Women and Islam

Interview with Fariha Khan, National President of the Ahmadiyya Women’s Association UK – The Pandemic and Humanitarian Efforts of Ahmadi Muslim Women

Women's auxiliary pandemic response

Dr, Fariha Khan is currently serving as the National President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association UK. By profession she is a GP who, along with her husband, a consultant pediatrician has been on the front lines during this pandemic. Not only has she been managing the increased workload due to the pandemic and the risks coming with it, she’s also a mother taking care of her household. It is along with all these responsibilities that she is leading Ahmadi Muslim women in the charge of doing their part to serve humanity in this trying time. The Review of Religions was privileged to conduct an interview with Dr. Fariha Khan in which she speaks about the establishment of the Ahmadiyya Women’s Association and the basis of its founding, the role that the association is playing in serving humanity during the current pandemic, and how the humanitarian efforts of the Ahmadiyya Women’s Association can alter false stigmas regarding Muslim women. Below is a transcript of the interview between Fariha Khan Sahiba and Review of Religions’ Senior Editorial Board Member Sarah Waseem.

SW: So, let me start; lots of questions I wanted to ask you but I’ve decided to focus on some given that you’re incredibly busy. As the head of the Ahmadiyya Women’s Association, can you tell us a little bit about your main responsibilities

FK: OK. As you described me as the president of the Ahmadiyya Muslims Women’s Association, or as we call it within in our community, Sadr Lajna of a country; Sadr Lajna of a country, of any country, reports directly to Hazrat Khalifatul Masih (aba), the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and that is a huge blessing. That’s where all presidents of Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Associations all over the world, that’s where they get their direct guidance from. And that is the starting point. So for everything that I need guidance on, I would go to beloved Huzoor (aba) and that’s where I would get my most blessed and amazing guidance, and a drive to work really.

For the benefit of those who may not know, but Lajna Imaillah also has its own constitution. And it is a document that is available online and I would highly recommend, as I always do to members, to read it.. I know that I have read it back to back many times, but every time I find something new in it, so it is extremely beneficial. 

I remember when I was given this responsibility or service as I see it, after writing to Huzoor (aba)  requesting prayers and gaining blessed guidance in a Mulaqat (an audience with His Holiness (aba)), this was the first document I read and tried to understand. Within the Lajna constitution, role of Sadr Lajna of a country is  very clearly defined and there are ten points. But there is one point that has always bore strongly in me, or if I can say, scares me the most, and that I will read out to you, and that point is: ‘The Sadr Lajna Imaillah Mulk (or country) shall supervise all the affairs of Lajna Imaillah.’ And basically as I see it, as Sadr or president, you have to bear that in mind all the time because it comes with an accountability, and the accountability to Allah is that I’m the most scared of. So you have to plan and supervise and you have to keep an eye on what’s happening all over the country. So this particular point, I wanted to bring to your listeners. Apart from that, obviously there is a lot of work that goes on. Basically, in a nutshell I can say that making programs and devising syllabi for the whole year, including event organization, also  keeping in regular contact with local branches and regions and supervising their work is extremely important. But you have to bear in mind that the Sadr cannot, and does not function alone, it is a team effort. Directly, she has the support of a National Amila, [national executive committee] and all regional and local Sadrs and all regional and local office bearers. But most importantly, Lajna members, who cooperate and support the structure beautifully. I mean, that is the beauty of our Nizam (structure of the community) which works under direct guidance of the Khalifa. So Alhamdolillah I am also blessed with an amazing National Amila, which is like a national executive body, but also other Lajna office bearers which work at the local branch level or regional level, that they cooperate fully with me and we all pull together. It’s a team effort. 

SW: Thank you for that. So let me explore this a little bit more with you . The Lajna Imaillah as I understand, was created by the Second Khalifa (ra) of the Ahmadiyya Community in  1922. You’ve said a little bit about some of the responsibilities. Why, at that time, did the Khalifa see a need for an organization for women, run by women?

