Laila Alawa

I am an outspoken writer, Muslim American immigrant, activist and entrepreneur, the eldest of eight, unabashed feminist, jeweler, community organizer and reluctant pop culture maven living in my dream city, Washington, DC.

 

Laila Alawa 1

 

Who are you?

I always find this question the most difficult to answer.

I am an outspoken writer, Muslim American immigrant, activist and entrepreneur, the eldest of eight, unabashed feminist, jeweler, community organizer and reluctant pop culture maven living in my dream city, Washington, DC.

I work as a social media associate at a media production company and write on a number of women’s rights, culture and Muslim American issues for a variety  of news outlets, and every time a piece is published, I experience a rush of life and courage.

I was born in Denmark to Syrian and Danish parents, and spent the first six  years of my life  in Japan. Our move to America confused me, but I adjusted quickly to the new language  and culture. I pride myself on fooling people into thinking I was born here.

I was homeschooled from the second grade until the senior year of high school. I graduated a year earlier than my peers, but this came about after I had  skipped a few grades (third and seventh) and held myself back a year in the eleventh grade because I had not performed as well as I would have liked in math.

I attended Wellesley College, an all-women’s college, which was one of the best decisions I made in my life, and one of the most difficult journeys I undertook.

I used to think I was destined for psychology academia, but realized that my passion for the Muslim American community was not something I would be happy relegating to weekend Saturday Schools and weeknight halaqas. I needed to do more.

I am younger than most of my peers, although I have never lived life looking at potential friendships and collaborations by way of binary age.

I believe in the power of story-telling to reach across  barriers and stereotypes. I am the founder and president of Coming of Faith, a social enterprise dedicated to redefining the faith narrative of Muslim American women.  Fostering a community of support, stories and celebration of the good, the bad, and the in-between has been the greatest blessing and responsibility I have been given the chance to pursue, and I am excited to see what will unfold.

I stand up for the voiceless, and am fierce to defend those and that which I believe in, without regard for personal cost.

I tend to laugh at anything remotely humorous, and have a habit of laughing hysterically at my own jokes, even if everyone around me is straightfaced.

 

Give us your favorite quotes and tell us why they mean so much to you:

I enjoy collecting quotes and bits of poetry that speak to me, to  keep on colorful post it notes around my home. These are two that speak especially to me at this time.

1) “Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” – Tony Schwartz

I struggle with letting go of control, and that is especially difficult when I am in a new or uncomfortable situation. Yet I’ve found that it’s in the moments you embrace your insecurities and uncertainties that you become a new person, one of chances and opportunities and growth. It’s a reminder for me to step back, and let go of control, if just a little.

2) “in writing. there comes a time when you must let the writers you love go. so. you can hear the sound of yourself.” – Nayyirah Waheed

In writing, there can come a constriction and pressure to be “better,” but this betterment can be internalized as the struggle to compare yourself to another writer you deem on a higher level. This only reminds me that the uniqueness of our individual experiences means that we can do more justice to our own writing as our own persons instead of attempting to emulate another being’s reality. I believe this applies to the every profession of self-expression, not simply in writing.

 

Islamic Perspective:

What Ayah of the Quran do you hold close to your heart? Why?
“God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear: in his favour shall be whatever good he does, and against him whatever evil he does. O our Sustainer! Take us not to task if we forget or unwittingly do wrong! “O our Sustainer! Lay not upon us a burden such as Thou didst lay upon those who lived before us! O our Sustainer! Make us not bear burdens which we have no strength to bear! “And efface Thou our sins, and grant us forgiveness, and bestow Thy mercy upon us! Thou art our Lord Supreme: succour us, then, against people who deny the truth!” (2:286)

It is so easy to feel as though we are overburdened beyond our capacity, particularly in working for the betterment of the community. This verse reminds me, time and again, that we are given only as much as God knows we can handle. Knowing that my well-being is in the hands of the One that Created me soothes me more than I can explain, even amidst the stress, struggle and frustration that bogs us down on a daily basis.

What Hadith do you wish more non-Muslims knew about? Why?
Anas ibn Malik reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I untie her and trust in Allah?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her and trust in Allah.”

