Wearing Sixteen R’s “Power Girl” scarf

Special thanks to the lovely ladies at Sixteen R for choosing me as their very first  “Power Girl”! I received the most touching email from Sixteen R asking me to be interviewed, and I’m so glad I said yes – I’m now blessed to call these remarkable women friends. 

Read Sixteen R founder Nancy Hoque’s interview with me here. 

Buy Sixteen R’s Power Girl scarf here, and learn more about the women who inspire it!

From the interview: “…when you are constantly surrounded by reminders of the tremendous challenges we face on a global scale, it’s vitally important to remind yourself of what is beautiful and good around you. Otherwise, your own potential can be lost in fear and worry. Fear is human, but we must not let it deceive us into believing that it is more powerful than our values.” (PS: Here are a few more photos of the scarf, which is not just “powerful,” but also ultra-comfortable to wear! Who says it needs to be a hijab? Wear it around your neck, as a belt, or tied to a bag, if you like!)

Love, inshallah – and two cool writers to watch


Love, Inshallah: the Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, has been a hot topic on social media – and they’re looking for contributors. Click here if you’re interested.

The publisher is a South Asian Muslim woman who recently wrote a post on Phenomenal Women. Check out her blog.

Another blogger to watch is Hamza Khan, who reminds us of the legacy of Khadijah and Aisha as today’s Muslim women tackle dictators, the Taliban and lack of funding for public health.

Support acid attack victims affected by floods in Pakistan & links

last year's floods in Pakistan have affected over 20 million people

Dear readers:

My apologies for the very rare updates to this blog.

Many of you responded positively to my interview with Valerie Khan Yusufzai of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.

I have been in regular touch with Valerie and the staff of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan since the 2010 floods, which have affected over 20 million people – including survivors of acid violence.

Valerie and her team are helping both survivors of acid violence and their surrounding communities to recover from the devastation of the floods. We have been discussing the coordination of small shipments of aid  (including clothing, mosquito repellant and food) from the United States, but need your help. We realize that it is actually more expensive to purchase and ship goods from the US, Canada and Europe to Pakistan than it would be for the ASF-Pakistan team to purchase these goods themselves with donated funds. In this economy, many of us may only be able to donate a few dollars – which wouldn’t ship anything internationally, but will buy food locally.

If you are interested in donating any amount to the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here for bank information as well as a link to a donation form. The Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan is part of Acid Survivors Trust International. Please visit their site as well to answer any questions you might have about their work, goals, and finances.

Other links:

Beautifully Wrapped is a calendar project to support 10,000 Girls in Senegal. Click here to learn more and order. (Ships worldwide via Amazon.)

Beautifully Wrapped 2011

Click here for an August 2010 article in Portugal’s Publica (weekend edition of Portugal’s largest daily, Publico), about why I don’t support a ban on the niqab. (Portuguese.)

And click here for my interview with Muna AbuSulayman for Aquila Asia, a magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

Raquel Evita Saraswati & Muna AbuSulayman

Islam’s new Kartinis – May: Nurish Amanah, Indonesian activist

See here for the original publication of this feature.


Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Evita Saraswati)
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Evita Saraswati)
This month, I have the pleasure and honor of introducing you to one of my dear friends, Nurish Amanah. Nurish is an educator and student from Java, Indonesia.
As I’ve mentioned before, the point of this column isn’t just to highlight well-known figures in the Muslim community. It is also to introduce you to women who are working for positive incremental change within and beyond their communities – but whose efforts aren’t seen by the mainstream media or general public.
This month’s feature is especially meaningful to me. Nurish is someone whose resilience, deep love for God and dedication to improving the human condition are humbling and inspiring. It is my personal belief that the world is a better place for her presence in it – and that we will see many great things from her work in the future.
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Saraswati)
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Saraswati)

Raquel: What does Kartini’s legacy mean for you as a young Indonesian woman?

Nurish: Raden Ayu Kartini is the most popular symbol of the emancipation of Indonesian women and a national heroine.

Despite her enormous popularity as a national heroine for women, there are historians in some circles who question the legitimacy of her high ranking. They feel that Indonesia doesn’t give as much recognition to other great women like Dewi Sartika, Sultanah Seri Ratu Tajul, and others. Their complaint is specifically about race and ethnicity. They believe that Kartini was declared a heroine for all women because she was Javanese.

On Kartini Day, celebrated annually on the 21st of April, the country celebrates the life and legacy of Raden Ayu Kartini. For me, every woman of valor deserves to be called “Kartini.”

