Sister Intisar Shah: QAAMS

QAAMS

Intisar Shah is one of the most recognisable and respected members of the Philadelphia Muslim community. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, she accepted Islam in 1973. Some people have described Intisar Shah as a rock of the community, but she is more than that; she’s a gemstone who has been polished through perseverance, faith, and dedication to her community.

While small in stature, sister Intisar has a calm and commanding presence that is respected by everyone. Qasim Rashad highlights Intisar’s positive attitude, explaining, “She has an ability to make you feel the world cares about you while at the same time she is as candid and truthful as they come.” Perhaps it’s her mid-Atlantic dialect, with traces of Southern warmth, or that Philly swagger, which transcends age, that makes it so easy for people of all ages to relate to her. She acknowledges, “I work with both ends, the youth and elders, and the adults in between.”

 

For over 40 years, sister Intisar has worked with inner city youth. Keziah Ridgeway, educator, writer, and Philly fashionista, relates, “I still remember her work with the youth back when I was in high school and it doesn’t seem that she’s slowed down one bit as she grows older.” Intisar lives just one block from United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, one of the city’s most active Muslim communities. Qasim Rashad, Amir of United Muslim Masjid, notes, “Everyone that knows sister Intisar knows she loves her community, her people and the youth.” She considers the Muslim community her family and the masajid across Philadelphia home. Intisar recounted her youth, “I came from a family of very motivated leaders. My mother fought for community rights and a clean neighbourhood. She always had an extra plate at the table for a stranger, for anyone that may drop by.” Intisar’s most meaningful work is linked to turning personal tragedy into blessings for the youth and Philadelphia Muslim community as a whole.

 

One of the great testaments to her faith and dedication to Islamic education is the life of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul-Majeed Staten. Like his mother and father, Sam Staten Sr., Qa’id devoted much of his time to volunteering in the community. Despite his youth, Qa’id inspired others around him and even began his own organisation. When I asked her what the key was to raising such a devout, thoughtful, and inspirational young man, Intisar stated that every child needs discipline and order. She said, “I am a believer in being firm, but first and foremost, I always tried to put Allah I in the front of our life.” Intisar, like her mother, opened her home to others and almost every night three to a half dozen of her son’s friends spent the night. She said, “Everything I did with our son and his friends was to always let them know the role that they played as men in our community. They should be God-fearing, make prayer, and call their families to prayer.” She also stressed the importance of her son’s Islamic education in shaping his character. Intisar highlighted how Clara Muhammad School was a safe haven compared to many public schools in Philadelphia, which are plagued by drugs and violence.

Qa’id had plans to attend Howard University on scholarship but on April 27, 2003, just a few weeks short of his graduation, he was fatally shot by a robber. During Qa’id’s funeral, a group of young adults who knew him decided to create an organisation that honoured his generosity and service to the community by also giving back to the community through a hajj fund. Intisar said, “My son and two of his friends made intention to make hajj the same year that he graduated. I went to perform the rites for my son and those two young men were the first recipients to hajj scholarship.” The youth formed The Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten (QAAMS) Hajj Foundation.

 

Sister Intisar Shah has been an integral part of QAAMS since its inception. This year, QAAMS celebrated its 10th anniversary and now has a youth council and senior council. The organisation seeks to preserve our youth through spirituality, education and recreation. Qasim Rashad says that there are over a dozen youth actively involved in the QAAMS youth council, which provides a healthy alternative to children who have outgrown the Jawaala (for boys 7 to 17) and Muslimah Scouts (for girls 6 to 16). QAAMS organises ski trips, hosts iftars during Ramadan and feeds the hungry with organisations, such as Feeding Philly. QAAMS also organises and sponsors Family Night at United Muslim Masjid and collaborates with the Muslim Students Associations in Philadelphia through events aimed at the youth, such as open mic poetry. QAAMS continues to sponsor hajj tours. About 11 members have performed hajj to this date. Many of the youth council members are currently starting college and are looking forward to performing hajj.

