Islamic practice. These are principles that our children must be taught in an active and uncompromising way if we are ever to rid ourselves of all the toxic and fractious forces in our ummah. Most often this manifests itself as anti-blackness in the Muslim community, and as well as being utterly despicable, is one of the major roadblocks to a united ummah.

The fact that Allah created us all equally is one of the simplest and most natural facts of our faith, and its beauty and simplicity is so obvious to young, impressionable minds that we have no excuse but to embody it. This has been one of the easiest principles to teach my children and one that they have unquestioningly embraced. One of the most inspiring things about rediscovering Islam for me is that my constant quest to find my tribe was finally satiated.

While I never felt easy about how culture and race dictated my identity – I felt my fitrah realigning in submitting wholly to Allah and learning to love His Messenger, and this is an identity I am proud of and a community I am willingly and openly a part of. And a community and unity based on religious, rather than racial or ethnic lines, has been more socially and spiritually fulfilling to me. Socially, any complicity in the ummah in perpetuating systems of subordination and our adoption of the colonial mindset must end with our next generation of women and men, and Islam in all it’s glory should not be used as a tool to further this.

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Islam’s focus on our actions and intentions is something that we often fail to convey to our young through our oversight of the smaller moral decisions that make up our day to day life. While we often find members of the ummah capable and confident enough to make decisions about beards, hijabs, mortgages – all undoubtably vital elements of our faith – we often see members of the ummah failing on the smaller day to day sacrifices, the implications of which are crucial. Decisions that require more thought and reflection, and not a blind acceptance.

While we are able, and willing, to control our nafs when it comes to our dietary choices for example, we often put our own creature comforts first and give less due regard to decisions which have an environmental impact or our level of decorum and consideration of others in daily interactions. All of which are areas in which Islam should govern, and which form our moral, Islamic character. As Muslims we know the inanimate as well as animate will speak on our behalf on the day of judgement and therefore being environmentally conscious, and countering the self-centred edifice of late stage capitalism which inures us to the idea that the earth is the domain of man alone and not the multitude of life that exists on it – be it plant or animal – is one of the many areas we need to be conscientious of.

This is part of a wider disconnect that society has with it’s material environment – socially our blind spots which render us ignorant of the origins and inevitable endings of the millions of material objects that make up our world result in a total disregard of our immediate environment and is one of the drivers of environmental degradation. Islam is about striving for excellence and as Muslim parents, we need to encourage our children to reconnect with their material world so they are able to behave more responsibly towards it. In instilling a curiosity of child’s environment, they will ultimately blossom and begin opening up to the world of possibility around them.

When we decided as a household to switch to bar soap to reduce our plastic waste we spoke to my daughters about the reasoning behind these decisions – how much energy goes into the act of creating plastic and how our smaller act of not putting a few pounds of plastic in our rubbish bin every week means it is not rotting away in some landfill, contributing greater harm to our earth. The chain of cause and effect is something that we need to make obvious to the next generation of Muslims, and that will not be immediately deducible to young children.

I would never allow them to belittle or ridicule another person – in any capacity – due to their life choices, or encourage the insincerity, disdain and clout-seeking of troll-like attitudes that appear to be taking a monstrous form on and off-line. I go to great lengths to instil empathy and sincerity in them so they’re never in the position where they might feel the need to insult others in order to validate their own selves. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen something on my twitter feed which I agree with wholeheartedly but which has been dressed up in a language or derisive attitude that I have personally found insulting. While we may be at a time in our evolution as an ummah where we are beginning to grapple with cultural biases and attitudes which are alien to true Islamic practice, our adherence to rhetorical trends and ‘meme’-spiritedness mean we compromise on Islamic practice in the way we convey this.

The internet culture that we are immersed in is increasingly polemic and there is no doubt we have adopted the vernacular of contempt and ridicule which is as equally alien to Islam as some traditional, cultural practices. I consider my daughters to be fortunate to be growing up in a period where young people are more socially and environmentally conscious. Growing up myself, in 90’s Britain, and having inherited the cultural nihilism and solipsism of social movements such as grunge, which bled themselves into popular culture, caring about a cause or movement was always deeply uncool and looked down upon, and your street cred was defined by your capacity for callousness.

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Seeing the erosion of this in millennial culture has been a real relief for me. Where we may see vestiges of this mean attitude, in the name of social justice, we should equally employ Islam to dismantle this, and not let it evolve further in the next generation of muslims. Factional differences included, if we truly believe our own brand of Islam to be superior to our religious neighbours then this would not manifest itself in disdain and ridicule. Tawfiq is a blessing and if we truly believe we have been granted it over someone else, we should not be complacent or use it as an opportunity to engender a feeling of entitlement.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: The believer does not taunt others, he does not curse others, he does not use profanity, and he does not abuse others (Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1977).

