MoverMoms’ Stirring it up in the Kitchen

MM picThe idea grew out of the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. A dear friend of mine of Jewish faith, horrified at the growing intolerance and hate in the world and the comments she was hearing that the Paris attacks somehow represented the values of Islam, approached me to see what we could do to counteract these global messages of hate. Through MoverMoms, an organization that we are both active in and one that promotes volunteerism and community building, we decided to host a ‘conversation on tolerance’. As mothers, we understood the unique and critical role that we play in shaping our children’s world views and in modeling respect for people who think and pray differently. About 20 women joined, of different faiths, and a friend and trained facilitator helped us get to know each other better. She asked each of us to choose a photograph, of every day scenes and ordinary objects, from hundreds laid out on my kitchen table; one that spoke to us and to why we decided to come that afternoon. The stories that flowed from the simple photograph provided a window into our values, hopes, and lives; the sharing was sincere and profound. We knew we had to keep these conversations going.

We decided one way to gather in a warm and inviting setting that would be conducive to sharing would be to cook together; and in the process to ‘stir it up’ – share stories of faith and tradition and ask the sometimes hard questions that we may not otherwise dare ask. “Stirring it up in the Kitchen” was created, and we had our first gathering on Thursday evening. The mixing of spices and stories, flavors and faiths, traditions and ingredients was deliciously inspiring.

We used the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a beautiful collection of recipes from the Arab east and Jewish west parts of the city. As we chopped onions, ground cumin, ladled lentils, and browned pine nuts, we talked about our families, fasting in our faith, favorite recipes, and where to find rose water. An American Muslim shared how she converted to Islam 15 years ago, and how much comfort and solace she finds in fasting; she also told us that she is a power lifter, to everyone’s amazement, which triggered a whole host of other questions: “Does wearing a hijab and long sleeves get in the way of lifting? How do people in the gym perceive you?” Another shared how her family is a mix of Christians, Jews, Muslims, African Americans, and how such diversity feels so comfortable for her children. Another, opened up about how she felt envious seeing my emotional reaction when the azan played on the iphone, because she too once had that feeling; but it was taken away from her by a forceful regime that pushed a harsh and strict form of faith.

We didn’t want the evening to end; we could have shared all night. When the Muhallabieh (milk pudding) was passed around, someone asked what was in the accompanying syrup. “What, Baileys?!,”she said in surprise. “No, it’s bay leaf syrup,” the cook clarified. We all had a good laugh.

Perhaps a poignant reminder that miscommunication can happen so easily; and why it’s so important to keep talking with each other – and stirring, and simmering, and sautéing …

To learn more about MoverMoms and to donate to our work to help the most needy in our community and to promote tolerance and understanding, please visit http://www.movermoms.com.

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“What a good man”

President-Obama-sings-Ama-011For the past week, I’ve been sharing stories of extraordinary courage, compassion, and conviction. I struggled with how to limit my list to 30; whether to include people of all faiths, or family members, or local community heroes. There are so many inspiring stories to tell, 30 days is hardly sufficient. To try and narrow the list, and since this is a blog during Ramadan, I decided to focus on Muslims, and those who are having a profound impact in their societies and the world, because too few of these stories are covered in the press; and to write about people I’ve had a chance to meet or interview, so I could share a personal insight rather than simply write a researched account.

But there are countless people, of all faiths or no faith, who are making this world a better place through everyday acts of kindness and grace; so many who we know through our own life experiences, and so many more who we will never get to know. People like Clementa Pinckney and the other eight honorable men and women who lost their lives last week.

“What a good man,” Obama said in his eulogy of Pinckney. “Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.”

I thought today we could pause, and honor and respect all the good men, women and children amongst us – neighbors and teachers, friends and family members, faith leaders and community activists – who quietly inspire us through their generous example. Perhaps there’s no better way to do so than by sharing President Obama’s moving eulogy of Clementa Pinckney. Please take a few minutes to watch; it is inspiring, and full of grace.

 

 

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”

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Last night, a group of teens, Palestinian and Israeli, from Jerusalem, allowed us to hear the harmony of possibility.

