There is something unnervingly visceral about that moment you are met with your new-born child. Amongst that contradictory sense of searching for the familiar in a face that you’ve never seen, there is a dull static of realisation that charges straight up to the brain. A cold awakening to the fact that you are now responsible for a developing life, subhanAllah.
While new wave parenting, in many of its varied incarnations, may split hairs over the implications or semantics of this, essentially every parent or caregiver will be responsible for carving out an identity for their off-spring. That it is possible to adopt a hands-off, laissez-faire approach is itself a fallacy – to even want your child to be free to discover their natural self is a parenting choice which will require active decision making and interventions.
This dawning truth, that it is my indelible fingerprint that will begin to map the character of my daughters, is something that has only intensified with time. As my daughters grow and absorb the world around them at an alarming rate, I’m made aware of how much I am needed to mediate their relationship with this world, in all of its real and daunting implications.
The only arbiter that has brought relief to the fraught cartography of parenting is and always has been Islam. In my faith I have found the answer to every seemingly impossible question, a solution to every moral quandary, a sense of joy, hope, and optimism for my daughters and their future.
It is Islam I consistently draw upon whether they want to discuss war and conflict over breakfast, whether we are talking about the planets and stars, or when I’m flippantly asked ‘what’s the point?’ And that phrase entered our lives when the eldest was just three…
When I ask myself the inevitable question of what kind of women I want my daughters to be, I can only draw on my own experiences and internal conflicts to begin to constellate. And naturally, as a woman, I started with my shortcomings and worked my way back from there.
Protecting their mindset
As a 90s child who grew up on a solid diet of Disney and Barbie, and a subsequent disillusionment, I became automatically weary of mainstream media and the power it had to imbue damaging and lasting notions regarding their very sense of self. As a child of colour who had internalised Eurocentric beauty ideals, I was keen not to expose my daughters to media which objectified women, or portrayed a narrow depiction of ‘beauty’ – availability to men – as their overriding value and worth. To put it more succinctly, I was adamant on ensuring they did not internalise the male gaze.
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. “ – John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The surveyor as described here is something most women live with, consciously or not. It is an additional person or consciousness, in the shape of the male perspective, which takes root and holds residence in our most intimate thought space, policing our perceptions of our very self. It causes women to think and treat themselves as objects of others’ desires. This surveyor is cultivated through visual culture and mass media and is a lifelong apparition for most of the female race.
Women can save themselves
I still remember my earliest notions of womanhood being constructed around the glittering appeal of a rosy cheeked and weak-of-heart fairy-tale princess and the teasing, will-he-won’t-he narrative which framed her existence. Worryingly, these male-centric stories are often falsely presented as empowering, coming of age tales that exhibit the very outer limits of female strength and potential.
To me, growing up, they were aspirational, and I had fetishized the idea of beauty and desirability even before I had the ability to rationalise these concepts. It instilled in me a habit to constantly try to fashion an image of myself which was consistent with these ideals. And this was at the expense of a true understanding of my own self, my interests and a genuine evaluation of my purpose as both a woman and a believer.
The watchful surveyor becomes a constant in young girls, a force which wrestles with their actions. It persistently causes them to evaluate themselves as a composite of everyone else’s opinions. Are they the right kind of shape, size, temperament? This inhibiting force, and the crippling sense of self-consciousness it can cause, is what I am determined to liberate my daughters from.
A study undertaken by American social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg in which she compares the diaries of adolescent girls over the course of a century, found that when young girls in the nineteenth century referred to self-improvement this meant academic achievements or giving more to others. Modern day notions of self-improvement amongst adolescent girls refer almost exclusively to enhancing their appearance. Brumberg concludes that for young girls today appearance is viewed as the “primary expression of their individual identity”. The devaluing of female worth in the age of the image is here made woefully apparent.
While visual literacy is strikingly low amongst the population at large, we have a duty not to leave our children adrift in a visual landscape which is contoured entirely by profit and the immediate pleasures of the self. A well-known idiom in advertising and media is that if you control what people see, you have control of what they think – and therefore image makers have unprecedented control and access to our intimate thoughts and young, developing minds. To leave them to the visual world of media around them without providing context is to help entrench those damaging cultural fallacies that they engender.
