Gender Inequality Interviews

9 questions with Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a lifechanging physician standing for the rights of those in need

I have been lucky enough to have known Dr. Laila Al-Marayati for quite a while now. And I’m pretty sure she can do anything.

The daughter of a Palestinian immigrant father and an Anglo-American mother, her day job is as a physician, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She explains that her calling in life as a Muslim physician is to work with the under-served population.

Additionally, she has expertise in treating women who have experienced female genital mutilation or female circumcision and has testified on their behalf to help them gain asylum in the United States.

She has served as a presidential appointee on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. In 1995, she was asked to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China as a member of the US delegation. Dr. Al-Marayati serves as the chairwoman of the Board of Directors for KinderUSA, an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of Palestinian children. She’s also a mom and a wife, committed to maintaining a balance between her work and home lives.

Many of these opportunities arrived when she was pregnant and had young children. She decided to take on these challenging roles at that time in her life because, “‘No’ is not an option for our community especially at that time, and even now when we don’t have options to be represented. So if someone asks us, we have to ‘yes.’ We’ve never had the luxury of saying ‘no.'”

Fortunately for us, the incomparable Dr. Al-Marayati sat down with The Tempest about her work, life, and motivations.

The Tempest: Can you remember the first time you realized you had a different racial/religious identity than what was the norm?

Dr. Al-Marayati: The first time it occurred to me, I remember being in fifth grade, and some boy insulted me by calling me an Egyptian… I had no idea what he was talking about, I had no clue because I had no awareness of being different at that age. Later when I was around 12 or 13, one my relatives on my Mom’s side was trying to get me to convert to Christianity – which I don’t think I even knew what I was to convert from… we went to the mosque, but it wasn’t a really big part of our conversations at home.

It was only during that process at that age of 12 or 13 that when I was at the mosque one day, I decided that this was the identity I wanted, which was to be Muslim.

But, as far as ethnically, as an Arab American, because I look white and I sound white, and I think people treat me that way, it’s been a different experience for me. I have to say that I benefit from white privilege in some ways.

People don’t realize until you say something that you’re different.

In one sentence, can you describe the impact of your work?

I like to think that the effort that I’ve made on behalf of other people has made a difference in the lives of individuals I have touched that I know about, and even those that I don’t.

In one sentence, can you describe the necessity of your work?

People who live on the fringe, who are marginalized, who don’t have resources, need people like us to support and represent them, and to offer services that they otherwise can’t get.

Do you have a favorite song at the moment?

September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire.

What about yourself are you most proud of?

That I feel that I have really done the best that I ever could at the things that matter to me, in terms of my work and my family.

Where do you get your news?

The Financial Times, The LA Times – online and in print – and the Guardian.

What was the last thing to make you laugh?

Well, just now we were at my in-laws, watching my husband dance to Arab music – that was pretty hilarious.

What is one book that has been particularly transformative in your life?

At the risk of sounding cliche, I think “The Alchemist” was something that moved me a lot. And also, this could be interpreted the wrong way, but “The Fountainhead” when I was younger. I appreciated what it was about but I didn’t understand the politics of Ayn Rand at the time, but as someone just going in naively and reading the book, it resonated with me at the time.

Where are you going next?

That’s a really good question because I feel like I’m in a moment where I need to think about that, but I haven’t really figured it out yet… part of what I would like to do might be international medicine but because of my closeness to my family it might be hard – but I think about it a lot. I haven’t made any actual plans, but whatever I do in the next chapter will still be related to service. Doing something internationally where I could train others to make a difference in other countries or even our own country.

I can’t envision my life or my work if it’s not service oriented.

This piece has been edited for length and clarity.

Gender & Identity Life Interviews

9 questions with Aisha al-Adawiya, the revolutionary changing the world for Muslim women

In today’s social climate, it’s important for young girls and women to know that they have role models doing meaningful work in their communities. So, I sat down with one of my favorite lady leaders,  Aisha al-Adawiya to give you a glimpse into her work.

Aisha al-Adawiya, or Sister Aisha, as she’s fondly called by almost everyone who knows her, is a community powerhouse. For years, she has been a pillar of motivation and grace in the human rights movement. She is the founder and chair of Women in Islam Inc., a Muslim women’s human rights organization, based in New York City. She founded Women in Islam in response to the rape atrocities committed against Bosnian women, when she found Muslim women were not given a platform to participate in the discussion. Women in Islam Inc. empowers women spiritually and intellectually to be active members of civil society. Sister Aisha is also on staff at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a New York Public Library in Harlem, New York City.

Sister Aisha sat down with The Tempest to talk about her life, her work, and her motivations.

1- Can you remember the first time you recognized you had a different racial identity than the norm?

I think I felt that as a young girl, maybe entering my teens. I would begin to challenge things around me based on bigotry and felt compelled to speak to that, even as a young girl growing up in the South.

2- In one sentence, can you describe the impact of your work?

Hopefully, the impact of my work – which I hope touches many different aspects of my own life, who I am, and how I choose to navigate in the world – makes a difference, a positive difference, and really encourages, inspires, and even challenges young Muslim women to delve into the religious Islamic sciences so that they can become future leaders grounded in authentic knowledge about Islam.

3- Can you tell us about the necessity of your work?

The necessity of my work is that we need Muslim women – that I’ve just described – to have a platform so that they can carry out the work put before them. We provide a platform so they can do that.

4- What is your favorite song at the moment?

I’ve been listening to Alice Coltrane “Journey in Satchidananda,” which is amazing. I’ve also been listening to a man named Omar Sosa. Those are the two that are kind of resonating with me right now.

5- What about yourself are you most proud of?