FK: Again, I would go back to the constitution of Lajna, because at the beginning of the constitution it lays out the aims an objectives, as described by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih II (ra) the Second Caliph of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. And it was a great vision. It inspires me so much, to think we’re talking about 1922 and it’s the Indian sub-continent, where generally speaking, women are looked down upon. But his vision for women and empowering them was absolutely fantastic and awe inspiring really. I mean what he – couple of points that I would kind of, would like to quote from here. One thing, working on the objectives, and he gave 17 initial objectives actually, but before the objectives, where he describes the need, he mentions, it says, ‘reflection will show that most women do not realize there are tasks beyond their daily chores that they need to attend to.’ So that was a very important thing. Another thing that he recognized  was important and he beautifully puts it as. ‘Apart from their spiritual, intellectual and moral uplift, the future progress of the Jama’at is also greatly dependent upon the role played by our women in this respect.’ 

So this was his main objective. This was the need behind it. And then he laid out the objectives which as I said there are 17 objectives and I wouldn’t go down in detail, but it was mainly to empower women and to encourage them to seek education; secular and religious. And he also realized that they needed to have at least some basic secular education to gain religious education. And then another role that he defined, which I always find really inspiring, was that those women who are strong in their knowledge, they should take the weaker ones with them, as they go in their journey. And that is such an important point that you do not leave anyone behind, no matter how weak they are. If they’re weak in their faith, if they’re weak in their knowledge, no one’s left behind, It’s a team effort. And he gave all this responsibility to women, to start it, to establish and to implement it. And in that sense, Lajna Imaillah as an organization is extremely empowering. We see it every day in our daily lives as well, being part of this beautiful institution, is that it gives, it has given us over the years, such skills, that probably we wouldn’t have been able to acquire outside, or other spheres of our lives

SW: And it is that combination isn’t it, of secular and religious, because Huzoor (ra) was a religious figure, but he said, you know, its that combination of both which is so important. And particularly this coming in 1922 as you say, you know, that was a time when women over in the West also were trying to get more basic freedoms particularly for example attending university; some universities wouldn’t take women. So it was, it is a very visionary step isn’t it?

FK: Absolutely it is a visionary and every time when we are telling people who are not from within our community about our community, I always tell that this was the first auxiliary organization which was founded by the Second Khalifa (ra). So before the auxiliary organizations for men were founded, it was the women’s one that was the first one. And this is why  in 2022 our first hundred years are coming up which we’re really looking forward to celebrate Insha’Allah (God-Willing). But yes, it was extremely visionary.

SW: Do you think that, that vision has been achieved? Do you think we are in the process of achieving it or this is an ongoing state?

FK: I think it is an ongoing process. But Alhamdolillah over the years, and with the guidance of Khilafat, we have received so much guidance and encouragement and the same theme has continued to empower women and we have progressed so much Alhamdolillah, but it is an ongoing process

SW: I’m going to come back to ask a little bit about some of the work Lajna have done particularly during this pandemic But before I do that, you mentioned how important it was that you got guidance from His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, (may Allah be his Helper), who is the current Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. And you mentioned that you’ve got guidance and you get guidance. I wanted to ask you more generally, if you would care to share with us, about how he has inspired your efforts to lead Lajna, specifically in terms of humanitarian work which I’m going to ask you in my next question in a bit more detail about what Lajna have done, but just thinking more generally about how he has inspired you?

