The Resilience (and Needs) of Muslim Women During a Pandemic – Nausheena Hussain & RISE

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By: L. Nur, Freelance Journalist

Nausheena Hussain is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), a nonprofit whose mission is to amplify the voices and power of Muslim women by building networks, storytelling, leadership development and civic engagement.

In response to warnings about the coronavirus, Hussain and her team officially closed RISE’s office on March 12th, a day before Governor Waltz declared a state-wide peacetime emergency, and two weeks before the stay-at-home order asking Minnesotans to stay home except for essential needs.

Luckily, RISE was able to squeeze in its 2020 Muslim Women’s Leadership Conference on March 7th, but after that, the organization canceled all programs, work-related travel and trainings. This has meant moving programming to digital platforms and trying to maintain organizational relationships with most staff, volunteers and community members — including carrying out the hiring process for a new employee digitally.   

“That was tough because we’ve already created our trust and team dynamics in person,” Hussain said. “But [our new employee was] coming in and I feel bad she’s not having the opportunity to hang out with us and experience our office banter. We have really deep conversations about ‘-isms’ and inequities.” 

Hussain said her ethnically diverse staff of almost all Muslims bond in person by sharing about their different religious and cultural practices as Muslims with geographic roots and religious schools of thought from all over the world. 

RISE staff and community members pose at the organization’s leadership events and conferences. Taken from revivingsisterhood.org/.

She is especially cognizant of staff members who live with multigenerational families, noting that her staff ranges from people who are single to an employee who has 11 family members under one roof — a huge spectrum in family experience.

“What I’m hearing from people is that it’s hard to work from home,” she said. “Even [for] me. I cry everyday because something makes me sad or something makes me angry or something makes me realize how blessed I am with my team.” 

Muslim Women & Mental Health 

One of the biggest challenges not just for Hussain and her team, but for the world, has been coping emotionally and mentally during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Hussain shared that she hears staff and community members talk about their fear for loved ones, and she herself has not been sleeping well —  indicators the CDC lists as stress symptoms that an infectious disease outbreak like the coronavirus can cause. 

Based on Hussain and the RISE team’s shared experiences with stress and anxiety since news of COVID-19 started picking up, the organization decided to send out a survey to Muslim women, asking what they needed to feel supported during the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, the results said that Muslim women need resources that fill the gap between wellness and spirituality. 

“Spirituality isn’t: “Teach me how to pray or do Ramadan.” It’s more about: ‘How do I get through this time rooted in my deen (faith)?’” Hussain said. 

Hussain said many masjids do not address holistic health and wellness when discussing spirituality — at least, not often and not consistently enough, and can be lacking when it comes to the specific needs of women. 

In fact, for the past few years, Hussain has been hearing from many Muslim women that there tends to be an unwelcoming culture in the masjids they frequent, which speaks to systemic and historical barriers towards equity and accessilibity that can impact Muslim women’s health, Hussain said.  

Sisterhood at Home

All of this is why RISE decided to start ‘Sisterhood at Home,’ a bi-weekly Zoom call for Muslim women to learn, connect and feel spiritually uplifted, Hussain said. 

Each Zoom call is structured like a workshop, with a different guest leading on a specific topic. The call starts with a Qur’an recitation, includes prayers, and incorporates time for a group conversation about anything from social justice in Islam, to how civic engagement is rooted in the Sunnah (the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him. 

In late April, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was on a call to answer questions from Muslim women about the CARES Act. Other ‘Sisterhood at Home’ sessions have included topics on mental health by licensed therapists, physical wellness exercises, and creative writing. 

“It is so important to keep connecting digitally and we’re trying to do it in a way that is meaningful,” Hussain said. “The Zoom call is so hard not being in person but nobody else is doing this, creating that space for Muslim women to do wellness, so we’re trying to do our best in creating it.”

Equalizing Access for Muslim Women 

One opportunity Hussain is seeing for Muslim women is being able to access halaqas (Islamic Qur’an and Hadith group study) online, something that would be more challenging in-person due to the physical and cultural barriers toward women in many masjids.

One cool thing about these Zoom calls for hijabis is they don’t have to put their camera on; they can just listen,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about if some man sees me with my hair out. I can just get the knowledge.” 

Hussain said the pandemic, in a way, has broadened access for women because of the abundant recordings posted online for anyone to listen to on their own time. 

“That gives us more power and agency over our time, and it’s not based on the men’s schedules,” she explained. “There’s more fleixiblity in consuming Islamic knowledge for Muslim women right now, and on that I feel very positive.”

Changing Yourself, Changing Society

Still, Hussain said the pandemic has uncovered systemic inequities, and that this is a time to reckon with ourselves and our secular and religious institutions. For example, much of the local and national public information about COVID-19 has been in print, online, and/or in English, which is a challenge when the Muslim community represents so many cultures, and dozens of languages. 

Even if health and government bodies publicized information in written Somali or other languages, many eastern communities’ traditions and communication styles tend to be oral, especially among elders. 

“So who’s going to help translate that? Who is being given the resources to communicate with these elders, to answer their questions in their language?” she said. 

And, it’s not just about understanding what COVID-19 is, but also how to apply for unemployment and get access to food security or healthcare, she added.  

“We’re seeing all the inequities in the systems. Now they’re in your face. But what will we do with that? Will we change the institutions?” she added. 

There is a verse in Qur’an chapter 13, which states that God will not change the condition of a society until they work to change their condition themselves. It’s a powerful message Muslims use to challenge themselves to do more for themselves and others. 

“We have to ask ourselves right now what initiatives we’re taking to change ourselves, as institutions, as people,Hussain said. “Because we can’t change the condition of society unless we change ourselves.” 

Connect with Nausheena Hussain here, here and here.

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