About Women Being Bossy and Men Being Leaders

Strong women make easy targets.  They refuse to bow down, conform, or blend into a crowd making it easy to scapegoat them.  In theory, people love supporting the idea of a strong woman; in practice, not so much.  Here’s the thing about strong women though: we just don’t give a f*ck about your nonsense and just as soon as there are enough of us, your nonsense won’t matter.

I was brought up by an exceptionally strong mum and six larger-than-life aunts, each one strong, talented, and successful.  My mother only let the strongest women into her life, which thankfully added to the positive female role models in my life.  I assumed all women were this powerful because even in the face of so much negativity, these women remained true to themselves.  It’s simply been a part of me to be surrounded by women of strength.  Sometimes that strength is outward and loud.  Other times it’s quiet, watchful, and patient.  Regardless of what form it takes, it’s always awe inspiring.

If you’re not used to being around strong women it can be off-putting.  We are a threat to the status quo.  We demand more from the people around us, male and female, and just as we stand our ground on issues of importance, we expect that same strength and commitment from those we interact with.  Anything that challenges the norm is seen as threatening though and so people will attempt to put distance between you and themselves.  Let them.  They are, in essence, trimming the fat for you and would have cracked under the pressure to hide their weakness.

If this post is off-putting to you that’s also fine.  If I were a man writing this and saying ‘I don’t care what you think about me because either way I’m living my life’ would you be affronted?  Would you think I’m tooting my own horn?  Would it seem that abnormal?  The truth is, if you’re unsettled by this post, you probably wouldn’t care if I were a man writing this.  But because I’m a woman, asserting myself outwardly and publicly, it’s almost cringe worthy.  Well let me say it again, I’m not trying to be rude to you.  The truth is I just don’t give a f*ck about nonsense and your being unsettled by female confidence is nonsense.  Anytime someone exhibits behavior that is perceived to belong to another gender they are ridiculed, mocked, and bullied.  Female confidence, assertiveness, and strength are no different and until these traits are seen as both male and female (or simply human), women will be singled out and demonized for possessing these qualities.

Strength is not drawn from a finite source.  If I show strength that clearly doesn’t lessen the strength you’re able to have or show.  What I’m now just starting to realize, though, is that female strength is not always about the strength that I’m showing as a woman but about the perceived weakness my strength is highlighting in you.  As a woman, I’m meant to be meeker, more accepting, less argumentative.  As a strong woman, however, I won’t stand idly by while some bullsh*t is being played out.  Calling out that bs is what is so unnerving about a strong woman and it’s what scares people.

As with all stereotyping, demonizing a woman for being strong and confident is lazy.  It’s unoriginal, it requires minimal use of brain cells, is born out of ignorance, and is just so tired.  But until and unless we embrace women for all the ways in which they show strength – leaving children to earn a living, staying at home with children, earning PhDs, breaking barriers by engaging in every type of job out there, defending women’s right to choose what happens to their bodies, etc. – this will never be accepted as a female trait.  It will instead be called bitchiness, affirmative action, controlling, whatever to detract from the path that woman is forging for herself.

As far as possible, I’m raising my son and nephews to be gender-blind.  I imagine this may one day morph into highlighting the nonsensical way in which certain attributes are assigned to different genders but for now, it’s gender blindness.  I remember having a conversation with a friend where she was explaining to me how her daughter is essentially a leader at daycare.  She laughed and jokingly said ‘I’m worried about what the other parents will say about her bossiness.’  I was exactly the same in preschool (surprising, no?) and I’ve been called every name under the sun: bossy, bitchy, controlling, you name it.  At the end of the day though the question shouldn’t be ‘why is this girl so bossy?’ but ‘what is this girl (or parent) doing so right that she is a leader?’ Also ps, according to the status quo women are bossy but men are leaders; no thank you.

