Life's Challenges Single Mothers
By Selma A. Cook
Staff Writer, Poet, Author - Egypt
`Landing at Heathrow Airport, my ears were still ringing with stories of Islamphobia I have learnt of from the media. As if to reinforce the correctness of the media accounts, on my first few days in south London, a young Muslim man was murdered not far from where I was staying –the police believed it was the result of gang violence. I took this as a sign to start exploring what was happening to Muslim families and young people.
Feeling more than a little uneasy I ventured out onto the streets of south London and was soon surprised when I found people responding to me either with indifference or warmth, but there was no hostility. I noticed Muslim women who
wore hijab were going about their business. With a much lighter heart I realized that just a little bit of a smile, and a pleasant word would bring out the friendliness in most people.
Muslim Mum Working in Male Prisons
In the first few days I met an amazing woman; a single mother wearing hijab who worked full-time in a prison as an advocate for the prisoners. Umm Jamilah’s job entailed giving advice, career guidance, and helping prisoners to access opportunities. She said that she preferred working with male, rather than female prisoners, and added that she has not experienced any harassment from inmates. I looked at her incredulously, but she nodded and smiled:
“Strange, isn’t it, but it’s true.”
To reinforce her words, she said…
“I’ve worked with convicted murderers, thieves, rapists, and drug traffickers, but I have never been harassed in a prison.”
She noted that many of the inmates are nominally ‘Muslims’ and she had found it interesting to see how people can change if they chose to. She said that she loved
her job and felt that she was giving back something positive to society, and liked being a part of the change for the better. She had witnessed first-hand how many inmates are turning to Islam in prison, and that this has become somewhat ‘trendy’ - some sort of solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed people of the world.
Raising one daughter alone, Umm Jamilah worried if she would be able to raise her child as a Muslim in a society that makes it very easy for young people to get involved in drugs and promiscuity.
“Defining womanhood is a challenge,” she commented.
“We have traditional, cultural expectations in the Muslim community alongside the growing need for Muslims to be active and knowledgeable. I decided to make my own mark” she concluded.
Because Umm Jamilah works, she can afford to send her daughter to an Islamic school where, she hopes, the girl will receive a solid foundation in Islamic values. She also believes that if she sets a strong example for her daughter, and keeps a close relationship with her that she will have a better chance by helping her through the difficult years to come. I asked Umm Jamilah if the financial crisis had affected her but she smiled and said:
“I think my job is secure; there’s no shortage of criminals in society.”
I asked her about the murder that had taken place near where I was staying and she said that most of these are gang-related, and that unless a person gets mixed up with a gang or happens to be there when they are fighting, the gangs mainly focus on each other. She was obviously troubled to hear about such crimes.
She did not talk about her divorce, and did not express any bitterness, but showed her determination to just get on with her life. I marveled at her clear-sightedness, how her daughter is blessed to have her, as are the prisoners she tries to reach out to and help on a daily basis.
The Rock of Gibraltar!
A short time later I met a woman whom I refer to as the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’. She is a mainstay for her own four teenage children as well as a host of teenage girls. Umm `Abdullah runs a girls’ club in south London, and the girls meet at her home every Friday night to talk about their lives, their fears, their problems, and their hopes. They also talk about Islam, and try to understand their place in the world.
On that particular night when I attended the girls’ club, there was no shortage of laughter. The girls dressed up and did a role play, spoke about their experiences during the week, discussed Islam, and how to solve problems. I sat in awe as I watched this heroic mother smile, chat and be amiable with over fifteen noisy, argumentative fifteen-year-old girls. Just before the girls arrived, she had spoken to me about her difficulties, and how hard it is to raise four teenagers alone. Her husband had taken another wife, and was focusing his attention on his new family. This did not seem to bother her as much as the fact that her older son was late home. She kept looking at her watch nervously, and commented that he should have been home over an hour ago. Despite being obviously worried, when the girls arrived she was loving, kind, friendly and smiling. No one would have detected her state of mind.