Wow! That’s a very hard question, I don’t think I can answer that one because I’m not proud of myself – I like myself – [laughs], and I continue to strive to be the kind of person that I would like to be. But that’s an ongoing process and I don’t think that’s ever complete until the time that we die, so there is a striving always.

6- Where do you get your news? 

Various sources, because of the work that I do. I’m connected to a lot of different networks and I get information through those networks as well as social media. Occasionally, I watch the news on television, which is mostly entertainment, so I’ll go for the comics to see what they have distilled for the day. But basically, I rely on my networks and we discuss emerging challenges that are coming out every day and I tend to rely on that information more than others.

7- What is one book that has been particularly transformative in your lifetime?

Well, certainly the autobiography of Malcolm X. I would also say the Qur’an – I’d probably have to put that at the top of the list because that’s been a guiding force for me.

8- Can you describe yourself in one word?


9- Where are you going next?

Insha’Allah, I am now entering a phase of my life where I’m feeling more and more encouraged to write about my life experiences, my journey. So, that’s where I’m going now. I’m also looking very heavily at the transition to being the kind of leader of my organization to hand over those reins to young women like yourself.

So now I think I’m entering a phase where I’m not only feeling more encouraged to write, but I’m feeling more inclined.

This piece has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Sister Aisha al-Adawiya on Twitter.

Gender & Identity Life

If you are a Muslim in America, there’s no way you can’t be political

Look, politics is a heavy word. I get it.

There is so much stress, hostility, judgement, and investment in the politics. Understandably, people might feel nervous to jump into the world of political engagement.

Maybe you’re scared you won’t be able to contribute anything of worth. Maybe you crave the approval and esteem of everyone and are afraid to alienate anyone because of your beliefs. Maybe you feel you’re too busy. Maybe you think you need to ‘stay in your lane.’ Maybe you think nothing political really affects you.

But I need to tell you something. Being Muslim in America is political.

This question and subsequent discussion about the role of Muslims in the political arena is something I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. Reading and listening to discourse Muslim leaders today has often centered around one sentiment that our faith has been politicized, and that couldn’t be more true.

You might not be politically engaged, but if you’re Muslim, you cannot be nonpolitical, because your faith is politicized.  Something innate to your identity has become a consistent bureaucratic topic of discussion. Your religion gets depicted and debated all over television, newspapers, and overheard conversations.

I was born and raised in this nation, and I grew up seeing my religion be mispronounced and misrepresented in the media. I don’t remember my parents sitting me down and having a specific conversation about it, but I grew up knowing there was a significant number of people in this country who would hate me simply on the basis of my religion.

Almost every Muslim I know has had an experience with bullying, or some kind of hateful encounter. A stranger in New York City once abruptly approached me and called me a “sick jihadist.”

And this narrative only gets more common and more aggressive in today’s climate. An FBI report showed that hate crimes against Muslims climbed to 67% in 2015. In 2016, there was a rise in hate groups across the United States with anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripling from 2015 to 2016. In 2015, three Muslim students in Chapel Hill were killed and their murders were frequently reported as a ‘parking dispute.’  In New York, in 2016, an Imam and his assistant were shot to death in broad daylight. A 60 year old Muslim woman who was the aunt of an NYPD officer was stabbed to death in September 2016. A Moroccan cab driver was shot and the jury acquitted the shooter of all charges. A bigoted women punched two Muslim women in the face while they were pushing their babies in strollers, and tried to rip off their hijabs (headscarves). A Muslim store owner was physically assaulted in his shop in Queens. A mosque in Victoria, Texas, was set on fire and while federal investigators ruled in arson, they said there was not evidence of a hate crime. A mosque in Davis, California, was vandalized. A Muslim woman’s shirt was set on fire in New York in September 2016.  Muslim students on university campuses are being targeted by racist and bigoted campaigns. The Huffington Post tracked 385 anti-Muslim acts in 2016.

Elected officials and political candidates throw Islam around in press conferences, speeches, and statements like it’s not a religion 20 percent of the world believes in and follows. Like Islam is nothing more than a political tool and problem.

They’re not even subtle about it, guys. Profiling. Surveillance. Immigration. Nobody’s pretending that these conversations and policies aren’t about us, however uninformed they are.

There’s no escaping it. Islam is politicized in America. It’s a fact. Unfortunate, but true.

So, considering all this, what do we do? Is there a right and wrong way to be active in our communities? Are we even obligated to get involved?

I don’t know the right answer.

For some, the answer is to keep their faith kind of hidden, and that’s fine. Everybody needs to take care of themselves and their safety first and foremost. Self-care looks different everybody and nobody else can impose their customs on anyone else. Everyone has different approaches to life.

But for everyone else who can’t hide their faith, or doesn’t want to, at the very least, understand your existence is now politically charged.

I can’t tell you what you do with that information.

Personally, yeah, I do think it’s our responsibility to be proactive in our communities. I don’t want to allow others to step on me and my beliefs, and my community, because they think we’re weak, quiet, and isolated. I think the answer is to get organized and to work with other communities, particularly other marginalized groups.

We need to build a network of fierce individuals who don’t just get together when something terrible has happened, but continue demanding, united, for the rights and representation they deserve the whole time.

It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, and I understand. Where do we start? We can support the institutions that are our advocates, like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Amnesty International.

We should at least recognize that acknowledgement of our politicized faith is not a commitment to a particular political party or a partisan candidate or cause. Involvement and engagement in the political and social arena are still forms of claiming agency over your narrative and your existence, no matter where on the spectrum you fall.

We don’t all have to be doing the same things. Not everyone has to be attending rallies and protests (though, I totally recommend it). You can get involved in your local governments. Run for office! Ask your neighbor what you can do to support them. Smile at somebody. Volunteer in community-based organizations.

