Day 32: Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer, activist, phsyician and psychiatrists. She has written extensively on the subject of women in Islam with particular atention on female genital mutilation in her society.

Nawal ElBorn in 1930 in a small village, her family was at once traditional and progressive. At age 6, she was “circumcised” (otherwise known as female genital mutilation, a non-medical practice that is illegal in many parts of the world), but her father also insisted that all his children be educated. Her father campaigned against the British occupation during the 1919 revolution which resulted in being exiled to a small town in the Nile Delta and being denied promotions in his Ministry of Education job. Through it all, he encoraged his daughter to study and speak her mind.

Saadawi graduated with an MD in 1955. Through her practice, she observed women’s physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural, patriarchal, class and imperialistic oppression. In 1972, she published Al-Mar’a wa Al-Jins (Woman and Sex) confronting the various aggressions against women’s bodies. This book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism and led to her being dismissed from her position with the Ministry of Health and other public health positions. She was imprisoned in September 1981 after publishing a feminist magazine called Confrontation, but was released a month after Anwar Sadat’s assassination. She has written books and memoirs based on her own experiences as well as those of women she met in prison.

She was forced to fell Egypt in 1988 when threatened by Islamist and political persecution. Between then and 1996, she held positions at various universities in the US and France before returning to Egypt to continue her activism. She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011, and has called for the abolition of religious instruction in Egyptian schools.  She was a devout muslim, expresses the view that women are oppressed by the larger partriarchal religions, but also states that the root of the oppression of women lies in the post-modern capitalist system that is supported by religions.

For today, here are two quotes of very different sentiment from Saadawi: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies” and “Love has made me a different person. It has made the world a beautiful place”


Day 31: Dr. Hawa Abdi

Dr. Hawa Abdi is a human rights activist and physician in Somalia. She was born in Mogadishu in 1947. After her mother died when she was 12, she took on family chores as he eldest child. Her father was an educated professional. Abdi was able to continue her schooling, attending local elementary school and intermediate and secondary academies. In 1964 she received a scholarship from the Women’s Committee of the Soviet Union, allowing her to study at a Kiev institution. In 1972, a year after graduating, she began law studies at Somali National University.  The next year, she got married and in 1975 gave birth to her first child. She would practice medicine in the morning and work towards her law degree in her spare time, which she got in 1979.


Dr. Abdi, with daughters  Dr. Deqo Adan and Dr. Amina Adan

In 1983, Abdi opened the Rural Health Development Organisation (RHDO) on family-owned land. The one-room clinic offering free obstetrician services evolved into a 400-bed hospital. During the Somali civil war in the 1990’s, Abdi stayed in the region at the behest of her grandmother to continue to assist the vulnerable. She subsequently established a new clinic and school for the displaced and orphans. In 2005, rebels made attempts to shut down her clinic.  She stood her ground and the rebels left, with the help of pressure from local residents, the UN and other advocacy groups. In 2012, militants again stormed the clinic, temporarily shutting it down until their eventual departure.

In 2007, RHDO was renamed the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) which is now run by her and her two physician daughters. The DHAF compound includes a hospital, school and nutrition center that provides shelter and care to mostly women and children. Since its founding, it has served an estimated 2 million people, all free of charge. Several fishing and agricultural projects are also run on the compound to instill self-sufficiency.  Funding for this work comes from Somali ex-pats as well as the international donor community.  For her efforts on women’s rights and women’s health, she has received numerous recognitions including the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award (2014), Hiraan Online’s Person of the Year (2007), and, along with her daughters, among the list of 2010 Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year.” She was also nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, and received BET’s Social Humanitarian Award.

For today, take a moment to read about the critical moment in Abdi’s life that has led her to making this amazing impact in the world: “When I decided to become a doctor, I was very, very young, when my mother was pregnant with her seventh child, and she was feeling terrible pain, and I did not know how to help her. And my mother died in front of my eyes, without knowing why, which diagnosis. So I decided to be a doctor.” 

Day 12: Lydia Mansour and Visions of Peace

‘Ms. Lydia’, as she is affectionately called, lost her sight as a result of measles when she was 2 years old. She well-knows the double-discrimination that women and girls with disabilities face and, having spent most of her life as a Palestinian Christian in Jerusalem, she has lived amidst the myriad of difficulties of that region.

