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Daisy Khan’s ‘Born With Wings’: a duality of adversity and success

The WISE activist takes to the pages to unravel her story in an eye-opening memoir

This summer has seen some fantastic releases in the book realm but one you really have to, excuse the pun, bookmark is Daisy Khan’s memoir Born With Wings. As the Executive Director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE), there is plenty of responsibility weighing upon the campaigner’s shoulders, but what of the story beyond what we know and see in the headlines?

On writing

Writing Born With Wings sent Daisy on a journey of triumph and difficulty as her past self is caught in the tidal forces of self and society. “This book enabled me to stand up for myself, to define myself in my own terms and to give voice to other Muslim women around the world,” says the 60-year-old trailblazer, “The greatest challenge was posed when my two cultures clashed. In my Kashmiri upbringing, personal and family matters were never discussed in the public, whereas in the US, memoir readers expect the authors to be an open book, expose your inner thoughts, describe your wide-ranging emotions and the vulnerabilities you feel. There were so many rewrites that the manuscript took four years to complete.”

The personal

Consistent throughout the start of the book, is a respectful and loving relationship with her Moji. “We are all made up of many stories: our own and those of our ancestors, but also the stories and cultures of people whose lives intersect with ours. Although I was inspired by men in my family, there were always women present, their side inevitably received far less focus, women like Moji were taking concrete steps singularly and established a legacy of peace for all her progeny. Its enthralling for me to relive details of her past and enliven this righteous devoted and a head of the household, who infused me spiritually, taught me that Islam can uplift and dispelled the notion that women can’t thrive in an Islamic system.”

Revisiting some of the memories was not easy. One such flashback is the conflict surrounding the Park51 development in Manhattan.  In 2015, two Muslim men proposed to build a 15-storey Islamic cultural center near the ruins of the World Trade Centre, but many saw intentions to construct a Ground Zero Victory Terror Mosque instead. Though the plans for the cultural centre were approved by vote, politicians vetoed the project. “It was surreal, to revisit those moments during the Ground Zero Mosque controversy in which I had to switch to survival mode and go on autopilot,” she says, bemused, “The vitriol we experienced has since mushroomed and grown by 1000% and the nation is more polarized and deeply divided. I realised that in those moments of crisis and in times of upheaval, I turned to the one group that I knew I could depend on — my family, who were both supportive and frantic.They were convinced that my life was in danger and begged me to leave the house and come stay with them.”

The book itself features deeply personal chapters as well as sections about other women and their stories; Daisy has machinated this carefully, explaining, “I want people to know that this is the future of faith — for so long, women who were not permitted at the table; are now, creating their own. I hope they will not only be inspired by the passion and bravery of women on the front-lines but will consider acting upon their own convictions to bring peace and stability to this fractured world.”

Reader takeaways

What should the male reader take away from a female-oriented construct? Daisy recalls her father giving her boxing gloves to show his confidence in teaching her as well as her learning how to defend herself. “This deep symbolic gesture was so powerful, it led me to fight my own fight, discover my own power and find my purpose in life. Imagine what the world would be if men rushed out to buy ‘red boxing gloves?’ for their girls. Suddenly we would have empowered girls; a game changer for any society.”

In the book, Daisy writes, “I am a living example of how Muslim women can balance faith with modernity.” Balancing such a duality can be difficult. “Many young Muslims remain bound by religious tradition and much of their pain seems related to issues of faith defined by outdated attitudes. Muslim girls must recognise that gender equality is an intrinsic part of their faith and the most effective way to promote women’s rights is to use arguments based in sacred text. Also, in this pivotal #MeToo moment, they need to join other movements, for peace is possible when unity is driven by women across all cultures,” she concludes.

Whatever your beliefs or creed, Daisy’s Born With Wings is a must-have on your reading list this summer.

‘Born With Wings’ by Daisy Khan (Penguin India) is available at leading bookstores in India.

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