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The dramatic, spiritual memoir of a prominent Muslim woman working to empower women and girls across the world—for readers of Malala Yousafzai and Azar Nafisi.
Raised in a progressive Muslim family in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains, where she attended a Catholic girls’ school, Daisy experienced culture shock when her family sent her to the States to attend high school in a mostly Jewish Long Island suburb. Ambitious and talented, she quickly climbed the corporate ladder after college as an architectural designer in New York City. Though she loved the freedom that came with being a career woman, she felt that something was missing from her life. One day a friend suggested that she visit a Sufi mosque in Tribeca. To her surprise, she discovered a home there, eventually marrying the mosque’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and finding herself, as his wife, at the center of a community in which women turned to her for advice. Guided by her faith, she embraced her role as a women’s advocate and has devised innovative ways to help end child marriage, fight against genital mutilation, and, most recently, educate young Muslims to resist the false promises of ISIS recruiters.
Born with Wings is a powerful, moving, and eye-opening account of Daisy Khan’s inspiring journey—of her self-actualization and her success in opening doors for other Muslim women and building bridges between cultures. It powerfully demonstrates what one woman can do—with faith, love, and resilience.
Praise for Born with Wings
“A heartfelt, deeply personal, and touching account of a Muslim woman’s spiritual journey and her work to empower women and girls around the globe.”—Her Majesty Queen Noor
“Daisy Khan is one of the most prominent Muslim voices in America and an icon of female empowerment across the globe. This beautiful story of her spiritual journey is an inspiration to anyone who seeks to change the world.”—Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Zealot
“At a time when news headlines cast Muslim societies as war-torn or rigidly traditional, Daisy Khan offers a subtler, and ultimately more optimistic, vision. Through her own story, and the stories of other change-makers, Khan reminds us how Muslim women are asserting their rights while holding fast to their faith.”—Carla Power, author of If the Oceans Were Ink
“A lyrical, poignant, emboldening, and, most of all, deeply important book.”—Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham and Walking the Bible
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Born with Wings
When I imagine my birth, in my mind’s eye, it is a joyful occasion. I see a dark-haired newborn snuggled in her young mother’s arms while her loving grandmother hovers over the birthing bed, cooing and strutting. Her father is proud, her mother beaming. Downstairs, the rest of the family is celebrating. The servants prepare a feast. In a trunk, there is a fine layette for the infant: There is a frock made of soft muslin cloth, fabric as delicate and transparent as butterflies’ wings, with smocking tracing the fluttering hemline. There are hand-knitted booties, caps the size of flowers, and a blanket, along with a velvet box of jewels, gold coins, chains, and twenty-two-karat baby bracelets and earrings.
For a long time, that was how I believed it was. But on my tenth birthday, I learned the truth.
I had planned a big party. It would take place at teatime, and there would be samosas, pakoras, French pastries, and a cake from Ahdoos, the best bakery in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, which was usually reserved for special occasions, such as Eid al-Fitr, which marked the end of Ramadan. As I busily blew up balloons and arranged the white hydrangeas and lilies in a vase, one of my aunts suddenly challenged me. Why did I celebrate my birth with such pomp and show? she asked me. Didn’t I know what my real birthday had been like?
My real birthday.
My aunt went on to share, in hushed tones, the circumstances of my birth. She described a thin, pale, premature baby lying naked and alone and struggling to survive in a far corner of the birthing room while the midwives and my grandmother focused exclusively on my exhausted, feverish mother. I was the third girl in the family. In those days, half a century ago, in Kashmir, India, boys were assets while girls were considered burdens—bodies to clothe, feed, and marry off with substantial dowries. As my aunt continued speaking, it seemed as if every balloon in the room had suddenly been pricked. I was shocked. Why had I not heard this story before? I stormed off to find my mother.
“I was only nineteen years old,” my mother explained when I pressed her to talk about it. “I was supposed to give birth to you, my third girl, at my mother’s house, but my contractions had already begun, and I was barely conscious. Maryam, my sister-in-law, had given birth to three boys, and after I gave birth to you, my third girl, I was considered a failure for not managing to produce a boy. They kept you from me and your father.
“Your grandfather came home from work and was given the sad news that a third granddaughter had been born,” my mother told me. “He rushed up the stairs and broke all traditions by barging into the birthing room. No door or lock could stop him. He found me lying in bed weeping. ‘Where is the baby?’ he demanded.” Tears welled up in my mother’s eyes as she spoke. “I was too weak to go to you, and the others would not bring me the baby—you were premature and fragile, and I was frightened you were going to die. All I could do was cry. I had no status, no power over even my own newborn child.
“But”—my mother brightened at this point in the story—“your grandfather scooped you up into his own Dussah shawl and announced, ‘She is a gift from God—and she will be treated the same as everyone else in this household.’ ” Mummy told me that he handed me to her, and she held my face in her hands and assured me that I was her dil (heart) and her jigger (liver) and that she and my father loved me.”