Measuring our worth
How do we as Muslim women and mothers reconcile our socialisation, being made to be constantly aware of how we are perceived and how we measure up according to the yardstick of male desire, with the idea that as Muslims we must behave as though only Allah is watching. Because of course it is Allah who determines our worth – both in our barakah in this world and our destiny as celestial beings.
Islam encourages us to use Allah’s Will and His words as our sole and objective measure, and our socialisation to want to appeal to male dominated ideals, whether this is done consciously or not, is antithetical to this. Society’s ideals for women, which are driven by profit motives, are ever changing and unattainable. They are used as a tool to, at the very least, generate profit from our anxieties, and at worst subdue us. Allah’s timeless laws are far aloft from this. Islam encourages us to continually work on self-improvement, and endeavour to better ourselves independent of how we are ranked socially or physically. This liberation allows you to understand your true potential.
When I learned to purify my intentions and actions, and place Allāh as the sole purpose of everything that I did, I began to untangle my thought process from this male-centric value system. I was struck by how much this rid me of the nervous and debilitating energy. How understanding that I had a perfect standard by which to aspire to freed me from man’s flawed, impaired and contradictory standards. How I gained much more both in myself and in respect to what came back to me.
I would loathe for my children to grow up with this warping self-image. So, until they are old enough to demystify things, we rarely choose a screen-based activity on the weekend, and I do not purchase dolls or much of the hyper-feminine paraphernalia that clutters the pink aisles of toy shops the world over, be it plastic lipsticks, head models, or Bratz branded merchandise.
Moving away from mainstream culture
I do not own or use any snapchat inspired filters on my phone, nor encourage them to take selfies as I do not feel they should deem their outer appearance as something that is worthy of their time or effort, let alone to present them with an airbrushed image of themselves as a sexualised cat. While many of these items perpetuate beauty standards that are so ubiquitous as to be considered totally benign, they are all ultimately constructed to appeal to the most base of male instincts. And they are often pandered to innocuously, and without any sense of self-examination or questioning.
The modern visual narrative that we as women are woven into means that a majority of women feel inadequate presenting themselves to the world in their own skin and become dependent on external crutches such as make-up in order to feel acceptable. I would never want my daughters to absorb this notion that they are incomplete or insufficient as they are. I wouldn’t want them to feel that their outer shell is what defines them or is the limit of their sense of purpose or ambition.
Conversations and grounding are important to help our children contextualise what they are seeing in the world around them. To address expressly how and why women are presented in the media they consume and what larger forces are behind those choices of representation, in a non-condescending way.
And although many people interpret my move away from mainstream culture as reactionary, I am continually motivated by the positive effects of this that I see on my daughters who are currently enjoying being kids, and not being encouraged to pout holding up peace signs with their hips jutted. I consider this part of my duty as a mum – to expand their horizons, not limit them. To raise their aspirations not reduce them. To nurture their true sense of self not suffocate or homogenise it. And to give them a better insight into their strengths, not stymie them.
Of course, they are not impervious to the world around them, and after one series of sustained exposure to Disney princesses, my daughter later looked at the pale side of her inner arm thoughtfully. ‘I wish all of my body was this colour mama’ she said as I tried not to physically wince.
“He who does not live in the way of his beliefs starts to believe in the way he lives” – Umar ibn Al-Khattab.
Our words and their meaning matter
This inevitably means that my parental choices are framed as overbearing and devoid of any joy. I’m often asked whether I fear my children will ‘miss out’ be it on Frozen, or Halloween or Christmas – despite having two young girls who lead full, happy and inquisitive lives. Who see their heroes as figures in Islamic history and take inspiration from real life pioneers, ground breakers and thinkers. These questions are almost always presented by fellow Muslims, who cannot see beyond the secular monoculture and who base their understanding of happiness and success on secular paradigms.
My desire to root my children in a reality that is removed from the mirage of popular culture is coupled with my desire to embolden them to think and feel independently and not be pigeon holed into social expectations of them as women or social agents. I despair at the thought of pacifying them by paying homage to certain cultural practices, purely for the sake of fitting in – and sending a message to them that they must feed this latent desire we have to be accepted, on any terms. I do this so they seek their own models of success that aren’t rooted in misogynistic notions of gender or in a way that doesn’t place Allah’s pleasure as their rubric.