Kartini is a symbol of women’s emancipation, achievement and equality. Today’s Kartinis – Islam’s new Kartinis – can be Javanese, Arabian, Chinese, American, African and more.
Raquel: You work on so many important issues – but I know that education is one of your greatest passions. Can you tell me about how and why you decided to work on alternative education?

Nurish: I have taught from the kindergarten to university level. I have learned a lot about educational development, particularly in the field of alternative education. Indonesia is still considered part of the third world, and we are facing significant problems in education. Kompas, a major Indonesian daily newspaper, reported in March of 2010 that over 5 million school-age children are currently not enrolled in school. Most of these children are female.

Given the high numbers of students either not able to attend school at all, or to achieve higher levels of education, it is important to me to do something constructive for them. I am seeking to open an alternative school. It is a slow process, especially given my commitment to doing so without dependence on traditional fundraising. I am committed to funding much of the project myself. I work very hard, even selling textiles in my village, to make honest, halal money.

Nurish and Raquel 
Raquel: Can you tell us more about your alternative education project? I know you have made some progress already. What is your ultimate goal?

Nurish: My friends and I founded an organization called ABINITIO in 2008. We began work on an online magazine with the goal of developing a successful small business, and hiring students who need employment so that they can support themselves while getting an education.

Once our business is well-established, we will open a school for alternative education in a village or rural area, where education is most difficult to obtain.

My ideas for our alternative schooling program differ greatly from the education currently available in government and traditional schools. I firmly disagree with the educational system in public schools – the curriculum is unreasonably stressful and student life is very difficult. Some teachers hit their students as a form of punishment. I believe that is counter to the spirit of education.

I believe in learning outside of the classroom. By remaining isolated in the classroom, teachers can’t be fully aware of students’ talents and potential. We will create outdoor learning environments as well as media laboratories for students. Through these alternative learning environments and a holistic approach to education – free of violence and needless pressure, students will develop responsible relationships with society and the environment. It is also my hope that with a more student-centered approach like this, the school will graduate individuals who are more compassionate and aware.

Raquel: One of our first conversations was about women and the environment. Can you share with readers some of the connections you’ve found between environmental damage in Indonesia and the welfare of women?

Nurish: In our conversation, I was referring to the case of the Sidoarjo mud flow.

(*Raquel’s note: Lapindo, an oil and gas company, was drilling near the Sidoarjo mud volcano. The volcano erupted, releasing enough mud to fill a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools. Despite controversy, the international community has come to an overwhelming consensus that the volcano’s eruption is connected to Lapindo’s drilling activities. The mud flow, currently contained by levees, still continues to intermittently disrupt local highways and villages. There are concerns that the volcano may erupt again in the future.)

Nurish: Upon learning of this incident, I wrote a paper titled “The Death of Ethics,” in which I discussed environmental ethics. The Sidoarjo incident was not a natural disaster, but an environmental one caused by human beings. It destroyed thousands of hectares of rice fields, homes, industries, mosques and more. Women and children suffered the most from the devastation, and we are seeing that this is often the case.
Raquel: What are some other connections you see between women, the environment, and industrialization?

Nurish: I think the issues of industrialization and consumption are also women’s issues. Women’s lives are often controlled by the cultural, social, religious and political demands on them. For example, women are expected to be physically beautiful. To meet these demands and to be accepted in the work force and social sphere, women need to spend a lot on products and services to enhance their physical appearance. Though it is the women consuming these products, they are actually being controlled by the forces insisting that they be “consumed” for their bodies and looks. In short and to be frank, women’s bodies are regularly assaulted by the cosmetics, fashion and other industries.
Raquel: I have enormous respect for you as a woman of faith. How does Islam inspire you to create positive change?
Nurish: Islam teaches me to learn with other people and other groups. For me, Islam represents unity, and not just among Muslims. We have to be respectful, tolerant, and peaceful with others. Lakum dinukum waliyadin means “To you be your way, and to me mine” (Qur’an 109:06). This verse promotes tolerance toward other religions and other groups.  All human beings are family, and this is my understanding of the essence of Islamic teaching.

Raquel: Do you have a Muslim female heroine? Who is she, and why?

Nurish: Surely, I do. The first one I must mention is my mother. It is because of her that I am here and that I have survived – and her spirit is always with me. Her patience drives me to be a better woman.