 

Most of the original members of QAAMS are now in their late 20s and have been involved with the organisation for about a decade. Intisar said that many are active in the community and restructuring the organisation. The youth who started QAAMS, she says, “ Are now married, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, Bachelors, Masters, entrepreneurs, working in a variety of fields from health to social services.”

 

Organisations like QAAMS are so important for our community because they nurture and empower our youth, creating safe environments for them to flourish spiritually. Both Keziah Ridgeway and Qasim Rashad highlight how many of QAAMS’ members continue to give back to the community. At the QAAMS 10th anniversary gala, they didn’t need big name speakers. Instead, members inspired attendees by speaking about how their lives have been impacted by QAAMS and hajj. Intisar related that QAAMS is working on obtaining a building. She said, with a physical location “we can create safe quarters for the Muslim youth. So people can come and be educated about Islam, have social programs and be safe.” By working through QAAMS, Intisar is committed to building the Islamic community and creating opportunities for the youth, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 

This past May, Intisar received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Sister’s Recognition Luncheon and Fashion Show, which is sponsored by United Muslim Masjid. Intisar was acknowledged for her work; she has given over 40 years of service to the private and public sectors. She is the Executive Director of QAAMS Hajj Foundation, active in Jewels of Islam (a comprehensive program and support network for women 50 years and older), a Board Member of Islamic Heritage Foundation, and Committee Member for the City-Wide Eid. In addition to her work with QAAMS, she has also coordinated countless youth and adult activities for the Philadelphia Muslim community. Keziah Ridgeway highlights Intisar’s involvement and abilities as a facilitator, explaining, “When I participated in the Islamic Heritage Foundation Youth Committee and attended related events I always remember how involved Sis. Intisar was with participating and being the glue to hold it all together.”

 

Sister Intisar’s community building is not limited to the Muslim community; she also works in the broader public sector as an active member of Mothers In Charge (for women who lost family and loved ones due to violence), Support Community Outreach Program, and the Equal Partners in Charge, Department of Human Services Community Prevention Services. She also researches and writes with a joint effort for the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program in the Department of Health and Human Services promoting abstinence programs.

 

Women like Intisar are the backbone of our community. It is clear that she does her work out of love and to please her Lord. Qasim Rashad notes, “I think the most important lesson that any person can learn from Intisar is consistency. Her undying love and commitment to our community has not permitted her to waiver one bit. “Through her dedication, she has become an effective and influential leader. Keziah Ridgeway explains, “As a result of seeing her hard work and dedication, it inspired me to continue to give back to my community in whatever way that I can whether that be through the students that I teach, the girls I mentor through Alimah Scouts or online through my website and social media!”

 

Intisar’s community work following her son’s tragic death is a perfect example of how we can find strength through hardship. We often go to lectures and hear about how we should be steadfast and not despair. In the past, I have often asked myself ‘how?’ We have so many inspiring reminders in the Qur’an, such as the following verse where Allah I tells us: “Oh you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Al Imraan: 200)

 

Looking to Intisar’s life and hearing accounts of how she remained steadfast, I am reminded of the follow verse: “But give glad tidings to the patient. Who, when afflicted with calamity, say: “Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah: 155-156)

Some recounted the strength Intisar demonstrated during her son’s funeral, and she continues to have so much patience and grace when faced with hardship or struggle. Intisar says, “I am thankful to Allah I to be His servant. I am thankful that my son accepted Islam as a way of life. And I pray that Allah I is pleased with him. I really want to please Allah I. So I pray that I can meet him in Jannat al Firdous.” Sister Intisar has shown me how I can better embody the Qur’an and Sunnah in my life; how I can turn whatever hardship I face into a lifetime of meaningful work.

