Muslim Women’s Alliance-Celebration of the Muslim Woman


With Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen


Each year the Muslim Women’s Alliance (MWA) luncheon hails the we’re almost there emergence of springtime with a sold-out gathering of 500 diverse Muslim women in Chicagoland. It attracts women from daughters to grandmothers and from a multitude of ethnicities, which is characteristic of Islam. They come to get reconnected after winter’s cabin fever, network, and celebrate accomplishments of their own cadre.

This year featured three award winners whose contributions to society were made public. Dorothy Habibah Collins, Founder of Sisters Nurturing Sisters, a non-profit that offers transitional and permanent housing on Chicago’s South-side, described her own start with sincerely wanting to help a woman and child who only earned about $300 each month and were having to set up their sleeping arrangements in a public park. She felt awful to not be able to do more than offer encouragement, but it galvanized her desire to do more for other women who she would help through her organization.

Another winner was Um Serage Rahima, the loving Prinicipal of Al-Siddiq Weekend School for over 20 years. She warmly related the gratification she feels when former students now enroll their children in her school, and she teaches classes in mosques and homes all around the city and suburbs. A life-long learning of several topics in Islam, she is certified in Quranic recitation and is a resource for many.

The final recipient of the MWA award is Joohi Tahir, who has had a successful corporate career in sales and marketing for over 20 years and is the mother of a 13 year old daughter with Autism. In her story, she related the challenges faced by many in the Muslim community, and she recently went into the non-profit world as Executive Director of Muslims Understanding & Helping Special Education Needs (MUHSEN). Her organization seeks to create awareness, build programs, and provide much needed services across America that will strive for inclusion of all members of the Muslim community. Their first fundraising banquet is this Saturday, March 7th in Garland, Texas.

MWA awards scholarships, provides events every month, and is actively seeking volunteers to empower, support, engage, and build leadership and community service by women. Embodying the spirit of a woman who humbly sought to do something in the interest of social justice, the keynote speaker was Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, she is a Brooklyn-based activist who is gaining much publicity nationally for her accomplishments.

Sarsour spoke of the day she realized that she, a mother of teenagers, could make an impact. She simply helped someone for whom she felt she should offer assistance, and the effect raised her consciousness to learn that simply doing a little something can have a major boost to help someone who could not help themselves.

During the luncheon, the attendees were reminded of the many names and headlines from this past year that have born introspection about injustice and feelings of helplessness. Sarsour struck a note with the crowd when she related that upon learning of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, she hopped a plane to see for herself what was reality. She shared several observations, but among them was one that again jolted a revelation. When the protesters were bombarded by police with tear gas, Palestinians in Gaza were Tweeting about how to deal with tear gas attacks. The connection and desire felt from a subjugated population who sought to help Americans was astounding. It was from this that Sarsour cited that no matter how small we think we are, we must speak up. Together, we are a significant power that can bring positive results.

She reminded the audience that politicians are supposed to work FOR THE PEOPLE. The People have a responsibility to engage in dialogue and qualify their representation. That is America. We have to speak up to pave a better future for our children. We have to engage and contribute more to our communities. Give a little, for you never know how great that can be for someone today.

How I Survived March

People who know me are keenly aware that I have a foul attitude about the month of March. In Chicago, particularly with the brutally cold and heavy snowfall winter season, the need to maintain a survival mentality will not be over for a while longer.

My mother used to say, “March, in like a lion, out like a lamb.” Well, I’d just as soon run from a lion like I were the lamb because I have known nasty snow storms even come in April at times, and local gardeners are advised to not sow seeds nor leave potted plants outside until mid-May, when night time freezes are no longer a threat. However, now that it is April, I am optimistic that I see no more snow in the forecast, and I would be content to have had my last fill of it last weekend when I took my sons and our nephew, who was visiting from Amman, up to our favorite healing place and sanctuary at Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

This past March though, instead of belly aching and waiting impatiently for the weather to clear enough to resume outdoor activities and to see the sun shine again, my strategy was to be so busy that I would not have time to think about my pasty and chapped skin, the evidence of using hot showers to remedy the chills. I also connived to use a hair dryer set to the hottest option a few times to relieve acute episodes of brrrr.

Not to think that I am a wimp, we’ve had to deal with a malfunctioning furnace, a broken water main, some seepage in the basement from a sudden thaw, and I’d swear that when I turned on the faucet in the morning, the water had to be just 34 degrees. Additionally, the first week of implementing my keep-so-busy plan rewarded me with getting a bit sick; but I must have burned out the germs and bounced back as healthy as ever. Even my doctor said she had no worries about me when I passed my annual physical.

What was I busy with all month? Numerous initiatives as an administrator of a small college, I’ve worked to resurrect it from a series of technological mishaps that derailed enrollment for roughly 5 months. This entailed drafting policies, reviewing procedures, attacking marketing and out reach across a spectrum of media and events, writing blogs and website content, and working through various channels to resolve whatever may have caused the tail spin. Populating a new website template with content entails a large amount of time, analysis, and revisions. However, when it was nearly done, we chose to cancel our developer, temporarily put the old site back online, and will create a new one that gives us more editing control and less cost in the end.

Working with this college has been like being in an airborne plane with engines stalled. We’ve reduced hours, staff, and services like we are throwing ballast overboard, and now I stepped back my own hours to only work social media and events as a skeleton staff coaxes enrollment back up while all the marketing efforts are fully kicking into gear and admissions appointments are coming back in quantity. We’ll see in one month where we are, and then determine my roles.

