There are too many characteristics of Lady Zahra (as) to choose from her but I think the spiritual connection with Almighty God is the most important one because of the way she was treated and the way she handled herself, said Nazneen Karim in an interview with Ijtihadnet.
Her name is Nazneen Kassam Karim. She is a sibling of 10 children and was born in Uganda. At the age of about 5 years, she and her family were thrown out of the country and they lost everything that they had built including farms and house. They were separated; half of them went to England and the other half were refugees for about 3 years. Then she met her other half of her family and they were reunited in London. She studied there for some years and now she lives in Kenya and she does social works. When she moved to Kenya, she started to write articles for Mojtaba Magazine and that’s how she joined the organisation called ABSN (Alhul Bayt Sisters Network) which is a women society. Nazneen is also working in an NGO called Ahlul Bayt Relief Committee in Kenya.
Ijtihadnet has interviewed her on the occasion of the birthday anniversary of Lady Zahra (AS).
- The birthday anniversary of Lady Zahra (AS) is known as the day of woman and mother in the Islamic Republic of Iran. What’s your take on this?
Masha Allah, this day is celebrated all over the world, thanks to your dedicated women whose role model is Lady Zahra (AS) and you have kept up her character and her work and her leadership roles. So, it’s a great day to remember. Although this great day is celebrated in a much bigger way in the Islamic Republic of Iran, we are trying to do whatever we can in Kenya and I know that it’s now celebrated all over the world and it’s a time for women to get together and share their challenges and work and ideas. So, looking at the character of Lady Zahra (AS) and taking examples from the way she used to conduct her affairs, we get together and whatever little that we try to do we have learnt from your country. So, we are ever grateful for that and it’s a wonderful opportunity for unity amongst different casts of women whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, Christian, Hindu; we all get together because we all have one common cause and that’s to bring up a better society through the lap of the mother. As we know Imam Khomeini (may his soul rest in peace) was also born on the same day. He was one of the pioneers of setting up this great day and we take a lot of pride in being able to share the knowledge and the piety and the character of Lady Zahra (AS) with the rest of the world.
- Muslim women wish to set Lady Zahra (AS) as an example and role-model in their life. How can we make a connection between today’s life and conditions with those of her time and follow her lifestyle?
Lady Zahra (AS) went through so many trials and tests in her short life. All the names that are attributed to her are examples for us, for example being truthful and modest. She was always satisfied, pure and blessed. We should try as much as possible to see how we can implement such features even if it’s the tiniest attribute at a time like this specially in our daily lives today because we are facing so many challenges and when we look at her life we feel that we are able to overcome our challenges and it’s not an issue or a problem, although it’s difficult because as ladies we have so many roles that we have to play; we are mother, wife and daughter and it’s very difficult being able to play all the roles successfully. So, we should read about her lifestyle and look at history because history repeats itself and only the time changes and the conditions of the people change but our faith and spirituality is what is supposed to get us through good times as well as hard times. We are supposed to be grateful and have a lot of faith. So, if we were to look at her time, today we see a lot of similarities in what is happening in the world. If we look at her lifestyle, of how she would handle some situations, how she dealt with the women that were around her, how she dealt with the leaders that were around her,how she was able to speak up when her rights were denied, how she was able to protect her family and their rights, how she was able to protect her husband Imam Ali (AS) then we can find the examples we need. So I think if you read about her then you are be able to implement a lot of her lifestyle and characters today although we can never ever reach the status that she had but even if it’s just a drop in the ocean that we try to do in today’s world. I think if we all get together and even do a little bit, we have done justice to this great lady.
- Which characteristics of Lady Zahra (AS) you like the most?
Mashallah all of the characteristics of Lady Zahra (AS) are just extremely incredible but the first thing that comes to mind is her very incredible connection with Almighty Allah. She had a very caring personality and a passion for fighting for her rights. There are too many to choose from her but I think the spiritual connection with Almighty God is the most important one because of the way she was treated and the way she handled herself.
- Do you think there is a difference between Muslim women living in Islamic countries and those living in non-Islamic countries in terms of following Lady Zahra (AS) as their role-model?
