Talking Business with The Shawl Label for SISTERS Magazine

TSL 1

For the October issue of SISTERS Magazine Aida Azlin explained to me how “It’s all about Sisterhood” with her fresh and exciting clothing (and tech stuff!) business.

Brooke Benoit: The idea of entrepreneurship can be really terrifying. At what point did you know that this was your path? And how did you prepare yourself to walk it?

Aida Azlin: I don’t think there is any perfect formula that will ever prepare you to walk on the path of entrepreneurship! I’ve always thought that I was an “accidental entrepreneur” because I never really set out to be one. But I now realise that there are no accidents in life, as everything is beautifully and perfectly planned by Allah.

Early in our marriage, when my husband and I were seriously considering moving back to Morocco, my husband asked me, “What do you want to do when you are back in Morocco, Aida?” I remember telling him that I really wanted to learn how to quilt and sew. I wanted to source for fabrics and just spend my days working with my hands. My husband was the one who suggested to me that “You should really consider selling shawls. Everyone wears them anyway!”

To be honest, I was very, very, very, very hesitant about it. I felt that there were already too many shawl sellers out there, and they were all doing a brilliant job. But I contemplated the idea for a while, never quite dismissing it completely nor embracing it fully.

When we got to Morocco, that’s when my perspective changed. It’s true what they say – the space that you are in can really inspire you and change the way you see things. I saw how “entrepreneurship” was so common in Morocco – almost everyone I know here has a small shop or trade, selling or offering some product or service. But there are no fancy labels like “startups” or “entrepreneurship” – people just do what they know how, and this taught me something valuable: that being an entrepreneur is far from just having website launches, or flashy marketing gimmicks, but truly, it’s about human interactions, trust, giving your best in the product you are selling and standing by your word. It’s also about working hard and starting with what you already have.

TSL 3BB: Almost everything on your website is sold out (masha Allah)! To get first dibs on monthly new releases, sisters must subscribe to your newsletter. Why are you operating like this – staying small – since you obviously have a bigger demand?

AA: When I first started The Shawl Label (TSL) my niyyah (intention) was to always serve the sisters first (and still is). Profit is always secondary. By focusing on serving and prioritising the ladies on our mailing list, we have, alhamdulillah, been able to serve more than 3000 sisters from around the world, and to sell out multiple times. When ladies sign up to our love letters (we don’t call them newsletters, because I really treat every single email that I write to them as a love letter, where I share things that I don’t share anywhere else), I treat that as a huge honour. Because liking and following a brand on social media is easy, but to give your email is another commitment altogether! And when ladies allow me to be in their Inbox, I treat that privilege and responsibility very seriously!

The love letters are also one of the best ways where I get to connect on a one-on-one basis with the Sisters. And this is extremely important to me. Having an online business doesn’t really give us much chance to have real life interactions, so our love letters allow me to not only share valuable content to the ladies, but to also build trust and build solid friendships. Alhamdulillah, I’ve been blessed to have many of my “customers” now as friends (a perk of the job, really!).

I also have a strong belief that I’d rather have a small group of people loving us than a massive group of people just merely liking us. So to me, it has never been and will never be about numbers. I’d rather “stay small” and continue building a solid community of Sisters than go big and miss out on all the interactions.

TSL 2BB: Building a brand feels intimidating and like top secret stuff that only a few have access to know-how and master. How are you approaching building the TSL brand? Any secrets?

AA: There are no secrets! It’s all about authenticity. When you are not being authentic and honest, people know. And it’s a turn off, really! Consumers are getting smarter, and people can see right through the fancy schmancy marketing gimmicks/trends. I mean, amazing design and good copy always helps (they are the silent ambassadors of your brand) but at the end of the day, stellar customer service, authenticity and constantly providing real value to your audience definitely sets you apart, insha Allah.

BB: How do you describe TSL’s style? How might your brand be different from other hijab shops/designers?

AA: I’ve strived from the beginning for TSL to be more than just a hijab shop. We focus on making our shawls here in our small little studio in Tangier, and we pride ourselves in creating other purposeful, beautiful products as well, but we also spend a great deal of time doing more than just making stuff. A huge chunk of our energy and time also goes to serving Sisters the world over by equipping and empowering them with the tools to strive for self-betterment, insha Allah. This is done through our TSL Classes / TSL Meet-Ups and every single content we put out there through our social media and especially through ourLove Letters.

Our primary focus has always been the Sisters, not the products per-se. Even if one day we stop making shawls, I will still continue to find a way to serve ladies. I believe that this is my one sole purpose in life, to serve Allah through serving my Sisters. And if selling and making shawls is one of the ways I can do that, then that I will do so with heart and sincerity.

If one day, He wills that I have to stop selling shawls, and make shoes, perhaps – then my approach will still be the same. Sisters first, shoes second.

BB: How did your recent Photoshop workshop go and are you offering it again?

AA: Masha Allah it went waaaay better than what we expected, alhamdulillah! We had Sisters from all over (Singapore, UK, Brunei, Malaysia, Nigeria, Netherlands, US) signed up and it made me feel dizzy with happiness that I am able to share a valuable skill with them. We also have a secret FB Group where all the Sisters post their works, and whenever I see them interacting, posting the art prints they learned to make themselves – my heart swells. I feel like a proud mother, basically!

We have been getting emails to re-open it again, so insha Allah, we will launch it again in November.

BB: Among Muslim startups, there is often some pain particular to this niche, stemming from dealing with international supply companies as well as having customers around the globe, so there are plenty of legal and logistical issues. There are also a lot of different work ethics or lack thereof. Have you found ways to circumvent these problems?

AA: There is no one way to ensure everything runs smoothly, except with a lot of du’a and tawakkul! There was a whole bunch of logistical issues we had to figure out earlier on, which alhamdulillah we have managed to overcome (after lots and lots of du’a!). But the one thing that really helped us out was having solid, reliable and amazing team partners that both understand and believe in our vision. We met many not-so-amazing tailors, vendors and suppliers, but again, with lots and lots of du’a and tawakkul, Allah has also placed in our paths some ‘masha Allah’ individuals as well!

BB: Your main TSL teammate is also your husband, Karim aka K. Spouse co-owned businesses can be extra stressful. How are you two balancing the lines of communication and control in TSL?

AA: Karim is a silent partner in TSL – it actually works pretty seamlessly as we both have very distinct skill sets and strengths. And to be honest, it is working pretty well as it allows me to focus on serving the ladies while he busies himself with the financials and anything and everything marketing related (which are two areas I absolutely hate!) The thing that helped us immensely is that we are both on the same page about where we see TSL in the future, the direction we are heading towards and the ultimate goal (which is to always, always serve the Sisters first). Whenever we get lost or overwhelmed, we always go back to our niyyah (intentions).

I also cannot stress how important it is to listen to each other, to be compassionate and to always, always have each other’s back. Our marriage is the most important to us, so no matter what happens in the business, we always remind each other that we are husband and wife first.

Also, it is imperative to have personal space. My husband and I work separately – me in my studio and him in any local cafe he feels like going to that day – and we always come back to have lunch and/or dinner together. But that few hours on our own really helps us be more productive and gives us a chance to miss each other, lol!