It also means that, being conscious of the ability of language to inform meaning and value, we have expanded it so that when I tell my daughter she is beautiful, she knows it means she has a capacity to be brave, thoughtful of others, and to work hard to achieve something. When she asks me what value-driven terms like ‘ugly’ mean, I remind her that they have no meaning outside of their malicious intent, and are words made up and weaponised against others. And I pray this means that these words cannot wield the same power over them – whether it be from the beauty industry, or those who will make them feel less than because they might refuse to make themselves visually accessible to men.
“Do not force your own customs upon your children for they are in other times than yours” – Ali RA
Our focus on language, more importantly, extends to the way we present Islam to our children. As Western Muslims in particular we are at a crossroads in our journey, and understanding that is key to fostering a healthy approach to Islam in our children.
With many of us from immigrant backgrounds, and with much of Western expressions of Islam taking on the hue of those cultures, we need to be mindful not to adopt those often reductive cultural interpretations of Islam, or the reactionary Western responses to it. True Islam exists on its own terms, independent of either of these ideological straightjackets.
Islam is a literate religion and one that is instructive. Internalising it as a set of rules or a cultural identity without exploring the many and varied reasonings behind the rulings of shariah does it a great injustice.
So we discuss the Quran and the meaning of Surahs in a language that is consistent with my children, and which situates its meaning in the practicality of their everyday life, so they understand it has purpose and meaning as well as innumerate blessings. We also discuss the purpose behind each of our religious rulings and how they enrich and beautify our lives.
I am conscious of how much of a role Surah Fatiha will play in their grounding in the deen – through them being able to connect with Allah in their daily salah – and so we discuss what it means when we say Allah is the Most Beneficent and the Most Merciful, how do we connect what may appear as abstract concepts to our children’s material world – what can we see around us that shows us His Beneficence? Who are the people on whom Allah bestows His Mercy and what do we learn from these people and their journeys? These are all exercises that children, who have a natural affinity to storytelling and riddle-solving love and respond to.
I am also cognisant of the fact that the Quran, for example, doesn’t appear to them as merely a leather bound book, obscured from its Divine origins. And so we delve into the miraculous history of revelation – how the Quran is exemplary in being the best word – the word of Allah, sent via the best Angel, to the best of creation. How materially it is a wonder to behold in how it was collated and preserved – and all the historical processes that led to that – for the benefit of man, by Allah’s promise. They see these words did not emerge from a vacuum and they know what tafsir teaches us about the men and women whose hearts it touched during the period of revelation and who helped us to preserve it.
Why a holistic education of Islam is essential
Overwhelmingly, Muslims in the west have adopted lazy assumptions regarding education – constructing religious and ‘secular’ education as two distinct entities. In doing so we forfeit a true understanding of our purpose as believers, and our sense of achievement and enrichment. Data from the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES) suggests a causal link between higher levels of educational attainment and regard for religion amongst British Muslims. This correlation between what is classed traditionally as academia and religious affinity underscores the role of wider education in furthering our religious understanding and identity. When we divorce knowledge and information from an Islamic frame of reference, we present an incomplete worldview to our children, and reduce their idea of achievement to a material set of benchmarks and outcomes. Ghettoising Islamic knowledge and understanding implies there are limits and boundaries to the role of Islam in our lives, and handicaps children from applying religious principles more broadly. More so, if we separate ‘secular’ education from a sense of religious purpose we misappropriate it and fail to live up to our true purpose as believers – to do everything for the sake of Allah.
“Indeed, We (God) offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant.” Surat Al-Ahzab 33:72
While we see the damaging impacts of social bias and prejudice and environmental degradation around us – how are we basing the fight against, and solution to this in the model of Islam.
Hierarchies based on race and culture have no place in Islam and should be rooted out of Muslim culture, and the idea that some of Allah’s creation can be better than others based on anything other than taqwa – a quality visible only to Allah – is antithetical to Islamic practice. These are principles that our children must be taught in an active and uncompromising way if we are ever to rid ourselves of all the toxic and fractious forces in our ummah.