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an ensemble of high school students from East and West Jerusalem, on their first trip to the U.S., sang beautifully evocative songs that fused cultures and languages and traditions – from Sufi chants (“I believe in the religion of love”), to Jewish hymns (“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together”), to African American spirituals (“Keep your hand on the plow”). After a day of fasting, the music fed our souls and gave song to our deepest desires.

Micah Hendler, founder and director of the chorus, is an alum of Sidwell Friends school, where the concert took place. He studied music and international relations at Yale. He’s also a ‘seed’ – a graduate of the Seeds of Peace International Camp for Coexistence, a three-week program in Maine that brings Palestinian and Israeli kids together, as well as those from other conflict regions, to learn conflict resolution, leadership, and community building skills. Micah told me after the concert that the germ of this idea took root from his experiences at Seeds of Peace. Three years ago, he left for Jerusalem to form this choir, believing that singing together could create powerful bonds. He’s been amazed at the results. Watching the kids last night, it was clear they were having a great time; at the end, they all broke out in dance to celebrate. The audience got a chance to sing too — eight simple words that called us to action: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

It was the final song, performed together with the Sidwell Friends Chamber Chorus and the Children’s Chorus of Washington, that brought us all to our feet and many of us to tears. Sing with me — Hold on to me as we go. As we roll down this unfamiliar road. And although this wave is stringing us along. Just know you’re not alone. ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home. The words to “Home”, originally performed by Phillip Phillips, are not only poignant for the region but for the singers, who often brave violence and intimidation to be a part of this chorus, and who strive to transcend their differences to create a space that feels like home. Their 3 ½ hour rehearsals include facilitated dialogues to delve deeper into each other’s life experiences, identities, and religious traditions. I must have watched their video of “Home” several dozen times in the past couple of months; each time to the same effect – goosebumps.

The evening reminded me of another stirring encounter I saw recently, at the Women in the World Summit in April in New York. Two mothers, Robi Damelin, an Israeli, and Bushra Awad, a Palestinian, divided by religion and war, but united in their grief of loosing a child in the conflict. They met through The Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost loved ones in the conflict. A moving ad for the organization shows distraught mothers, fathers and children begging for no new members: “We don’t want you here,” they say in Hebrew and Arabic, shaking their heads in grief. Robi and Bushra shared their stories of losing their sons in the conflict; they pulled their chairs closer together so they could hold each other’s hands. But this is not how it was at first. “What did you think of Robi when you first met her?” Tina Brown asked Bushra. “I didn’t like her,” Bushra said. Then added, “I loved Robi very much after I knew her pain was my pain.” Robi said, “the tears that fall on the pillow are the same color – wherever, for all mothers.” Now Robi and Bushra give talks, run seminars, and participate in peace vigils. Bushra says some are opposed to what she’s doing: “Some of the people say to me that I’m selling my son’s blood. But I’m not. I’m buying the blood of my other kids.” Before the session ended, the two embraced. Two mothers, sharing the same pain, waging peace.

You could almost imagine them singing, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is performing again tonight at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center; see them if you can. To watch their video of ‘Home’, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMkqMTK1_O0. To learn more about them and support their efforts, please go to: http://jerusalemyouthchorus.org

To watch Robi and Bushra’s moving remarks at Women in the World, please visit: http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2015/04/22/israeli-robi-damelin-and-palestinian-bushra-awad-talk-about-finding-humanity-in-the-enemy/.  To learn more about the Parents Circle and support their efforts, please go to: http://www.theparentscircle.com

Robi Damelin, Israeli member and spokesperson, Parents Circle – Families Forum, Bushra Awad, Member, Parents Circle - Families Forum  and Tina Brown, Founder, Women in the World and CEO, Tina Brown Live Media at The 2015 Women In The World Summit,  Lincoln Center, New York City; 4/22/2015

Robi Damelin, Israeli member and spokesperson, Parents Circle – Families Forum, Bushra Awad, Member, Parents Circle – Families Forum and Tina Brown, Founder, Women in the World and CEO, Tina Brown Live Media at The 2015 Women In The World Summit, Lincoln Center, New York City; 4/22/2015

 

 

“Music is an expression of my love for God” — Sami Yusuf

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To be honest, when I first met Sami Yusuf I didn’t fully realize his megastar status. It probably made it easier for me to ask him for an interview. As I was writing a feature on him for “The Islamic Monthly”, I realized just what a superstar he really is — packing concert stadiums around the world, selling over 31 millions albums, having almost seven million Facebook fans, and amassing some impressive titles: “Islam’s biggest rock star”, according to Time magazine, and the “most successful British musician since the Rolling Stones,” according to European channel ARTE Metropolis.