Showing female strength can sometimes feel like you’re shouting into the wind; no one wants to hear you and they use the blowing wind as an excuse to keep you silenced.  But it’s also possible for the wind to change direction.  We can be that change.  We can raise our children, male and female, to see strength as strength, regardless of whether it comes from a man or a woman.  We can make that an appealing, attractive, and genderless quality.  And for our generation now we can support each other.  This doesn’t mean everyone has to take a stand on everything.  It simply means that we don’t have to let our fear of female strength drive our desire to tear down and destroy those who show strength.  That can actually happen.  Strong women are only a threat to you if you’re benefiting from keeping women down.  Otherwise we’re just wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, colleagues, bosses, friends, neighbors attempting to carve out a space for ourselves.

FYI : if you do continue to hate on strong women, we still don’t give a f*ck and you won’t change us. 

About the #ChapelHillShooting and the #CopenhagenShooting?

While my son and husband were at football this morning, I was happily cleaning the house and suddenly my phone blew up with notifications. ‘One person shot dead at free speech gathering in Copenhagen,’ ‘Suspected terror attack in Copenhagen’, ‘One dead at debate where Mohammed cartoonist is present’.  Naturally I was horrified.  But not necessarily for the reasons you think.

My son is Danish.  He’s also an American and Brit.  His father is (very) Scandinavian, having grown up in rural Denmark and I’m a British-Asian, who grew up in South Asia.  And, believe it or not, we’re a proud Muslim family.  Granted we’re not practicing Muslims, but we’re cultural Muslims.  I’m proud of my son’s mixed heritage and I believe it’s something to be celebrated.

But as I think back on this last week, I am filled with such sadness.  First, the three Muslim students who were mercilessly killed in North Carolina.  What an absolute tragedy for their families and their communities.  They had so much to offer the world and all that was taken from them in a truly horrific manner.  And now these shootings in Copenhagen.  What do I tell my son about the violence that’s happening in the places that he’s from?

Yusor and Deah at their wedding on December 27th, 2014.

Well, this: the media, world leaders, and people in our community only care about half of you and that is the white, Scandinavian half.  The Muslim/Arab-looking half of you will be shunned and shamed (for Islamist attacks that have nothing to do with us) until people like me, you, your father, and others speak up and speak out.  It took mere minutes for news outlets and social media to be all over the Copenhagen shooting and I would argue, rightly so.  A life taken too soon in a violent manner is newsworthy.  But days after Deah Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha (21), and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19) were shot, we still know very little about what happened.  How are we, as a world, ok with that? And how can you turn around and say that there isn’t a double standard in the way Muslim lives and deaths are reported versus non-Muslim (white) ones when you look at how the Chapel Hill shooting story unfolded vs the Copenhagen shootings? When I show my son the news coverage on both events how else will he interpret this?

Deah Barakat ( age 23), Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha (age 21), and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (age 19)

The honest truth is that I am terrified for my children.  I am angry beyond belief that the world has given such little time and attention to the murders of these students.  But more than anything I am scared for my children because they are Muslim and they look Muslim and the murders of their own people are being ignored, erased, or otherwise made invisible by the world and almost everyone is ok with that.  That is an absolutely terrifying thought to me because if my kids ever need it, will they be helped by their peers or ignored like Deah, Yusor, and Razan because they’re Muslim or Arab looking?  Or because they parked in the wrong place?  As a Muslim, a parent, and a human I am unnerved by how easily everyone has accepted the ‘parking space dispute’ theory as a motive for murder because on February 10th, 2015 Deah, Yusor, and Razan were the victims, but ten years ago that could have been my sister and I, and in 20 years that could my children and my nieces and nephews.  Yet the theory news outlets are espousing for the attack in Copenhagen is ‘terror’ and everyone has accepted that blindly.  Well according to the FBI, a terror attack is the unlawful use of force with the aim of intimidating a government or civilian population and let me tell you, the relative radio silence surrounding the murders of the three students has me and millions of other Muslims terrified so is one attack really more terror-related than the other?

It has already been said but it bears repeating, for many Muslims our issue is not that the murders were over a parking dispute.  If that is genuinely what these murders were about then that’s what they were about.  But in asking us to accept that, think about what you would do if you were told a Muslim barged into someone’s home and shot 3 young adults over a parking spot.  Would you simply accept that and move on or would you demand more answers from the people investigating and your news sources?  If you answer that question truthfully, it may shed some light on why so many Muslims are both outraged and terrified by the lack of media coverage on these murders.  With all the anti-Islamic sentiment in the world and the stigma attached to identifying as Muslim (especially if you wear a hijab), it is hard for many of us to simply accept this parking spot theory without more information.  If a Muslim had been the attacker, news coverage on these murders would still be rampant but less than five days on from the attack, one has to dig deep to find information on it.

