Mubarakah Ibrahim and her Muslim sisters break stereotypes and empower women.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
By Alexis Fitts
With her warm smile and talkative demeanor, trainer Mubarakah Ibrahim doesn't paint a very intimidating picture.
That is, until you realize it's 6:30 in the morning, and a small following of women have assembled at a football field near Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven for the punishing regimen of crabwalks and Indian runs that are part of her morning boot camp workout.
"Ladies, it's time for sprints."
There are groans.
But the scene is more girl power than torture. The first runner pumps her arms above her head triumphantly, in classic Rocky style. The slowest runner finishes to a rallying chant of "you can do it" and Ibrahim's token "you go, girl." In other words, this isn't your typical gym class.
And Ibrahim isn't most people's vision of a personal trainer. An observant Muslim, Ibrahim hosts her classes in traditional attire, all in accordance with Islam's decree that a woman show no more than her face and her hands in public. Today Ibrahim's workout ensemble includes loose black track pants, a pink tunic and a flowered pink hijab, or head wrap, worn chicly with a matching pink baseball cap.
Ibrahim bears none of the trademarks of a personal trainer—no ripped abs, no skimpy workout bras. There's no way to see how strong Ibrahim is until you watch her hold a plank pose long after her students have collapsed on the ground. There are no men in any of her classes, and the windowed wall of her studio has a curtain that she regularly draws for privacy when working with Muslim clients. Some are Muslim or orthodox Jews, searching for the separation by gender in order to exercise. Others simply like the comfort of being around other females.
But in the two years that Ibrahim has owned Balance Fitness, her business has been making waves far beyond the health industry. She's been the subject of front-page stories in the Hartford Courant and Chicago Tribune. Last year, she was a guest on Oprah.
Ibrahim has become something of a poster child for a breed of Muslim women who are publicly defying the stereotypes of suppressed, submissive women of Islam. By entering the workplace on their own terms, as business owners, Muslim women are combining religion and profession in a way that forces clients to encounter them in a professional light. Even more surprisingly, many of these small businesses are popping up because of Islam, not in spite of it.
"After Sept. 11, nobody knew Muslims, and in face of misconceptions you believe what you are told," Ibrahim says. "I think that an important part of businesses interacting with mainstream society is to teach other people about Islam. Very few people are going to just go into a mosque and find out. It's intimidating. One of the things I supply is a bridge where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims. In today's time, the Muslim community is beyond pamphlets and speeches."
As the American Muslim community continues to establish itself, these businesses are becoming more prevalent. For this special report, we profile several Muslim women entrepreneurs who are doing it for themselves, and breaking some long-held stereotypes in the process.
Religious necessity forced Tracy Sesker into business ownership. She was a salon worker from age 16 but parted ways with her boss when he asked her not to use the shop on Mondays (when it was closed) to cut hair of Muslim women who rely on private, all-female environments to expose their hair.
"I said to myself, 'If I can't do the Muslim sisters, regardless of what I'm doing, I have to create a place for that,'" Sesker explains.
Sesker opened the Muslim-friendly Veranique's Beauty Salon on State Street in New Haven. She decorated with warm colors and a mix of Islamic and African themes. She hired her own staff. But most importantly, she can run the salon her way, with a private downstairs room that caters to Muslim women all week long.
Behind Every Great Muslim Man
The convenience of independent businesses for observant American Muslims is not a new phenomenon. Muslim nations in the Middle East set their calendar around daily prayer and keeping Friday, the holy day, free from work. Many Muslims see business ownership as a way of melding religion with home life; being your own boss means you can stop to pray and close on Fridays.
The history of female enterprise, in particular, goes beyond recent times. The prophet Mohammed's first wife, Khadija, a role model for most Muslim women, was a highly successful merchant. The couple met because Khadija hired Mohammed, and married because Khadija was impressed with his work ethic. Khadija and her enterprise remain central figures in Islam—she is considered the first true Muslim.
"It was the fact that she was a well-regarded businesswoman that gave [Mohammed] the leisure to go up into the mountains and receive revelations," says Jimmy Jones, chair of the World Religions Department at Manhattanville College and board president of the Masjid Al-Islam mosque in New Haven.
Hardly sounds like a tradition lacking in female enterprise.
But in the American climate, it's more difficult for women to enter the workplace because of the pervasive modesty requirements that are less accepted or understood within American businesses. According to Kashif Abdul-Karim, Imam of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, some businesses are less than accommodating of the requirements that a woman not interact alone with a man she is not related to. Others, particularly in the corrections and public safety industries, view the hijab as a safety hazard—or are merely uncomfortable with it.
"A lot of times, the sisters have to employ themselves and create an environment where they feel comfortable or acceptable," says Abdul-Karim.
But for other women, entrepreneurship is a means to change public opinion or be active within their community. Delores Laws works a day job as service coordinator of Housing Opportunities Unlimited, but has a rich history of entrepreneurship. In 1996, she created Kawduka, an outreach program for juvenile probation funded with the revenue from a second job. Named with the Swahili word for "the protector of youth," Laws ran a program that employed five full-time case managers and a plethora of volunteers for close to two years before a mild stroke forced her to cut back.