BB: Please explain your small, sustainable business approach – how are you sourcing and hiring, and when people buy TSL products, who are they paying?

AA: We have a small team here in Tangier, with one regular tailor, Sis Sanae (whom I love and adore to bits) and we also have a few packing fairies in Singapore who makes sure all our shawls/orders get sent out to our ladies, all beautifully and promptly packed. We do everything in-house – design, manufacturing, packaging – everything! When you buy something from us, you are not just purchasing a TSL Shawl, you are supporting Sisters both in Singapore and Morocco to live and pursue their dreams. You are supporting a Sisterhood.

To receive a Love Letter from Aida and learn more about her “Big on Sisterhood” business, visit the TSL website: theshawllabel.com

Brooke Benoit is a SISTERS editor and family business-runner living in Morocco with her food-artist husband and seven unschooled children.

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Meet the Muslimah Sellers of Etsy

Some items from Muslimah Etsy sellers: journal, popsicle earrings,  hijab pin, 'IQRA' book ends.
Some items from Muslimah Etsy sellers: journal, popsicle earrings, hijab pin, ‘IQRA’ book ends.

From SISTERS magazine’s November 2014 issue, some of the best sister-owned shops on the Internet’s favourite place to buy handmade.

I know many folks think that shopping on Etsy can be a very dangerous thing. There are just far too many unique and wonderful things on that website! But it’s actually an excellent shopping practice to buy from independent sellers and small-business families, as the products are exceptionally made to last a long time, often made with eco-green considerations in mind and directly support individuals in a fair-trade manner. Best of all, there are now many Muslim sellers on Etsy and your purchases from them can go towards supporting families striving to have deen-based lifestyles. Here is a selection of some of the great Muslimah sellers working via the Etsy platform – go ahead and window shop!

Ink And Ocean owned by Fehmida Shah

BB: What do you sell?
FS: Mostly downloadable art and cards and some paper goods.

BB: What is special about your items?
FS: I hope that my products are unique to me, as I have designed and created all of them. My paper goods that are not downloadable are either fair-trade or made from 100% recyclable materials or both. All are printed using environmentally-friendly inks.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
FS: After a day’s work, it’s lovely to just escape and have a creative outlet. I love the creative process and the ability to share my passion with a worldwide audience. I can make something I enjoy doing and have the opportunity to share it with others instantly.

BB: Any advice to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
FS: Whether you want to sell on Etsy as a business or a hobby, I would say get familiar with the whole Etsy shop process and ask for help – there is lots of it out there in the form of books, articles and forums. Choose your Etsy username wisely to reflect your business as this can never be changed. Put in the time to market your products on other social media networks and blogs. Be patient. Like any other business, you have to work at it and it takes time.

Winged Pony Kawaii Jewelry owned by Siegret Chappell

BB: What do you sell?
SC: I sell kawaii (cute in Japanese) jewellery and accessories.

BB: What is special about your items?
SC: They are for grown up women or little women who like cute, quirky or dainty things. I try to keep it simple so they can be worn with everyday clothes as a small statement of quirky cuteness.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
SC: I have had this urge to build and make from a young age and making jewellery has become a manageable outlet. I sell so that I can afford more supplies (aka supporting my other strong urge to shop)!

BB: Any advice to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
SC: Following the Etsy seller handbook is really the easiest way to get close to success.

Etsy Sellers II

Yarncoture owned by Maryum Karim

BB: What do you sell?
MK: I sell hand-knit and crocheted accessories for men, women and children, as well as unique items for your home.

BB: What is special about your items?
MK: What makes my items special is that Allah has blessed me with this talent. Before I started doing this I couldn’t have dreamed that I could make the things that I am able to make now. The designs that I choose are classics – items that you will be reaching for again and again that never go out of style. I also like to choose designs with a lot of elegance and style, that goes for the items I make for both women and men. Everything that I make is done with lots of love, care and professionalism to the best of my ability.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
MK: It all started with an “attempt” to repair a very special blanket that my oldest son was given during his stay in the hospital. I remembered that I knew how to crochet from my childhood so I was able to repair it (terribly). My mother sent me some knitting needles and some yarn and an ancient “how-to” knitting book. After failing at understanding the basic instructions I was given, I went online to see if there was an easier way. Alhamdulillah I found a site that made things much easier and I began knitting! I began to make lots of blankets and my family told me “you should open your own store!” – so I did! My work gives me so much peace and it’s very rewarding to see someone absolutely love and appreciate something you made!

BB: Any advice to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
MK: I would advise them to do their homework! Research the market you’d like to get into and see if it can be a lucrative business for you. Research packaging, your logo and most of all your pricing should reflect how much time you put into your work, as well as the cost of materials. Also, be original! The last thing Etsy needs is another shop that looks like another and another and so on. If it’s something that you truly love doing, it will show in your work!

The Olive Tree Soap Company owned by Sobia Hussain

BB: What do you sell?
SH: I sell luxury artisan bath and body products which are vegan and free from harsh chemicals. My products include artisan soaps, lip balms, natural deodorants, lotion sticks, argan oil, hajj/umrah unscented products, unique party favours and gift sets for all occasions.

BB: What is special about your items?
SH: My goal is to provide the community with carefully handcrafted skin care with your health and planet as priority, while offering a natural alternative to the conventionally mass-produced products on the market. All my products are vegan and halal, they are free from alcohol-sourced ingredients as well harsh chemicals such as SLS, phthalate and paraben. The Olive Tree Soap Company is proud to be animal-cruelty free.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
SH: Since I was young, I have been very passionate about science and art. The two interests never intersected until I discovered soapmaking in my adult years. Making artisanal skincare products and designing its packaging is a fine marriage of chemistry and my personal form of expression. It’s as though it was meant for me. I’m so grateful to be in this field, alhamdulillah.

BB: Any advice to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
SH: Don’t be intimidated. If there is something you are passionate about and would love to share with others, do your research in your field and see how others are selling their products. Do not solely rely on Etsy to be discovered. There are over 1 million sellers on Etsy so it’s easy for your shop to get lost in the large crowd; you will need to work hard to get your name out in other venues such as large events, local fairs, blogs, features and product reviews. Be ready to leave your comfort zone to promote your business and what you have to offer. Do it with class and integrity. It’s really a fine balance. If you don’t start, you’ll never know.

Muslamb Stationers owned by Cjala Surratt

BB: What do you sell?
CS: Muslamb carries letterpress and offset greeting cards, fill-in invitations and desk decor essentials such as notepads, sticky notes, bookends, stamps and pencils, the most popular of which are the “Hijabi Hard at Work” and “Study Dua” pencils.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
CS: I started Muslamb Stationers because I often had to doctor ‘Seasons Greetings’ and ‘Happy Holidays’ cards for Eid, walimahs or aqiqahs (I sent out many a tacky card with ‘Happy Holidays’ crossed out and ‘Eid Mubarak’ put in!). I was also tired of giving my money to businesses that didn’t carry any goods that reflected those holidays and special events that are important to me as a Muslim. So, I decided to create stationery goods that reflected Islamic values and embraced a quirky, fresh, fun and contemporary sensibility.