I am raising a son who will naturally be curious about both the Chapel Hill shooting and the Copenhagen shootings because he is both Muslim and Danish.  But he will be caught between these worlds because I am raising him to proud of his Muslim identity, as well as his Danish, British, and American roots.  The world, though, cannot seem to wrap its head around a Muslim victim.  We must be the perpetrators of violence and terrorism and not at the receiving end of it.  The media and the world can both understand and accept a Muslim villain, but they are unwilling to accept a Muslim victim, unless that victim is stranded on a mountain or in a desert in some far-off land waiting for Western assistance.  That is the extent of our identity to Western media and this Chapel Hill attack and the lack of journalistic coverage on it has shown what a narrow and racist view of Muslims the world has.  I am saddened that my children and nieces and nephews will grow up in a world where they are either viewed as villains or not noticed at all.  For all my attempts to raise socially active, well educated, and enterprising children, the world will simply not see them because they do not fit into the popular understanding (supported, extended, and encouraged by mainstream media) of what a Muslim should be.  That is what the #ChapelHillShooting has taught me and what it will teach my son.

A life taken too soon is always something to be mourned and investigated fully.  A Muslim life (and death), it seems though, is either invisible, ignorable, or both.  But my children will not be ignored.  They will be Muslim.  And they will be Danish and British and American.  And they will have empathy for both the Chapel Hill and the Copenhagen victims because every act of violence and terror in the world is deplorable.  I will not let them compromise who they are because the world refuses to embrace and accept every part of their cultural heritage.  I will say it now and I will keep saying it until somebody actually listens: as a family we are Danish, American, and British, AND we are Muslim and the lives and deaths of our people matter.  Extremism will not break our tolerance.

Mourners at the funeral for the Chapel Hill victims.

#ChapelHillShootings #OurThreeWinners #CopenhagenShooting

About #JuSuisCharlie, #JuSuisAhmed, and the Attacks on Charlie Hebdo?

The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France and the ensuing terror caused by the manhunt for the perpetrators has made for a scary and unsettling week for millions of people around the world.  For most of us this death and violence just seems so senseless and so frightening.  Whatever your politics or beliefs, there is no justification for killing and wounding people in this manner (please read here for more information on the victims).  In my mind, these tragic events highlight the huge disconnect between immigrant populations and the places they relocate to.  We have, thus far, responded to this gap by either doing nothing, proclaiming that our borders should be shut, or responding with violence in the places we think this extremism is coming from.  Very little is being done to actually engage with those who immigrate and those who oppose immigration, but time and again these voices have erupted with a bang in the form of 9/11 in the US, the7/7 bombings in the UK, the far-right gaining more supporters across Europe, and now the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  What I will tell my kids about this latest attack and its implications?

The first thing I will tell them is that the gunmen shot indiscriminately.  They killed people born and raised in France, immigrants, men, women, atheists, Muslims, etc.  They were intent on killing, not on defending their faith.  This was an entirely un-Islamic thing to do and can, in no way, be a reflection of Muslims in France or anywhere else in the world.  It takes more than a few phrases shouted in Arabic to make you a Muslim, just as it takes more than buying presents at Christmas to make you Christian.

Second, this debate is not about free speech.  It’s not about free speech because this magazine pokes fun at everyone from everywhere so who exactly was being defended by these killings and who should be the most offended by what the magazine is publishing?  Our response, however, is also not about the freedom to draw or write without fear of being killed (by a Muslim.  That is what people are both thinking and saying).  Freedom of speech/press could be an entire blog post on its own but just as a summary point, France is one of the numerous countries in which it is a crime to deny that the Holocaust happened.  If that is not a violation of free speech, then what is?  This is an absolutely crucial point that cannot and should not be overlooked.  It’s not about whether or not denying the Holocaust is something that you want to ever do, it’s about defending your right to do so.  Or at least that’s what the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag would proclaim.