1 Lydia    IMG_3470

Ms. Lydia’s dream was to provide a place for learning and a place to belong for underserved women from Jerusalem and West Bank. Starting with $200 that she raised going door-to-door, she opened the Peace Center for the Blind in 1984. The organization has grown from 4 students to a capacity of 50. Women (and now some men) are taught everything from basic living skills to marketable skills (weaving, sewing, broom and stool-making), and the participants leave empowered and as living witness for equal rights for all those living with disabilities. No tuition is charged, and boarding is free for West Bank students, as borders between West Bank and Jerusalem are very difficult for Palestinians to do on a daily basis.

The Center promotes tolerance and understanding in region that often lacks that. It is a place of interfaith education where Muslims and Christians can work and study together. Despite of, or perhaps because of the lack of sight, Ms. Lydia and the Peace Center for the Blind are showing that many obstacles can be overcome.

For today, reflect on the spirit of Ms. Lydia with her own words: “Every child has to be given a chance to prove what they can do.  Some people are going to b e very successful, others not, it has nothing to do with blindness at all, but I believe that everybody should be given an opportunity.

Want to know more about Ms. Lydia or the Peace Center for the Blind?

Peace Center Website

Program Overview

Bittersweet Newsletter about the organization

“Not by Sight” film project

Day 8: Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of Bahá’í Faith

Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) was born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí in Tehran, then the capital of Persia. Some authors claim his ancestry can be traced back to Abraham, Zoroaster (founder of the ancient religion Zoroastrianism) and to the last king of the Sassanid Empire. His teachings and religious works spoke of humanity as one single race and that the age has come for unification as a global society.

Early in his life, he joined the Bábí movement, a rapidly growing movement across the Persian empire that faced widespread opposition from the Islamic clergy. This movement was a progressive movement that eliminated successorship and invited doubt to faith with messages of a Promised One to come who will make all things manifest, and that no other person’s writings should be binding until then.  

When the leader of the Bábí movement was executed in 1850, a group of his followers



Gardens in Haifa, Israel


plotted to assassinate the Shah in retaliation. Bahá’u’lláh condemned this plan, but his influence did not stop the attempt that failed and resulted in the plotters being rounded up and killed, while the rest of the Bábí movement was imprisoned in an underground dungeon. It was during this imprisonment that Bahá’u’lláh had several mystical experiences and received a vision of a maiden from God that he was the prophesied one. Upon his exoneration and release from prison, he was exiled from Iran and chose to go to Iraq in the Ottoman Empire rather than to Russia, where he had been invited.

As he made his way to Baghdad, the outgoing and accessible Bahá’u’lláh was increasingly seen as the spiritual leader of the movement, whereas the appointed nominal leader, Mirza Yahya,  was often living in hiding and disguised. Resentment built in the community as Yahya tried to discredit Bahá’u’lláh so, in 1854, he decided to leave Baghdad and pursue a solitary life and not become a source of disagreement in the community. For two years he lived as a hermit in the Kurdistan. His penmanship brought curiosity from local Sufi instructors, and as he began to take guests, he became noted for his learning and wisdom, and people started seeking his wisdom. He also wrote several books during this time. He emerged as the unifying leader of Bábísm, although facing many conflicts, exiles, detentions, and attempts on his life from Yahya as well as Persian and Muslim clerics. Yahya was finally discredited in 1867, and Bahá’u’lláh’s followers started calling themselves Bahá’í’s.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in Bahjí

For the remainder of his life, Bahá’u’lláh continued to write and form the foundations of the Bahá’í Faith. He wrote letters to world leaders asking them to cast away their material possessions, and to rule with justice and protect the rights of the downtrodden. He called for reductions in armaments and for reconciliation of differences. To Christian monarchs, he asked them to be faithful to Jesus’ call to follow the promised “Spirit of Truth.” His final imprisonment was in Akka, the citadel city in Ottoman Palestine (now Israel). As he became a trusted and respected person there, the prison conditions were eased and he was able to move about more freely. He continued to write, with many works outlining his vision for a united world, as well as the need for ethical action. He died and is buried in a shrine in Akka (above).

For today, reflect on these two pearls of wisdom: “Religion without science is superstition. Science without religion is materialism”, and “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” 

NOTE: There are few photographs of Bahá’u’lláh, and out of respect for the faith’s customs, I have not put one here.


Day 5: Dr. Larycia Hawkins

Unless you attend Wheaton College or were a classmate, family member or friend, you probably never heard of Dr. Larycia Hawkins prior to December, 2015. But by simply wearing a hijab, expressing love and seeking solidarity with fellow humans, she has impacted the national discourse around religion and politics. When she was suspended from her position as a political science professor because she started wearing a hijab to work to stand in religious solidarity with Muslims, she became a well-known name. As is so often then case with people like this, the person can get lost as people use situations like this to sharpen their own causes or issues.