FK: I think all my inspiration comes from him. All of our inspiration as Lajna, as an organization or institution comes from him. This is – I have seen, during my – whenever I had the chance to seek guidance from Huzoor (may Allah be his helper), is that he has always pushed us to do more, and he has always told us to have like a bigger goal, or a greater vision. And that is such an amazing thing. And as, I may have a very small or maybe narrow goal or maybe we will feel scared to have a big leap, but he would encourage us to do so. And especially in terms of humanitarian efforts. I remember in out last Amila Mulaqat, he specifically spoke to the secretary Khidmat-e-Khalq who’s the social welfare secretary within our national executive body, and encouraged her and guided her that more Lajna should participate in humanitarian efforts or humanitarian activities, or the activities that involve helping out communities. And any projects, I mean this is obviously we’re talking in terms of this current pandemic, and obviously we will talk a bit more about it, but generally as well, we are, as we earlier spoke about, centenary coming up in 2022, and Huzoor (aba) encouraged us to build a hospital in Sierra Leone, a maternity hospital, that we’re aiming to build by 2022 Insha’Allah. And I received so much encouragement and guidance about that particular project and all other humanitarian projects as well, he has been the leading guiding source for us

SW: I think what really impresses me is the fact that Huzoor (aba) asks you to go over and beyond, so that your, I mean it feels like a real message of empowerment. The vision isn’t limited. You present a vision and, it sounds from what you’re saying, that Huzoor (may Allah be his helper) says yes …and ….let’s make it bigger, or let’s think beyond that as well.

FK: Absolutely. I mean obviously as you said earlier on as well, we’re a faith community, and we have a certain code of conduct that we follow. Everything has to fall under the guidance of the Holy Qur’an, and that is the case for anyone within our community or within the fold or Islam. But as long as it is within the guidance, and though Islam may be perceived as a restrictive religion, it is not; it is a hugely empowering religion which guides us in all phases of our life, in all aspects of our life. But as long as that is there, then Huzoor (aba) has always encouraged members of Lajna to do more, to do a bit more and to excel within their fields and every time I feel that when we in our own weak minds or thoughts, we think we have achieved something, we’re always given a goal higher up Alhamdolillah!

SW: Alhamdolillah! I mean that sounds like a lovely way of empowerment and giving a sense that there is no limit, that you can go, as you say, within the bounds of the faith and the guidance and teachings of the Holy Qur’an. That leads me nicely to my next question really, which I wanted to ask you. You know , we are going through this global pandemic and I wanted to ask you about how Lajna members have been contributing to the needs of the hour. Could you tell us about some of the activities that they’ve been engaged in? 

FK: I mean we started working on this before lockdown started. So we envisaged that this was going to come and it would be restrictive to people’s lives and that means that people will need more help, especially the vulnerable and the elderly. So I remember weeks before lockdown started, we developed this contact card for members so that they could drop in neighbors’ homes to ask if they needed help. This was our base, to start with. And plus, through contacts that Lajna members, locally in branches have developed, Masha’Allah, they have loads of contacts that they’ve developed over the years, with care homes, with hospitals with food banks and other vulnerable groups. We were able to provide some relief to them and serve humanity as best as we can. And I’ve got some figures and I would like to, if you allow me to share with our viewers. These are not entirely up to date as you can see it’s a fluid situation everyday things change. 3811 households were helped by Lajna for their shopping. 1380 households were helped in terms of their prescription collection and delivery. We initially made some essential packs which were designed by the, again the Khidmat-e-Khalq department, the social welfare department, which included basic necessities that people would need at home even if they didn’t have any money for groceries, and 1707 such packs were delivered to households. Then, cooking and delivering food for some members, about 1160 households were supported. 2453 meals were distributed to the homeless. 1600 food packages were given to NHS frontline staff. Now, my favorite, which is 9387 scrubs, masks, scrub bags and gowns distributed to frontline workers.

SW: That’s so many! Huge, Masha’Allah!

FK: Yes Alhamdolillah, which includes NHS workers as well as care home workers. And 633 local charities were supported, and only in the month of March, and I still haven’t got the figures for April and May, we had about 16,000 food bank donations.

SW: And that’s so important in this time isn’t it. We’re hearing about how much people are suffering in the country.