I can’t dictate how you live your life – whether you call your politicians, support candidates, publicly advocate for your community, or educate yourself and others on important causes.

That choice is up to you.

Politics The World

Our resistance is only the beginning, America

When Donald Trump was elected in the highest office of this country, I was fearful. I was hurting. I felt disrespected, and nervous about the direction in which the nation was moving.

But after giving myself time to wallow and to mourn, I knew we had to be ready to defend our country from federal administrative decisions that might threaten our rights.

The past couple days have felt devastating, with executive orders left and right that don’t represent the America I know.

At the same time, in the last couple days, I’ve never felt prouder to be an American.

Because we grieved. And then we organized.

I wish we didn’t have to protect and fight for rights we’ve already won.

Human rights we deserve, just by the nature of our existence. It’s heartbreaking that we have to mobilize in defense of basic civil liberties.

That said, the community organizing and building I’ve witnessed since the election has been incredible. It’s why I was so thrilled to be able to participate in the Women’s March in DC. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen people come together on such a grand spectrum.

Three friends and I drove through the night to stay with family members of mine in Northern Virginia. Functioning on two hours of sleep, we all made it to the metro early in the morning.

In Reston, forty-five minutes out of DC, the station was already bursting with people. Cars were backed up on the highway, beyond the horizon. People already had their witty and poignant signs held high and, somewhere along the line, the four of us realized we had missed the memo to obtain and wear pink pussyhats to the march.

We were exhausted, kind of cold, and overwhelmed by the busy crowd and the high energy. Some young women walked by playing an accordion and ukulele. People were shouting friends’ names to get their attention, assembling their groups together. We were waiting for the rest of our group to park and make it inside to us. So, yes, we were overwhelmed, and not totally awake enough to have the right energy yet.

And then some women were making their own way through the crowd, and offered free pussyhats to anyone who needed them. That moment changed the whole day for us.

All of a sudden, we were not observing the events before us – we were a part of everything. Maybe it was the generosity of these women. Maybe it was the sweet notes that came with each hat from those who could not be with us at the march, but had taken the time to knit these lovely hats. Maybe it was just having a tangible object which united us all – regardless, we were now fully part of the movement.

There was an energy that connected us, and everyone was chatting and sharing stories like we were all been old friends. There’s no way to truly describe what that many people in one place looks like. It was honestly like looking out into an ocean.

We did encounter some anti-march protesters.

They had heinous signs that were anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-abortion. They chanted and shouted at all of us, warning us that hell is waiting.

To my knowledge, there were no violent altercations, though. March security members surrounded the protesters, giving them little to work with.

In any case, every person who spoke that day was inspiring and I don’t care how cliche that sounds.

I cried actual tears when Sophie Cruz spoke. I felt exceptionally empowered when Linda Sarsour said her piece. I felt so much gratitude in my heart when Kamala Harris and Tammy Duckworth spoke, encouraged by the fact that we do have some honorable and fierce representatives, female representatives of color, in our government.

What’s most important to take away is that the march cannot be a one-time occurrence. We have to be proactive. We have to be involved in our communities, in democracy.

We have to care about one another, to stand up for one another.

It was something that stuck with me later that week, when I attended a rally in my city, Durham, to speak out against the border wall and the Muslim ban. We heard from refugees and undocumented immigrants, who spoke out about their experiences. For me, the most touching part of the whole thing was when some of the refugees got visibly chilly and people offered them jackets and hats.

There was something about the gentle smiles of the people offering their jackets, or the surprised gratitude on the refugees’ faces, that made me feel profoundly connected to my community.

We need to continue to do this work.

At this point, silence is complacency. One woman who spoke on behalf of undocumented immigrants said something at the rally in Durham that has stuck with me still.

Translated, she said, “Indifference kills as much as aggression.” And that hit me.

Because to be silent today, to sit back and claim nonchalance, is to commit an act of aggression against those who are already suffering and oppressed.

A common theme from all the speeches were that nobody leaves their home, their families, everything they know, unless they have to, unless there are no more options for them. Immigrants and refugees come to this country and they do contribute to our economy.

And even if they didn’t — even if they weren’t working so hard and tirelessly to build homes for themselves and community with this nation – we should welcome them.  One refugee at the rally said, “I have nothing, all I can give you is love.”

And that should be enough.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

That’s what the plaque on the Statue of Liberty reads. When did we start rejecting this message?

Call your representatives. There are great resources like this, which provides the numbers you need, the issues you need to talk about, and even scripts of what you could say, if you’d prefer a template while you’re on the phone.

Stay aware or stay #woke, if you prefer. Get your friends and family involved. Don’t let your energy or motivation fizzle away. The worst way to live out the rest of this administration is to stay at home: inactive, indifferent and resigned.

We are strong. We are the majority. And this is only the beginning.

Gender & Identity Life

Can we stop telling girls that abuse is love?

We were having a family get together at my house and I was hanging out with one of my little cousins. She’s around seven or eight years old and she was telling me and some other relatives about how a boy at school was bothering her. He would tease her, push her around, and all that elementary school bullying that shouldn’t happen.

And then one of our aunts said something. She said something that people say all the time. People toss the comment aside as if it’s meaningless, harmless, like it’s totally natural. Like it’s a definitive fact of life and childhood. But it’s not and it shouldn’t be. So, she said, “That just means he likes you, sweetie.”

[bctt tweet=”To tell a child abusive factors look like love sets up a pattern of unhealthy behavior.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Oh dear.

I could only think one thing.



Please no.