Secondly, I dearly admire Nawal El Saadawi and her books inspire me. I don’t know her personally, but I like her ideas. She is very amazing.  Her book, Woman at Point Zero, really inspires me.

Nurish and Raquel 


Islam’s new Kartinis: Introduction

                                  March, 2010: Valerie Khan Yusufzai

                                  April, 2010: Nujood Ali

Islam’s new Kartinis – April: Nujood Ali

See here for the original publication of this feature.


Nujood Ali with her lawyer, Shada Nasser (Photo courtesy Glamour Magazine) Nujood Ali with her lawyer, Shada Nasser (Photo: Glamour Magazine)


 “’Mabrouk! Congratulations!’

Early morning light pours into the bedroom. In the distance, a rooster is crowing… Eyes wide, I look around at the disorder of the bedroom: the oil lamp has rolled over to the door, and the brown dress lies in a heap on the floor like an old dishrag. And there he is – what a wahesh – what a monster! On the rumpled sheet, I see a little streak of blood.

‘Congratulations!’ echoes my sister-in-law. With a sly smile, she studies the red stain. I can’t say a word. I feel paralyzed. Then my mother-in-law bends down to pick me up as if I were a package. Why didn’t she come earlier, when I needed her help? Now, in any case, it’s too late – unless she was his accomplice in what he just did to me?

…’Mabrouk!’ both women say together…”

Nujood Ali is just twelve years old. Yet this young girl from Yemen has already demonstrated the kind of courage most adults can’t imagine possessing.

At the age of eight, Nujood’s father forced her into a marriage with a 30 year old man. Nujood was repeatedly and violently raped by her husband.

Nujood pleaded with her family for help. Rather than protecting her, Nujood’s father beat her – and told her that she would find no way out of her situation. The family’s honor was at stake – and it was Nujood’s responsibility, he felt, to preserve it through being a subservient young bride.

After Nujood had exhausted all hopes for support from her immediate family, she sought out the advice of her father’s second wife, Dowla. Dowla told her that if she needed help, she had to go out on her own. She would have to get herself to court, and demand a divorce.

So she did.

On April 2nd, 2008, Nujood left home, hailed a cab, and became the first girl in Yemen’s history to ever appear alone in court to request a divorce. With the help of Judge Muhammad Al-Qathi and attorney Shada Nasser – Nujood was granted an annulment. Her case has brought worldwide attention to the issue of child marriage, and has inspired action to end the practice. For any person – young or old, male or female – who has ever doubted his or her own resilience – may Nujood’s story serve not just as an inspiration – but also as a call to action. No child should have to live through what she endured. It is our responsibility to make safety for all children a reality. 

Nujood's memoir Nujood’s memoir


“My divorce has changed my life. I don’t cry anymore. My bad dreams are starting to go away. I feel stronger, as if all these ordeals have toughened me. When I go out in the street, sometimes women in the neighborhood call to me, congratulating me and shouting ‘Mabrouk!’ – a word once tainted by evil memories, but which I know like to hear again. And shouted by women I don’t even know! I blush, but deep down I’m so proud.” – Nujood Ali, June 2008.

To learn more about Nujood Ali, please read her memoir, released just this year. The above quotes are excerpts from the book.

For more about the movement to end child marriage, please see these links:

* The United Nations Population Fund

* International Women’s Health Coalition

* International Center for Research on Women


Islam’s new Kartinis: Introduction

                                  March, 2010

Islam’s new Kartinis – March: Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chair, Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan

Dear readers,

Welcome to the “Islam’s new Kartinis” series! As explained in my last post, this column – originally published at – will focus on Muslim women from around the world who work to bring positive incremental change to their communities and beyond. This month, we’re featuring Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.

Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence
Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence

 Raquel: Have you always been interested in human rights work?

Valerie:  I grew up in a family where the ideas of freedom, thoughtfulness and fighting for what you believe is right were very much present. My great-grandparents resisted against the Germans in the First World War. My great-grandfather even received the Legion D’Honneur for excellent military conduct. This is the highest distinction for a French soldier. My grandfather, at age 19, joined the clandestine French forces to fight the Nazis during the Second World War.  His legacy is a gift to me – a reminder of the absolute necessity of fighting for human rights and enlightened values in the face of tyranny.

Since my youth, I not only understood but felt that we all had a role to play in producing a better society. A few of the first books that I remember as a child – given to me by my mother – were books about the religions of the world, a cartoon book about French history with the declaration of human rights as a preamble, and a book explaining the miracle of human reproduction.  I was also taught the value of human rights through enlightened French philosophers of the 18th century like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  I think I gained a deep respect for human beings through all of these readings.