The simplicity of equality and remembering to connect with the world
The fact that Allah created us all equally is one of the simplest and most natural facts of our faith, and its beauty and simplicity is so obvious to young minds that we have no excuse but to embody it. This concurs with the latest research in developing kind and empathetic children – to explicitly address racism, sexism and other cultural prejudices with our children to ensure they are not propagators to or victims of it. This uncompromising dichotomy of Islamic theology that places Allah as unique and above, with mankind as many and created equal has been one of the easiest principles to teach my children and one that they have unquestioningly embraced.
Islam’s focus on our actions and intentions is something that we often fail to convey to our young through our oversight of the smaller moral decisions that make up our day to day life. While we often find members of the ummah capable and confident enough to make decisions about beards, hijabs, mortgages – all undoubtedly vital elements of our faith – we often see members of the ummah failing on the smaller day to day sacrifices, the implications of which are crucial. Decisions that require more thought and reflection, and not a blind acceptance.
While we are able, and willing, to control our nafs when it comes to our dietary choices for example, we often put our own creature comforts first and give less due regard to decisions which have an environmental impact or our level of decorum and consideration of others in daily interactions. All of which are areas in which Islam should govern, which are tied to a narrative of Tawheed, and which form our moral, Islamic character. As Muslims we know the inanimate as well as animate will speak on our behalf on the day of judgement. Therefore being environmentally conscious, and countering the self-centred edifice of late stage capitalism – which leads us to the idea that the earth is the domain of man alone and not the multitude of life that exists on it, is one of the many areas we need to be conscientious of.
This is part of a wider disconnect that society has with its material environment – socially our blind spots which render us ignorant to the origins and inevitable endings of the millions of material objects that make up our world result in a total disregard of our immediate environment and is one of the drivers of environmental degradation. Islam is about striving for excellence and as Muslim parents, we need to encourage our children to reconnect with their material world so they are able to behave more responsibly towards it. Again, child development studies illustrate how instilling a curiosity of a child’s environment means they will develop a natural curiosity and begin to open up to the world of possibility around them.
Instilling this sense of cognisance means they interact with their material world in a much more thoughtful way, and rooting this in a concept of God-consciousness means we are bringing added benefit to our deeds.
The importance of humility for us all
I would never allow my children to belittle or ridicule another person – in any capacity – due to their life choices, or encourage the insincerity, disdain and clout-seeking of troll-like attitudes that appear to be taking a monstrous form on and off-line. I go to great lengths to instil empathy and sincerity in them so they’re never in the position where they might feel the need to insult others in order to validate their own selves. This comes from teaching them theory of mind, and enabling them to understand and manage their own emotions and feelings adequately so they can recognise and respect it in others.
Fractional differences included, if we truly believe our own brand of Islam to be superior to our religious neighbours then this would not manifest itself in disdain and ridicule. Tawfiq is a blessing and if we truly believe we have been granted it over someone else, we should not be complacent or use it as an opportunity to engender a feeling of entitlement. This is something that is worth modelling in an active way so children make their own religious life choices based on humility and gratitude to our Creator, and not arrogance towards the created.
When we choose to present Islamic life choices to them, we do so with the language of reason and measure, and not in a reactionary or hyperbolic way. They are being shown a positive and affirmative Islamic identity, rather than one that comes from fear and defines itself against other groups or practices. We promote the wisdom and reasoning behind Islamic choices so they are able to come to those conclusions themselves .
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: The believer does not taunt others, he does not curse others, he does not use profanity, and he does not abuse others (Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1977).
Despite doing everything I can to make my daughters feel loved and secure, I also feel the need to ground them in a sense of humility and remind them of their role in relation to the wider ummah. Yes, it’s important for them to know that as one of Allāh’s creation they are unique and valued, but so equally is everyone else. This means undoing some of the tide of the neoliberal era of advanced capitalism, and its rampant ideology of individualism.