As I have never stayed in an Islamic country, I wouldn’t know what the difference would be but I would say that living in non-Islamic countries may cause some people to do more research about Lady Zahra. People have a chance to study and be able to do more research in universities or in Islamic centres. So, people are able to know more about Lady Zahra (AS) through books and through exhibitions and through conferences. Therefore, people come to know more of her during this time. I’ve never lived in an Islamic country; but I think maybe sometimes when you have something in front of you it’s taken for granted and you don’t take it as much as seriously as you would. For example, I live in Kenya and I don’t go every week for a safari as I take it for granted and say that I’ll go next week. So it is like you have a great lady in front of you, so you don’t want to know too much about her as you say I’ll do it later but nobody does it. So, I think when you live in a non-Islamic country the benefits are more because you are striving for the truth and people go really out of their way to do research and find out more about her.
- Some people might consider keeping chastity from one hand and being active in the society from the other hand as two contradicting factors. What’s your consideration? Is it logically and practically possible to maintain the two? If yes, what are your recommendations in this regard?
Obviously one of the ways of following lady Zahra (AS) as a role model is the issue of hijab. As we are moving along in time, we are seeing that more in non-Islamic countries people are able to wear hijab more freely because you have a justice system where you can go to court and fight for. As long as the woman knows the boundaries and is able to maintain her modesty there’s nothing wrong in her working in the society. In fact, we see that Lady Khadija and Lady Zainab and Lady Fatima Zahra (AS)all were very active in the society. If you look at Karbala and where it’s today it’s because of the women’s participation. It was not a direct working movement that people went to work and people came back home but I think as an educated society we need women in the forefront in all fields of work. Lady Khadija, Lady Zainab and Lady Fatima Zahra (AS)they all are role models and we take small lessons from them that we are able to go to work outside the home with the blessings of the family. Of course we need permission from the husband or the father but we should be able to work within a healthy environment where you know that your dignity is protected and you are dressed modestly and we need to have a boundary around us of who we can work with and who we can not. One of the issues that affects us in anon-Islamic country is the issue of shaking hands with non-mahram. Some people are already told that Muslim women do not shake hands and they should not be offended but sometimes it’s unavoidable because it happens very quickly. So that is one of the challenges that we do face here in Kenya. I would recommend that we have places where women are able to have their own offices and are more free to express themselves and have more community-based projects. So again, if you look at Lady Zahra (AS)as our role model you see how she was able to handle all political affairs and be right behind Imam Ali (AS) in his work that he was doing. You can obviously see that it’s logical and practical to maintain the two. She maintained all her dignity and all her modesty and yet she was extremely educated and was able to carry out her affairs because of these two issues. So, I think we need to take the Holy Quran as a guideline and read all the hadiths of our Prophet (PBUH) and our Imams (AS)to know how women should be in the fore front. Imam Khomeini has said that “in the lap of the mother is where the educated society is brought up.”If you do a lot of reading and research then it is definitely possible to be chaste and to keep modesty and be able to have activity in the society because if we as Muslim women in hijab are not seen in the society then whatever the media shows is how we are looked at. Then, we are not able to defend ourselves as active members of the society who are normal human beings. We are not how we are portrayed in the media as oppressed or terrorist and things like that; we are a nurturing caring society women who are able to keep peace and harmony in the home because of our role models of the past and the present since Lady Khadija, Lady Zainab and Lady Fatima Zahra (AS)all are still with us and we take their example and are able to carry forward in our life.
- How do you think a woman, given her multiplicity of roles (woman – mother – wife), can live to maintain all three of her essential roles and be able to balance life?
It has become extremely difficult to balance all these three things because the demands of the family in society have grown immensely but being at home all the time is also not a good thing because you can get depressed and the environment is not good. So, you need to have some type of work, you can do part-time work and be able to take care of your children. One of the issues is that we have baby day-care centres for women who go to work. They’re able to take time off if they have children. In many countries you are able to take off for whole year or8-month where in Kenya it is only 3 months. So, depending on the country it is very hard for a mother to have a child and then leave the little baby who is only about 3 to 6 months old at a day-care centre. It’s extremely dangerous because no one can take care of the child as much as how a mother can. So, it’s a good sacrifice to (for a year or so) just stay at home but be able to take your child and continue with your part-time work. So, it’s important for an office to have an environment where a child is able to be with the mother who is able to feed. As women have great hormonal changes when the baby is born, to avoid depression and other problems, it is good for them to be able to go to the mosque or to go out with the child. This way, they don’t suffer depression or workload. Obviously, it is very important to have a good work system where the family helps as well and where the mother is not the only one doing all the work. So, there should be a share of housework with the children and father and whoever is in the house; they should be taught equal chores around the house whether it’s a male or a female. Time management is another thing. A lot of out times are wasted on the phones or watching movies; it’s not a bad thing but I think there should be a time allocated just for that because it’s a dangerous thing where you can just do something on the phone for 5-minutes but it could even take up to 1 or 2 hours and people are wasting their time on it. It’s better just to read a book or allocate sometime to education and some time for worship and balance the life so that you’re not overwhelmed and obviously taking part in hobbies whether it’s cooking or stitching or making craft is important thing for women too because it really helps to free your mind of negative thoughts and obviously whatever creative things you do it’s a way of getting closer to almighty God because you’re doing something for yourself and for the society. To get close to Him reading the Quran is also very beneficial. Therefore, I think balancing, time management and being able to do what you like are key factors. Obviously, you have to make little sacrifice but once you get into some kind of routine then it really makes your life much easier. Health and exercise are also very important, i.e. to be able to take some breath of fresh air, go for a walk and the like. Unfortunately, many of the countries that I have been to, do not have any women-centres that one can freely play sports without their hijab and I have mentioned this many times that our women and men need to come to Iran to see the women-only-parks, the women-only-sports-centre, the women-only-universities which allow free movement without hijab. That is one thing we are lacking in the society very badly.