Third, I’ll talk to my kids about how we report on this issue being a major part of the problem.  For the first 36 hours of this ordeal, there was much talk of how the gunmen were immigrants (they were in fact born in France to Algerian parents and raised in orphanages and foster homes).  Once their ids had been established they were still referred to as ‘French citizens’ and not just ‘French’ or even ‘French nationals’, hinting at their not-quite-Frenchness.  For those first 36 hours virtually nothing, however, was said about how some of the Charlie Hebdo staff were also immigrants or about the fact that the police officer who was shot was Muslim.  At the end of the day a life is a life regardless of nationality, creed, religion, sexual orientation, etc. BUT you cannot on the one hand treat these extremists as immigrants (read other, different, foreign) and the victims of their crimes as French (or in other words normal and one of us).  This approach is part of the problem of alienation and isolation that immigrant populations feel that then make radical fringe groups more appealing to them.  Please understand that I am no in no way explaining the actions of these men.  I am merely highlighting the very real ‘us vs them’ mentality we have towards immigrants both in the Western media and in our everyday lives.  We want them to be just like us in our society but we look at them differently, we treat them differently, we never truly accept them as part of our social fabric.  As a first generation Brit with immigrant parents, I am speaking from experience.  My children will grow up in the US as first generation Americans with immigrant parents.  They too may feel that sting of rejection when they tell people their Arab-sounding names (wait, you’re not called Steve?) or explain their background.  They will never be quite American or British or Danish enough.

Fourth I will speak to my children about how it’s possible that two men who were French (I cannot find any news reports that state that they ever held any other nationality) grew up to slaughter their own countrymen.  This is terrifying to me.  I lived in Manchester when the 7/7 bombings happened in London and I remember back then thinking to myself ‘these boys grew up like my family, as Asians born and brought up in the UK who were British.  They could be my cousins or my brother.  How did they slip through the cracks?’  Unfortunately we have been so busy fighting violence with more violence (the War on Terror) that we have forgotten to address the social implications of immigration.  How does someone who is born in the UK or the US or France, who grows up there, who goes to school there, and has friends who are the same nationality and part of that culture, how do they feel so isolated and so alone and so detached from their own society that they feel closer to jihadists halfway around the world than their neighbors, teachers, and friends? How does that happen?  France can respond to this latest attack by killing those responsible and possibly breaking up some camps in Syria or Iraq, but that is merely dealing with the manifestation of this social disconnect and not the root cause.  As long as we continue to ignore those root causes, this disconnect will be a problem.  That is a terrifying thought to me but if my generation is not able to look for these answers, it will fall to my children’s generation to do so if they ever hope to live in any kind of peace.

And this is a two-way street.  I absolutely do not agree with right-wing policies regarding immigration across Europe and the US.  But there have to be reasons why these parties are gaining support.  In order to combat this radicalization we need to understand why this problem exists and the extent of the problem.  Merely dismissing far-right policies as (insert choice phrase here) because they don’t agree with yours is not helpful, it’s not smart, and it’s not going to fix the problem.  We need to start talking about immigration seriously.  I’m British, of Pakistani descent, my husband is from rural Denmark, and my son is a Muslim, mixed race boy who is American, Danish, and British.  Clearly I believe in the benefits of immigration and the mixing of cultures and races but I also believe that both migrants and the communities receiving them need support in ensuring that the transition is as smooth as possible.

So no, like so many others I am not #JuSuisCharlie.  I will tell my kids that this attack goes way beyond that debate.  Be respectful of those who were killed and acknowledge what a senseless and awful loss their deaths were.  Then look to how two boys who grew up as French nationals in France felt so isolated and so far removed from their own country that they turned to radicalism and slaughter instead.  The chances are if this is their story, it’s about to be someone else’s too.  Maybe instead of fighting guns with more guns, it’s time to start addressing the poverty and isolation many migrants feel.  We have tried being aggressive and it hasn’t worked yet.  Maybe the time has come to start a dialogue with both immigrants and those who oppose them to understand their issues and start to construct homegrown solutions to tackle this extremism on both ends of the spectrum.  Maybe it’s time for us to kill (homegrown extremism) with kindness.  I will tell my kids that engagement, tolerance, and dialogue across the board will go a long way to tackling radicalism around the world and at home.