BB: Any advice to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
CS: Etsy is good platform to begin with; they have built in a lot of functionality for a seller to set up a shop easily. I found it beneficial for testing out my buyer demographic initially and a great means of garnering visibility as one gets the brand recognition and trust that comes with the Etsy brand.

Omee’s Boutique owned by Omee (Mona)

BB: What do you sell?
O: Reusable cloth menstrual pads, baby to toddler bibs and unpaper towels are my best sellers. I also sew and sell diaper bags, waterproof bags, pacifier clips, mitten clips, infant car seat canopies, nursing pads and a lot of other items. I take custom requests if readers have anything else in mind.

BB: What is special about your items?
O: Everything in my shop is handmade by me, with loving care and attention to detail. I sew everyday whenever possible. These days I am focusing more on eco-friendly products like reusable cloth menstrual pads, reusable snack/sandwich bags and unpaper towels.

BB: Why do you do/make what you do?
O: I can’t survive without something to keep my hands busy, so I sew when I can, when my toddler is napping and my husband is busy at work. I love beautiful fabrics and use what little free time I have to create items that can possibly become a loved and worn best friend.

BB: Any advices to wannabe Etsyians or craft sellers?
O: Etsy is an established marketplace that customers from around the world shop from. Having your own website in addition to a shop on Etsy will be great for you, but I would recommend starting out on Etsy. I currently only have an Etsy shop and hope to create a website of my own soon too insha Allah.

Research well and pick a nice name for your shop, price your handmade items well and once you are all set update your shop regularly and make a connection with your customers through either a Facebook page or an Instagram account. Make your customers happy, network with other sellers, promote your shop, keep improving and take your business seriously. It will be a slow climb but with time you will see good results and do great insha Allah.

SISTERS Etsyians!

Brooke Benoit www.etsy.com/shop/Brookolie
Ke’lona Hamilton www.etsy.com/shop/CreativeMotivations
Zainab Bint Younus www.etsy.com/shop/AbayatLeatherAndLace
Maria Zain www.etsy.com/shop/GardensofAdneen

Some of our favourite Muslim Etsy shops:

AlhambraAcrylics www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AlhambraAcrylics
ArchetypeZ www.etsy.com/shop/ArchetypeZ
AyshBoutique www.etsy.com/shop/AyshBoutique
HaniyyaJewelz www.etsy.com/shop/haniyyajewelz
INKhandcrafted www.etsy.com/shop/INKhandcrafted
Islamicable www.etsy.com/uk/shop/Islamicable
muslamb www.etsy.com/shop/ownsignature
PathOfLightDesigns www.etsy.com/shop/PathOfLightDesigns
SHOPNadiaJArt www.etsy.com/shop/shopnadiajart

In addition to writing and editing for SISTERS magazine, Brooke Benoit sometimes makes unique (and fairly spectacular) jewellery for her own Etsy shop, https://www.etsy.com/shop/Brookolie.

Hijrah Diaries: Coming Down the Mountain

HD
It has been two years since my family of eight moved from cosmopolitan Casablanca, Morocco, to a ram-packed earth house in a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains. Insha Allah, by the time you read this we will have traversed the two hour windy road down the mountain and then driven several more hours to our new seaside home and I will have already installed our dishwasher, stocked the fridge with our much-missed favourite condiments and have taken over an entire room in the house to serve solely as my office-studio. But right this very moment I am in that unique waffling space between annoyance at everything in my current environment and being excited at the possibilities with the move. In this spirit I thought it best to reflect on the best and the worst of my experiences way up here.

Things I will miss about living in a rural farming community in the mountains:

* The immense beauty
It is incredible here. When I think about how much time I spend indoors here and wonder what difference would it make where I live, all I have to do is tilt my head and take a peek out the window. Subhan Allah.

* The wildlife
My kids have learned plenty about the food production cycle by watching and helping our neighbours raise their own animals, but they have also had several memorable interactions with wild animals. We have provided hospice care for a falcon and a woodpecker, both were injured and died in our care, but still a good experience for us to appreciate Allah’s (SWT) creations. Ever held a falcon or a woodpecker in your hands? Incredible creatures. We have also had a baby squirrel pass through our home and we regularly have a variety of frogs and toads (I think those are toads!) living in our shower. My girls make a very distinct, playful kind of scream specific to when an amphibian jumps into their bath. “Froth!” Asiya exclaims.

There was the morning we had a visit from a frightening, but magnificent, spider as big as my hand with my fingers outspread. We have also encountered innumerable insects outside our home, including humming beetles, glowing grubs, enormous caterpillars and a moth so big that we argued whether or not she was a bird! Oh and storks. Storks are beautiful, though also a bit intimidating as far as birds go. And once Amine (10) and I spent several minutes chasing after someone who we couldn’t agree on whether they were a hummingbird or enormous moth (it was a moth).

* Fresh milk
We buy organic, raw milk from our neighbours and it is incomparable to the bottled stuff. As a bonus we have kept about a kazillion milk cartons out of landfills since we reuse containers to collect it.

* Less waste
Overall, we have kept a whole lot of waste out of landfills the last couple of years. Most of our foods come to us without any packaging. We also don’t have many opportunities for impulse shopping or partaking of any consumerism in general.

* Rocks
No but seriously, I am a jewellery maker and I love rocks. Gemstones – thousands of years of dirt/minerals pressed together to eventually become a beautiful thing – are awesome and the mountainside is covered in a gorgeous and exciting variety of rocks.

* Free range children
Currently I can holler out the front window of my home and my kids can hear me calling them from just about any point in the village. My husband isn’t thrilled with this practice, but I am happy that my children get plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime but are still within my vocal reach. I am sure that my children will not have as much freedom back in a city, but we will live very near the beach! Which brings us to my looking-forward-to-leaving-behind things.

Things I will not miss about living in a rural farming community in the mountains:

* Mice
I hate mice. They are adorable yet nasty little creatures. They leave their waste everywhere and eat everything. We have had several articles of clothes, important papers and toys ruined by nesting mice, though my new habit of screaming continuously while I chase them down and kill them is a very special entertainment for my kids.

* Lack of variety
There is a very, very small selection of foods available locally and being creative with them got tiresome real fast. I suppose this why my neighbors cook a steady stream of only tagine and couscous. Also the processed and junk foods that are available out here are very poor quality. I mean, I grew up believing Kool Aid is better to dye your hair and clothes with than to put it in your body, but the instant drink that is available out here has a warning on it that it is dangerous to be consumed young children and pregnant women. Yikes.

* Gender disparity
There’s a lot of it and it’s just not Islamic and it’s just not right. I look forward to being able to do many things in the city which I just cannot do out here, such as going shopping if I need to. Women do not generally do any of the shopping out here and it has been really frustrating to have to rely on my children to shop for me. They often have to make extra trips to return items that are not what I wanted or are poor quality. Of course it has been a good experience for my kids to learn how to shop, but then again they often have to make extra trips. There are plenty of examples of the disparities, but finally I really understand why illiteracy is so dangerous to women, if they cannot read then they have to rely on someone else’s interpretation of Islam and from what I have experienced out here those interpretations often do not support women’s Allah-given rights.