It has been quite some time since I’d been on a school review team with AdvancEd, and I accepted a special invitation to evaluate a charter school in Chicago’s north side. I found it to be a successful model after some initial skepticism. From my experience at an Islamic school, I’ve seen board members who come with a corporate mindset. They think they can leverage the usual extrinsic rewards as incentives or use the restriction of them as motivators. What they had not seemed to realize is that schools are not quite like corporations, they are communities whereby stakeholders’ relationships and opportunity for growth and development are the real catalysts for action and retention. This makes the best effort come from people in corporate environs as well.

Instead of finding the corporate umbrella entity to be solely interested in profit, as I’d expected, I came to appreciate the advantages that it could bring to optimally scale so that supporting personnel could be shared among schools and grants could be secured to provide more working capital for all those schools under the parent organization. The overall design worked quite well, and I was impressed by the professionalism of all. As usual, students who “own” their education performed with decent progress, and these students—chosen by non-selective lottery—valued their seats. Some students had to take public transportation, and they would leave for school 1 ½ hours earlier just to attend. It was a tiring 2 day visit, but great to see.

Directly afterward, I went to emcee an event for my friends at Crescent Foods, many of whom also work with me for the American Halal Association. It was a warm hearted celebration of the individuals and their supportive families who have made Crescent Foods one of the fastest growing Halal brands in America. I’m looking forward to seeing more progress from the excellent people who work there.

March is also the month that the Muslim Women’s Alliance (MWA) hosts a luncheon to inspire, network, and celebrate women who have contributed in many ways. Philanthropy takes a variety of forms, and I am genuinely touched to see many faces of people I love and admire when we come together. This event brings teachers, community workers, entrepreneurs, and women who represent a range of professional services, as well as students and grandmothers. It acknowledges the reality of the power of giving, in whatever capacity, and the feeling of being with such “angels” is always savored.

The night of the MWA luncheon had my husband and I slated to see the musical version of “Young Frankenstein.” My father, who chose to not use his tickets, offered them to us. Typically, my husband is not a fan of musicals, unless it’s Yul Brenner in “The King and I” (I think he fanaticizes that he is the King of Siam), but the humor and pleasant melodies delivered much sought after stress relief in mid-month. The break from routine and cheap (free) tickets helped us enjoy it even more!

With our artistic and comedy cup filled, I finally made it to one of Elmhurst College’s Speaker Series sessions. How I’d wanted to see, but missed, Bill Nye earlier in the season. Zareena Grewal tickled intellectual neurons as she brilliantly interpreted for a mostly elderly Caucasian audience how several news items about Muslims were framed into perceptions that were perhaps not quite accurate, or were interpreted differently by Muslims versus the mainstream. I appreciated the historic overview and even knew some of the persons she wrote about in her book, “Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. She is doing a valuable service as a liaison to help people understand more than one—often media fabricated—interpretation of events.

A few days after that, my darling daughter booked us for a massive promotional event at Nordstrom where we received a bag of samples and had our makeup professionally done prior to my niece’s bridal shower that was held at a friend’s home that afternoon. I’ve not been to very many bridal showers, but this was intimate, comfortable, and absolutely fun! I’m at the stage in life where I can be the sedate auntie, but I was snookered into a party game whereby a tissue box was sashed to my derriere, and I had to “twerk” ping pong balls out of the box before the rest of the competitors. Needless to say, I hope the video never surfaces!

The month wrapped up with my husband flying to Amman to attend a family wedding, connect with clients for our export business, and to remedy some eye and dental issues at bargain rates. It is wonderful that he can enjoy his family, for their meetings are few. I hope to be able to go the next time; but with last weekend being the only overlap between my 3 college kids and 1 high school student’s Spring Break, I took 2 sons and our nephew—a dentist from Amman—on an excursion to Devil’s Lake.

Over the years, I’ve seen the lake flooded, low, and just about normal. This place has the only 500’ bluffs and decent hiking trails east of the Mississippi River without having to go as far as the Appalachians. I’ve been there for over 33 years in all seasons except winter; but this time the 1 mile lake was frozen, and there was still slick ice on the trails. Yet, we had a blast, and those of you who know me will find the album of our adventure on Facebook hopefully within a couple more days. Our nephew brought a new toy—a GoPro—that captured the most amazing wide-angle, polarized still shots and videos. He used a telescoping pole so that all 4 of us were in the selfies. My shots were conventional, whereby I’m behind the camera, so I’m grateful that he left a copy of his work on my laptop for me to share before he left yesterday headed for Amman via Turkey.

And mentioning Turkey, in a couple weeks my daughter and I plan to attend the NAPEC Chicago conference where we hope to network with several B-school entrepreneurial students, Turkish investors, and CEOs. I’m always seeking new export opportunities and the reality of my daughter going to Turkey to teach English and do NGO work after graduation is starting to dawn on us. It’s time to start learning a little of the language, but meanwhile, we enjoy picking up some sign language from watching “Switched at Birth.” It is useful for one of her majors in Speech Language Pathology.

Several college fairs and promotional events are scheduled for the college this month, and I will be missing the ISNA Education Forum for the first time in 10 years. Yet, I plan to attend the Saturday night banquet with my husband—if he survives jet lag—and we hope to see dear friends. I miss the team, but chose to respect the sense that it was time to try something different, and not volunteer so much at the expense of actually producing income. Did I listen to my own advice? Partly; I do volunteer time for the college and the American Halal Association, but at least I get paid for some of my work for the college, and a 1500 word article on the New Economy to be published in the May/June issue of Islamic Horizons. Finally, I’ve bartered services for the first Islamic Finance conference in Chicago this June, and for a unique coaching course that I am very excited to participate in.

My strategy to be super busy through March has paid off, but I still have a back log of reading to do. This I hope to work on as the kids get back to their studies, and while the biking trails and golf courses dry up from the thaw and the April showers. It’s always something, but there are wonderful days to look forward to and old friends to catch up with.
–Hope this video of our departure from Devil’s Lake kicks out winter and drives springtime toward us faster!