“An Ode to My Mothers in Islam” – by Duha Elkhouli
This is my form of an ode, an appreciation for the women in my life who give me the strength to sing my song. This is for those who don’t know what the average world of a Muslim woman is like. For those who don’t know the powers they hold and the positive influences that they have on their children and their communities. They are more than superheroes, yet somehow they aren’t recognized as much as they should be. This is for my mothers, who take pride in their identities and inspire me to be loud and resist those who oppress my own individualities.
I’ll tell you about Mama, a woman who owns countless books and piles of clothes. A woman who would clothe me in the finest, most colorful dresses since the day I was born. She loves me more than she loves herself.
I’ll tell you about the way she talks about my grandfather. How her eyes twinkle when his name is brought up. Her voice softens into a whisper as if a wave of peace has washed over her heart and mind.
Everyone would tell me how my grandfather was the only person who never disappointed Mama. He was a man who preferred intellectual conversations over small talk and gossip. He was able to conquer the hearts of people around him, with patience and the power of words. He valued his relationships with everyone, especially his children. And although he left them earlier than he was supposed to, he managed to secure a place within their memories.
Mama is a bird. She leaves her nest every day in search of opportunities to feed us. And while my brother and I are struck with confusion upon her whereabouts, we know that she will return with love and provide us with nourishment in every capacity.
Mama loves to ride rollercoasters. For as long as I can remember, it is an activity that excites every limb in her body. I remember her quickly walking around amusement parks, excitedly looking for chances to race above the ground. She is usually silent during the wildest rides. If a word does slip out of her mouth, it’s usually in an effort to thank God.
One time when I was ten, Mama left for Saudi Arabia to engage in Umrah, a form of Islamic pilgrimage that is completed to refresh a Muslim’s faith and an opportunity to pray for your biggest dreams. That was the first time Mama left for more than a day and all I could do was write letters to her about how much I missed her food and longed for her reminders to go brush my teeth and complete my daily prayers. I knew Mama left to do greater things for us. That was the only reason why I didn’t feel as if I had completely lost her love.
Mama was always complimented by her friends for her sense of style and color coordination. She always took at least a couple of hours to assemble an outfit for her day. She dresses with precision and creativity, finding ways to express her passion for her idea of elegance and modesty. She loved searching for clothes in the clearance racks. Not because they were cheap, but because it felt like a mission to her as if she was searching for gems within a sea of pebbles.
Mama loves romance. She loves to dream and fantasize about love. Mama deserves to dream, whether or not her dreams are unrealistic. She deserves to fantasize about otherworldly circumstances because she has somehow managed to keep us alive and healthy under the most challenging conditions.
Mama moves with her whole heart. She feels more emotions than the people around her. Sometimes when I see her, I see a teenage girl who is trying to find her way through the world. She takes every word to heart, which can cause cracks within her usually ambitious spirit. When people hurt her, her soul starts to wilt, like a weakened flower.
I’ll tell you about my Quran teacher, who is one of the most patient people I have ever met in my entire life. A woman who is looked up to by all of the women at my local mosque. A woman who grasps the trust of every woman in the room through an open mind and honest words.
My Quran teacher was one of the first people my mother met almost two decades ago when she had first moved to the United States. My Quran teacher knew me before I was born, and continues to know almost every aspect of who I am. She and my mother know me better than I know myself.
She is a person of intellect, a person who spends almost every minute of her day being faithful to her God. Her belief in a force that is greater than her own existence and has allowed her to withstand some of the greatest challenges a woman can face.
She is someone who loves to learn. She is a person who asks questions with curiosity and openness. She finds solace in educating others and leading complex conversations within large groups of women at the mosque and elsewhere.
The thing about my Quran teacher is that although she veils every part of herself except for her eyes, she has managed to gain love and respect from everyone around her through these two honest and meaningful practices: teaching and listening.
I’d spend hours at her house, procrastinating my Quran memorization, yet she never lost her temper with me. She would feed me alongside her children and tend to my soul whenever I felt broken. She would always keep her door open for me, as well as her heart.
The teenage girls and young women within my local Muslim community always run to my teacher with a smile and open arms. Their faces glow and their voices squeal in excitement for they have found an adult who listens and understands every part of them; A rarity when you’re a young Muslim Arab girl living in Western society.
When I am not in touch with her, I am always thinking of her. Sometimes when I almost lose faith in the world around me, I picture her sitting across a table with her eyes squinted at me as she listens to every ounce of my confusion and despair. She responds with words that bring my hope back to life, like the way water restores life within the soil that has been dried out by the heat of the sun.
