Last week, I wrote that in celebration of Women’s History Month (March), I’ll write a little more about Islamic feminism and/or Muslim feminists. And Kashmala, my 6-year-old niece who’s also the littlest feminist you all know.
Continuing on that thought, I want to talk about how empowering and inspiring it is to have women mentors in our lives.
Oh, and I think I should make one of these posts about my mom ❤ She wouldn’t identify as a feminist, and she doesn’t support a lot of feminist thought, but her resistance to feminism is actually something new, starting with our immigration to the U.S. (There’s some interesting reasons why this happens, but more on that another time.) When I was growing up, she was the most feminist woman in town, she was always the backbone of my family–she still is, may God always keep her healthy, safe, and in peace, aameen–and even today, she exhibits some feminist characteristics in her practice of Islam and in her responses to some patriarchal nonsense that’s disseminated on nonsensical televangelists here and there and horrible things that women in her life go through. But my mommy (God bless her infinitely and grant her the highest level of paradise, aameen!) deserves a book on her life, which I hope to be able to get to one day soon, but until that happens, we’ll have to make do with one blog post here and there.
But I must clarify that I do not think a woman should be celebrated only if she’s a feminist or embodies feminist qualities–or even is “useful.” The struggles that women face universally, however minor and major, and just the fact alone that we’re all living in a patriarchy makes us worthwhile in the small and big ways that we fight oppression. I’m talking about my mom here for many different reasons, but mainly because I think she comes before and above all other women in my life.
Moving on to the academic women mentors in my life.
First, though, let me point out that academia is cruel – to women generally but especially minority women, women of color… and let’s not get me started on graduate students. (For more on this, see: This, This, This (and check out the comment section here specifically), This, This, …) (Also, let me add that if you’re a blogger, it can get worse. If you’re a blogger and a grad student or will be one, we should talk.) It should go without saying that that’s not every academic’s, every graduate student’s, woman’s experience. Some like it better than others, some have horrifying experiences, some have mediocre experiences, some have fantastic experiences with academia. I’ll summarize mine generously and say: My own experiences with academia have been terrible. And this is why I’m so profoundly grateful to have women like the ones below in my life, in academia. This is also why–for those who’ve wondered why I get a little crazy when the AAR conference approaches–I enjoy going to conferences. I need this constant reminder that I’m not alone in my dreadful experiences with academia, that there are people (women) who look out for each other, who value each other, who are there to guide each other and the younger generation of future scholars. Women who have been, or many of them have been, through at least some of what we’re going through now.
I am crazy about the career path I’ve chosen; I am beyond crazy about my dissertation topic. I’m thrilled about my future (inshaAllah). But academia occasionally seems to want to do everything in its power to strip us of that joy. (No, I’m not going to define “academia.”) Before I entered grad school, I was the most energetic person I knew, and I was a generally happy human. But grad school is slowly killing me. I cannot wait to finish this dissertation business and just move on to greater things. When I reach out to a fellow graduate student friend, it is horrifying the kinds of things I hear from them, their experiences with the system, with their advisers. Female academics have told me that they regret more than anything being in academia but that they feel it’s too late to get out now (long story). When I consider my career choices, I keep reminding myself that nothing is set stone, that I can be anything I want to be, that there’s a lot I can do with my PhD … but I cannot describe enough how much I love teaching, how much I love talking to students, how much I love that reading and keeping up with scholarship in my fields is a part of my job. Heck, just receiving emails from my blog readers looking for guidance on different issues (including graduate school), looking for resources, wanting to discuss different things, I even feel like I’d feel my best (but not necessarily most appreciated) in a university rather than in a college (this is something I’m still debating over – teach at a university or a college).
A professor of mine from undergraduate once told me that he thinks the most important community that you’ll ever have in grad school is your cohort and that the importance of having that community and leaning on that community for support and encouragement cannot be emphasized. (He was right. And, also, his cohort members are all now renown scholars of Islam.) So what happens then is that grad students who are lucky enough to end up with a good cohort have at least that community to turn to for support. Those who have none suffer in so many ways. And a PhD in the U.S. is at least 5 years… at a fairly crucial point in your life, typically but not necessarily somewhere between your mid-20s to early-30s, and so lots of things are happening to and around you that can affect your graduate experiences, and grad school isn’t always willing to recognize that. So imagine that. My heart goes out to anyone who has no one to turn to. If you believe in God, may God bring you comfort and peace. If you don’t believe in God, I wish you peace and comfort. But if at all possible, please look around and utilize whatever available resources you might have, reach out to people, seek help and guidance if you’re comfortable doing so. The right resources can be healing, the wrong ones destructive.
And this is why having women guides in our lives is so beautiful and powerful. I go to conferences with Muslim women feminists, and they care about me and other female grad students. They ask us how we’re doing. They remind us that no matter what happens, our health–our emotional, our physical, our mental, our spiritual health–is the most important thing ever. That academia can go screw itself when it tries to make us think otherwise. (This simple fact, by the way, that our health is the most important thing, is so easily forgotten by everyone around us, by us, even by the people in our own most closely involved in our graduate experience. ) They ask us if we need anything and to let them know when we do. They ask us how our last task grad school-related went. They congratulate us on our accomplishments thus far. They read/share our blog posts. They make efforts to promote us – citing us, sharing our blogs with people, even quoting us on different editions of their books (on book covers) when they could be quoting high-profile people. They believe in us enough to agree to serve on our committees.
Of course, I have to also recognize my female graduate student friends who are also an essential support system. We share our experiences and hear the horrors the other is facing, and it’s unbelievable that academia (and, actually, the workforce in America generally) would be like this. It’s almost as if it thrives exclusively on abusing graduate students and women ones in particular.
These types of support go a really long way. It’s also very humbling and inspiring. You have so many examples in front of you whose lead you can follow in being a good human who does not stress others out.
Alhamdulillah that I’m surrounded by the women that I’m surrounded by. Women with whom I share some form of an identity, collective histories and experiences just because we’re Muslim and women and academics of different levels – among them our experiences as women in contemporary Islam tarnished by misogynistic interpretations of a Scripture that should be anything but.