But it is Yusuf’s spiritual approach to his music, his intellectual pursuit for truth and tradition, and his humanitarian work to feed the world’s hungry that is truly inspiring.

“Music is an extension of who I am,” Yusuf tells me, “I’m a lover of the sacred, and music is an expression of my love for God and for the great traditions.”

He calls his genre “Spiritique”, which he explains is a celebration of timeless wisdom. “You can find this wisdom or truth in all the great traditions; it is in Bulleh Shah and Maulana Rumi as well as in the teachings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. All that wisdom has a thread of truth in it, it has the sacred in it, and that’s what I’m concerned with.”

“The message that I have, which may be controversial for some, is that all the religions of this world are ultimately expressions of the same truth. We have to be brave enough to believe in our own faiths, but also respect and accept other orthodox traditions. And we have to promote cross-cultural, cross-religious intellectual dialogue.”

My family went to Yusuf’s concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. last September. He sang a number of songs from his album “The Centre” as well as traditional favorites like “Hasbi Rabbi”. Many of his songs start off in English, and blend into one of the several languages in which he sings, including Arabic, Persian, Azeri, Turkish, Urdu and Malay. He had an easy rapport with his audience and encouraged us to sing along; the D.C. crowd was definitely more tepid than the ones he’s used to in Cairo and Istanbul. But his music had a visible and audible impact. My father-in-law, typically quiet and reserved, was clapping and tapping along; this was the first time he had heard Yusuf’s music and he said he felt uplifted. My husband said he felt more inspired to pray after listening to Yusuf’s music than he does after many Friday khutbahs (sermons).

Yusuf’s new album, “Songs of the Way” is a tribute to his teacher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who recites several poems in the album.  In February, he released what he calls the first interfaith anthem, called “The Gift of Love”, to mark the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week; Yusuf doesn’t profit from the song but hopes it will become a rallying anthem for peace. He is working with AR Rahman on a soundtrack for a film about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and just finished a multi-city sold out European tour.

I asked Yusuf how he stays centered, given his popularity, fame and the temptations of the business. “Meditation, contemplation, reflection and constant remembrance of God,” he says. “There really is no other way.”

Yusuf is the Global Ambassador Against Hunger for the UN World Food Programme. He’s composed and recorded a number of songs to raise awareness and funds to alleviate hunger around the world. In 2011, he composed a song called “Forgotten Promises”, one of my favorite songs and videos by Yusuf; all proceeds were donated to WFP to alleviate hunger in the Horn of Africa. In 2013, he recorded “Silent Words” to support efforts to help Syrian refugees, and in 2014 proceeds from the song “Hope Survives” aided those affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

“Charity is a duty,” Yusuf says, “it’s not something we should get an award for.”

You can listen to Sami Yusuf’s most spiritually uplifting songs on a serenity playlistHe encourages us to share a meal with a hungry family this Ramadan through the World Food Programme by donating here: https://give.wfp.org/4922/?step=country

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“You are on my mind and in my dua’s” — Tayyibah Taylor

tayyibahtaylorWhen Tayyibah Taylor was 12 years old, she picked up a copy of Ebony magazine and saw images of women that looked like her, perhaps already understanding what would later become so clear  – the importance of seeing images and reading stories that resonate with you. In 2000, she founded Azizah magazine, the first mainstream Muslim women’s magazine in North America. She was its Editor-in-Chief and Publisher until she passed away in September 2014.

Tayyibah was a true trailblazer. She was instrumental in changing the image of Muslim women in America, and in allowing Muslim women to tell their own stories; she traveled and spoke extensively, and was passionate about promoting interfaith understanding.