FK: Absolutely, absolutely! This is something that we have continued. And especially in the month of Ramadan. We already encouraged our women, and this was part of our regular syllabus as well to do food bank donations and homeless feeding. But it fitted in really well with the current pandemic and the current situations. So this was just a brief kind of summary in terms of humanitarian efforts which is ongoing. Every day it is happening and these things are happening. And a lot of Lajna also volunteered with the government as well, the ones who could do easily, for the government run volunteer scheme as well

SW: For the NHS volunteers. And Lajna, I mean a lot of work there is about Lajna, giving to the community at large. And what about Lajna members supporting each other. Have there been any particular directions in that way?

FK: Absolutely. I mean we try to, even from the start, this was the advice and the guidance that we were sending to local branches; that the way our system works is that it has to be a chain. If it isn’t a chain, then it doesn’t work. So, basically, from National Sadr to every Lajna member, it has to be a chain. And this is why I always encourage local Sadrs to make a direct connection with their Lajna members as much as they can. And I know people have got different abilities and different strengths and they do try their best. So they knew which members were vulnerable within their branches. And if not, they were asked to make an extra effort; make phone calls, make inquiries, identify those who are either vulnerable in terms of their health issues, or elderly, or perhaps single mothers, vulnerability, or people suffering with mental health issues as well. So we kept an eye on all of this and made sure that we were able to provide as much support as we could to members within the community as well. It’s not just for people from outside the community. Serving humanity, that spirit is for everyone. Also we opened a special email account for this, so that if anyone was suffering for any reason, because of the lockdown, they could contact us. That email comes to myself and some other members from within my national executive committee or Amila and we deal with it as, depending on the request

SW: And that’s amazing, so connecting both, sort of without and within; within the community and to the larger community. And I know my telephone’s been inundated with various pieces of information about schooling for young children, different talks. And it’s not only religious education, which has been really impressive because I think Lajna members have really risen to this online ..you know teaching ..that has to happen to children And there’s so many people volunteering to help with that and I’m constantly getting messages about classes that are being held for different levels of students which is quite incredible.

FK: Absolutely. And I would also like to specifically mention and it’s just come to my mind now, is that yes, as you mentioned teachers have volunteered which has been a great help. But also, remember, there are different vulnerable categories, and children who have special education needs, are extremely vulnerable in a time like this. And we already had an infrastructure, we have a team who looks after the children and the mothers of those who have special education needs and disabilities and they’ve been working really hard and they’ve been providing support to mums. And we held a webinar for mums about mental health issues that those children can face at this time and what they can do to help them. And I think this is, as I said, we try our best to see, and obviously we’re not perfect, but we’ve been trying our best

SW: Alhamdulillah. It sounds like there’s been an amazing number of activities and at many, many levels. I wonder, do you think that as Muslim women, I’m thinking of Ahmadi Muslim women, but I think Muslim women in general have also risen to respond to the needs of their nations in so many ways and as you’ve describes Ahmadi Muslim women have done, – do you think that that’s going to change some of those who perhaps perceive them as traditionally submissive?

FK: I hope so, I hope so. Here I would really – that traditionally submissive thing – I would like to mention something,.. is that, specifically those ladies who, perhaps the world with its materialistic goggles on, does not value as useful members of society right? Many of them don’t speak good English. And being perceived as you said, as traditionally submissive, they stepped up, and their skills of sewing came in so handy. And they worked with so much passion and zeal and sewed and stitched thousands of scrubs, facemask and laundry bags for NHS and care workers. And Alhamdolillah, If I can say, they made me proud. And I was receiving pictures from all over the country by such members, showing me the scrubs and the masks that they’ve made. And I know although our service to humanity is never for any recognition or reward, but we’ve received so many letters, emails and social media posts from NHS and care home staff appreciating this donation, and appreciating the hard word that those ladies who society may perceive as traditionally submissive, has done for them. So I do hope that those who were prejudiced , will see this from another angle

SW: Insha’Allah! Insha’Allah! During this pandemic, we have seen that many European countries are ordering citizens to cover their faces. The same countries banned the niqab and some countries are in that rather ironic position of fining people for wearing the niqab and fining them for not wearing face coverings. Do you think that attitudes towards Muslim women are going to change after this pandemic?