* There is no place to go
Often outings go hand in hand with spending money, which I don’t have much of and can be wasteful anyway, but, there is no place to go out here! Even going for walks gets bor-ing in a one road village. I look forward to meandering, window shopping, visiting bookstores and libraries and of course shopping, even if just for groceries. Oh, the joys of picking out my favourite foods!

* The rugged environment
It’s beautiful, but man does this the terrain eat up shoes and anything pneumatic, such as bicycle tires and soccer balls. I had wanted to take the kids on a bicycle tour of the valley, but we can’t seem to keep all of our tires unpopped at the same time. It’s also pretty brutal on our skin.

* Needing seasonal clothes
I grew up in a Fall/Spring kind of climate with the rare ‘sweater weather’ in between. I bought clothes for style much more than for function. I hate having to manage so many different articles and kinds of clothes for seven people, especially when there isn’t a boot sale for half a day’s ride away. Somehow last winter my four year old only had one sweater and winter was nearly over by the time we managed to figure that out and get her some more. Give me a consistently mild climate any day, please and thank you.

Really, I’m not too sad about coming down the mountain. I had expected this to be a temporary situation and I am feeling glad that we were able to stick it out for two years, which is one year longer than I expected. It is slightly harsher living, the climate itself isn’t too harsh but things such as access to medical help and other things we needed and wanted, heartier chores, occasional power outages and water shortages made it a less easy lifestyle for my family. There isn’t much to romanticise about mountain living as is standardly lived, but I do hope that what sticks with us is a deeper appreciation for Allah’s (SWT) provisions. It takes a long time and a lot of resources to grow one chicken, which my family can devour in less than ten minutes! Similarly, I hope we have better attitudes towards our trash, our personal items and especially our time. I am thankful that I don’t have to spend the majority of my time raising and preparing my daily sustenance, so the question now is what will I do with my time?

Brooke Benoit is contentedly a stranger, a dreamer and a tumbleweed.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine.

The Artful Judger

Photo of a gavel, 'justice' scales and books.
Photo of a gavel, ‘justice’ scales and books.

Brooke Benoit takes a moment to ponder why people concern themselves with others’ choices.

“He converted for you?” they ask ‘Aishah. With their eyebrows raised and heads tilted it’s hard for ‘Aishah to believe that her sisters are just being naturally curious about this unique phenomenon. Her sisters think that they know many women convert for men, but it’s rare for a man to convert for a woman. ‘Aishah has heard the whispers: these kinds of conversions are insincere, the converts aren’t really Muslim, their marriage is haram, he/she will soon enough leave their spouse and Islam all together.

I see how hurt ‘Aishah is by these assumptions and judgements and I try to dismiss them with a Muslim maxim, “only Allah can judge you”. My words ring hollow, but I remain steadfast in my insistence that people’s judgements don’t bother me. “Sticks and Stones” sounds off quietly in my head. A few days later when someone angrily accused me of judging them I was flummoxed, but this time I saw that I am in need of a better understanding of why some of my sisters are so upset by perceiving that they have been judged or worse misjudged. I wondered, what’s the big deal about what someone thinks about me? We can’t control each other’s thoughts… We can’t control each other’s actions either, but that’s one of the many problems with erroneously judging others; judgements then become actions.

…misjudging people leads to serious social ills, such as rejecting suitable people for jobs, marriage, positions in decision making processes and so on.

For ‘Aishah and her husband there are innumerous examples of how being misjudged affects their lives. Minimally, they are both seen as “lesser” Muslims, though some may go as far as to see them as deviants or even non-Muslims since they believe ‘Aishah’s husband converted only to marry her. Therefore, they believe that he is not a true Muslim and neither is she because she is married to a non-Muslim. ‘Aishah and her husband are often left out of mosque functions, including decision-making processes and educational resources, thereby effectively blocking their local access to the deen. They are largely left feeling alienated from their community and frequently hurt by other Muslims’ harshness, assumptions and ignorance about their personal lives.

 

Misjudgements in general can have lasting impacts on people’s lives. I now recognise that it was from a position of great privilege that I was able to so easily disregard how people may judge me. As a white female I am often misjudged or judged to my benefit. I am sometimes judged for various lifestyle choices I make (home-birthing, home-educating, converting, etc.) But these are usually superficial interactions that don’t have a lasting impact on my life aside from occasionally feeding my insecurities or fueling my determinacy. Misjudgements are often steeped in stereotyping and can lead to various forms of exclusion and ultimately forms of oppression. Aside from how ‘Aishah’s family is excluded from her community, misjudging people leads to serious social ills, such as rejecting suitable people for jobs, marriage, positions in decision making processes and so on.

 

The harm to the judges

Judging others is also harmful to the one doing the judging; it prevents personal growth and can be or lead to sinning.

 

  • Judging others is a distraction technique. We busy ourselves with casting judgement on others rather than to look at our own problems. Or as author Jarl Forsman explains, “most judgements of others are ego strategies to avoid uncomfortable feelings. However, if you lack the awareness of where they come from, they can lead to even more discomfort down the line.” Next time you judge someone, think of the judgement as a mirror and ponder what is going on in that area in your own life. Perhaps some of these people who judge ‘Aishah and her husband have insecurities about their own sincerity in their faith.

 

  • Judging other’s actions can stem from envy. There may be some aspect of the other person’s choices that the judge is jealous of and feels that they are not able to act on it themselves. Are ‘Aishah’s judges jealous that she was able to marry a man they never would have been able to consider based on personal, familial or cultural taboos?

 

  • Similarly, we may judge others from a position of intolerance, which is when we only accept our own personal values and are not accepting and respectful of other values. We can be bothered by other people’s lifestyle choices because again a mirror has been placed in front of us providing an opportunity to reconsider our own ideals, but often we would rather do the easier work of condemning than contemplating.

 

  • Misjudging others is essentially making an assumption about them based on an interpretation of superficial information. This practice is so dangerous that Allah (SWT) warns us not to heedlessly judge each other:

“O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.” (Al-Hujurat:12)

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (SAW) as saying: “Avoid suspicion, for suspicion is the gravest lie in talk and do not be inquisitive about one another and do not spy upon one another and do not feel envy with the other and nurse no malice and nurse no aversion and hostility against one another. And be fellow brothers and servants of Allah.” [Muslim Hadith 6214]
  • Breeding negativity: notice in the above hadith we are not only warned about suspicion, but also not to harbour negative feelings for each other, such as malice, aversion and hostility. SISTERS’ own Positive Psychologist Saiyyidah Zaidi-Stone explains that “negative thinking drains your energy for positivity. Being negative becomes a habit. This rut results in individuals being unable to grow and develop themselves as positive individuals. If you consciously decide to have a positive mindset it does wonders for your psychological and emotional development, the same is true of negative mindset so be aware which one you focus your energy and attention on.” Ultimately, negative thinking is a projection of our own discontent.

Of course, there is always the possibility that these sorts of questions are being asked earnestly to make small talk, which can be a good and necessary tool to help establish commonality. The trick to help you distinguish what your intention is to listen to your own inner voice’s responses to your queries; if your responses are couched in negativity, then perhaps it is better to follow the sunnah of remaining silent until you get that under control.