I wrote several articles for Azizah magazine, but our bond was forged in a different way. Two years ago, Tayyibah and I were participating in a media workshop in Washington, D.C. on “The Image of Muslims in the U.S.” On the first day, I came in late, delayed at the hospital where I was having radiation treatment for breast cancer.  Tayyibah, keenly sensitive, asked me if everything was okay. I shared with her what I was facing. She hugged me tightly, encouraged me to have strong faith, and told me about the power of black seed oil. That evening, she wrote: “I meant to tell you that despite your challenge with the diagnosis, you were glowing with serenity and beauty. May Allah continue to bless you.”

I started sharing with Tayyibah a series of letters that I was sending to family and close friends about my breast cancer journey. She asked if I would be willing to have the letters published online at Azizah magazine.  I hesitated at first; it was a private experience that I was sharing with a few. But then realized what Tayyibah had understood: so many are facing this challenge, and so few Muslim women are talking about it openly. She thought the letters could provide some hope or inspiration, or encourage conversations to help others unburden as well. We decided to title the series the five words with which I ended each letter: “We’ll get through this, InshAllah.”

As I went through my treatment, Tayyibah would write and ask how I was doing. “I pray that you are well and that you are healing,” she wrote in one email, “You are on my mind and in my dua’s.”  Even after I had completed the treatment, she continued to check up on me. She didn’t have to write; I was not family, not a close friend — just one of the hundreds of people that had crossed her path. She ended all her notes with “Light and blessings, TT”.

A few months later, I was devastated to see the “Support Tayyibah through Cancer” campaign on Facebook. I wrote to her immediately, reminding her that so many people around the world are praying for her, ending my note, “We’ll get through this, InshAllah.”

Last September, while I was waiting for my mammography results in the hospital, I read that Tayyibah had passed away. She had supported me through my ordeal, but had lost her own battle to the disease.

Tayyibah has passed on physically, but her legacy will live on in all the ways that she inspired so many – to live with passion, to care with sincerity, and to tell our stories with pride and grace.

Light and blessings TT.

Please support Tayyibah’s legacy by subscribing to and donating to Azizah magazine: http://www.azizahmagazine.com

 (Adapted from my piece in “The Islamic Monthly”.)

A World Without Hate – Rais Bhuiyan

Photo: Aasil Ahmad

Last year, a friend told me about a book called “The True American” by New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. Given what’s happening in our country today, from Charleston to Chapel Hill, and around the world, this is a story we all need to know.

It’s the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi Air Force officer who decides to immigrate to the U.S. to realize the American dream. Days after 9/11, Mark Stroman, a meth addict with a shaved head and racist tattoos who calls himself an “American terrorist”, decides to avenge the attacks by “hunting Arabs”. He walks into a Dallas minimart where Rais is working and shoots him at close range with a sawed-off shotgun, nearly killing him. He kills two others at nearby gas stations. Stroman is sent to death row. Rais looses his eye, has dozens of pellets embedded in his face, and undergoes several surgeries. He tries to rebuild his life, in a new country, without a job, a house, insurance, money, support, or family.

Ten years later, he takes his mother for the Hajj pilgrimage.  He had already forgiven Stroman, but after Hajj he decides that in order to fully heal and keep the promise he made to God the night he almost died, he must save Stroman’s life. His faith teaches him that, as the Quran states, “if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he has saved the lives of all mankind.” He spends the next several years waging a legal and public relations campaign to commute Stroman’s death sentence. In the end, he’s unsuccessful. Hours before Stroman’s execution, they speak for the first time. Rais says, “I forgive you and I do not hate you”. Stroman responds, “You are a remarkable person. Thank you from my heart. I would never have expected this. I love you bro.”

Our MoverMoms’ book club discussed “The True American” the day we learned of the shooting of three young American Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. To discuss Rais’ story at a time when we were experiencing another tragic hate crime against Muslims, 13 years later, was truly painful and beyond disheartening.

I had the chance to interview Rais a few weeks later in Chicago. We talked about the Chapel Hill murders, hate crimes around the world, how to promote tolerance and understanding, and where he gets his incredible depth of forgiveness.

“I did not label [Stroman] as a white supremacist; I did not label him as a white Christian. I labeled him as a human being who is in pain,” says Rais about the man who tried to kill him. “I thought if I were in his shoes on death row, what would I expect from others. Some mercy and a second chance.”