When Laws first converted to Islam in 1994, she had trouble finding clothes that fit Islamic code but were still stylish. She found herself going further and further from her Bridgeport home—first Norwalk, then New York—so eventually she opened her own clothing shop in Stamford.
She didn't limit herself solely to Islamic garb. She also sold African clothes, floral arrangements, beauty products and various household goods. She describes the store's style as "African Muslim." She sold abaya (long, ankle-length wraps) and jobabs (tapered tunics) to Christian ministers to use as robes.
"[Women] are branching out into businesses that don't involve Muslims, even though some are very self-conscious of what other people are going to think of them as a Muslim," Mubarakah Ibrahim says. "When you're a woman, it's physical. Everyone sees. It's right on the table."
Though Ibrahim created her business to address the need for a growing awareness of fitness among Muslim women, most of her business comes from non-Muslims. Maintaining a solely Muslim client base is unfeasible, Ibrahim explains, because of cultural differences.
"There's no little black dress to fit into, no bikini season," she says. "You can spend all day not thinking about the size of your hips until you go home and get in the shower and then it's like, 'Whoa, where'd that come from?'"
"This Is My Country"
Curiously, there are fewer American Muslims in jobs with the greatest power to change perceptions. A study done by Cornell University in 2002 found that the most underrepresented career paths for American Muslims were those like journalism, law and media productions—positions that "influence public policy and public opinion," according to the study. The lack of self-definition in the public eye is even more prevalent among female Muslims.
Tayyibah Taylor is an exception. Rather than climbing the ladder at Condé Nast or Hearst, Taylor founded Azizah, a lifestyle magazine for Muslim American women. "I wanted to educate the Muslim community about having their own media," she said last week, during a conference at Yale. "You can either complain about what's on TV and the perpetuation of stereotypes, or you can create your own media and get involved."
The post 9/11 divide, and the pervasive fear that followed, gave women even more of a reason to look for self-definition. Decked out in hijabs, Muslim women were more readily identifiable by their religion than Muslim men, and faced a troubling backlash. Even today, the women we interviewed say, threats and derogatory remarks are unsettlingly commonplace.
Delores Laws remembers a young man staring her down on a Metro-North train. She was alone with her grandson in the car. Laws took out the mace she bought for protection following the attacks and held it hidden behind a day planner. She prayed.
"I said to Allah, 'Please do not allow this to happen to me here, because I cannot protect myself and I do not want my grandson to have to witness this.'" The man got off the train with no commotion but a hostile arm motion.
That wasn't the only time. Laws says she would walk down the streets of Stamford to shouts of "terrorist" or "go back to your country." "I would turn around and say, 'This is my country. I was born here, and one of the great things about America is that I have this choice.'"
Her family tried to get her to take off the hijab for safety reasons, but Laws refused. Still, she recalls thinking, "I wonder if this is how Asian Americans felt during World War II."
In the face of this kind of hardship opening her business to the community became particularly relevant to Laws. Though she locked her doors at 6 p.m. as usual, she would stick around if anyone wanted to talk. Members of the community would sit in circles and discuss religion, often late into the night.
Though the fear has waned, the pre/post 9/11 clause still rings fiercely in the psyche of Muslim Americans as reason to remain rooted in their communities, rather than separate.
Laws no longer carries mace with her, but she still views it as part of her duty to provide a positive interaction with non-Muslims through her business.
"If you do that you can't teach people that their perceptions are wrong—they need an example. People have to see: We're visual and emotional people," says Laws.
For Sesker, cutting hair builds bridges.
"People that didn't know me [before they come to my salon] see that I'm wrapped up and say, 'How she gonna do my hair if she's wrapped up?' I love that part of my job when I'm like, 'Well, let me show you. I can show you better than I can tell you.'"
Wanted: Muslim Women for All Positions
Azizah's Tayyibah Taylor sees the rise of Muslim women in business as a natural progression in the Muslim American experience. The first priority was what to eat, then where to pray. Having satisfied those needs, schools were built. Enterprise is the natural next step, Taylor says.
As the Muslim American population grows, the key will be finding women to fill jobs that only Muslim women can do. A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public life showed Islam is a growing faith, but it's dependent on women going into certain fields to survive, according to the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford's Abdul-Karim.
"We need more Muslim doctors for working with women. We need more Muslim social workers for dealing with issues with women. You go to other countries and there are more social agencies with women because of the need for separation by gender, but we don't have those agencies yet because [the American Muslim population] is new," says Abdul-Karim.
To Mubarakah Ibrahim, it's as much about bringing a new, entrepreneurial face to Islam. Speaking to a Yale forum on Muslim women in business, Ibrahim said:
"When I wrote to Oprah it was in part because I wanted her to have a positive Muslim role model on her show, someone who's not oppressed, who's not embarrassed of wearing the hijab...No offense to Muslim sisters who are from other countries, but my father is a Cherokee, and my mother is African American. My father fought on the front lines of Normandy. When you see that as a face of Islam, that I am an American Muslim, it's different."