 

I now have great empathy for ‘Aishah’s family and the adversity they face due to people’s false judgements of them. While there isn’t much I can do for ‘Aishah, other than reminding her that people are just projecting their own problems onto her, I am now more conscious when I hear my own inner critique lashing out at people. I can now stop and ponder, what am I actually saying about myself?

 

Brooke Benoit is an artist, mama to six, writer, editor, Islamic fiction champion and frequent baker living a greenish life in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of SISTERS magazine.

Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Book cover for Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men

Herein are ruminations from a Muslimah point of view on Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men originally published in the August 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something I think is a universal truth, though maybe not a very popular idea: I believe that men, in their general position of greater physical and economic power, are at great risk of abusing that power thereby abusing women, children, elders and all people ‘weaker’ than them. Those of us in potential positions of being abused could do well to recognise some of the abusive behaviours which are common in many in positions of power. In turn, this could aid us all to not let abuse trickle down the chains of hierarchy and spread. It is for this reason that I was curious to read Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. At the time of writing the book, Lundy Bancroft had spent fifteen years working with angry and controlling men as a counsellor, evaluator and investigator. Bancroft identified many patterns among the men, making abusive behaviour less evasive to pinpoint, as simply recognising that something is actually abuse is difficult for most involved in it.

One of the many useful things I found in Why Does He Do That? was Bancroft’s demystification of several commonly held false beliefs about why men abuse. These ‘myths’ are used by the men, and others, as excuses for their behaviours. Bancroft points out that it is abusers themselves who have so oft repeated these excuses, creating their own mythology within cultures – he also points out that abusers are master manipulators and, in this sense, have manipulated a great many of us. A few of these myths popped out at me as being frequently used as excuses among Muslims; when I shared Bancroft’s list of seventeen myths on Facebook, Muslim friends and acquaintances had had experiences with all of them. So, while I encourage people to read this book to get its full benefit, I will share some of Bancroft’s myth-debunking insights, keeping them correlated to the chronological order he uses in the book:

1. He was abused as a child.

Bancroft uses studies to demonstrate how abusers manipulate or outright lie about childhood abuse in order to garner sympathy for their abusive behaviour. But for me the most compelling argument against this excuse is that when Bancroft corners abusers about this one suggesting, “If you are so in touch with your feelings from your abusive childhood…. You should be less likely to abuse a woman, not more so, from having been through it.” As Bancroft explains, “….he only wants to draw attention to [his childhood abuse] if it’s an excuse to stay the same, not if it’s a reason to change.” Like most other abusers, the majority who use this excuse refuse to use therapeutic measures to heal and discontinue their own abusiveness.

2. He loses control.

In this section, Bancroft demonstrates the many ways that abusers themselves removed the façade of “out of control abuser who doesn’t realize what he’s doing”. For instance, when questioned why the abusers didn’t do certain things, such as leave visible marks or break their own valuable items, or about how they were able to immediately calm down when police arrive, abusers responded that they didn’t want to take things that far as they had something to lose if they did. That is not indicative of being out of control, rather Bancroft and his associates long term work with abusers revealed that abusers are actually extremely calculated in how they emotionally and physically abuse their partners. Control is the primary thing abusers seek by being abusive and they know how to get it.

3. There are as many abusive women as abusive men.

It is unfortunate that I even feel compelled to address this myth, but since it nearly always comes up during conversations about abusive men, I am glad Bancroft addresses it. Part of this overall myth is that men are ashamed to come forward when they are abused by women so their numbers are harder to identify. Bancroft makes several points to correct this flawed reasoning, including “….that women crave dignity just as much as men” and it is often outside interference that brings abuse to light. If there were truly such high numbers of female on male abuse, they would have been brought to light by those same concerned family members, neighbours, police, schools and so on who interfere in male to female abuse.

Another commonly upheld aspect of this myth is that men are responding to verbal abuse with physical abuse, but as author Margaret Atwood has famously been quoted, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Bancroft reminds readers that “….abuse is not a battle that you win by being better at expressing yourself” and that male abusers employ verbal abuse such as sarcasm, insults and threats as part of their overall abuse tactics. Female to male abuse exists, but it is much rarer and has no place in conversations about correcting the prevailing problem of men abusing women as it only derails from the solutions specific to the problem.

4. He is a victim of racism.

As Muslims are often in circumstances to be on the receiving end of racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia, I thought this item needed addressing here. Racism causes a great deal of real stress, but non-abusive men deal with that stress in ways other than abusing. Just like with being on the receiving end of child abuse in issue #1 “…if a man has experienced oppression himself, it could just as easily make him more sympathetic to a woman’s distress…”. Bancroft points out that men of colour were among the first and strongest opponents of abuse of women in the United States. Consider, for example, the former slave Frederick Douglass who was a champion for the suffrage movement.

Ultimately, Bancroft explains the motivations of the abusers: “The reasons that an abusive man gives for his behavior are simply excuses…. beliefs, values, and habits are the driving forces [behind his abuse].”

A man is abusive because he has a warped belief. The abuser believes that the person he is abusing is inferior to him and deserving of a treatment he himself is not. Of course, that is a common belief held by some Muslims, that the ‘degree a man has over a woman’ is one of absolute human superiority. This is plainly known as ‘entitlement’. My belief is that this greater physical and economic power men often have can be a great fitnah for many of us and we should each do our best to fight the abuse of this power, either as exerting or receiving abuse.

In the book, Bancroft says, “If any part of what I describe about abusers doesn’t match your experience, cast it aside and focus on the parts that do fit.” I would suggest that as Muslims with an interest in improving character and behaviour, as well as encouraging improvements and resisting injustices, we all truly could benefit from understanding the roots of abuse and oppression and can find something to relate to or overcome in this book. I by no means want to shame or blame victims of domestic violence; rather, I would like to remind them that Allah (SWT) tells us not to accept abuse to our persons. Accepting abuse is a form of wronging ourselves, as well as enabling or encouraging a culture of abuse:

“And those who, having done an act of indecency, or wronged their own souls, should remember Allah and ask for forgiveness for their sins and who can forgive sins except Allah? And are never stubborn in continuing (and excusing) the wrong they have done. For them, the reward is forgiveness from the Lord and gardens with rivers flowing underneath as an eternal dwelling; how excellent a reward this is for those who work and strive for good.” (Al ‘Imran:135-136)

Why Does He Do That? is an excellent resource for understanding and helping to dismantle abuse, insha Allah. You can also find more articles about domestic violence on the SISTERS website at http://www.sisters-magazine.com/index.php?route=articles/category&articles_path=11.

August 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine

2 Horrid Ramadans & Moving Along w/ the Ramadan Battle Plan, Insha Allah

LBL_SISTERS_illus_long

I have been meaning to write a sort of sketch for my family of all the different ways we have done Ramadan: from just me and the new hubby sharing cream puffs out of a paper bag in front of an Italian bakery in Brooklyn to enjoying a break of a solitary iftar while the husband took our bunch of kids to the masijd, and then onto Ramadans with extended family in Morocco. I should still do that, but today I am going to write about my worst two Ramadans ever and more importantly how I hope, insha Allah, to bury that habit quick this year.