About the Peshawar School Attack?

As a human being, I was disgusted by the Taliban’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.  As someone of Pakistani descent I was so deeply saddened that yet again the country of my heritage was in the news because of violence and death.  As a parent, I was terrified and sickened with grief that this vile act of cowardice was going to change so many lives in so many ways.  I found it difficult to read through news articles on the attack because it was so violent and so utterly devastating for the children who died, those who survived, the families whose children were caught in the attack, and the staff at the school.  I find myself questioning why I would bring children into a world when they are so unsafe and where they may even be targeted.  What do I say to my children about this disgusting act and what we can learn from it?

The first thing I would say to my kids is this: education is an absolute luxury that is never to be squandered or wasted.  And I don’t mean that in the mum sense where ‘you should work hard at school so that you can do well in life.’  I mean this: for hundreds of millions of people in the world, education is not a viable option.  Poverty, a lack of facilities, a lack of access, and gender are all (removable) obstacles to education.  By some ridiculous luck of the draw, you (meaning my child) ended up in a household that could afford to send you to school and in a country that attempts to support you getting an education even if your family is poor.  Understand that although this education is being given to you, you are one of the lucky few that is able to access this resource, from your parents being able to attend parent-teacher conferences to signing you up for afterschool programs.  Take it for granted and I will home school you and be your teacher, your principal, your superintendent, your guidance counselor, AND your friends and trust me Boo, you don’t want that.  Education is one of the few arenas in life that can level the playing field somewhat (harder to do in this country than most though) and so you will always have to work at earning an education because your family background will mean nothing if everyone else is working harder than you.

Second, I will tell my children that this attack stemmed largely from ignorance and the fear that ignorance breeds.  The only thing that can break that cycle is education.  Not allowing people to access knowledge allows you to control them more easily because they are rarely given all the information they need to make informed decisions (hello Fox news).  If you are their only source of information, they will have to do as you tell them.  Attacking these children who were trying to learn and better their lives, then, was the Taliban’s cowardly way of attempting to further their influence and control.  But education and knowledge have the ability to change lives in a single generation in a way that only basic necessities such as clean water and healthcare can.  That speaks volumes about the power and importance of education.  Never forget that.

Third, I will tell my children that, as always, the acts of a few extremists, while deplorable, should never undermine their pride in being of Pakistani descent.  It would be a disservice to all those who died and to each and every Pakistani that works tirelessly to better the lives of their fellow country people if we allow this act to define Pakistan and its people.  There was much media reporting about how maybe Pakistan would now finally start to take the terrorist threat seriously and do something about this problem, as if other nations had nothing to do with the ability of the Taliban and other terrorist groups to grow and gain sympathizers and supporters.  Even if my children weren’t Pakistani I would tell them that this affects them because we are all linked.  Not in some abstract, the universe-loves-us-all kind of way, but in very real terms.  I don’t need to remind you all of how instrumental the West was in bringing the Taliban to power in the region so yes, we are all linked whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  So look at this as a human event and not a national one and in so doing you may be able to reveal what part you (and your friends and your communities) can play in the solution.

Fourth, I will tell my children about true bravery and courage in the face of unimaginable odds: Malala Yousafzai.  What an impressive and just awe-inspiring person.  I will encourage them to read and watch her speeches, follow her life story up until this point, and keep an eye on what she does in the future because she offers us all an education that cannot be taught in a classroom but that we all can benefit from, regardless of our age, nationality, or gender.

I am finding it impossible to spin anything remotely positive or uplifting out of this school attack.  Rather than being some point of lively debate that we can rally around, this attack just leaves everyone feeling shocked and sickened.  Still, I want my children to know about the world that they’re growing up in and, unfortunately, part of that world is senseless and frightening ignorance and violence.  Just because it happened ‘out there’, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of the solution here.  These children and these families showed and continue to show unwavering bravery in the face of the most terrifying acts all in the name of education.  I will tell my children to keep that with them to remind them how fortunate they are to be able to access education and, whenever possible, to pay that fortune forward.