The notion of “self-love”
Self-love has become one of those terms that I find difficult to utter without cringing. And this is no reflection of the bare definition of the term, but what it has come to symbolise culturally – how it is weaponised in order to sell a shade of lipstick or a body cream, how it appears to be used synonymously with a specific kind of public expression, platforming and exhibitionism. And while we are often told to introduce self-love to young girls in order to encourage self-respect, in practice I find that it often has the opposite effect.
Islam was sent as guidance to humankind, whose natural inclination is not always to its individual and collective benefit, and so the modern notion of self-love, I feel, needs to be introduced hand in hand with the concepts of discipline, restraint and measure. I would much rather teach my daughters to focus their efforts outwardly, on achieving something that is much bigger than them, than indulge every passing whim and inclination in the name of self-love. The self-love I do unequivocally encourage in them is introspection, to know and appreciate their strengths without any external, public validation.
As our global trajectory as an ummah continues to be governed by our appeasement to secular models of success, we continue to allow ourselves to be defined by or against them. And this extends to gender roles as well as our increasing focus on public forms of social and professional gratification. The desire we have as a people to constantly find Muslim versions of the latest populist trend or fad, or our incessant desire to seek influencers and role models to pedestal, all of whom are, tellingly, almost always ruined by their fame and status. This speaks of an insecurity in us and an inability to see our own metrics of success and achievement based on Islamic principles, and which have no public measure.
Think of the reluctance of Abu Bakr RA to adopt the caliphate, despite all the glory a public life brings. What I am certainly not saying is that Islam is inconsistent with a role in public life, or that we as a community aren’t in need of role models, but that this shouldn’t be considered the barometer of achievement. There are millions of Muslim women – and men – whose role in the home, shaping the next generation of Muslims, goes quietly unnoticed, but whose work should be no less valued because it doesn’t have the sheen of fame or public prominence.
I would hate for my daughters to unquestioningly accept society’s obsession with fame and to feel they should want to achieve public recognition at the expense of doing what is right – for them to seek society’s approval over Allah’s. While many Muslims, men and women, will achieve barakah in their lives in a public capacity, the majority of us will toil away to achieve taqwa in a private manner. I would never discourage my daughters from seeking an ‘unremarkable’ life, away from the public glare, if they felt that was best for them and their imaan. And statistically speaking this is much more likely to be the case and that’s not something, as a mother, I consider to be a negative thing.
The ultimate investment
In short – I don’t feel that catapulting my daughters into the glare of the public domain is the antidote to the poor cultural interpretations of the public/private male/female binary – particularly because of what it means in today’s world to be a public figure. We as a community and as individuals need to ask ourselves what our desire for public recognition is really rooted in. And so this means that I am teaching my daughters to glean satisfaction in the act of achieving, learning, being productive, contributing – and not in the recognition of such acts. I often explain to them that their achievements are no less material because they’re not recognised by their friends, teachers or family.
In the face of the moral uncertainty of contemporary notions of gender, many Muslims have further entrenched themselves in traditional Western ideas of gender. This is particularly damaging because these are not aligned with Islamic essentialist notions. In Islam, femininity is consistent with the intellect and religious authority of A’isha RA, the steadfastness, integrity and independence of Khadijah RA, the bravery, strength and courage of Nusaybah RA. It is apparent in Umm Salama and her endurance, patience and complexity. Islam has a rich and deep understanding of womanhood and femininity that doesn’t rely on superficial, exterior elements and we as a community should encourage our daughters to embrace these qualities as well as the intellectual humility that comes with submitting to Allah.
And of course, perhaps most importantly, I play and laugh and talk with my children – I ground them in love and acceptance. Islam and the Quran is something we bond over and which roots us together. We spend time exploring their interests and natural talents because I want them to thrive, and I know Islam provides the best basis for this. I try to use every moment and opportunity I can to invest in them because through them Allah has taught me about temporality and what it means to make benefit of your time on earth. And I know that what Islam brings to my life is so complete and fulfilling that I’m not in search of anything else, and ultimately I hope the same will be true of my daughters, in sha Allah.
Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in policy and research and development in the voluntary sector. She writes on issues relating to Islamic identity and parenting. Mariya’s children’s picture book is sold in the UK and internationally. You can find her on Instagram @muswellbooks and via her website www.muswellbooks.com