 

You can find more information about Intisar Shah’s work by visiting QAAMS’ Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/QAAMS2003, or their website, http://www.qaamshajjfoundation.blogspot.com.

 

Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, blogger, and writer who lives just outside of Philadelphia.

 

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

Failing to Protect Our Young

swing-Sisters

On January 14, 2013, the Philadelphia Muslim community was shaken to its core when police sounded an Amber alert for a missing five year old girl. A non-Muslim woman donned niqab and pretended to be the girl’s mother in order to take her out of school. During her captivity, the child was sexually assaulted and later abandoned in a dark playground, wearing only an oversized tee-shirt in near freezing temperatures. While this was a stranger abduction, most cases of abuse are by family members or acquaintances. Our children are not immune to the ills of society. Muslims have to wake up and recognise that our children are vulnerable to outsiders, community members, and even members of our own families. According to the Together Against Grooming (TAG) website, hundreds of Muslim leaders across the UK read a sermon addressing sexual exploitation on June 28, 2013. Some, however, criticised the campaign as reactionary or apologetic. We as a community need to be proactive in order to protect children and the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse.

Nabila Sharma’s Brutal: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Little Girl’s Stolen Innocence exposes the sad reality of sexual abuse and child abuse in our midst. Every one of us is outraged when we hear cases of child abuse. Yet, as a community, we have done little to address this widespread problem. The Khutba Against Grooming organised by TAG was an unprecedented campaign that addressed the issue of sexual exploitation. In the United States, I have not seen a talk organised by a Muslim organisation that addresses child abuse: how to recognise it, prevent it, or recover from it. We make victims more vulnerable by offering few faith-based social services that would help them. Rather, we live in a world of naïve ideals, assuming that either these things don’t happen to us or expecting other social agencies will solve our problems. So, in effect, we can become complicit.

Perhaps it is the idea of seventy excuses for one’s brother or sister, the fear of backbiting, or inability to produce enough witnesses that leads to covering up crimes against children. Lama Al-Ghamdi died in October 2012 after suffering a crushed skull,

broken ribs and arm. Her father Fayhan al-Ghamdi, a celebrity imam, admitted beating her. Reports that the father would be released after paying $50,000 blood money shocked the international community. A social worker at the hospital where Lama was admitted claimed the little girl was raped. When Muslims read news stories like this about a girl who died from her father’s brutal hand we often cringe knowing that Western media picked up this story because of its sensationalism. However, physical abuse is not uncommon in Muslim families. Muslims in the West are often embarrassed by news reports about honour killings. We often cry out explaining that honour killings have no basis in Islam. Yet, what is our response to serious cases of physical abuse?

Our schools and organisations that work with the youth are poorly equipped to deal with cases of domestic abuse. Mahreen*, a South Asian school teacher, explained “There was a lack of urgency in the response and a lack of seriousness of physical abuse. We are often discouraged from reporting on our own people.” Mahreen told a disturbing account:

A clear case of an incident that needed to be reported involved a student with a black eye and a dislocated shoulder. When it was just us Muslims behind doors, it was just like it was no big deal, she had ‘just got wacked’. I talked to the superintendent about the incident and she told me not to tell anyone. However, I talked to school nurse, who was a non-Muslim and a mandated reporter. To keep my job, I had to go to an outside agency because if I reported it, my job might have been in jeopardy. However, as a certified teacher, I could lose my license to teach without reporting it.

Mahreen pointed out that there need to be training and policies put in place to protect children. Rather than sweeping things under the rug to protect prominent families, we have to become more ethical in how we deal with these cases.

When I first became Muslim, someone explained to me that sexual harassment and molestation rarely occur because of the separation of the sexes. Muslim women are told if they dress appropriately they will not draw unwanted attention, but in many Muslim-majority cities modestly dressed women are harassed and even physically assaulted on the streets. And behind closed doors all over the world, Muslim women, girls, and boys are subject to sexual assaults at the hands of family members, close family friends, teachers, and religious leaders. Girls are told that they are a fitnah. However, sexual abuse is about power and not about physical attraction.

