Strong Girls. Smart Girls. Rebel Girls. Rule The World Girls. We are living in a moment where every month seems to bring with it a new, honest effort designed to help change established narratives about what girls should be – with inspirational calls to uplift their voices, provide meaningful role models and emphasise their inherent grit and fortitude. Indeed, our tradition itself is filled with the lives and experiences of phenomenal women who serve as reminders that strong, smart, rebel, rule-the-world girls are no strangers to us.
Yet, even with all the energy and support behind them, passing these ideas on to our children can seem like a long, difficult journey – from television ads to jummah khutbas, we trudge forward, tilting through the powerful winds of entrenched and sexist norms about women: what they ought to wear, what they can’t do, how they must behave.
Like many parents, amid wanting our daughter to grow to be a fierce and formidable woman like her spiritual predecessors, with the strength to be able to speak out for herself and others, we also wanted her to be a kind and empathetic person – caring and thoughtful, with good manners and habits. To be honest, we never considered these ways of being to be separate from one another. A person, we reasoned, can be both strong and kind, both just and gentle and this is what we would teach her.
What we couldn’t predict is which ideas would resonate with her the best. Which parts of her personality would emerge to be most visible – how would she develop as her own person?
We worried about teaching her to be assertive. We worried about encouraging her to stand up for what was right. We worried about her burying her own opinions for the sake of others. We worried about taking a wrong turn in emphasising ideas of adab and rahma over those of huquq and justice.
Amid all this fretting and thinking, we also took action. Several actions, in fact. Some of which proved to be unbelievably helpful in nurturing those all-important seeds of confidence and self-assurance, in both our daughter and ourselves. It’s the helpful ones I am sharing with you now, just in case you also have, somewhere in your life, a kind, helpful, caring, thoughtful, capable girl who may be needing a little reminder of how truly strong, compelling and cherished she is
The first thing we did was take a good look at ourselves and our life at home to make sure that we weren’t giving our daughter mixed messages about being “good” and compliant inside the home and then expecting her to be able to fight her corner outside of it. I personally had to ease up on rule following in the house and allow her to discuss and disagree with us, even when it would have been so much quicker to have her just ‘listen’ to us. The upside of this was that we could also model how to disagree effectively and set limits on what was necessary to make a point and what was excessive.
Talk of friendships
We started an ongoing (and continuing) discussion about friendships in general, of what a friend is, how to be one and how to have one. This was by far one of the most useful things we did as it gave our daughter parameters within which to assess interpersonal situations on her own. I bought this excellent book and it was a great starting point for laying the foundation of what it means to form a friendship. We talked about our own friendships and role-played different ways to be a good classmate/bystander/friend. We still refer back to ideas from it even now when various situations arise socially.
Always trust & listen
As parents, we let her know she’d never be in trouble from us for standing up for herself, for others or doing what she thinks is the right thing in any specific moment. We told her, in so many ways, that we would always listen to her and trust her. This took some time to sink in (still working on it, actually) but it seemed to have released the fear of not following rules or “getting in trouble”. Sometimes she may say “oh, I’ll get in trouble” and I will respond with something like “So what if you do? If you made a mistake apologise and if you didn’t, explain why you did it.” The essence of this is that we don’t want her to be motivated by rules but to support her in continuing to develop her own moral compass.
Find the tribe
We worked hard and with the intention to find friends and a social sphere outside of school. As a family unit who lives very far away from extended networks, this took a lot of effort but we considered it necessary to find a tribe, if even a small one, to keep things in perspective. It’s somewhat controversial to admit, but I don’t believe school is everything and even though education is always important, we try not to center our lives around ‘school’ itself by doing our best to make sure there are circles of support and friendship which are completely separate from it.
Raise your hopes to Allah
Finally, we make du’a. Lots and lots of du’a. We make it together and we make it alone and most importantly, we make du’a with our daughter. We collectively ask for Divine protection, for guidance, for wisdom, for courage, contentment and skill. We pray, every day, that hers is a heart which is forever shining and a voice which continues to rise clear and true.
As always, we do our best and Allah does the rest.
Aiysha Malik is a photographer, writer and award-winning designer. In 2016 she founded mamanushka.com, a popular lifestyle blog devoted to the experiences of being a mother and Muslim woman of colour. Originally from Canada, she now lives in the UK and has spent the last decade experimenting with how to build capable communities whilst maintaining the joy in life. Follow her work and inspirations on instagram @goodonpurpose