It troubles me that people don’t understand the implications of a statement like that. Telling a child that her bully is just trying to show her he likes her is excusing his bad behavior. It justifies aggression as a means of communication, as an ordinary way to interact.

[bctt tweet=”Why wouldn’t young girls learn to accept pain as a measure of endearment?” username=”wearethetempest”]

Pulling hair, hitting, hurting someone’s feelings, these are all, by definition, examples of abusive behavior. And to tell a child abusive factors look like love sets up a pattern of unhealthy behavior. Why wouldn’t young girls learn to accept pain as a measure of endearment?

And the people that make comments like this, who tell girls that this form of bullying is okay, are the same people that won’t understand why women stay in abusive relationships. Maybe it’s because you’ve told them, systematically, since they were children that if a man hurts them, he loves them. And what’s even more upsetting is that in setting up this dynamic, you’re telling young boys that in order to express affection, adoration, they need to inflict pain. Once you’ve sanctioned that kind of mistreatment, how do you turn around and declare that it’s immoral to hurt a girl years later?

[bctt tweet=”You’re telling young boys that in order to express affection, they need to inflict pain.” username=”wearethetempest”]

It only makes sense that these lessons develop over time and translate into grown, abusive relationships. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every person ends up in situations of domestic violence either as the perpetrator or the victim, but it speaks to a cultural norm that legitimizes abuse. It normalizes male aggression.

[bctt tweet=”It’s because you’ve told them since they were children that if a man hurts them, he loves them.” username=”wearethetempest”]

It’s no surprise that we tolerate the narrative of the dominant male in the household who makes more money, receives more opportunities and gets to tell his own version of history. It’s no wonder that this translates into victim-blaming and rape culture. Of course, women stay in dysfunctional relationships and make excuses for why their male partners are controlling, rude, and maybe even violent.

Some people are going to say, “but they’re just kids.” They’ll say this behavior means nothing when they’re so young, that they’ll obviously learn better. I say those are just more excuses.

[bctt tweet=”At exactly what age do you start to tell young people that aggression is no longer affection?” username=”wearethetempest”]

Because it doesn’t change. Where do you distinguish between acceptable playground roughhousing and inappropriate, threatening behavior? At exactly what age do you start to tell young people that aggression is no longer affection?

I told everyone in the room that day a lot of this; I spoke a lot about what we should not say or do. But, I should have talked more about what we should say instead.

We should tell little girls from the beginning that the first time a boy puts his hands on her without her permission is the last time. That’s what my grandpa told me.

[bctt tweet=”Tell girls that love isn’t predicated upon obedience, her weight, or her sexual conduct. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Tell girls love means respect, care, patience; it means friendship. Tell girls not to settle for anything less than a man who regards her with absolute reverence, who honors her and in return, whom she trusts and holds in the highest esteem.

Tell girls that love is not predicated upon her obedience, or her weight, or her sexual conduct. They need to know that there is value in their strength, that their opinions and convictions matter. Tell girls to stop apologizing for their existence. They need to know that living their lives exactly as they are – that is enough.

That’s what I want my little sisters to know. It’s what I’ll tell my future daughters. It’s what every girl, every woman should hear.

[bctt tweet=”Tell them there is courage in their tears, in their smiles, in their love.” username=”wearethetempest”]

And on the other hand, every boy needs to learn that honest communication, not aggression, is how to convey affection. They need to be rewarded for acts of kindness and generosity, not simply for brawn and arrogance. Talk to boys about their emotions and tell them there is courage in their tears, in their smiles, in their love. Teach them that feelings are not weakness.

So, I don’t want to hear anyone else telling young girls that the reason they’re getting picked on is that some boy has a crush on them. We deserve more than ignorant justifications for the disrespect and bullying girls face every day. We can do better than that.

We are better than that.

Let’s prove it.

Love Life Stories

For the first time in my life, I don’t have the right words to say to you, America

For the first time, I’ve had no words. People who know me know I’ve always had something to say. Words have never failed me before. I’ve always been able to articulate my thoughts and my feelings.

But today, I have no words. Rather, I do not have the right words adequately express my devastation.

[bctt tweet=” I am mourning the America I have always believed in.” username=”wearethetempest”]

All I know is that I am grieving. I am mourning the America I have always believed in. And for the scariest split second, I wasn’t ready to keep fighting for it.

[bctt tweet=”We are too beautiful to allow this ugly event to stain our dignities and determination.” username=”wearethetempest”]

That hopelessness suffocated me for a moment but then I remember that this pain is not mine alone. There are so many people out there who share in my heartache. We are too beautiful to allow this ugly event to stain our dignities and determination.

So, I’ll allow myself today to grieve, but tomorrow I must be ready to protect hope and justice and equality with a tenacity and strength I never would have expected of myself before.

[bctt tweet=”I feel so disrespected, so betrayed, so hurt by these results. In fact, I feel violated. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Believe it or not, I’m not angry. But I am heartbroken. As a Muslim, as a female, as an ally of the Black, LGBTQA, Native American, Hispanic, and other marginalized communities, and most importantly as an American, I am soul shattered.

I feel so disrespected, so betrayed, so hurt by these results. In fact, I feel violated. This nation is now represented by people that do not believe in the innate value of the lives of non-white bodies.

It’s frightening, I know. This is not a quick tragedy that we mourn. This is a horrifying reality that remains for at least four years. That we have to face every day for 1460 days. We will wake up every day to this unbelievable truth.

My mom was so worried about me as a Muslim student in the South, she was calling and texting me to be careful. To not create controversy. To not publicly identify as Muslim too much. We’ve never been a family that stands down; we have always risen above the challenge and used our voices and our skills to work toward a more unified community.