Another of her worries was the fact that the government is changing the way it pays the single parent allowance. Despite having been out of work for many years, and having huge burdens on her shoulders she kept trying to care for, guide and nurture her four teenagers. She struggled to find work. There were tears in her eyes as she mentioned her husband’s lack of financial support, but again, there was no bitterness. She is very determined to do her best so that her children survive, as well as any other young person within her reach. I asked her what her main concerns for her children were , she said:
“Gangs, violence, drugs…you name it. It’s all out there.”
She is definitely one of the hidden martyrs of the suburbs.
Six Teenage Boys!
The girls finally went home and we started to organize the house again. One of the mothers stayed behind to help when she came to collect her daughter. At first Umm Tarek appeared shy and reserved, but her smile was full of warmth. As she started to talk she told me about herself. A few years ago her husband had left her, and married a younger woman. He left her with six teenage boys and a pre-teen daughter. With no financial support except from the government, she struggled on. She said the most difficult thing was to keep her boys busy and off the streets. Everything costs money and so many times they were left with few choices. She felt that most of the masjids concentrate on giving lectures, which were not suitable for teenage boys, especially when the streets and the night clubs are enticing to them. I asked her if there were any clubs for boys, like the one her daughter attended.
“No,” she said sadly, “there aren’t. I wish there were. I would start one myself, but it’s not acceptable in the Muslim community for a woman to organize events like this for young men.” This was not the first time I had heard this comment.
Both Umm Tarek and Umm Abdullah could not afford to send their children to Islamic schools, and being pressured to work means they do not have the time or energy to home school their children. For this reason, their children attend mainstream schools which exert constant pressure on the young people to conform to un-Islamic values like redefining the family, disrespecting elders, being violent and aggressive, speaking coarsely, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, and leading a promiscuous lifestyle. It seems they are fighting an uphill battle, but there is no lack of patience and resolve.
Home Schooling A Solution?
I sat with Umm Safeeyah in a gorgeous park filled with huge ancient trees, rolling hills, streams, flowers and pleasant walkways. When I saw this place I thought of the typical English forests and Robin Hood films I had seen as a child. Walking down the paved pathway with soft green grass on either side, we saw foxes darting in and out behind gigantic trees, and squirrels daring to draw near hoping to get a bit of food. This place is a haven for mothers and their children. I saw a number of Muslim women there. It is also the place where Umm Safeeyah often teaches her daughters their lessons. She is home schooling them.
I asked her why she had not sent her girls to an Islamic school, and she said that she wants to be the one who teaches her children about religion. "What about their mainstream education" I asked. She believes that education should be a natural part of life, and that it should incorporate many skills and experiences for children that are never found in the school system regardless of how ‘holistic’ the school might try to be. When questioned further, she added that learning to care about people and do charity work. She believes, education has a vital part to play. She travels with her children across the UK, gets involved in a variety of charitable projects. Her girls are well-spoken, confident and kind. Committed to this path in life, Umm Safeeyah has developed her own business venture so she has enough time to educate her daughters.
I asked the girls about living in the UK and the older ones commented that there are lots of temptations to generally ‘go off the path’. She smiled and with quiet confidence explained how important it is that we know who we are, and what we want out of life; such wisdom from a thirteen year old! I marveled at this unselfish mother who obviously exerts so much energy, and makes so many sacrifices to educate her children herself with her only financial support coming from the government, and her efforts to start a business of her own.
I wanted to tell her what I was thinking, but I found them all huddled around a squirrel. While the girls were feeding and petting it, their mother was explaining what type of animal it is, what it eats, its environment and the dangers the city life poses to its existence.
Well, maybe the squirrels of London have more chance of survival than many Muslim teenagers, but if they do go astray it is not, I believe, due to apathy on the part of mothers, not the ones I met anyway!
Selma Cook is the Managing Editor of Youth at Islam Online. She is a consultant and staff writer for Islam Online.