About Being an American Muslim in 2014 and Beyond?

I am a cultural Muslim.  That is, I grew up with Muslim parents, in a Muslim country, observing Muslim holidays and practices.  I have never eaten pork in my life (and despite the delicious and tempting smell of bacon, I don’t think I will), I have had the great fortune of completing a pilgrimage to Mecca with my family, and yet, as an adult, I don’t practice the religion myself.  I don’t pray, I (somewhat regrettably) don’t fast, I’ve never read the Koran in its entirety, and I don’t give nearly enough of my money to charity.  Although my husband converted to Islam (to appease my family), he practices no religion and believes in no god or higher power.  And yet our son has a Muslim name, doesn’t eat pork, celebrates Eid, and greets his family with the traditional Salaam and Khuda Hafiz.

The best way I can explain this is to restate: I am a cultural Muslim.  Islam is so entrenched in my being that much like an American would find it hard to divorce Thanksgiving from their American identity, I find it impossible to separate Islam from who I am.  It’s of little consequence that I don’t believe in god or the rituals of any religion.  Islam is part of my identity and I’m proud to say that it always will be.

I imagine (and hope) that this is how my children will feel when they’re older.  But I also know that my children will be American first and cultural Muslims second (or maybe third or fourth).  They’ll go to American schools, live in American cities, have many American (read non-Muslim) friends, and be American.  What do I tell them about being an American Muslim when their nation is at the forefront of the ignorance surrounding Islam? How do I ensure they remain proud of every facet of their cultural heritage despite what is said about it?

I’ve decided to approach this first by instilling confidence in my children.  I want them to know they are smart, beautiful, and perfect exactly the way they are.  Even the Muslim part of them.  Even the Arab-looking part of them.  They. Are. Perfect.  Will they believe this when they’re teenagers or young adults? I don’t know but nothing will stop me from telling them this.

Second, I want them to be tolerant of everyone as long as they don’t preach hatred or spread hurt and destruction.  So my kids can be whatever they want and embrace whatever practices they want so long as they don’t try and cause others harm.  This means if they meet people that are religious but they themselves choose not to be, they will be utterly respectful of those people’s choices and their right to choose whatever religion or belief system they want.  My mum, for example, prays 5 times a day, observes Ramadan, and is a practicing Muslim.  She never, however, forces me to follow these same practices.  Would she prefer that I practiced Islam in the same way as her? Of course, but to her the two most important things are her own personal and private relationship with god and that I am kind to those around me.  Giving me the freedom to be the kind of Muslim that was right for me was one of the best gifts my mother ever gave me.

Third, I expect them to take it upon themselves to be well educated when it comes to religion.  We know that IS in no way reflects the views of most Muslims or the principles of the religion so I want my kids to be aware of the same misrepresentations of other religions before they form those opinions.

Fourth I will tell them that they never have to apologize for or justify who they are.  They are Muslims (in whatever capacity) and just because some extremists have hijacked Islam for their own selfish and perverse needs doesn’t mean this is in any way a reflection of Islam, Muslims, or my children.  In my 29 years I have never tried to explain away my Muslim heritage and I never will.  Just like I don’t ask my Jewish friends to justify or explain Zionist ideals or my Christian friends to explain how blowing up an abortion clinic could be right, I expect to be able to practice (or not) my Muslim ideals without fear or judgment or reproach.  We are a prime of example of how millions of Muslims around the world feel; we should embrace that.

It’s my hope that by talking about Islam and Muslim identity with my kids, it will help break down the stigma of identifying as a Muslim (and believe me, there is stigma attached to this identification).  I hope my kids will then take this one step further and think ‘well if people judge me so harshly for identifying as a Muslim, who am I judging prematurely and is that judgment really justified?’

I have a lot to tell my kids about being an American Muslim.  Pride, acceptance, tolerance, knowledge – that is what being an American, a Muslim, and an American Muslim is about.