Can Islam be empowering in the therapy room?

Sadaf
5 min readJun 1, 2019

It is the 27th night of Ramzan, considered especially holy as it is most likely to be Laylatul-Qadr (The night of destiny), from all the odd numbered last ten days of Ramzan (21, 23, 25, 27, 29). On one of these nights, the Prophet was given the gift of the Quran and the 27th is most likely to be that night, and Muslims around the world ask for forgiveness and pray fervently.

My relationship with religion has been fraught with tension. As a child, I used to adhere to religion strictly, but later, I started to question a whole lot of cultural double standards and patriarchal benefits for men, which were attributed to Islam. I am still not sure I have all the answers, but I do have a nuanced relationship with religion now, and before I absorb anything, I question if men have anything to gain by a particularly fatwa or sermon at the behest of women’s oppression and if not, only then accept it as authentic.

But personal beliefs aside, working as a therapist in India (or any other country with religious population), it is not possible that it will not show up in therapy rooms. In my work as a stress management counselor in the family courts, I routinely use parallels from texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata when working with Hindu clients. One of my favourites is Krishna’s dialogue with Arjun, about having to do something that may not feel very good but is necessary (just to clarify – I’m pretty anti-war, but its a great, powerful analogy for clients).

When I saw Shaheen (name changed to protect privacy), in my clinic, it was the first time that I got a devout Muslim woman client. I had seen Muslims before, but most of them were young and questioning and did not adhere to religion too much. With Shaheen, I knew that our solutions needed to come from within religious texts and stories.

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze” – Margaret Atwood. There are two broad ways of thinking about women (or any oppressed people) within religion – either thinking based on the quote, that no matter how much we progress among these rigid structures, at the end of the way we will be second class citizens, and so, there’s no point celebrating women Pandits and Qazis. The other way to think of it, is that look, these structures aren’t going anywhere and people’s, especially women’s beliefs in them aren’t reducing, so lets take what representation we get, and empower from within.

And so, I decided that, instead of shutting my chances to work with Shaheen by showing her the inherent patriarchy in the version of Islam she was following, I decided to use empowering women’s stories from Islam instead.

Shaheen was from a conservative family, and had little freedom, but she was okay with that. Having strict parents, lots of rules and a large family, together culminated to her having an anxious predisposition. As a wife and daughter-in-law and daughter and sister, she did everything, and yet got no gratitude. She subsumed her identity into being a care-taker and gave her children, her all. However, her children are in their early twenties now, and college going. They are busy in their own lives. Her husband, knowing that he has never loved her and cared for her like he should have, started to grow suspicious that she was having an affair, and started monitoring her movements. Nothing came of all this, as she was not involved with anyone, but something changed within her.

She realised that having always been the good one, the one who always obeyed, she was still doubted on. Her faith in the fairness of God was shaken, and she felt like it would be so hard to live with this man once the children went their separate ways, when living with him right now is so suffocating.

Because of my reading of Fatima Mernissi, I knew that the early women of Islam were fierce, politically active and had a great wit and intelligence. In each session, along with working on anxiety and setting small boundaries, we also discussed these women and how their amazing talents have been hidden to suit a certain subservient narrative.

The most powerful of all was perhaps our discussion about Ayesha RA. She led the battle of Camel, and although she lost, she fought for a cause that she believed was just. She fought against the misinformation that had started to spread immediately after the Prophet’s death. A lot of misogynistic and divisive thought was passed on as things that the Prophet espoused and thankfully, she corrected as much as she could.

In our second session together, I got a bit of clay, for Shaheen to make her “Inner Ayesha”. I wanted to use a medium that could be erased easily because I knew she would not want any imagery as that is against traditional Islam. The clay doll that Shaheen made also had a headscarf. And when I asked her to name the traits of her inner Ayesha, she said that this Ayesha is strong in the face of those who try to scare her, and she knows she is right, and she is close to God, and she knows she will get the fruits of her truth.

By the third session, her anxiety had dissipated, and she was taking small steps of courage at home. Yes, her life had not changed 180 degrees, but it was not her goal anyway. She felt okay to face her husband without her kids around, and she made a plan, on her own, to keep herself busy with group based religious activities when she got older. I’m sure it’s still hard to live with a controlling husband, but I do believe that our conversations together did still empower her to live the best version of her reality.

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Sadaf

Love psychology, economics, art, music, books, poetry, blogs, cooking and select sports.A jack of all trades, perhaps master of none. Psychologist.