Later, when I joined a Catholic private school at the age of 12, I discovered the simple happiness of providing help and support. I started my “social work” as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.

Raquel:  What brought you to work with acid attack survivors in particular? 

Valerie:  I was blessed with a passionate but occasionally very difficult life. I have never forgotten those who have been there to support me through life’s challenges. I also remember the rare moments when I was not as well supported.  Those difficult times further motivated me to always be a support for others.

I believe in the cycle and process of learning. I believe our experiences are meant to teach us how to move forward and be better to one another.  Often, society tries to dehumanize us – to make us forget the humanity of others and also abandon it in ourselves. We have to re-learn humanity: how to really see people, really listen to their problems. I think this dehumanization is one of the greatest ills we are facing.

One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was with acid survivors.  I was living in Lahore, and was a customer at a beauty parlor. At the parlor was a woman with tissue expanders (an expander is a way of developing fresh skin to be used for skin grafting. A silicone balloon is placed under the skin, which is expanded over time. As the balloon grows, the surrounding skin stretches and grows. Later, the expander is removed and the excess new skin is used for grafting.)  My seven year old son was with me, and asked: “Mummy, what happened to the lady?” I had no answer. I thought maybe she had cancer, that she had a tumor.

A few days later, I went to see the owner of the salon and asked her about the women there. This is how I learned about acid violence in Pakistan.  The owner had an NGO and said she was working to get treatment for these patients.
Subsequently, the owner contacted me and offered me the position of coordinator for her NGO. I initially told her that this was not my area of expertise. I was an educator and volunteer, but I had no experience in managing developing organizations.

She insisted.  I told her that I would think about it. For a week I had nightmares.  I realized that maybe this was my call to action. Leaving my previous job and starting to work with acid attack survivors was the biggest decision I’d ever made.

Unfortunately, three months later, I discovered that the funds for this organization were being used in a suspicious manner, and I suspected that funds were being embezzled.  I quit.

In the meantime, we were visited by Acid Survivors Trust International.  They told me that if I really wanted to help acid survivors, I should not give up. They trusted me – and advised me to create a board and register our new NGO – Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan. They had the funds and were willing to help get the initiative off the ground. 
It took my husband and me one month to decide to start this new organization.  We started it in Islamabad with a dedicated group of activists. I will never regret that decision – not when I see women transformed and living happily again. Not when I think about how much I’ve learned, and how much this hast taught me about humility.

Raquel:  Is there a common thread you’re noticing in the cases you’re seeing? 

Valerie: Yes. The commonalities include violence sourced in poverty, lack of education and feudal /tribal cultural systems.

Raquel:  What does the ASF do, and how do you reach victims of acid violence? (For example, is there a networking relationship with hospitals or communities to contact you?)

Valerie: ASF provides comprehensive rehabilitation services to acid survivors, such as medical services, psychological and social counseling, and socio-economic assistance. We also provide legal aid. These services are provided by staff and volunteers as well as pro-bono doctors, specialists and lawyers.

To reach survivors, we have developed a notification and referral system. Our field officer and volunteers are linked to journalists, social workers, hospitals, police stations, government institutions, shelters and other NGOs.  When a case has occurred, or an incident has been identified as an acid attack, the appropriate individuals and entities are notified so that the victim can begin receiving services immediately in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.

ASF also advocates for a new legal framework to be established in order to monitor and regulate the sale of acid and to punish perpetrators of acid attacks. We also seek assistance in securing rehabilitation services for survivors.

Valerie and her husband, Mohammad
Valerie and her husband, Mohammad

Raquel:  Can you tell me more about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved, and how do they add to the movement?

Valerie: Men have been present in our fight against acid attacks from day one.

To begin with, my husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO – without bribes or illegitimate practices others have used. We have male directors, male doctors and pro-bono lawyers, and a male field officer.

Salim Mahmood Salim was the secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Development at the time of our founding.  All of these men help to provide and identify support, mobilize media, assist with fundraising events (such as coordinating a fund-raising rock concert at no cost to our organization), and more. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court  officially condemned acid violence and asked the Pakistani parliament to act on it from a legislative perspective.

With men on board, supporting you at the highest level, you are better able to reach communities that follow patriarchal traditions. They do not feel threatened. Rather, they are more likely to join you in creating constructive, sustainable changes. When men reach out to other men, they feel proud rather than emasculated. If other men are active, they actually see involvement as their duty. When men support women, our empowerment will arise – naturally and peacefully.

