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Interview with Sarwat: Doctor of Internal Medicine, Co-Founder and Vice-Chair of the Muslim Women’s Fund

After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, Dr. Sarwat Malik was first told she had six months to a year to live. Fortunately, years later, she stands dedicated to the cause of raising awareness of the challenges Muslim women face. After deciding to retire from her internal medicine practice, Dr. Malik became the co-founder and vice-chair of the Muslim Women’s Fund, the first organization solely focused on the empowerment of Muslim women throughout the world. Recently selected as one of Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Sarwat discusses the work of her foundation and shares with us her experience as a female Pakistani-American doctor in the US, her views on Islam, Muslim women and Muslim feminism and her hopes for the future of relationships between Muslims and the West.

You have been practicing internal medicine for 35 years in Rochester, NY and in 2008 you retired from medicine to found The Muslim Women’s Fund. Can you explain what sparked the transition?

I co-founded the Muslim Women’s Fund (MWF) with five other women, after attending the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality in Islam (WISE) conference in New York City, in November 2006. We were five women who did not know each other and began a weekly conference call to see what we could do as a team, to respond to the collective plea from the conference attendees.

At the 2006 NYC conference, there were 175 Muslim women from across the globe who were invited to showcase their work. There were NGOs, women activists, lawyers and doctors raising awareness of the plight of Muslim women, while promoting female emancipation and empowerment in their communities. When the conference organizers asked them what was the single most important thing they needed, their resounding cry was: “We need money! We need funds to carry out our programs.” They further stated, “We know what challenges our women face and we know what the most effective solutions are. We need money to scale up the projects we are doing. We don’t want outsiders to come and tell us how to do it.”

In May 2007, I was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer and was given a very poor prognosis. Faced with this challenge, I had to make the painful decision to retire from my practice. However, I decided to continue my lifelong passion to not only create an awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face but also focus on something that can be done to counter those challenges. My diagnosis gave urgency to my mission.

As a Muslim woman and an activist on behalf of other Muslim women, do you think the presumption in the West in general that women from Muslim countries are oppressed and submissive is accurate?

As we all know that perception is reality, in the West we chose to see Muslim women wearing the hijab as docile and constrained. Until last year I had the same image of Saudi women. When I had a chance to personally interact with a few Saudi and Arab women last year in Kuala Lumpur, and this year in Doha, Qatar and Dubai, my image was totally shattered by their knowledge, wisdom, progressive views, and social activism for more rights. The climate in Saudi Arabia is rapidly changing under the wise leadership of the present King. Queen Rania of Jordan, Princess Haya and Sheikha Mozahar are progressive thinkers in the Arab world who are working tirelessly to promote education for girls and basic human rights for women.

Can you give us examples of the kind of work that the Fund supports?

Right now, we are in the process of building capital and institutionalizing the fund to begin offering grants. I want to see the initial impact of our efforts on the lives of women both in the United States and in the countries where we are planning to give grants for the fund’s three pilot projects, hopefully during my lifetime. The first project is focused on scaling up a progressive curriculum for madrasas teachers in the remote villages of Pakistan. It includes a focus on secular education, history, math, science, with a special focus on human rights and gender equality in Islam. The second project focuses on teaching women to set up their own business with the use of visual aids; this is aimed at women who have limited language skills, who are disenfranchised due to domestic violence or other unfortunate reasons. Finally, the third focuses on giving grants to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. There is not a single global organization or philanthropic entity that is solely focused on the education, economic development, human rights, civil liberties and increased civic engagement of 600 million Muslim women. The Muslim Women’s Fund fills that void.

We also realized that even though there are1.6 billion Muslims in the world -1/4th of humanity- Muslims produce less than 8.5 percent of global GDP. A large majority of the 600 million Muslim women in the world are marginalized – illiterate, hungry and unemployed. They face enormous challenges but also have extraordinary opportunities to change their societies. While these challenges might seem daunting, the opportunities are exciting.

How did you become a doctor and interested in the advancement of Muslim women?

I grew up in Pakistan in the fifties and early sixties, an era when we did not have access to Internet or TV. Books, Radio or occasional newspapers were the only source of information. I graduated from high school at the age of 15 and from medical school at the age of 22, the age at which most American students are getting ready to enter Medical School. I had spent 22 years focused on becoming a doctor and did not pay any attention to anything else. I learned English as a subject but did not study in an English-language school. However, I was required to study medicine in English, which was very difficult.