9592265_GDr. Hawkins was born in Oklahoma City in 1972. She received a BA form Rice University, and a PhD at the University of Oklahoma in political science. Her research is about black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP.  She joined the faculty at Wheaton in 2007 and, in 2014, became the first tenured African-American female at this liberal arts Christian college.

On December 10, 2015, Dr. Hawkins posted on facebook “I stand in religious solidarity larycia-hawkinswith Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. … As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.” Four days later, she was put on administrative leave so the school could review the theological implications of her statement. In January the school started proceedings to terminate her employment because she declined to participate in further dialogue about these implications. As this has unfolded, many in the college community – students, faculty and alumni – have expressed support calling to reinstate “Doc Hawk”, and some students have embarked on hunger fasts. Sadly, it looks as if the college administration could not find a way forward that embraced the theological (and other?) diversity. While the call to terminate her was rescinded, the college has announced a decision to “part ways”. As someone who spent time connected to the Wheaton College community, I always admired the willingness of the community to embrace the tension of ethical and moral dilemmas, or as Doc Hawk notes, “Diverse theological ideas have never been deemed dangerous at Wheaton.”  Sadly, that may be changing in an era where many evangelicals support Donald Trump. At the same time, Doc Hawk calls for healing: “Embodied Solidarity is not demonizing others in defense of me.”

In that spirit, here are some words from Dr. Hawkins official response to Provost Stan Jones as part of the inquiry:

“So, yes, when I call ‘fellow humans who happen to be Muslims [or Jews or atheists] my brothers and sisters’ I am standing in full agreement with the Wheaton College statement of faith, identifying each person as an image-bearer of God.”

Day 21: Averroes

Sometimes, the effect of one’s effort takes time. When that time is long, we may think that the way things are is the way they have always been, and not even know the players that had great influence. Today, we reach back to one of those people that perhaps few have heard of, but in the arc of time his influence has been big. Averroes (Latinized form of Ibn Rushd) lived from 1126-1198. He was a Muslim polymath who wrote on logic, philosophy, theology, Islamic jurisprudence, psychology, political and Adalusian classical music theory, geography, mathematics, medicine, physics and astronomy. Averroes was a defender of Aristotelian philosophy and his philosophical ideas were considered controversial in Ash’arite Muslim circles, but he had a great impact on Christian Euorpe. He has been described as the “founding father of secular thought in Western Europe,” and his commentaries on Aristotle were the foundation for the Aristotelian revival in the 12th and 13th century. Translations of his work had a lasting impact on Jewish philosophy and within the Christian scholastic tradition. He had no discernible influence on Islamic philosophic thought until modern times. His rationalistic views collided with the more orthodox views of Muslim leaders of his times, resulting in his banishment from Marrakesh in 1195 and an order to burn his writings. And yet, to this day, many of his writings live on in various translations.

AverroesColor He was a true progressive, as evidenced by this quote: “Women should be treated as human beings, not as domestic animals.” Almost a millenium later, may his ideals and his courage continue to challenge us to grow in unity and have faith that what we do today will matter for future generations.

Day 17: The Sultan and The Saint

St. Francis of Assisi is well-known for inspiring millions of people over nearly a millenium, but it was his meeting with Muslim sultan al-Malik al-Kamil during the Crusades that showed the promise of radical non-violence as well as the challenges. Appalled by the brutality of the Crusades, Francis crossed the battle lines to meet with sultan al-Kamil. Francis sought to preach the gospel to the sultan even if it meant martyrdom. Instead, Francis received welcome and hospitality. Impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity, Kamil invited him to stay for a week of conversation. Francis was impressed by the devotion of the Muslims he met, including their call to prayer and use of prayer beads (some say these led to the use of the Angelus and rosary). Neither converted the other, but they gained respect and learned from each other and parted as friends. Francis then tried to persuade Cardinal Pelagious Galvani to make peace with the sultan, but to no avail. On the other hand, Sultan al-Kamil was ready for peace. He provided humane treatment to the defeated Crusaders, in stark contrast to the atrocities committed by the Crusaders when they initially captured Damietta, and eventually succeeded in making a peace agreement with Frederick II in 1229.


For today, take a minute to reflect on these two quotes:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy Peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” – attributed to St. Francis

“Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.” – Oliverus Scholastica, referencing the treatment he received after being defeated and captured by Malik’s forces.