The last two Ramadans I have spent half the month alone with my six kids. I mean really alone. I have neighbors, but no friends or family within several hours of driving/flying to my home. My lifestyle is… maybe unusual. We unschool, I work from home, and our home is located in a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where life is very in touch with the land, clean-living and fairly hard work. Alhumdulillah, I am not out digging in the earth and tediously caring for farm animals, but I still do work (which can be long hours if I don’t watch myself), plus the homeschooling and lack of any help for half the month… you get the idea? Also, that forced ‘clean-living’ thing means no availability of processed foods, which I know you all are trying to avoid, but you do know how time consuming it can be to prepare suhoor and iftar with ZERO processed foods, except for roasted coffee beans and granulated sugar- thank God!

Anyway, where my last two Ramadans really fell apart was that I spent way too much of my already compromised time worry about and trying to get some cooperation from two of my six children. We’ve all missed a suhoor and know from experience how horrid that can be, right? Who would want that for their kids? Their hormone messed-up kids who sleep at odd intervals for unpredictable lengths? So with these two basically trying to sleep through Ramadan (and when they were awake bemoaning not having a dishwasher! Oh noes, they have to do dishes, but actually exert more energy fighting their mother about it than doing them!) that left me to deal with my other small children during the day, feeding them throughout and then maybe towards the end of the day I got some help with preparing iftar (fairly simple, but remember ALL from scratch except for our bread that I buy from my neighbor) or maybe not- it was just a mess, with my ibadah being heavily affected by my exhaustion and … anger. *Here is where you don’t bother to advise me about discipline measures and whatnot, because I have had enough of a headache with all of this and really thank you anyway, but I won’t bother with how you think I should maybe handle it, because I already tried many things and here is the conclusion I have come to:

This year I am bringing the focus back to ME (modeling behavior, they call this). Firstly, I am not going to bother myself with these manchildren who should know well enough how this Ramadan thing works. They are welcome to participate or not at their own paces. Don’t worry for them, they haven’t missed any fasts in years (or tarawih prayers) and I doubt they would start cheating now, but really let’s not bother directly with them. Secondly, I did FINALLY get some hired help, which I should have done long ago as I know logically I cannot do it all, but I guess I have some kind of glitch. So, alhumdulillah someone will be coming in for up to two hours a day to tidy the kitchen and help prep the food for me/us to cook later. I enjoy when hubby and kids come into the kitchen with me in that final hour of fasting to whip up a spontaneous iftar and again, all are welcome to join me, but no pressure, no extra exertion. RBP II

The most important thing I am doing is returning to making my ibadah come first, foremost and be nearly the only thing I see during Ramadan. I want to read the whole Quran and pray my tarawees everyday! Something I don’t remember doing at all the last two years. The main way I am doing this refocusing is that I got myself a copy of the Ramadan Battle Plan and am using it! Insha Allah.

Among some of the great getting-started things in the RBP is this goal setting and visualizing. Though I felt a bit cynical writing about my “Ideal Ramadan” after the last two, like the plan reminds: “And your Rabb says, “Call upon me; I will respond to you.” (Surah Al-Ghafir verse 60). And that’s it right there, that is my plan for Ramadan to call upon my Lord! Insha Allah.

I am doing The Plan along with a bunch of my cohorts from SISTERS Magazine, (the magazine for fabulous Muslim women) and you can read more about our experiences on the SISTER Family Blog or by following our SISTERS Team Does the Ramadan Battle Plan Facebook page.

Get your blessings! And me He accept our fasts, yours and mine, amen.

 

 

Tagine From The Heart In Marrakech: A Truly Great Place To Eat

Tagine from the heartMarrakech, Morocco, is one of the top vacation destinations in the world, hosting millions of visitors every year who, in turn, leave thousands of various online travel recommendations. With an economy built on tourism, restaurants, tour guides, shops, taxis, and beggars all vie for tourist dollars. It’s a bustling city with numerous gardens, museums, and souks to visit as well as being a center point for shooting of to innumerous excursions all over the beautiful country such as the sea, the desert, and the mountains. So if you are heading to Marrakech, please let me make one choice easy for you – you must enjoy at least one traditional Moroccan meal at Amal Restaurant and Training Center. Here’s why.

Unlike the commonly held beliefs about women who beg, these women did not have family to support them. On the contrary, it was their families who were often abusing them.

In my several years of living in Morocco I have learned that just as in my own hometown of San Francisco (another foodie paradise), many people here are skeptical of panhandlers (beggars). Whereas in Western countries most people assume panhandlers have social services to utilise and are therefore just trying to make ‘extra’ cash, here in Morocco many people believe beggars have their families to support them and must in some way be ‘bad’ people to have to resort to begging or else they are also just making ‘extra’ cash. Nora Fitzgerald, who was born and raised in Morocco, faced such beggars daily and one day decided to ignore the stereotypes, believing that there was no way a mother sitting on the concrete or dirt with small children in her lap would prefer to spend her days in such a way, completely lacking in dignity, just to make a little extra change. Nora decided to sponsor a woman so that her child could attend preschool and the woman could perhaps get a job.

I witnessed Nora and Amina’s* experiences some years ago via Nora’s blog. Soon other people were becoming involved, providing money, clothing, and other items to Amina and a few other women in need that Nora had also begun to work with. Unlike the commonly held beliefs about women who beg, these women did not have family to support them. On the contrary, it was their families who were often abusing them. For single mothers, the desire to protect their families from the shame of a child born out of wedlock or a woman abandoned drives them far from their hometowns and support systems. With no childcare and no employable skill set, begging is often their last and only recourse.

Nora began to better understand this dire dilemma and slowly her sponsorship evolved, trying to it the women’s needs. She opened a small bakery within her own family’s language center, training the women to make Western-style baked goods such as banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and lemon bars for the Moroccan students attending the centre. There were successes, but also a few failures with the program, as extracting oneself from toxic families and overcoming ingrained patterns of dysfunction is complicated. Nora’s commitment to be of service to some of Morocco’s most marginalised women and children was firm enough that she continually sought out realistic solutions to the complex problems they faced.

While visiting Casablanca one spring, Nora had a chance to eat at one of the locations of Restaurant Solidarité Féminine, a hugely successful 30-year-old not-for-profit organisation that provides single mothers with the knowledge and skills to ensure their own livelihoods. It was impossible for Nora not to see the possibilities for the little cottage not-for-profit venture she was building back home. She also realised she didn’t have to reinvent the wheel as there are similar models she could follow and that would even help the organisation to skip some of the growing pains that comes with being a revolutionary start-up. Nora found others with similarly interested hearts and hands willing to help, and soon the Amal Center was born, a space was rented and renovated, and the concept was taken to the next level.  The Amal Center now functions as a training center and also a restaurant that serves lunch daily to an average of 60 people.