Then my mother told me the rest of the story. “When my mother, Moji, heard that I had given birth to a third daughter, after your grandfather had interfered and saved you, she rushed to be at my side. When Moji walked into the room, I began to sob. Moji rubbed her hand over my forehead. I had never felt anything so soothing. I was half out of my mind. ‘But what will become of her?’ I sobbed. I could not even imagine what the future held for yet another girl in the family.
“Moji lifted you and set you by her side while she bent down on her knees and pressed her head to the floor and then lifted her hands in prayer. She told me, ‘I have prayed for you both, and you don’t have to weep for this girl. Because, beloved daughter, she is destined to reach great heights.’
“I could hardly believe what she was saying. ‘Can this be true?’ I asked.
“ ‘Yes,’ Moji assured me. ‘She will climb the sky! And you will never have to worry about her.’ ”
Mummy had found this confusing. What did that mean—“climb the sky,” “never have to worry about her”? But her mind was at rest. My birth had been preordained. Perhaps her daughter would do well in school, become educated. Perhaps she would become a doctor, stand on her own two feet. This frail child might marry a man of great wealth or miraculously turn into a beauty, as Mummy herself was.
The story my mother told me mystified me. On the one hand, I was thrilled by Moji’s foretelling. At the age of ten, I already understood that my mother and her family put great faith in my grandmother’s deep spiritual authority and took her predictions seriously. It was exciting to hear that I would have a successful future. At the same time, I wondered, What if Dadaji had not intervened? Would they have said it was God’s will if the small baby girl had expired? What exactly, then, was God’s will? Could we really know it in advance, or does human will enable us to create it for ourselves? In the faith of my family, cultural foreboding could have meant the difference between my life and my demise.
My near abandonment at birth is one of a long list of traditions that are impossible for me to accept at face value. To my harried grandmother, whom I called Dadiji, I was a burden on her young, struggling son; to my grandfather, whom I called Dadaji, I was a gift from God. It was like flipping the coin of faith. Learning my birth story was the startling beginning of a lifetime of consciously asking questions, of challenging the status quo. The questions I grappled with led me first to doubt and later to faith. For years, I lived the secular life of a modern American woman. In a sense, as surprising as it sounds, 9/11 changed that. Because though my life could have ended before it began, without my faith, I am not sure if my soul could have survived.
Prophet’s Daughters Carried Out His Lineage
When Moji heard the raucous cawing of the ravens outside her window, she knew there was an important message being sent her way. As she flung the windows open, she saw dozens of frenzied birds flapping their wings, swooping, and swirling. Ravens are believed to bring messages from the other realm, and when they loudly caw, a person should give serious consideration to the message that is being conveyed.
As she looked around, she overheard her short-tempered stepson, Shafi, and his temperamental wife, Bashira, in a shouting match. The fight was serious. Moji was notified that Bashira was packing up and going back to her parents.
Moji’s leadership was being tested, and she was resolute about providing a permanent solution to an unsettling family situation. She knew that marital problems are often exacerbated by meddling family members, so she insisted that the husband, the wife, and both her parents partake in a conflict-resolution session. When all of them gathered in her room, Moji queried the husband first. “So, Shafi jaan [dear], why are you always angry with your wife?” she began.
He replied, “She cannot give me what I want.”
Moji dug deeper. “And what is that?” she asked.
“A son!” he replied.
She then turned to Shafi’s parents. “What do you think of what your son just said?” she asked them.
Slightly flustered, they said, “We feel sorry for our son. In six years, Bashira has produced five girls. Everyone mocks him for not having a son. What are we to do?”
Shafi joined in. “When my brother suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage, I became the sole caretaker of my parents. If I don’t have a son, who will take care of the family?” When he saw the disheartened look on Moji’s face, he added, “Bodh Moji [Big Mother], don’t misunderstand me. I love all my daughters, but when relatives minimize me for not having a son, I take out my anger on my wife.”
Moji replied, “You must trust in God. These girls are his amanat [gift]. They have their own destiny, which will take care of them. If you see them as a burden, they will burden you. If you see them as an asset, they will bring you joy.” Ashamed, Shafi lowered his head, and with that, Moji passed a resolution. “Every member of this kabila [family] must respect Bashira for being a mother of five children. Shafi must never be disparaged for not having a son.” This decree was announced to the extended family, who all fell in line, leading to the rejuvenation of Shafi and Bashira’s marriage. Moji concluded the session by praying that God bless them with a son. When the room had emptied out, my sister Gudi, who had been eavesdropping, walked in, and Moji derided the family to her for their ignorance. “Our Prophet never had a son, and his lineage was carried out by his daughters. Why don’t people value their daughters?”