Finally, it is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries, has a male-dominated power structure.  Engaging men on this issue ensures that we have a constructive, realistic strategy and approach to change. I also must mention that having men on board is valuable from a safety perspective.

Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center
(Above: Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center)

Raquel:  There is no denying that stories of acid violence are deeply troubling and the attacks themselves devastating. From what sources do you, personally, derive your hope? How does the organization as a whole maintain a forward-thinking, positive approach in this very difficult work?

Valerie: Raquel, I am a fighter. Ask anyone – that is the first adjective they’d use to describe me. I simply do not give up. At the same time, I am patient.

I believe that if you are fighting for a good cause, God does not let you down.  One must concentrate on the achievements – and use that as fuel to tackle all obstacles.

As the chairperson of the organization, it is my job and responsibility to generate positive energy. I need to be able to listen when people are down – and to motivate and mobilize them. When my colleagues need a break, they get one. Direct work with our psychotherapist is not just important for the survivors, but also for us. Clinical supervision and regular check-ins guarantee that none of us suffers from burnout.

We are dedicated to a collaborative approach, and positive feedback and team-building are very much part of our management strategy. We promote and salute both effort and results .  One person’s victory or success is a team victory. We are very much like a family, and we recognize the individual efforts of each family member. We are also all activists – and that spirit drives us.

Beyond our organizational approach, we have other reasons to remain hopeful. Every day, we see survivors getting better  – physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re rebuilding they’re lives. They’re happy and proud of their achievements. Nazeraan, for example, is blind and disfigured. She is fighting for custody of her two daughters. While she naturally feels sorrow and shares that with us, she is working at learning Braille and sewing. She wants to make a new life for herself and to become a role model.

Nazeraan shows the world that acid may burn you – but it cannot burn you entirely. Your spirit and your will still make you exist as a woman. When the survivors themselves are so full of hope, how can we not follow their example?

Raquel:  What are the greatest challenges facing the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation? The economy presents obvious obstacles. But are there especially pressing social, political or other barriers?

Valerie: The greatest barrier to our work is not just obtaining funding for lifesaving and reconstructive surgeries, but also for the rehabilitation center. Pakistani philanthropists have had to face a great deal of corruption from other NGOs, and are not sure who they should support. Additionally, the Pakistani government has other financial priorities – from the situation in Kashmir to terrorism and internally displaced persons.

Generally speaking, political instability and frequent changes in the government make collaboration with officials a bit difficult, since it is hard to get real commitments from them. High rates of illiteracy makes interaction with affected communities even more challenging.  Also, our survivors are from around the country. This geographical spread often makes it difficult for us to reach them.

Feudalism and tribalism remain a challenge, as they does not encourage development or interaction with outsiders. The more feudal or tribal an area is, the less welcoming they are likely to be of an organization like ours. Some families even refuse to have their female relatives treated for free. They fear what society might think when they see females “going away.” 

Raquel:  What would you consider to be some of the greatest victories achieved by the ASF?

Valerie: The case of Naila Farhat was important for us. For the first time, the highest jurisdiction in Pakistan heard the case of an acid attack; and justice was achieved.  This has given way to our lobbying work, which has already been cause for hope. The chief justice supports and praises our work, and has demanded that the Parliament establish a legal framework for acid sale regulation. He also supports the punishment of perpetrators and rehabilitation efforts for survivors.

Raquel:  What can be done to support the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation?

Valerie: We need awareness to be raised at an international level, both about acid violence – and about our rehabilitation center.  The center, which is still developing, is essential for survivors to rebuild their bodies and their lives. We need to increase our ability to both treat survivors and to investigate their cases. To do this, we need more sophisticated medical and forensic equipment, as well as more comprehensive systems to monitor funding and development of the Foundation.

ASF will lobby for legislative changes before the Pakistani national assembly, and continue to do its work locally, nationally and internationally. Financial and other support – like awareness-raising efforts – are key to our success.

To learn more about the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here.

To make a donation, please click here. When you open the donation window, please be sure to choose “D-ASF Pakistan” in the drop-down  menu under “additional details.” Please note: you will be able to specify your country and donate in the appropriate currency. There is a special link for donations from Canada. 

Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance
(Above: Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance)
(Photos courtesy Valerie Khan Yusufzai / ASF-P. )