When I was growing up women were mostly housewives and teachers while a very few were doctors. I had not met any woman leader or role model until I went to medical school; I had accepted this as the norm. I learned from my mother how important it was for girls to be educated. She encouraged my sister and me to go to medical school. My father also supported education for both boys and girls. Because I did not personally experience any discrimination in my parents’ household, I was not sensitive to it until I started looking at cultural and religious norms, and understanding differences between different faiths. Learning that it was not Islam but its cultural practices that were the problem created an interest and desire to learn about my faith, as well as other religions. This new knowledge put me on the path to work for the advancement of women and girls.

How supportive is your husband of your views?

An article that my husband wrote was an eye opener, for me. Using comparative studies on the three monotheistic faiths, he showed that Muslim women were given rights 1400 years ago at the advent of Islam. This is something that I personally took for granted, but I realized that many millions of Muslim women were denied such rights. This stems from a patriarchal interpretation of faith and medieval cultures, which prevent women from accessing their God-given human rights as free citizens of the world. Women in western societies did not receive the same rights which Islam gave to Muslim women, such as the right to own property, education, to choose who to marry and so forth. Once an awareness was created, and with my husband’s support, there was nothing stopping me from moving forward with my passion.

Did you encounter gender inequalities here in the US in the practice of medicine?

Yes, in 1973, I fought for equal pay when I discovered that I was being paid $2000 less per year when compared to my male colleagues who finished their medical training at the same time and in the same institution. Incidentally, my white American female colleagues who refused to challenge this discrimination benefited from me taking the stand. Subsequently, I worked with The American Medical Women’s Association, where again I found a number of role models and learned social activism. In 1983, I was the founding president for the Medical Women’s Association of Rochester, NY and learned firsthand how my senior women colleagues dealt with discrimination. According to one such colleague, “We put blinders on, or we developed a ‘tunnel vision’ and saved ourselves from experiencing it by not acknowledging it.” These were some well-respected and senior white American women physicians.

In your experience, does living in the US improve the lives of women who come from Muslim countries? If so, how?

I have met Muslim women in countries like Pakistan, England, Saudi Arabia and a few others who are much better off in their homeland, as long as their choice is not restricted by the prevailing or patriarchal customs in the areas in which they live. Economic and educational empowerment are the two most liberating tools women enjoy anywhere in the world. I personally have found the United States to be the best country in the world to live in and my experience in this ‘land of the free’ has opened up for me vistas to which many women in other countries can only aspire. I have found the freedom to speak-up for my rights and the rights of others without any fear or repercussions.

What do the terms “Muslim Feminism” mean to you? Working as you do on behalf of women, do you consider yourself a feminist?

Feminist in my vocabulary means “one who advocates for the rights of women justly and judiciously.” These are the rights, which have been denied to women in every culture, religion and time. Women’s education in America is a recent phenomenon. Women worked as secretaries, flight attendants and waitresses and very few were physicians or teachers when I was doing my internal medicine training in this country. In my lifetime, I have seen a major shift in the acceptance of women in institutions of higher learning. My own daughter at the age of seven growing up in the United States used to tell her friends, “Even though my mother says that she is a doctor, I think she is really a nurse as women can’t be doctors,” in her innocent child language. She drew pictures for school with her father going out with briefcase in hand and her mother standing by the stove.

If Muslim feminism means standing up for the rights of Muslim women, I am guilty as charged.

After 9/11, and given the constant threat of terrorist attacks on the US by Muslim extremist groups, what are the challenges facing American Muslims? Is it easier for those American Muslims such as yourself, who come from an upper-middle class background?

Most Muslims have faced challenges especially at our airports; targeted screening is dehumanizing. More effective ways of screening need to be incorporated which don’t single out Muslims, just because of their faith or ethnicity. But I would like to add that I feel safe here in the United States, in spite of the extra screening at airports. Having recently traveled to Qatar and Dubai, I was struck by the lax standards at the airports unless you are heading back to the USA.

I feel privileged to live in Rochester, NY, where the Muslim community has been engaged with other faith communities in very healthy interfaith dialogues for years. Next week Nazareth College, in my hometown of Pittsford, is hosting a national interfaith conference.

What do you think should be done to change the ignorance and fear about Islam and Muslims in the US and the West in general? In your view, what is the single most successful way to improve the lives of Muslim women?

First, education, education, education – at all levels. I believe that the media needs to shoulder its responsibility and end the relentless negative coverage of Muslims and Islam. Fear and ignorance about the ‘other’ is a toxic combination. There is also a need for female-focused scholarship as well as for scholarly discussions addressing the misogynistic interpretations of the faith, which have done a disservice to Muslim women. Finally, we must find opportunities to network and learn about the ‘other’ and ways to break the stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. Interfaith dialogues provide opportunities to improve understanding. Having traveled extensively, I have come to realize more than ever that people from everywhere in the world have similar aspirations, hopes, desires and dreams. They all want to live in peace and harmony.

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