If my parents had been told that their contentious daughter would grow up to marry an imam and step forward to challenge thousands of years of tradition, they would not have believed it. Still, my family was an anomaly. My parents placed great value on education, even while most Kashmiris did not. This strong belief in education originated with my grandfather. Dadaji had aspired to be a teacher. After completing his matriculation, he left the Kashmir Valley to go to Aligarh Muslim University (Sir Syed Khan’s AMU) in Uttar Pradesh to pursue an MA in mathematics. Fortune was on his side. Kashmir’s maharaja, Hari Singh, invited students from Sri Pratap College to apply for a highly competitive scholarship to study abroad. Forty students from India were to be chosen to go to the United States on a fully paid scholarship. My grandfather was the only one chosen from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was a major accomplishment—for the family and for Kashmir. Dadaji became the first Kashmiri to attend Harvard University and the first Kashmiri Muslim to receive a master of science degree in civil engineering.
Dadaji spent three years at Harvard, from 1927 to 1930, and he was inducted into the Tau Beta Pi honor society. One semester, his world affairs professor, who was impressed with this keen young man from the other side of the globe, asked if Dadaji could prepare a lecture on Islam for his class.
Dadaji was hesitant. He had never had any religious training.
The professor added a sweetener. The school was prepared to give Dadaji a stipend of twenty dollars for his preparation time.
Dadaji began reading widely on Islam in Harvard’s vast library. Ironically, it was at Harvard University in the United States, rather than in Kashmir, India, that my grandfather’s serious study of Islam began.
Harvard opened my grandfather’s eyes not only about his religion but also about the world. Dadaji would remind us that although he met no Muslims in America, he did see the tenets of Islam being practiced by most Americans. Islam, he pronounced, could be practiced in its purest form in America.
As an example, Dadaji told a story.
“One day,” he told us, “I went for a swim in a lake along with my fellow students. I cut my foot badly and needed medical attention. For seven days, I had to stay off my feet. My landlady and her sixteen-year-old daughter changed my bandages, even insisted on washing my feet regularly so there would be no infection. They brought me food so I would not have to walk, washed and folded my laundry, and tended to me—and in the process, I learned they were Jews. I was in a foreign land, living in an alien setting, and these people showed me such acts of kindness.”
This was Dadaji’s first experience living in close quarters with—and depending on—people from another religion. The love and affection that his landlady and her daughter showered upon him left a lasting impression.
“After someone is willing to wash your feet,” he would say, “it is impossible not to open your heart.”
Trying to fit in at Harvard, Dadaji kept one big secret—he didn’t tell anybody that, at age twenty, he already had a wife and two children in Kashmir. Frankly, he was embarrassed and worried that people would judge him—or doubt him. “I was so young; even if I had told them I was married with two children, no one would have believed me,” he told us. He also kept another secret: that he had been only nine when he was betrothed.
Dadaji’s father had had a neighbor who was a very close friend. This neighbor had had a daughter and was concerned that if he died—and in those days, life expectancies were short—there would be no one to care for her. This was not an unusual concern. Men were the breadwinners, and if they didn’t have sons or other relatives who could look after for their daughters, they needed a contingency plan.
In this spirit, my great-grandfather’s friend spoke to his neighbor: “If I die, I know you know will take care of my daughter.” Implicit in those words was the request that my grandfather marry the man’s daughter. My great-grandfather was agreeable—why wouldn’t two friends want to have their children wed? My grandparents were betrothed when he was nine and she was twelve—a younger man marrying an older woman! Though they were legally married, there was a customary period, almost like an engagement, when the contract between the two parties had been signed but the girl did not yet leave her parents’ care. So, my father’s parents grew up together. They played together with the understanding that they were betrothed, and they remained devoted to each other for their entire lives. When Sarah, my grandmother, turned sixteen, she gave birth to her first child, Rashid, a boy. Shortly before Dadaji was accepted to Harvard, she delivered a baby girl, Ruqquiya.
During the three years her husband was studying abroad, my twenty-year-old grandmother Sarah, with her two young children, was supposed to act like a dutiful daughter-in-law and live obediently with her husband’s parents. But she had other plans. She left the house every day to do her job as a headmistress, at a time when most girls didn’t even finish school.
Daisy Khan is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), a global organization that works on behalf of women’s rights in Islam and initiated the creation of the first global women’s shura (advisory) council, which advances women’s rights through scriptural interpretation. After finding herself at the center of a national debate surrounding the Ground Zero controversy, Khan emerged as a leader in the public eye. She served as executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, where she spent eighteen years creating groundbreaking intra- and interfaith programs based on cultural and religious harmony and interfaith collaboration. She has won numerous awards for her work as an advocate for Muslim women’s rights around the world and is a frequent media commentator. She lives with her husband in the New York City tri-state area.