- As a socially active woman, how do you evaluate the dangers that might be encountered by a Muslim lady in her social, political, educational and economic activities?
When you are an active social woman, whether you’re a Muslim or not, it doesn’t matter really but especially being a Muslim lady you are more in the limelight because of your hijab. So obviously whatever you say and write there are always people keeping an eye on what’s going on, but it should not stop you from going about with your social, political, educational and economic activities. It is just that we have to be a bit more careful on how we handle the situation. It’s good to know how the media portrays us in the society. You could say something and it could be written in a different way or it could be edited. So obviously you have to be very careful. It’s good to know the Constitution of the country so you don’t step over it. I think as Muslim women we should have our own platform to be able to raise our concerns in a very non-judgemental way because when we say something or when we’re doing something since media has already portrayed us in a certain way if we say it in a different way there’s a lot of misunderstandings out there. So if we have our own media and own platform we are able to portray a lot of positive things in the society. Here some Sunni women are active but as Shia women we are not very active. It’s only when Iranian women come here and participate in the UN that we even see Muslim women and I think a lot of women from Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are very active but when it comes to Shia women we have not really reached in that high affiliate in Kenya. So, the dangers would be that firstly we are probably misunderstood. We might have tried to say something but it’s taken in a different way. So, I think you should learn to overcome that by being very respectful. We should be able to work with different kinds of people. One of the misunderstandings that we also go through here (though it’s not really a misunderstanding, rather it’s a known fact) is that if you do support a certain type of idea than you are being sponsored by certain type of countries. So, we have to be careful that we are very neutral here.
- What are the advices you may have for mothers (specially those living in non-Islamic countries) with regard to upbringing well-trained children based on Islamic values?
First of all, I think the fathers need to play a very important role and it’s very important to have a father with similar values for the children because the world is becoming extremely challenging and if a couple has not sat down and discussed the way forward for children then there will be a lot of conflict on how to raise children and for a mother it’s more challenging because she’s the one who is the main caregiver to train her children. I think children are very clever. From the age 3they are like sponges, they absorb everything around you. So, they should be in a good environment where you have good teachers around them who teach them good akhlaq and good values. Islam is a practical religion; it’s how you treat people and how you respect people. It does not discriminate between people of any kind. So if the mother has got some basic knowledge of the Holy Quran and has taken some examples and learnt about the AhlulBayt (AS) I don’t think it should be a difficult thing. Of course, living in a non-Islamic country you’re going to have too extreme ideologies; when you go to school you have a different learning system. I think if basic principles are there then it is the matter of raising a good human being first and then trying to instill the values of the Holy Quran as much as possible in the language that they understand. So having child-friendly books, magazines and programs on the internet may be fun games. Also taking the child to activity centres where you have role models around you is good and I think taking them for ziyarat is also necessary because you’re in a non-Islamic country, so that they need to have some ziyarat, umra or hajjso they have that physical and spiritual connection as well. I think first thing is to empower the woman herself so that she can be a better mother for her children. We cannot restrict our children specially in anon-Islamic country. We cannot have a military type of rule to the children so that they can do this and they can not do that. It’s better to have a balanced life and at the same time we should pray for them that God guide. It is a very challenging society and I pray for all the future mother’s out there that please keep your faith and don’t lose hope because it’s going to get more and more difficult but our Imam of the Time (AS) will guide us and protect us insha Allah.