He says we have to focus on how we can prevent such crimes from happening; educate each other, have mercy for one another. “We don’t want to hate them, because they are victims of something too.”  Rais recognizes that terrible things happened, but he is focused on finding a way forward, to a world without hate – the name of the organization he founded. “I kept asking God to help me find the good. I didn’t want people to remember this incident just as a murder, but to remember it as a turning point, as a new narrative.”

Rais sees himself working as a ‘forgiveness ambassador’, which he says is different from a peace ambassador. Forgiveness is a powerful tool, which is highly underutilized, he says. “The world is in an extremely painful place, there are too many wounds.” He feels that forgiveness will help heal the wounds; otherwise the cycle will never break. “You hurt me in the past, now it’s my time to hurt you; that’s where we are right now, going back and forth. But somebody has to stand up and say, ok, let’s stop it here.”

To learn more about Rais’ story and to support his efforts, please visit and donate to World Without Hate: http://worldwithouthate.org

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Photo credits: Aasil Ahmad

“It is our very ordinariness that gives hope to the world” – Ebrahim Rasool

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It was an awe-inspiring experience – to hear the azan echoing through the vaulted ceiling, see the autumn light streaming through the stained glass as we bowed East, feel the warm embrace in a house of worship not our own. And it was historic — the first time American Muslims were invited to lead Jummah (Friday) prayers inside the iconic National Cathedral, where presidential funerals and other national religious services are held. Faith leaders spoke of all that we have in common, for a moment silencing the cacophony that drowns out such peaceful voices.  I’m glad my son Zayd was with me, to experience how beautifully faith and community and country could fit together.

The idea had been envisioned a year earlier, when South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and Reverend Gina Campbell were planning Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. As Rev. Campbell told us that afternoon, on the eve of that service, they stood and looked down the long center aisle of the nave of the cathedral and Ambassador Rasool said that it reminded him of ancient mosques, where water would flow down the center to conduct the sound of prayer. “Standing in this great church two very different people from two very different faiths, could both see and sense prayer,” said Rev. Campbell.

Ebrahim Rasool gave a moving khutbah (sermon) that afternoon. “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility,” he said, “but keenly aware that this is not the time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The mischief-makers call themselves by various names, every name seeking to appropriate a part of our identity and heritage.” He called on Muslims and Christians and those of other faiths to come together in a “common cause” in the fight against extremism. Acknowledging that “while the middle ground from all our faiths and all our walks of life are not always capable of acts which constitute breaking news, because we are not outrageous, despite being outraged. But every day it is our very ordinariness that gives hope to the world, it is our simple acts of co-existence, our embrace of difference, our beautiful addition to the American mosaic that guarantees the defeat of extremism with all its bigotry, discrimination, profiling and devastation.”

Rasool was South Africa’s ambassador to the U.S. for four and half years, until just recently, and is now a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Georgetown University. His life has been devoted to public service, including as a parliamentarian in South Africa’s National Assembly and as Governor of the Western Cape Province; he has a long history in the anti-apartheid struggle, and spent a number of years in prison where he met Nelson Mandela.

The first time I heard Ambassador Rasool speak, it was at a synagogue; he was giving the keynote address at Washington Hebrew Congregation for the 9/11 Unity Walk, an event that brings together people of all faiths to walk together and visit each other’s houses of worship. The next time I heard him speak, it was at a cathedral; and the third time, I had the privilege of introducing him at a Quaker meeting house at Sidwell Friends school. Perhaps this reveals more about him than anything else I can share. He is a person who is passionate about promoting bonds of friendship across people of all faiths; dedicated to carrying forward Nelson Mandela’s legacy of fostering dignity, and inclusion and respect; and committed to embodying the spirit of ubuntu – I am who I am because of who we all are.

At the National Cathedral, Rasool reminded us of the importance of soft power – “that the softest water smooths the hardest rock into the most beautiful pebble.” Perhaps this blog can be an aspect of our soft power and help show the world our “ordinariness” — through simple acts of kindness, gentle gestures of gratitude, and tender stories of compassion, courage and love.