In 2013 Amal received a grant to expand the business and training facility, and the centre now provides literacy and language classes, life coaching, and many other lectures and trainings by local professionals eager to volunteer some of their time. The Amal centre accepted 15 women into its internship program this year. The permanent staff has grown to 12, many of whom were among the first trainees and whose stories inspired the centre’s creation.  At the end of its training, Amal helps the interns find jobs in local hotels, restaurants, riads, and private homes. Professional job placement, economic stability, and personal transformation are the primary goals at Amal, which employs a social worker trained in psychology to accompany the women in their journey.

The women come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some are illiterate or have very little education, others were sent to work as child maids when they were as young as 12 years old, while a number of the trainees are recommended by a local association, Jamiat Kafalat Al-Yateem, which helps support widows and their children. Fitzgerald, who serves as Amal’s president, said, “It’s been amazing to watch these women’s transformations. When they first entered the program they were shy, insecure, were afraid to trust us and each other. They are now glowing with confidence and have acquired many skills. They are proud of their new profession.”

Naima, one of the trainees turned full-time staff, agrees. “The colour has come back to my cheeks. Before, wherever I worked I was taken advantage of. I am now supporting my three children on my own, and every day I am happy to come to work, I learn something new, I feel like I am given value.”

 Si Mohamed has trained with French masters, and thanks to him the trainees have learned signature French dishes such as salade nicoise, caesar salade, gratin dauphinois (a most satisfying potato and cream gratin), glazed chicken with sage, filet mignon, etc.

Last winter, when I finally had a chance to visit Marrakech, of course I had to eat at Amal, a truly lovely restaurant. Set in the busy Gueliz shopping district, Amal is down a quiet side street and the ample garden seating is secluded by lush, bougainvillea-covered walls and accented by fragrant citrus trees. Inside the restaurant is a comfortable and airy contrast to the sometimes overbearing Marrakech heat. On the day I visited the staff had made lemonade with crushed fresh mint, and it was so deliciously refreshing that I asked to take some home. I also took away a delicious assortment of briwats (savory fried pastry) and an impressive bastilla (savoury and slightly sweet chicken and almond pie with philo topping) which I had smartly ordered in advance to put off the moans of those left behind while I dined out. I have never had a bastilla I didn’t like, but my husband, who is slightly harder to please, was so impressed with the deftly seasoned dish that he ate the remainders cold – straight out of the fridge – a completely out-of-character action for him. And of course our children loved the briwats.

Back at Amal I enjoyed their tagine of the day – meatballs in a richly flavoured fresh tomato sauce cooked in a traditional clay cone-shaped pot. They were also test running a more Western-style chicken stir fry dish that day, and, admittedly, I ate more than my share. Amal’s dishes are lovingly made as if served out of a home kitchen. Because I have worked in many eateries and even owned a few myself (and I am nosey, but prefer to say ‘inquisitive’), I asked to see Amal’s kitchen. It is beautiful too, masha Allah! Nora completely gutted the kitchen of the riad Amal is located in and filled two-thirds of the walls with windows, making it a truly noor-filled place to work, a feature which is reflected in their dishes and ambience.

Throughout the week, Amal features a dish-of the-day, normally a tagine, with several side dishes. On Fridays, like most Moroccan kitchens, Amal serves heaping platters of couscous with lamb and seven vegetables. In January Amal hired a new chef, Si Mohamed, to expand the menu and bring in more of a “restaurant culture” for the trainees. They now learn basic sauces, vegetable chopping techniques, and foundational culinary know-how beyond simply reproducing a recipe. Si Mohamed has trained with French masters, and thanks to him the trainees have learned signature French dishes such as salade nicoise, caesar salade, gratin dauphinois (a most satisfying potato and cream gratin), glazed chicken with sage, filet mignon, etc. The moelleux au chocolat, a fallen chocolate cake with a liquid gooey center is the perfectly satisfying ending to all of Amal’s well balanced meals.

Amal is available to cater and for take-out orders, and I encourage using them for such when you are in Marrakech. If you happen to be in Marrakech during Ramadhan, Amal is the perfect place to break your fast with a traditional Moroccan iftar of harira soup, savory philo dough briwates, fresh smoothies and more. Amal Restaurant and Women’s Training Center is an exceptionally versatile organisation which, with advanced notice, can prepare specialty dishes such as vegan couscous and even offers private cooking classes. For families travelling with children, the specially designed play and craft space is a welcome break for both the kids and their parents.

If you don’t get the chance to dine at Amal, you may still consider donating to this exceptional organisation. It is a Moroccan registered non-profit, and donations are accepted through the website http://www.hope-amal.org And volunteer efforts from various fields are always welcome.

In Marrakech, please dine out or order from Amal located in Quartier Gueliz at the intersection of rues Allal ben Ahmad and Ibn Sina, between l’Hopital Ibn Tofail and the popular Patisserie Paul.  06 04 23 88 60 or 05 24 44 68 96 More information about how to donate or volunteer with Amal can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AmalNonProit

In Casablanca, please dine out or order from one of Restaurant Solidarité Féminine’s locations: Site Palmier: 10, rue Mignard 05 22 98 66 15/05 22 25 46 46 or Site Aïn Sebâa: 21, rue Tizli Ousli. 05 22 34 30 90 More information about their Opus award-winning organisation can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/solfempalmier

*Name changed.

Brooke Benoit aspires to being a lapsed foodie, but living in the culinary paradise of the North African Mediterranean and being married to a chef makes this pipe dream very unlikely. This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.

The Hijrah Diaries: Reflections on the Lands of Plenty

Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child
Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child

A forced lightening of our carbon footprints has been one of the benefits of relocating my family of eight to a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. My neighbours are nearly all self-sustaining farmers with limited supplemental incomes. What is available to buy and acquire locally for food, housewares, clothes and so on is hauled up here for people with very low incomes. My family’s daily food choices, which were hacked down considerably when we moved to Morocco from the US several years ago, have been further whittled down to about a dozen various seasonal vegetables to choose from, shelf-stable processed cheese, four kinds of dry bean, homemade breads, chicken or goat for meat and milk. Luxury items that are sometimes locally available include jam, spaghetti, rice, additive-laden yogurts, poor-quality cookies and chips – a meager selection of those processed foods city folks are commonly trying to avoid these days.

While food has been one of the biggest preoccupations of our adjustment to “simple living”, there are other challenges, such as not having electricity to run our space heaters on some of the coldest nights of the year. Since our water pump is electric we sometimes also run out of water. We can’t locally buy shoes that won’t be quickly ripped apart by the rocky hillsides – actually, most of the products available here are poor quality and need replacing sooner rather than later. I am familiar with the concept of ‘planned obsolescence‘ back home where electronics, fashions and other goods are designed specifically to need replacing well before they are worn out, but in Morocco I was surprised to find everyday goods made of such poor quality that they break very quickly, especially household items made of thin plastics.

When my mom came to visit Morocco for the first time last year I was eager to spend several days with her in Marrakech – land of supermarkets and malls – but I was also nervous about how material obsessed my whole family was with the pending visit to the city. We made lists of the foods we wanted to eat and all the things we needed or wanted to buy while in the city, including better quality homewares found in some supermarches. While I think it’s natural to want to do some shopping and have some fun, I was also worried that we would be making up for a year’s worth of waste reduction and light-living in just ten days.