It was painful to hear the transparent fear in her voice. But I’m not going to cower.

Yes, I’m worried. I worry about gun safety. I worry about water security. I worry about marriage equality. I worry about women’s agency to make choices about their own bodies. I worry about immigration and refugees. I worry about the global economy. I worry about diplomatic relationships with international communities.

But that just means I have to work even harder and more fiercely.

At the end of the day, Donald does not scare me. What I most fear is this polarized nation which contains unhinged individuals who feel validated and legitimate in their hate and bigotry.

[bctt tweet=”We will show them that they do not have more hate and apathy than we do love and hope.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Today, selfishness and bigotry won. America may have lost this election. But America is not lost. Hope is not lost. Because every single day for the next four years we will show them that they do not have more hate and apathy than we do love and hope.

I don’t have the perfect words to inspire in the wake of this utterly sickening loss. Nothing I could say would provide comfort to wounded hearts today. I can only reaffirm my dedication to defend the America I believe in, the one I trust. The America that works tirelessly in the face of every obstacle for progress, for peace, and for equality. The years ahead of us are not more grim that what those before us have overcome and we owe it to them to continue the fight.

[bctt tweet=”This is America. Big and beautiful and maybe broken, but still America. And it is ours.” username=”wearethetempest”]

So I don’t want to hear about your hopelessness or giving up. Grieve today. Fight tomorrow. Do not, for a moment, let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong. Like you are less deserving of being in this country. This is still America. Big and beautiful and maybe broken, but still America.

And it is ours.

Culture Family Gender & Identity Life

Can we stop pretending there’s just one kind of Muslim?

I attend a really great university with an active Muslim Students Association (MSA). The MSA here tries to create programming that invites and includes as many people as possible. There are hundreds of Muslims among the undergraduate and graduate populations and the average event garners about 40-50 people each. It’s a pretty good turnout, but it’s always nice when more new people find their way to MSA events.

That’s why it was so troubling to hear a parent say that he would rather only the “Muslims of quality” attend events instead of everyone.

Whoa there, sir. Let’s hold it right there.

There are some things you need to understand.

There are nearly two billion Muslims across the world. Practice and spirituality look totally different for everyone. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and of course, there are going to be differing ideas and perspectives. There is no such thing as one kind of Muslim or the correct kind of Muslim. And more than that, there is no religious precedent to exclude or be less welcoming to those who might not match your own version of piety.

We should want every kind of Muslim to feel embraced in every Muslim context, we should want them to feel comfortable and safe in sacred spaces. Further, we should want non-Muslims to visit Islamic events to learn more about it and lessen the distance between communities, preventing isolation of Muslims.

Please understand that there is a huge range of Muslims.

And nobody is in a position to judge or rank or create labels for each person. Muslims come from every kind of background ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, regionally, linguistically, etc. Some Muslims wear hijab, and some don’t. Some Muslims pray sunnah after every prayer and some don’t pray at all. Some Muslims are, in fact, gay. Some drink alcohol and some smoke weed. Some Muslims are having pre-marital sex. Some aren’t quite sure they believe in God.

Regardless if that terrifies or upsets you, understand that these people exist. And they are still Muslim.

If anyone wants to call him or herself a Muslim, that is beautiful.

If you can’t understand or accept their versions of practice, say Alhamdulillah and nothing else, because they are still Muslim. They are still in your Ummah (community). They want to be Muslim. Maybe you feel that these are sins that are immense and hard to look past. My guess is you have sin in your past, too. It’s important to remember that sin does not invalidate faith; it does not disqualify your Islam. And even more important, we are told as Muslims that there is no sin God cannot forgive.

Who are you to have so little forgiveness in your heart that you feel superior to God’s mercy?

In your heart, it’s fine if you are praying they find guidance to a more pious path if that’s what you believe, but do not impose your practice on them. Let them meet and be among other Muslims. Invite them to your homes. Sometimes these people are strangers, but sometimes they will be your children, your cousins, your best friends. But it doesn’t matter because they are your sisters and brothers in Islam and they deserve to feel like a part of the Muslim family.

We should not be perpetuating a culture of such intolerance that children feel like they need to live double lives. When they are comfortable asking questions and talking to their parents and community about faith and when they know that despite mistakes and rebellion they are still loved, they are more likely not to resent this faith and culture. They will be more likely to find spirituality. 

I also want to take a moment to point out that this spectrum of faith is not a circumstance of being Muslim in the West.

It happens everywhere. It is not a consequence of being young. Muslims of all ages have different perspectives. Muslims at any age in any country engage in all types of activity and I know this for a fact. Maybe people are sneakier or less public about their personal lives in stricter cultures, but I promise that it doesn’t matter where you are, Muslims are not uniform in any society.

Only God is in a position to judge faith and character and nobody else has the right to look down on anyone for not having perfect faith, because there’s no way you are perfect either. There is not a litmus test one needs to take to be Muslim. Once you make the declaration of faith, that’s it. You’re Muslim.

Mosques and other sacred spaces were not built solely for one kind of Muslim. Everyone should be welcome to engage with their spirituality. Labels are meaningless. These terms we throw around like “conservative,” “liberal,” “religious,” are pointless. I’ve been referred to by some people as super liberal and others as completely devout and conservative. I practice my Islam the same in every context. Some people feel totally “religious” but would stand by the fact that they support “liberal” values.

So there’s no reason to toss around labels like they characterize people. They don’t. Again, they’re meaningless. People should just feel free to be Muslim. 

Everyone has their own path they need to make in life and no two are going to look the same. Allow others to find their way, and if they ask you for directions, then you’ve done something right to be considered so trustworthy and kind that your advice is valued. 