I wish every Muslim girl in the world had someone like her. I wish she was able to lecture people at those fancy Islamic conferences. Knowing her ability to capture the attention of every woman in the room, she would always have a large audience. I know she will get there someday.
Muslim women need more people like my Quran teacher, but unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of Muslim women who study Islamic theology or Quranic principles. We need someone like us that we can consult, the way men consult their local sheikh or imam at the mosque. Someone who can answer our questions and relate. Sometimes, Muslim women feel hesitant to ask certain questions to Sheikhs or scholars because they are predominantly men. Questions about our menstrual cycles and how they interfere with our prayers, questions about romance, or our relationships with our mothers. It’s a tradition to seek advice through the lens of our religion, yet sometimes the advice we receive isn’t fulfilling because it usually comes from someone who will never understand what being a woman is like.
I’ll tell you about my aunt, who is my mother’s sister. She was born in Egypt and resides there today. A woman with a college education and three children. My aunt is someone who values modernism and self-respect. Someone who loves her children more than she loves anyone else in the world. A woman who interacts with her daughter the same way she would interact with her best friend.
My aunt loves watching American movies, and she knows a lot about American actors and actresses and all of the Hollywood drama that comes with them. She loves educating herself through outlets such as social media, but she makes sure to fact check everything that she learns because she knows that the information on there can be biased and sometimes even untrue.
What I love most about my aunt is that she’s not afraid to correct people and speak the truth, especially men, which is something that a lot of women in Egypt are afraid to do. She doesn’t lose her temper with them but instead uses a strict, professional tone that puts people’s egos back in their places.
My aunt isn’t afraid of having uncomfortable conversations, especially if they are for the greater good. She speaks to people through their behavioral languages, which is the greatest power one can have. It is actually the secret to being a great communicator. She told me that she learned this from my grandfather, who taught her some of life’s greatest lessons.
My aunt isn’t afraid of being vulnerable or emotional and values mental health. She is a single mother with three children who was divorced once in her life and widowed after her second marriage. Despite all of the challenges that she faces, she always makes sure to be there for her children, her friends, and her family. My aunt is someone who can pull someone out of their hole of despair and awaken them to logical solutions. She never says the words “I don’t know what to say.”
My aunt taught me to never let a person bring me down and to always fight for myself no matter what. She taught me that self-respect and self-love is the most valuable tool for success. She taught me that it’s important to laugh and cry and be there for others. She taught me to put people in their places whenever they cross boundaries because if no one speaks up, they will continue to hurt people in the future.
And above all of this, my aunt continues to be faithful and modest. She takes pride in her identity as a Muslim woman, and she does not let the close-mindedness of Egyptian society stop her from pursuing her dreams.
My aunt is currently pursuing her Masters while holding a prominent position at the Chamber of Information Technology in Cairo. I’ve tagged along with her during work a couple of times and I’ve always admired the fact that she has a meaningful relationship with every one of her coworkers. When she enters, everyone greets her with a smile and asks her if she wants a cup of tea or coffee, not because she’s above them, but because it’s a demonstration of appreciation. This is how people communicate in Egypt. We feed each other and we offer something to drink. We’re generous with the people we love and even with strangers.
My aunt isn’t just my aunt, she’s my mother. She’s someone who always picks up the phone and tells me to think past my feelings and to do something. I can tell her anything and I wouldn’t feel ashamed of myself or afraid of her disappointment.
So, whenever society places my mothers in boxes, I am angry. I get frustrated for them and for myself because people refuse to look past the stereotypes and the headlines. They forget that we are humans and that we have emotions, insecurities, and relationships with others.
This is an ode to my mothers in Islam. My mothers that are disrespected by the media and the ignorance of both the East and the West. To my mothers who hold on to every string of hope they can find through their faith. To my mothers, who pray five times a day for the betterment of their lives, their children, and their loved ones. To my mothers, who forgave me when I would wrong them and wipe my tears when I would cry. They told me to never let anyone get in the way of my self-worth or my faith and to never disrespect myself or the people around me because no one is better than anyone. To my mothers, who were burdened with the mistakes of their men, but never ever let their children down and continued to work hard in order to nurture them and keep them happy. To my mothers, who put other people’s happiness before their own. To my mothers, who are not just mothers, but omnipotent individuals. Individuals who maintain a relationship with their God and thus manage to sustain motivation and continue to surpass every obstacle in their life.
To Taghreed, Souad, and Rania for never letting life’s toughest challenges get in the way of their faith or their ability to support their children. I will keep writing for women like you.