I…work to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health issues in
the Muslim community…
Who are you?
I have multiple identities, and because I am in a constant state of multitasking, you will often see me embodying more than one identity at a time. I am a Muslim American. I am Pakistani. I am a Chicagoan. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, an activist. I am a city girl (except when I drive) and a huge nerd. I love anything Bono, public health, and junk food. I grew up with a loving family in the suburbs of Chicago in a fairly liberal desi-American Muslim community. I wandered much of my childhood and adolescence, looking for a place to call home, which I finally found when I began my undergrad at University of Chicago in the historic neighborhood of Hyde Park. I studied public (health) policy and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and I started my professional journey in healthcare at the University hospital running a clinical research project. My interest in maternal and child health was sparked when I had my first baby girl at 23, and I learned how little most women know about their bodies, pregnancy, and having a positive birth experience. I went back to graduate school to get my Masters in Public Health, where I continued to delve deeper into Maternal and Child Health. I also began consulting at the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the Department of Health and Human Services and had my second baby girl in 2008. At OWH, I was asked to lead a project on Muslim women and girls’ health issues – what initially began as a one-time project became the seed for a nonprofit organization I founded with my friend and colleague called HEART Women & Girls.
What I love most about my work is how it brings together many diverse women and girls and their important stories. I have heard many stories of women and girls struggling with body image, depression, eating disorders, unhealthy relationships, sexual violence, sexual dysfunction, peer pressure, sexual experimentation and sexuality.
Now, I live in Hyde Park with my husband and three children (baby boy born last year) and continue to work to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health issues in the Muslim community through HEART.
Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:
This was hard for me because anything U2 sings generally resonates with me. But, Stand Up Comedy in particular rings true for me these days. In particular, the following verse:
The DNA lottery may have left you smart
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart
I can stand up for hope, faith love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady
Many people have interpreted these verses numerous ways. The meaning I like the
best is simple: While we have been blessed with intellect, often its hard to stand up to
a stronger force – our emotions and love for beauty. Love, and leave everything else to
Another verse I love is from Moment of Surrender:
My body’s now a begging bowl
That’s begging to get back, begging to get back
To my heart
To the rhythm of my soul
To the rhythm of my unconsciousness
To the rhythm that yearns
To be released from control
This one, for me, is about releasing control and submitting to God’s will. The freedom and liberation one feels after fully submitting.
What Ayah of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
Hasbunallahu wa ni’mal wakeel (3:173)
God is all we need. What an excellent trust is God.
Fabi-ayi ala hi rabbikuma thukadhiban (Surah Rahman)
Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?
The first is one of my favorite ways to remember God and remind myself that He is all I need. The second is from one of my favorite surahs, and is a beautiful reminder that God and His blessings and beauty are everywhere, so how can we ever deny them?
What Hadith do you wish more non-Muslims knew about? Why?
I don’t have any one particular hadith, but generally, the hadith I like to share with
non-Muslims often are usually the ones that have to do with the Prophet’s incredible
mercy and his wisdom in dealing with struggle. The hadith about the lady who would throw garbage at the Prophet (peace be upon him) every day and the one day she was absent, he went to inquire about her well-being. Or the hadith about the bedoiun who urinated in the Prophet’s mosque, and the mercy, understanding and kindness the Prophet (peace be upon him) used when he went about addressing the issue. Or the hadith about the people of Ta’if, who had persecuted the Prophet so badly, and instead of praying for their destruction, he prayed for their guidance. The hadith about mercy are beautiful ways to demonstrate to non-Muslims just how much we value mercy in our faith.
1. What is your favorite book?
Fiction – Time Traveler’s Wife
Public health/social justice – Infections and Inequalities by Paul Farmer and Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff & Susan Wudunn.
2. Who inspires/inspired you?
My grandmother, my mother’s mother. I have never heard her complain about anything. Her faith in God is tremendous, and her ability to remain content and keep busy is inspiring.
3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
To not let what other people think of me influence the choices I make for myself or the path that I choose.
4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
Do not define yourself by anything, anyone or any relationship except your relationship with God. Before you are somebody’s daughter, friend, spouse, mother or doctor or lawyer or teacher, you are God’s servant, and if you define yourself any other way, you will quickly lose your self-worth – it often gets attached to what you are defining yourself by, so when that disappears, so does your self-worth. To never lose sight that God’s plan is always the best one – no matter how much it seems like something is not working the way you wanted it to, that He has a plan, and its infinitely times better, so relax, and be fully present, don’t get lost in the planning and anxiety.
5. What are your hopes for your daughter(s)?
My hopes for my daughters and son is that they never compromise themselves no matter what situation they find themselves in, and they live their life such that every action is inspired by God. I wish for them to be kind, generous, just, honest and brave, and for them to be those who raise others up, in the eyes of God.
6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
Learning to stay present – I think this is a lifelong struggle many women face. I’m honestly still working on it, but it’s changed me in a way that I am more aware of my unique circumstances and situation, and I try harder to celebrate the present, rather than spend most of my day dwelling on the past, or planning for the future.
7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
I wish I had given more thought (and perhaps had a mentor) to being able to reconcile my professional goals with my familial hopes, dreams and responsibilities. There are a number of careers that make being a mom while still pursuing a meaningful professional career so much more compatible than other careers, and I wish I had received that type of reflection opportunity either through school or a community program.
8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
No matter what the task – big or small – I always begin and end with the remembrance of God. He is the only reason I am where I am today, and I never have allowed myself to forget that.
9. How do you bring about real change? (What do you hope to be remembered for?)
You bring about real change by challenging the status quo and by being persistent. I hope to be remembered as someone who wasn’t ok with the standards that society and culture have set for beauty, sexuality, and women, but rather as someone who kept challenging herself, and others by pushing the envelope to have some hard, but necessary conversations.
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