What My Empowered Aunt Taught Me About Being Muslim | Sojourners

What My Empowered Aunt Taught Me About Being Muslim

It all began for me as a young girl, spending many childhood summers with my aunt — my father’s eldest sister. Her name was Hilal, which means “crescent moon” in Arabic.

No name could have been more appropriate for her — just as the spiritual lives of Muslims center on the crescent moons of the lunar calendar, my family’s spiritual center stood upon this strong minded, faithful, and dedicated matriarch.

I wear many hats in my life. I am a Muslim, a woman, a mother, and an interfaith leader — to name a few. But of all the women who have inspired me to give back through interfaith service and activism, my aunt Hilal continues to resonate as one of the guiding forces in my life for good.

Before my aunt immigrated to the U.S., she lived in Chennai, a southern city in India and the fourth largest city in the country. During childhood summers in her home, I spent countless hours wandering in her garden, picking fresh mangoes and guavas from the trees. Most afternoons I lounged under a jasmine canopy on her porch swing, waiting for the car that would approach the front gates and deliver my cousins home from school.

But one day she invited me to accompany her on some errands before we picked up my cousins. As we pulled into a courtyard, I looked out of the car window and quickly realized we were not outside the school my cousins attended. This was a school, but no ordinary one.

I followed my aunt into the building and into a classroom where rows of women sat in front of sewing machines. I could hear the sound of children in other classrooms nearby, reciting English lessons out loud. The sound of their voices in unison carried into the room where their mothers sat, overhearing the lessons and getting to act as students, too.

For most of that hour I sat in the back of the room, watching my aunt check in with the instructor and speak with many of the women in the room.

I learned later that we had visited a halfway house for women who were escaping domestic and communal violence. It was a place where displaced women could become financially independent and begin to piece their lives back together. At this school, they could do so while also providing their children with a free education.

As I grew older, I learned that this was not the only organization in which my aunt invested. She also actively volunteered in many women-led spaces, singlehandedly creating a network of friends to financially support many underprivileged young people with their college education. My aunt, as I came to learn, was an empowered Muslim woman — one living as a minority in a predominantly Hindu and patriarchal country, who found a way to live her faith through service to her family and community.

Seventeen years ago this April, our family was devastated by her sudden loss. I remember getting the call from my dad. I was in college and cramming for an economics exam in my dorm room when he informed me that she had been admitted to the hospital. Three days later, when her health had worsened, we rushed to be at her side for possibly her last moments of life. But we did not arrive in time.

Later, we left the hospital and went to her home, where we discovered the fridge full of food that she had cooked the day before. It was as if she had known we would all be there.

My most vivid memories of the days following her death are the few moments I spent with my dad after returning from her burial. I had never watched him weep before that. He said to me, “She will never meet who you are going to become.”

Just a week earlier I had begun exploring my Muslim identity more closely. I had started wearing the hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women, and had begun volunteering at an after-school tutoring program on the south side of Chicago hosted by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. I had found a way to live and act on my American Muslim values, and I looked forward to sharing these discoveries with her. But fate didn’t give us that opportunity.

The most valuable inspiration I have received from my beloved aunt is a simple one: a Muslim lives out his or her faith through acts of service every day. Not for recognition or praise, but to submit to God, to show gratitude for our own blessings, and to leave the world a better place than we received it.

Today, as a mother and an aunt, I am committed to passing on her legacy to my own daughter and nieces. Hilal was not only my crescent — she was also my north star.

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