This is absolutely my favorite hadith. Regardless of who I am speaking with at the moment, if there is a chance for me to sneak this into my advice-giving, I jump at the chance. There’s something beautifully empowering about the certainty with which we can live our lives, knowing that ultimately, we put in whatever we’ve got, but there’s a Power that has the final say. It’s easy enough to cop out and wait for God’s Hand to move things along, but we aren’t given the permission simply to do that – we have to go out and get what we want in life.

 

The “Ten”:

1. What is your favorite book?
Books are my comfort food. So if you go looking for me in the library, you’ll usually find me in the Young Adult section – and I still adore getting lost in the world of Harry Potter. There’s something about the fight for what’s right that has always pulled me in, and it’s a series I still draw on today.

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
I’m constantly finding new people that inspire and push me, but my original role models were the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and Aisha (RA). The Prophet was a man of his word, a true leader, and willing to speak out regardless of how the community regarded him. Aisha was an unabashed spitfire, and she didn’t let imposed societal constraints rule the decisions she made – if they were in keeping with the faith and her personal opinion, she went after them. She also gave back to the community through the best kind of story-telling: Prophetic tradition.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
She taught me to be unapologetically myself, and to go after what I want, regardless of how afraid or uncomfortable I might be. She fostered in me my own unique fashion sense, and pushed me out into the real world when I might have wanted to hide behind her skirt.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
I would tell her to love all her quirks and imperfections, and to keep shining bright regardless of what those around her said, because the future was not as far away as she felt and childhood only happens once. I would also tell her to place more value in struggling with her languages, because it will become a point of regret for her in the future.

5. What are your hopes for your daughter(s)?
My biggest hope for my future children is that they never stop questioning and trying to understand the world around them, and that they are gifted with the joy of life and the ability to see happiness amidst the world’s roughness.

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
We all go through varieties and magnitudes of struggles throughout our lives that change us in ways we did not expect or, at the time, want. However, they all happen with a purpose in mind, although we might not recognize that purpose in the moment that everything takes place. I am blessed and grateful that throughout my struggles, I have had a close family and strong friendships. I lost my paternal grandmother early this year, and her passing shook me deep to my core. She had fostered me with the passion to learn and give back to my community since I was very little, and I felt that I had lost the last shreds of my childhood the morning I heard of her passing away.
I have also struggled with depression for a number of years, and that ongoing trial, complete with its ebbs and flows, has imbued in me the understanding that empathy is perhaps one of the greatest characteristics we can have as individuals, and that with every hardship, truly comes ease.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
Although there are some instances in my life I believe I could have done or been more than I was, I don’t believe in attaching regret to memories or decisions. I believe everything happened for a reason, and that my growth and life journey could only continue forward if I made a few wrong decisions along the way.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
I always make sure to carve out time in my schedule to reflect, whether that be while listening to music on the way home from work or in the early morning. I spend time cuddling with my two guinea pigs and my cat, Mishi, and take breaks from the computer to create jewelry or continue my latest knitting project. Being spiritually grounded happens in the moments of prayer, being surrounded by people who push me to be a better self, and the times of stillness in early morning or late night when I can sit and speak with God.

9. How do you bring about real change?
I recognize I have a long way to go before I can truly affect real change, but right now, I work to create understanding and questions where none were before through my articles and public outreach work. I believe in listening to what is being said, regardless of however much hatred the person is spewing, and seeking to understand where they are coming from, rather than attack them for where they seem to be. I stand for finding common values and experiences where none might be thought to have been before.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
I hope to be remembered as someone who gave voice and space to those who were voiceless. As someone who brought comfort and relief to those in need, and worked for the betterment of the Muslim American and greater American communities. Lastly, I hope to be remembered for being wholly myself throughout the work I do.

Video message from Laila:

 

More about Laila:

Connect with Laila on Twitter: @lulainlife

www.lailaalawa.com

Find out more about her project here:

www. comingoffaith.com

https://www.facebook.com/ComingOfFaith

Twitter: @ComingofFaith