Rape victims are often punished, either by carrying the stigma or shame or by the very legal system that is supposed to protect them. In the Maldives, a 15 year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather has been sentenced to 100 lashes for premarital sex. Often, victims of sexual abuse are yoked with notions of honor and shame. Khadijah*, who was raised by a Sudanese mother and American father explained, “The shame of sexual abuse cuts across a lot of Islamic cultures.” Khadijah told her own harrowing story:

I was very small – three years old. My abuser was a teenage girl who babysat me. I felt shamed from the beginning. I just remember using the bathroom and bleeding on the toilet. I remember the look on my mother’s face and she looked so angry. I was too young to know it wasn’t directed at me.

Ultimately, there was a trial and the offender was sentenced. Khadijah explained how the effort to repress the memory led to even greater shame. Over time, the memories came back, despite her parents’ attempts to keep it silent in order for her to forget. She was even punished for telling her sister. Khadijah recounted, “No one told me that this happened to me and I did nothing wrong.” For victims of sexual abuse, the shame can lead to low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior.

It is important that people know that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. Hafsah,* a Palestinian American living in the Michigan area with a sprawling family residing on three continents explained, “No family and no community is invulnerable to human tendencies, such as violence or sexual perversion.” Hafsah pointed out that the main problem is our silence as a community. “If the person who has this tendency knows that there is no silence, then this can’t continue. Speaking out will deny them that power.” Hafsah told her own experience as a survivor and the stories that she pieced together from her aunt and cousins. “In my culture, we are ready to cast out the woman who had a child out of wedlock, but we let the molester carry on because it would be so shameful.”

Both Khadijah and Hafsah offer hope for victims to rise from the horrors of abuse. Both pointed out that victims speaking out can empower others to break free from the yoke of shame. Hafsah said, “We are in control of our narrative and we can make a choice in how something is significant. I am still angry and this is a way to fight back and not letting them win.” As a community, we have to fight the urge to sweep things under the rug and give voices to the voiceless. By not hiding, we can help those who have been damaged by those they have trusted, whether the abuse was sexual, physical, or psychological. Zerqa Abid, who works on Project Sakinah, has addressed a lot of issues surrounding domestic abuse. We must support the work of shelters and organisations such as Abid’s because it is our duty as Muslims to protect the weak and vulnerable.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities

Margari Aziza Hill is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

Need your Help: The Islamic School Experience

Salaam alaikum,

Attention Muslim parents!
I’m asking for parents of school age children to complete the following form. I need over a hundred respondents to provide valuable insight into the Islamic school experience. This data will be followed up with more in depth interviews with parents, teachers, students and administrators. Please share widely. Please take a few minutes to complete the survey below if you have school age children.

My Muslim Woman Owned Business Showcase: Mohajababes

Margari Hill talks to sisters and Mohajababes founders Afra and Eiman Ahmed about their colourful kaftan creations.

small business showcase

MH: Tell us about the day you decided to turn your own personal fashion sense into a business. What went into the decision-making process?

AA & EA: Mohajababes was launched in November 2011 by two sisters based in California and London. Ever since we started wearing kaftans in 2007, people kept asking us where we got our outfits from – every time we were at a wedding or a party! Usually, you’d either see women in traditional outfits or about five or six women in identical dresses that you knew they got from the same store. Buying a Mohajababes kaftan means you know you’ll be wearing a garment you can feel special in and be the only one at a party dressed that way.

All the ladies in our family (mums, aunts, girls) jumped on the trend and attended events in kaftans. We become so well known for it that we started to get orders from family and friends abroad. It was then, in early 2011, that we recognised that there was a gap in the market. One day, Afra decided to source beautiful, handmade, modest kaftans in a variety of colours and designs, each hand-embroidered with beads, sequins and jewels. We did this with the intention of bringing kaftans to the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, so Muslim women could have other options for evening wear. As a family we sat down, developed our brand and launched in November 2011. The response was overwhelming and this encouraged us to develop an online shopping experience and take it further.