To learn more about Ebrahim Rasool’s efforts to promote a world for all, please visit the World for All foundation that he founded, at: http://www.worldforall.org

 

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A Thousand Watt Injection — Dr. Shershah Syed

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Razia was married at 16. She was riding with her husband on a scooter when a truck with steel rods rammed into them; her husband died instantly. Razia’s in-laws blamed her for his death, and sent her back to her family. She was six months pregnant, and suffered a long and complicated early delivery. Her baby was born dead, and Razia developed fistula – a devastating condition caused by prolonged obstructed labor; she was leaking urine and feces constantly. She had no idea what to do, until someone told her about the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital outside of Karachi. Founded by Dr. Shershah Syed, a Pakistani ob-gyn, in 2005, it provides free surgeries to correct fistula and other emergency obstetric procedures, and has treated thousands of women from remote parts of Pakistan. Razia saved for two years to travel to the hospital. She underwent six complicated surgeries, and is now completely dry. She married again, adopted a child, and regained her dignity.

I met Dr. Shershah Syed, serendipitously, on the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, May 23, at an event in Virginia. That same day, Razia was sharing her story at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland as part of events commemorating that day.

Dr. Shershah is unassuming and humble; he is also one of the most respected doctors in Pakistan. Educated in Ireland and the UK, he planned to work in the area of infertility. But when he returned to Pakistan, he was shocked at the number of fistula cases and the government’s inattention to maternal health; he changed course. He worked for many years in the government hospital. But says he kept getting transferred or fired, because he would speak his mind: “The government is not interested in the health of women, they’re more interested in atomic bombs and missiles, and all that nonsense.” “They didn’t like that,” he says smiling. So he bought a plot of land and set up Koohi Goth hospital in a slum area outside Karachi. It has 200 beds; his plan is to grow it to 600 beds. He trains 75 midwives each year, as well as medical technicians, theatre technicians, and female health workers. It costs $1500 to train a midwife, and it’s an 18 month course. “That’s nothing,” he says, “this can change a woman’s life, pull her family up, and save the lives of others.”

“If I see a patient 19 years old, and she comes to me like a dead walking woman, and I can do this 20 minute operation or one hour operation, and within five days you see her face is totally changed; her eyes are bright; she is a totally changed person. That gives you a thousand watt injection.”

“I’ve been doing this work for 34 years and I don’t ever remember that on the occasion of the birth of a girl, shots being fired in celebration, or mitahi being ordered, or a mother putting her gold necklace around my neck; but when a boy is born, this always happens. Mothers have given me their gold rings – as if I’ve done something amazing.”

“In a society where boys are so valued, who asks about girls – nobody asks. Until our country, our government, our society understands that it is vital to save women’s lives, maternal death will continue,” he says.

Dr. Shershah invited me to visit Koohi Goth hospital and see the work first hand. IA, I’ll have a chance to go, and write in more detail about the extraordinary story of this Pakistani doctor destroying traditional stereotypes as he helps the most desperate and impoverished women regain their dignity.

To donate to Dr. Shershah’s work at Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital, please visit: http://nhfus.org/shershah.html

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“The world exists on hope” – Mukhtar Mai

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Ramadan Mubarak.

Many of you know the story of Mukhtar Mai, one of my personal heroes.

In 2002, Mukhtar, a Pakistani village woman, was brutally gang raped by four men of a powerful neighboring tribe, on the order of a local council; the attack was said to be punishment for an alleged affair that her young brother had with a girl from another tribe. To humiliate her further, Mukhtar was forced to walk home, nearly naked, as villagers looked on. People expected her to commit suicide; she thought about it. But instead, Mukhtar took the rapists to court. Initially, six men were sentenced to death for the rape. Then in 2011, the Pakistan Supreme Court overturned all but one of the convictions and the men were freed; they continue to live in her neighboring village.

I first met Mukhtar seven years ago when she was in Washington, D.C. for a Vital Voices event. I was asked to be her translator when she was invited to speak with Hillary Clinton at the inaugural Women in the World Summit in 2010; unfortunately she had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. In April we had the chance to meet again when she was in town for a Developments in Literacy (DIL) fundraiser.