So that statement about “Muslims of quality” not only is ridiculous to me, it offends me. It’s that kind of language that fosters narrow-minded environments.

And I know many people are completely accepting and loving toward everyone in their communities, but for all those that wouldn’t be, I hope they find these words and take a moment to think about them.

Culture Gender & Identity Humor Life

Dear bigoted dude, I don’t care about your opinions

Don’t you guys just love these story times about ignorant jerks and the crap they do and say?

Yeah, me too.


Anyway, a friend recently shared an article I wrote about the stigma against mixing genders in some Muslim communities. Mostly, I received a lot of love for the article. Not everyone is going to like my writing, and I accept that.

This one response, though, I can’t let go as easily.

My friend sent me this screenshot of a Snapchat she received.

Courtesy of my friend
Courtesy of my friend

If you can’t read the Snapchat caption, it says “The real problem is that Islam is an inherently, barbarically, and disgustingly sexist religion that treats women as inferior creatures.”

I mean, how hateful or bored do you have to be to send a message like that? I don’t know anything about this fool. I’ve never met him. I don’t even know his name. All I know from my friend is that he is a wealthy, white male.

Not to disappoint, am I right? Super glad to confront another jerk from a privileged background.

There are so many things I could say to you, you hateful buffoon.

I could start by asking if you even read the article because if you did you would understand that patriarchal, cultural customs get confused for religious practice.

I’m not denying that there is sexism in many Muslim-majority societies (as if there’s no sexism in non-Muslim contexts). What I’m saying is that sexism cannot be derived from the faith itself. But, obviously, you didn’t read the article. Why would you want to learn about something new or expand your perspective? No, it’s much easier and more comfortable to imprint a mold of your ass on your throne of entitlement and pass judgment on communities about which you know nothing.

I could bring up the fact that some Muslim-majority nations, like Bangladesh, have elected female Heads of State long before the United States, a nation which in a few short weeks might elect an orange, bigoted, uneducated, broom-haired, piece of trash as President.

I could talk about the fact that women in Islam have always been leaders.

I could tell you that a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri founded the world’s oldest university. That unlike other faiths which claim that Eve was derived from Adam’s rib, Islam declares that from one soul, or nafs (the Arabic word), man and woman were created. Men and women were definitive equals from the beginning.

I could tell you that in the Quranic version of the story of Jesus (Isa), there is no mention of Joseph, which is not to say that Joseph didn’t exist, but rather that his presence, real or not, is not important, because the story is about Mary (Maryam)‘s strength and will. I could recount how when asked who to respect first, second, third, etc., in the world, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said to respect your mother seven times before respect for your father. I could remind you that the headscarf, the hijab, is a choice.

I could say all these things. I could do that.

But it’s not my responsibility to educate you. Your ignorance is not on me to fix. Besides, when was the last time facts and reason actually changed an imbecile’s perspective? Would he actually read any of this? And if he did, would it affect his thinking? Change his ways? Not likely.

If you wanted to seek more knowledge about my religion and my community, I would help you. I would talk to you about everything I know and believe. I would provide resources, books, articles that you could read to be more informed about this faith and its people that I love so much. I would introduce you to scholars and teachers and activists that have influenced my thinking and beliefs. But you have to want to learn.

It is not on me to beg you to recognize my humanity. I’m already a human being, worth far more than your inane self. I already have dignity. It is not on me to plead with you to validate my faith. It’s already beautiful and important.

Nearly 2 billion people worldwide would agree.

It is not on me to form PR statements condemning terrorism on behalf of Muslims as if we are somehow involved before I’m allowed to mourn the lives of my fellow Americans. It’s not on me to suppress parts of my identity so that you are less afraid of what I might represent. I am un-apologetically everything that I am.

Yes, I have concerns about some of the practices in my community. Are you in such a perfect world that you have no issues, no ideas for improvement for your circles? Maybe you do have a perfect world. Wealthy. White. Male. Or maybe you’re just so invested in your own life that you can’t look beyond your reflection in the mirror.

Maybe your biggest worry is about your hair gel. I don’t know.

But how dare you impose your ignorant convictions on my faith.

How dare you take my words, my good intentions, and transform them into ugly stereotypes.

Are you so high up on your own pedestal of privilege and self-importance you’ve confused yourself for some all-knowing deity? Have you forgotten you actually have neither the comprehension nor the right to make such an asinine analysis?

I’m not quite sure how you even breathe without choking on your own inflated ego, but please digest this: your words and your hate do not weaken me. You do not scare me; you do not deter me. You give me the motivation to continue everything I do.

You must have mixed me up with someone you used to bully on the playground, but make no mistake — I am fiercely proud of my identity and my community and you cannot take any of that away from me.

Not by spouting ridiculous rhetoric from the national debate stage and certainly not from some random Snapchat message.

Gender & Identity Life

My (near naked) experience at a Moroccan hammam changed my life

While I was studying in Morocco this summer, I was privileged to live with a wonderfully generous and kind host family. They welcomed me like one of their own. They introduced me to amazing food, music that still gets stuck in my head sometimes, and extraordinarily dramatic Arab soap operas.

Most noteworthy of all these new experiences, however, was my first time in a hammam, which is the Arabic word for bath house.

My host family told me that Moroccans will go to bath houses at least once a week, which goes to show what a big part of the culture they are. The hammams in Morocco are usually gender segregated, with young sons and brothers going with the women to the female-only hammams. The whole routine of public bathing is cleansing, but it’s also a social scene.

At first, the thought of a bath house is uncomfortable. It takes a minute to be okay with the nudity of it all. I didn’t go to a fancy, expensive hammam. My host family took me to the local neighborhood hammam.