In practical terms this means that we don’t create a currency in a language of degradation in our home, – we do not let small instances where they may be inclined to mimic someone go, and it is unacceptable to us. As a principle we do not allow any language or sentiment that might be mocking of another human being. When we choose to present Islamic life choices to them, we do so with the language of reason and measure, and not in a reactionary or hyperbolic way. They are being shown a positive and affirmative islamic identity, rather than one that defines itself against groups or practices.

Despite doing everything I can to make my daughters feel loved and secure, I also feel the need to ground them in a sense of humility and remind them of their role in relation to the wider ummah. Yes, it’s important for them to know that as one of Allāh’s creation they are unique and valued, but so equally is everyone else. This means undoing some of the tide of the neoliberal era of advanced capitalism, and its rampant ideology of individualism.

Self-love has become one of those terms that I find difficult to utter without cringing. And this is no reflection of the bare definition of the term, but what it has come to symbolise culturally – how it is exploited in order to sell a shade of lipstick or a body cream, how it appears to be used synonymously with a specific kind of public expression, platforming and exhibitionism. And while we are often told to introduce self-love to young girls in order to encourage self-respect, in practice I find that it often has the opposite effect.

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Islam was sent as guidance to humankind, whose natural inclination is not always to its individual and collective benefit, and so the modern notion of self-love, I feel, needs to be introduced hand in hand with the concepts of discipline, restraint and measure. I would much rather teach my daughters to focus their efforts outwardly, on achieving something that is much bigger than them, than indulge every passing whim and inclination in the name of self-love. The self-love I do unequivocally encourage in them is introspection, to know and appreciate themselves without any external, public validation.

As our global trajectory as an ummah continues to be governed by our appeasement of secular models of success, we continue to allow ourselves to be defined by or against them. And this extends to gender roles as well as our increasing focus on public forms of social and professional gratification. The desire we have as a people to constantly find Muslim versions of the latest populist trend or fad, or our incessant desire to seek influencers and role models to pedestal, all of whom are, tellingly, almost always ruined by their fame and status, speaks of an insecurity in us and an inability to adhere to our own metric of success and achievement based on Islamic principles, and which have no public measure.

Think of the reluctance of Abu Bakr RA to adopt the caliphate, despite all the glory a public life brings. What I am certainly not saying is that Islam is inconsistent with a role in public life, or that we as a community aren’t in need of role models, but that this shouldn’t be considered the barometer of achievement. There are millions of Muslim women whose role in the home, shaping the next generation of muslims, goes quietly unnoticed, but whose work should be no less valued because it doesn’t have the sheen of fame or public prominence.

I would hate for my daughters to unquestioningly accept society’s obsession with fame and to feel they should want to achieve public recognition at the expense of doing what is right – for them to seek society’s approval over Allah’s. While many muslims, men and women, will achieve barakah in their lives in a public capacity, the majority of us will toil away to achieve taqwa in a private manner. I would never discourage my daughters from seeking an ‘unremarkable’ life, away from the public glare, if they felt that was best for them and their imaan. And statistically speaking this is much more likely to be the case and that’s not something, as a mother, I consider to be a negative thing.

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In short – I don’t feel that catapulting my daughters into the glare of the public domain is the anti-dote to the poor cultural interpretations of the public/private male/female binary – particularly because of what it means in today’s world to be a public figure. We as a community and as individuals need to ask ourselves what our desire for public recognition is really rooted in. And so this means that I am teaching my daughters to glean satisfaction in the act of achieving, learning, being productive, contributing – and not in the recognition of such acts. I often explain to them that their achievements are no less material because they’re not recognised by their friends, teachers or family.

In the face of the moral uncertainty of contemporary notions of gender, many Muslims have further entrenched themselves in traditional Western ideas of gender. This is particularly damaging because these are not aligned with Islamic essentialist notions. In Islam, femininity is consistent with the intellect and religious authority of A’isha RA, the steadfastness, integrity and independence of Khadijah RA, the bravery, strength and courage of Nusaybah RA. It is apparent in Umm Salama and her endurance, patience and complexity. Islam has a rich and deep understanding of womanhood and femininity that doesn’t rely on superficial, exterior elements and we as a community should encourage our daughters to embrace these qualities as well as the intellectual humility that comes with submitting to Allah.

And of course, perhaps most importantly, I play and laugh and talk with my children  – I ground them in love and acceptance. Islam and the Quran is something we bond over and which roots us together. We spend time exploring her interests and natural talents because I want them to thrive, and I know Islam provides the basis for this. I try to use every moment and opportunity I can to invest in them because through them Allah has taught me about temporality and what it means to make benefit of your time on earth. And I know that what Islam brings to my life is so complete and fulfilling that I’m not in search of anything else, and ultimately I hope the same will be true of my daughters, in sha Allah.