MH: You handpick your special collection from Dubai every few months. What goes into your selection process?

AA & EA: We do take into consideration current fashion trends, but ensure our kaftans adhere to what our customers love most about them – that you can dress them up or down, that they are suitable for hijab wearers and non-hijab wearers, and that they are unique one-off pieces. We love working with high quality chiffon – it falls beautifully on the body, is an incredibly forgiving fabric and is easy to dry clean. We started by working with classic colours: blacks, reds and deep purples; but we pushed the boat out and have gotten people buying royal blue, green, yellow, teal, turquoise and peach kaftans too! Our colour choices change depending on the season, so we have a lot of bright colours for our spring/summer collection, but bring in more muted colours for our autumn/ winter collection. Most importantly, we make sure our pieces are affordable, which we know our customers really appreciate.

MH: The models on your website look like real women with real shapes and sizes. They are also diverse, so it is easy for women from various ethnic backgrounds to imagine themselves in your kaftans. How do you select your models?

AA & EA: We think it’s very important to showcase what the kaftans will look like on women with varying shapes, body sizes and skin tones. We don’t think we would be doing our brand, kaftans or customers any justice if all our kaftans were modelled on the same 6 foot 2 inch slim model – the reality is that most of our customers and most women simply do not look like that. We work very hard at ensuring our models represent our customers and are happy that so far this has made their online shopping experience with us easier. Our models are from the US to as far as the Middle East, Africa and Indonesia!

MH: What trends do you see being big for Muslim fashionistas this spring/summer?

AA & EA: Long shirt dresses, maxi skirts, tops with uneven hemlines at the back, slim short jackets of various fabrics that work well with anything! We also see an immensely popular trend in studded clothing, shoes and bags. We love it – Afra is so crazy about it – she has been looking for the perfect studded iPhone case!

MH: What are some must haves for Muslim women in evening wear?

AA & EA: We like to keep it simple and let the outfit stand out. Always wear a plain hijab or one with a pattern that compliments the outfit – not competes with it – and a fairly simple hairstyle (if you don’t wear hijab). Jewelled hijab headbands, which we sell, can be used to dress up an outfit too. A pair of black flats in whichever style (pointy, round, studded) and a belt to shape the outfit. Chunky bracelets with some neutral coloured necklaces and rings are great accessories!

MH: You have a blog on your website. How have blogs and social media impacted your business?

AA & EA: Social media has been absolutely crucial to the growth of Mohajababes. Being an online business means reaching out to your customers primarily through social media, and it has been a steady uphill climb garnering followers and fans on various social media platforms. We recognise the importance of blogging too and the additional reach that this gives us, as well as an outlet to express more of who we are. We are about to hire a blogger to meet the growth in demand and intend to blog more regularly and reach out to the community much more by blogging on issues that are important to our followers.

MH: How do you feel about online fashion collage tools such as Polyvore for the newly minted Muslim fashionista?

AA & EA: Polyvore is a valuable collage tool that we haven’t taken advantage of much as we only put together kaftan looks. However, it is absolutely brilliant for the Muslim fashion blogger and her readers – it allows the individual to creatively express and put together a combination of looks without having to purchase the items or model them herself, and readers can then take inspiration from that. One of our favourite bloggers that uses Polyvore is www. hijabiestyle.com.

MH: What is the future of Mohajababes?

AA & EA: We’re looking forward to continuing to provide beautiful kaftans to our customers and are looking at increasing our hijab collection and accessories that complement the kaftans. We’d also like to be able to offer custom-made kaftans to suit our customers and God-willing, we will be able to offer our customers this soon!

You can read this and other great articles in the May issue of SISTERS magazine.