She smiles when she greets me, remembering that we had met before; she laughs as she shares some of her stories; but it’s her eyes – her eyes can’t hide the unfathomable pain that she’s endured. Her voice is soft, I sit right beside her to hear her. She seems timid, a bit withdrawn. But Mukhtar Mai has the courage of a warrior, and a voice that has challenged centuries of brutality and injustice against women.

We talk about her typical day, her schools, her children, life for women in Pakistan, her fears, her dreams, who inspires her, what makes her so strong.

Allah jin sey kaam laina hota hey, leta hey,” (loosely translated, ‘God chooses certain people to do certain things’).

Mukhtar runs the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organisation. It includes a resource center, which deals with 500 cases of violence against women each year, and includes legal support, a hotline and a mobile emergency unit; a shelter, which started in Mukhtar’s bedroom with women sleeping beside her; and two schools, which provide free education, books, uniforms and supplies; the schools are for both girls and boys until primary, and for girls until high school.

In 2003, she used funds she won from her case to start a school for girls, the first in her village. Illiterate herself, she understood that only education could bring about change.  She laid the bricks with her own hands, she tells me proudly, and enrolled herself as her first student; she made it through primary school, she laughs, then got too busy running her organization. Now the school has 700 children; the second in a neighboring village has 300.

People used to slam the door in her face when she tried to encourage families to send their daughters to her school; now their only wish is for their girls to attend. “If they miss the bus, the parents themselves bring their daughters to school. One way or another, they have understood that girls should get an education,” she says smiling. Visiting the schools is the brightest part of Mukhtar’s day. The kids crowd around her, they all want to shake her hand; sometimes three hands hold on to hers, she says smiling. “The kids love me; the children are very happy at school. And we feel the same way. We consider them our own kids.”

The children of her rapists attend her school too.

Mukhtar got married in 2009, and has two kids of her own, a daughter who is almost five and a son who is three; she also adopted her sister’s daughter, 9. We share stories, and stresses, about our children. She fears for their security. “For myself I don’t worry; whatever happens to me will happen; I worry for my children.” She also worries that her kids are not taking school seriously; since it’s located next to their house and their mother is always there, they don’t see it as a place to study.  Mothers’ worries are always the same – our children’s safety, well being, and education.

Her other big stress is funding for her schools; for the past six years, it’s been very difficult to get funds; DIL helps with some of the teacher salaries. “I’ve been so tense; I don’t want the schools to close down. I hope this mission continues.” She has faith that she will get through this difficult time too.

Mukhtar has big dreams, even if limited resources. “I want to open schools all over Pakistan,” she says, “wherever there isn’t a school.” She also wants to make a college for girls so they can continue studying. “One wishes for so many things, our dreams never stop. But what happens is what Allah wants to happen; if He wishes, then this will happen too.”

We talk about her case, and if things have gotten better for women in Pakistan. She’s frustrated that laws for women are made on paper, but not implemented. “If no one gets punished, there’s no justice. A country that does not have an effective justice system, that country will perish.”  Maybe her kids will see justice, she says, even is she doesn’t. And adds, “Omeed pay dunya kaim hay,” (the world exists on hope). Hakumat mai nai, lekin Allah pey to hai (not in government, but [we have faith] in God).

I ask her what gives her so much strength. “First of all, Allah,” she says, “what Allah wants done, he enables it to happen.” She also gains courage from her mother; and from the support of all of us. “I know that the whole world’s duas are with me,” she says.

I set aside my notebook, hold her hands, and ask her how she’s really doing. She says, unconvincingly, that she’s ok, Allah ka shukr. Adding, “Aik cheez insan key andar ajai, phir wo jatee nahi” (one thing if it gets inside you, then it never leaves you). She hasn’t been able to sleep well in 13 years. “But you have to go on; you still have to laugh; no one likes someone who cries all the time. Zindagi to gozarnee hai” (You have to continue to go on with your life).

I assure her that she’s not alone, that we’re by her side; I tell her that I will share her story during Ramadan, and that we will give generously to make sure her schools stay open; I promise her that I will pray for her children, and ask her to pray for mine.

To learn more about Mukhtar Mai’s work and to donate to her efforts, please visit: http://www.mukhtarmai.org

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