Powerful feminist voices aren’t always recognized when they come from Muslims. But Daisy Khan, founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE), and the author of a new memoir, Born with Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman, (Spiegel Grau, April 24), attracts attention.
In 2008, WISE launched the first Global Muslim Women’s Shura Council, an advisory group of experts in law, faith and culture issuing statements on political and domestic violence, female genital cutting, and other social issues. In 2009, she and her husband, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf were at the white-hot center of the national furor over his plans to open a Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. In addition to WISE, she founded Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow – a global social network to promote young grassroots leaders.
Cindy Spiegel, publisher at Spiegel Grau, calls Khan’s memoir one of those important stories “that haven’t yet been heard by mainstream audiences. Daisy is doing such significant work to empower Muslim women and girls around the world as well as here at home, and she herself is an inspiring example of a feminist woman having an authoritative voice within Islam.”
Khan, who came to the United States as a teenager from Kashmir, India, in 1974, discusses why she wanted to bring the “nuances of Islam” to a wider audience through her personal story.
(The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Do you see a divine sense of timing in doing this book?
I believe that when 9/11 happened, I felt that a mandate was being placed upon me. In my book, I talk about having lost several pregnancies and having to realize what was that all about. It was devastating. I would have been a great mother. (But) nothing in my life seems like it’s unplanned. Everything is planned by a bigger hand and a greater hand than myself. So, yes, the book did get delayed unnecessarily for many different reasons. It could have come out two years ago, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been so relevant. I do believe that there’s a divine hand in this. Maybe coming at a time when more people can benefit from it.I know that I am being used as an instrument right now, and I’m prepared for that role.
How did the controversy over the community center change you?
It was a moment that prepared me for a much bigger role. Clearly, I would still be an imam’s wife and I would still be doing the important [interfaith] work that I was already doing, but I probably would not have had the courage to step away and create my own path and do my own work without necessarily being under the shadow of my husband.
It strengthened me. After the repeated threats, I came to the realization that the worst thing that would happen to me would be death, and so I no longer feared death after that. Movement leaders often wind up getting assassinated, but their message and their legacy goes on. I put myself in their shoes and said, “If this message is so important to me, I’m willing to pass on a decade earlier than I would, and it’s OK.” It was a moment that created a resilience that I can’t even explain. It’s very deep.
Who is the intended audience for the book?
This book is meant for everyone: people of conscience and people who are really struggling with trying to understand what the issues are, people of faith and no faith. At one point I lost my faith, so I know what it is like to lose faith and then to have to crawl back to it and then find yourself manifesting it in such a big way. It’s for spiritual aspirants who might be seeking to get to know themselves and their own spiritual paths, and community activists because the book addresses so much community activism.
What’s next for you?
A friend of mine who is a Christian feminist wrote a short review of the book and she said it was as if I had invited her into my kitchen and had a cup of tea with her and gave her a crash course on the nuances of my faith that she felt are completely misunderstood. I know there are people who really want to know a [Muslim] one on one, so I would like to get out into the country and meet people and share the story and create a deeper dialogue using my own personal story and the stories of others.