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the moment I walked into that hammam.


There’s a lot of naked. Like, so much naked. And not just a little naked, but like full-on, totally and completely naked. Only some women, like myself, remained in their underwear. But it’s still so startling to be confronted with such a large concentration of unclothed bodies.

I mean, so many shapes and sizes and forces of gravitational pull. Gravity, by the way, is a merciless and cruel pressure on the female body. Many women washed their young children and elderly mothers before tending to themselves. And they are thorough. I could not imagine myself so meticulously bathing every crevice of any body which I think just speaks to the value of community in Morocco. It just goes to show how deeply people care about and for one another.

While the exposure to all the nudity is certainly an important feature of this story, it’s not the main point.

The main message of this story is that I’ve never felt cleaner than after I had just been in the public bathhouse.

My time in the hammam started with a sauna-like room. We sweat out all toxins in our bodies and lathered some sort of mud substance all over our skin. After a while, we washed away the mud scrub with warm water and I swear it’s like my skin could breathe again.

The next best part was the room temperature room. After soaping up and washing off with warm water, we used these exfoliating mitts to scrub our bodies thoroughly.  And wow a whole layer of skin basically rubbed right off. I cannot express how absolutely clean and refreshed I felt.

We conditioned our hair and combed through it. We chatted with each other and stretched sore muscles. We repeated any steps that felt necessary and ended the whole thing with a cold water rinse that was rejuvenating.

It was difficult to go back to normal showers after the hammam. Because again, nothing had ever been that cleansing. My skin was far smoother and I might even dare to say it was glowing.

I’m told there are public bath houses in the United States, too. Some may be traditionally Arab and some may be traditionally Japanese. I’m guessing they are a little more expensive and luxurious, but I still recommend. If you can replicate the hammam experience in your own home, that’s even better.

10/10 would recommend the whole experience. Even the naked parts.

Gender & Identity Life

Men love to underestimate women – here’s why that’s stupid

Last year, I was talking to a group of university students and graduates I know from a camp I’ve always attended. Someone asked what my major was and I didn’t know at the time. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, and in response, one of the guys there told me I should study psychology, because it’s an “easy major.”

I have a couple of problems with that.

Now, most people would say this was a harmless comment, something I should have forgotten moments after it was said.

But I can’t do that.

I can’t for the life of me figure out what the good intentions could be behind a statement like that.

Here’s what that comment meant: he’s underestimating my intelligence. He’s insinuating that I can only study something simple and easy. That I am incapable of success in a challenging field.

Or maybe he made the comment to suggest that I am lazy and want to coast through college exercising bare minimum effort.

Perhaps he meant to say that I am not destined for any kind of greatness, so I had better start setting my sights low now.

What’s probably most upsetting, however, is the fact that his claim is predicated upon the assumption that psychology is, in fact, a bogus major. It’s indicative of a societal perception that psychology is not a worthwhile endeavor.

It points to a culture of ignorance when it comes to mental health.

These are the people who are going to save the lives of young people so distraught they devalue their own lives and think the world is better without them. These are the people who will counsel sexual assault survivors to recognize their own strength and worth. They will help war veterans learn to live again. They will conduct the research that will produce medications to impact brain chemicals and patterns. They will make breakthroughs and discoveries so that we understand human nature more deeply.

So I’m offended by anyone who would underestimate and invalidate the value of psychology and mental health.

This experience isn’t about this one guy. It’s not about blaming him or hating him for one stupid comment. What this is about is how his statement is a reflection of a cultural pattern that undervalues a group of people.

I don’t know if he underestimated me because I’m an individual, or a young person, or a girl.

My money’s on the fact that I’m a girl.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a woman has been underappreciated and underestimated. I’m tired of society telling me I have to prove my significance. I don’t. By the very nature of my existence, I am important. I am worth more than your uninformed and ignorant perceptions of me.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks of me. I believe in me, and that’s all that should matter.

But don’t expect me to be silent the next time you underestimate me.

Gender & Identity Life

Here’s why I’m totally proud to be a homebody

I’m not a people person. Never have been, never will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I like people. Meeting cool, new people is always great. But I don’t thrive in crowds. It can be almost painful for me to be among swarms of people and not know anyone. I have to force myself to approach groups of people and initiate conversation. Many of my friends and family have an innate ability to socialize with anyone. It is just not natural for me. I prefer more intimate social settings. I think one-on-one interactions are far more fulfilling. And honestly, surrounded by masses of people with no space to breathe is when I feel loneliest. Lost, even.

For a long time, I thought that was a problem.

It’s not. At least, it’s not a problem for me.

Starting university was a stressful time in my life. Orientation week was probably my least favorite part of it all. The transition was already challenging and I know orientation is built to welcome students, introduce them to campus, and provoke friendships, but it was added stress for me. I was remarkably overwhelmed by all the events happening.

It should have been fun. The quad had an inflatable bounce house. There was free food and free shirts and music. People were mingling at every corner. It seemed people found their circles of friends so quickly and I was still feeling lost.

I didn’t feel a sense of belonging yet. Rationally, I knew almost everyone has this experience of uncertainty and insecurity. Emotionally, I felt alone in my disconnect.

I wasn’t spending every night until two or three AM in the common room loudly playing video games or ping pong. I didn’t want to be at parties all the time, struggling to breathe and move in crowds grinding and sweating in way too close a proximity. I don’t spend every weekend going out. And none of this is to say that I don’t enjoy going to a party and dancing with my friends every now and then. I do like the occasional fun night out at a movie or a concert. I don’t drink or anything but I have a good time going out with a group of friends I can trust.