The thing is our carbon footprint has been so greatly reduced by living, well, away from temptation and excess. If and when my family ever comes down the mountain for good, I don’t know how I am going to keep from sinking right back into gross over-consumption habits. Walking the walk is hard to do on streets overflowing with tempting offers. Not only do I enjoy eating out (something impossible to do here where there are no restaurants), but I am a working mum and some of those excessively packaged ‘convenience’ foods are a necessity. Here in the hills, with all the labour needed to process direct-from-the-ground foods, my family was struggling to get regular hot meals before we hired someone to cook for us. This solution may not be viable if we were living in a city though, where convenience foods have already exploited low paid labour and are more convenient than paying a fair wage to a cook.

I expected to learn plenty of things about life anew when we moved to a village in the countryside, but I fear that many of these lessons will not stick with me once I come down the mountain for good. Wastefulness is truly a middle and upper-class problem. We are the ones who gobble up the supplies, even when there is no true demand.

Reflections on our lighter living
Utilities
You have never seen a city girl conserve electricity until she has only a few kilowatts left on her prepay electricity card that could not be refilled until the next day or so. When our electricity has nearly run out, the entire family – even the children – unplug appliances, hang out in one lit room together, turn down the fridge and do anything we can to make that precious electricity last just a little bit longer. Once that card is refilled, forget about it. It’s back to everyone doing their tasks alone under one burning light bulb each, PS3 games ‘saved’ indefinitely with the screen and game box on, heaters more readily turned on and so on.

I wish I could say that my family is more conservative with water, that, like the Prophet (SAW) we each only use a mudd of it to make wudhu, but we are not. It seems that as long as these things are within easy reach, our nature is to thoughtlessly grab at them. I am sure that my neighbours who still haul their water from wells and streams use far less water than my supposedly khalifa-conscious family.

While my husband uses public transport to come in and out of the valley every couple of weeks, this is still far less diesel use than when I had a car and used to think nothing of getting into it to pop across town for one specific item or a particular kind of eatery I was craving. Casablanca was the first city I have lived in for a long time and not owned a car. It was inconvenient to not be able to drag all the kids along to whatever outings I needed or wanted to do, but again my carbon footprint was forced to be lighter than the one I may have stepped if I had owned a car. My family talks about buying a car (or two) if we go back to suburbia and I can only hope I would be more frugal with my use of it.

Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting
Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting

Post-consumer waste
In my Hijrah Diary series for SISTERS Magazine I wrote a bit about the horrors of dealing with my family’s trash out here on the mountain. Not only is it an icky and toxic mess to drag the rubbish a distance from the house and burn it, but it is also extremely embarrassing how much trash my family produces compared to my neighbours. We are still using far more convenience foods than most semi-sustainable farmers and our bin reflects this with its packaging from milk containers, grains, margarine and yogurt tubs, treat wrappers and so on. Of course, much of this has to do with the fact that we are not farmers and don’t get our foods directly from the source, but that has been the big part of my awakening out here – recognising how far removed I am from natural cycles.

An awesome book, really.

Human waste
This here is going to be some real talk. Our own human waste has been considered extensively since we moved into this ram-packed earth house with its ‘squat toilet.’ Not only did some family members have to learn how to use this style of toilet, but as a curious homeschooling family ought we also gave much thought and some research to where this waste was going when our landlord expressed concerns about us overfilling ‘the pit’ with our more-excessive-than-any-neighbours’ water usage. We learned about how some folks both here and all around the world don’t have indoor plumbing and use traditional farming technique of recycling their own human waste right along with that of their cows and other livestock. In short, I have learned that disposing of human waste via water is an environmentally messy business and that once again convenience and the ability to afford such luxury as flushing away our waste is something the ‘haves’ are doing that is ruining things for everyone. As disturbing as it may be to any porcelain-toilet owners’ sensibilities, pooping among the cows is actually a much better way to do it. And if one doesn’t own cows, they could use a compost toilet like the sister on page 52 does. I don’t yet, but I have aspirations…
While I worry about many of my bad anti-eco habits resurfacing once I return to the lands of plenty, one thing I am optimistic about is creating a grey water system for my family, even if just continuing to collect dish water runoff and hopefully setting up at least one compost toilet in our home. It’s a privilege and luxury to have so many choices and I pray that if my choices broaden again I will have the strength to be able to choose in a more deen-conscious way, insha Allah.

Brooke Benoit is the World editor for SISTERS Magazine and a self-proclaimed eco-jihadi, among her other various hobbies.
This article appears in the May 2014 ‘Green’ issue of SISTERS magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.

Living Below the Line Again


What’s that about when you do something you really don’t want, you get more barakah (blessings) for it? I hope so, because when my editor-in-chief Na’ima B. Robert asked if any of the SISTERS magazine crew wanted to do the Live Below the Line challenge, spending five days living on no more than £1 worth of food a day just as 1.2 billion people the world over who live in extreme poverty do… no, I really didn’t want to do that, again. I did the challenge last year and it was no fun, I even kind of sort of cheated a little, eating a few pennies worth extra one day. It is incredibly difficult to be a content, productive person when your stomach is growling and you feel light-headed and weak. This isn’t like Ramadan where at the end of the day I get an iftar spread with several of my favorite dishes available to satiate me and then in a few hours more I get another suhoor spread… this is a brutal, cruel reality for 1.2 billion people and is mostly ‘fixable’ if we just do a little work to undo the injustices which cause this extreme poverty.

That’s why this year I am doing the Live Below the Line challenge, again, and my sponsorship is going to an innovative organization which has a multi-faceted approach to alleviating extreme poverty: Made in Europe. MADE’s commitment to Live Below the Line is three-fold with the intention to “Gain a new perspective on our lifestyle choices, experiencing the simplicity of our Prophet’s (SAW) ways whilst raising funds to tackle poverty directly at its source. We train young Muslims to be campaigners to lead the fight against social injustice, hunger and poverty, moving beyond charity aid to sustainable solutions. By focusing on our young people, we’re creating a long-term and powerful movement for change.”

So that’s the plan: Increase my empathy and understanding, support an organization who is helping those in extreme poverty and educating folks about how to undo extreme poverty. You can do your lil’ part by donating any amount of money in any denomination here to the SISTERS Magazine team for MADE.

Love and Peace,
Brooke

Here I Go Again…


In the last few years there have been some mostly exciting studies done in which it has been found that as a group Muslims give more in charitable monies than any other group. Of course this is likely due to the awesomeness of our obligatory annual alms, but the not-so-exciting bit of these findings is that a lot of these funds are mismanaged. It’s unclear how much of that mismanagement is gross abuse and how much is just well-intentioned folks not knowing what they are doing and spinning their wheels. What is certain is that some paradigm shifts need to happen and the work of MADE (Muslim Agency For Development Education) is one of the leaders in making those changes happen, insha Allah. That is why this year I am doing the Live Below the Line challenge, again, this time to support the work of MADE and their campaigns to build young Muslim leadership, green communities, protect workers’ rights and so on. You can read more about MADE here.

The Live Below the Line challenge is also personal for me, as I hope to continue to scale back the hedonistic consumerist ways I was raised with and work towards having better appreciation of my rizk and using it in ways that are more deen conscious, insha Allah.