All I’m saying is that I enjoy dance parties in my room just as much as anything else. I also kind of think that the infrequency with which I go out maintains the specialness of the experience.

I’m not a loner or a recluse. I don’t want to be alone all the time. I need human interaction and social activity. I love theme parks and cool museums and lakes. I love to ski and to hike and to explore. And I like to do these things with people, I do. I also like being by myself a healthy amount of time. And even when I’m not alone, I like low-key days spent lounging around with no specific plans. I prefer home-cooked food to going out to a restaurant and I prefer watching a movie bundled in blankets in bed over going to a theater. And I’ve been this way all my life.

So I’m a homebody. And that’s okay. I didn’t think it was at first, but it is. Once I accepted that about myself, I found myself feeling a lot more comfortable at school. I started worrying less and having more fun. It was unhealthy to think less of myself because I prioritize my sleep or because I love a good Netflix binge-watching session above a wild party. And now I take advantage of the events that do sound interesting to me on campus. I’ve attended cool, foreign film screenings, activist lectures, and small scale concerts. And a lot of times I go alone, and that’s also okay. Because I do things for me, and not anyone else.

So, if you’re like me, and you’re feeling like you don’t fit in, like maybe you never will, like maybe you’re meant to be hermit through these four years, I could tell you you’re not alone. But my guess is you already know that in your head and it doesn’t change anything. What I will say is to embrace it. Have dorm room dance parties. Take naps. Read on the quad. Take a walk. Work out. Go on adventures with just one or two friends. Go on adventures alone. Sing in the shower.

I’ve learned there is no shame in loving my own company. I am my own best friend. That doesn’t mean I don’t have non-me best friends. It simply means I have to love myself in order to allow others to love me. And sometimes that’s a process to learn how, but it’s the most worthwhile journey there is.

So, yeah, I love Saturday nights at home in my pajamas, chowing down on cookie batter and re-binging on Smallville or One Tree Hill. Those are some of the best nights. And that’s okay. It’s better than okay. There’s value in what I love, which means there’s value in me.

And I’m a happy homebody.

Gender & Identity Life

Stop telling Muslim teens that mixing genders is some kind of fitna

I attended the annual ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) conference earlier this summer, an event that brings together Muslim leaders from all fields. I got to listen to some great speakers and see a lot of wonderful people. There was one moment, though, that is still bothering me.

Included in the ISNA conference are MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America) lectures and events. There was one lecture in particular that my friends and family were interested in attending. Youth get to choose seats first, so we got good seats toward the front.

Two minutes after we settled into our chairs, one of the MYNA volunteers told us we needed to sit separately, boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.

My younger cousin voiced it perfectly when he simply declared to their faces, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

And he was right.

This was the only event I had been to that weekend that was gender segregated, which is bizarre. Why are we singling young people out with these regulations?

In doing so, we assume some things about kids and teenagers.

We create rules based on these assumptions, and we force a narrative of young people as characterized by wrong intentions and inappropriate interactions.

The worst part is that this kind of separation is not unique to this one event. It happens frequently in Muslim gatherings. I have been fortunate to have mostly been surrounded by progressive, active, well-rounded Muslims, so I personally don’t face this kind of situation often. But the fact is that it happens a lot.

Too often.

It characterizes and defines many young Muslims’ childhoods and adolescence. This has serious implications for the culture of Muslim communities.

To separate young boys and girls is to sexualize their interactions immediately.

It is to say that even sitting next to one another is in some way inappropriate. It teaches children that the only relationship between one another is sexual and therefore should be avoided. And it shouldn’t even really matter, but especially when we are sitting with our brothers or cousins, or close friends we grew up with, to tell us that we might be giving strangers “the wrong idea” is ridiculous on so many levels.

Creating these rules assumes that a MYNA lecture, or another sort of Muslim gathering, is the place that young people are going to get up to some hanky-panky. Honestly, if young people are going to try and get down with each other, it’s going to be anywhere else.

Literally anywhere but there.

I’m not trying to hate on any one organization or take away from all the good work they do. They still provide amazing opportunities and services, and that has not gone unnoticed. This conversation matters because it is a common theme in events like these.

This is about a culture of gender segregation.

This focus on separating kids makes any kind of relationship seem that much more tempting, and weird. It also contributes to a lack of self-control as kids get older, when they finally have independence. It’s important that they learn their limits and self-discipline as they grow up, and not suddenly have to deal with it when they’re in high school or college.

Especially since we live in America, we have to recognize that boys and girls have access to each other in every setting, at school, at extra-curricular activities, but all of a sudden, in Muslim contexts, they’re told to separate. If we want our Muslim youth to grow up to be socially aware and to pursue relationships with one another, it doesn’t make sense to isolate them from each other when they’re young, while they have access to everyone else.

Further, it invalidates same-sex relationships, which tells children it’s unacceptable to be gay, or just leaves them confused.

It’s not okay to keep telling children that piety looks like segregation. Because it’s not true, and it sends such a twisted message.

It’s not okay to tell children that a high-five is inappropriate because it leaves room to be interpreted as something “more.”

Practicing a system of segregation legitimizes and fuels so many sexist practices across Muslim communities, whether it be to send women to a tiny room in the basement of a mosque to pray, or not legally allowing women to drive.

Here’s a thought: let’s not do that anymore.

It’s not impossible, guys. I know for a fact it’s not.

In most of the Muslim contexts in which I’ve grown up, we were always treated with respect, and not as if we were little troublemakers just waiting for some devious shenanigans. It’s okay for kids to be friends, of any gender, of any sexuality.  Let’s just stop letting patriarchal cultural traditions get confused with religious practice.

Because that’s not okay.

Let’s not perpetuate sexism, mkay? Cool.