FK: As you said it is quite ironic isn’t it? And I think we don’t even have to say anything, but other people are speaking about the irony of the situation in certain countries, that you are still, because by law, you would still be banned if you’re wearing a niqab, but if you’re not wearing a face mask, you will be banned. And it’s quite a ridiculous situation if I may say. But we can see that some people are questioning it within the wider society. But for us I would say that all we can do is continue to practice true Islam and true Islamic values and the world will Insha’Allah change its opinion. Slowly but surely, insha’Allah!

SW: insha’Allah! So finally, I mentioned at the beginning that you are a GP. But of course it’s not only you who’s a GP, your husband is also a consultant pediatrician and you both therefore – count as key NHS frontline workers. You have a young family, and I’m wondering how have you been able to juggle everything during this pandemic. And you’re also, you know, the National President of the Lajna Imaillah What’s that been like for you both as a health care professional, and you know, juggling all these responsibilities with family life and also leading the Lajna Imaillah UK

FK: It hasn’t been easy, in one sense, but it has been extremely rewarding in another sense. As doctors – because I’ll start from that point – as doctors I can honestly say that it has been a journey that we have never taken before. I mean thinking back to that time leading up to the peak, can only be described as the busiest time period of my career as a GP. It was manic. It was quite overwhelming but also at the same time it was rewarding, that I was able to do my bit for humanity in crisis. And as you said, both of us are doctors, both me and my husband, and like many others working in health care, it is our passion to, and that is the driving force. And our faith, and our jobs as you can say, they have always complimented each other beautifully. I always feel that our faith has been an inspiring force, or the force that helps to serve humanity as we do in our working lives. And I do sincerely hope and pray that it comes across as that as well, because the intention is there. 

So it is our passion and it has been extremely busy and Alhamdolillah now things feel as if they have calmed down a little bit. But things have changed. We had to re-learn medicine as we did before because now we’re doing more and more consultations via video links, or maybe telephone consolations. Yes we’re seeing patients face to face as well, but things have changed in terms of providing patient care, things have changed in terms of how we learn things, how we conduct other parts of our profession like meetings and educational opportunities and webinars etc. The way we, ..so basically things have just,.. we had to re-learn everything. And it has its advantages and disadvantages. Advantage is obviously technology has come in handy, a disadvantage is that you do want to provide that face to face care as well which is quite important and obviously the worry that someone vulnerable  will not come in to see you because of the fear of the pandemic and their illnesses may get misdiagnosed or get missed or they would not get treatment on time. But it has been quite busy. And juggling it with family life in terms of children and everything, I have to say that Alhamdolilah I’ve been blessed with a very cooperative husband. And yes, I can’t I mean,… I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his help, and he’s always there to support me in my Lajna work as well as my career work. And this is how marriage really works, and especially Islamic marriage, that you both compliment and help each other. So we’ve managed Alhamdolillah. And as key workers, our children were going to school as well for some days, not every day. But Alhamdolillah. As far as Lajna work, that is ongoing. We’ve changed, we’ve learned new ways to do things as well. We’re using technology. We had our first webinar on covid19, which went really well, Alhamdolillah. We had our second webinar today, and inshallah we will use technology to continue to deliver religious knowledge as well as secular knowledge to our ladies. 

SW: Insha’Allah Alhamdolillah Im really glad. It’s been challenging but it sounds like you found a really good way of moving forward. My very final question to you is what are your hopes for the future as we come out Insha’Allah of this pandemic. What kind of world do you want to see?

FK: I want to see a kind world. I want to see a compassionate world. I want to see a world where human beings are valued, not by their income or pay cheques, but by the service that they provide. And this is something that we saw in this time of crisis. People coming out and thanking the frontline workers. Not just doctors and nurses but also other key workers as well. We had lots of our younger girls within our community have been posting or sticking cards for bin men outside, the ones that come and collect our rubbish. This is what I want to see after this. The legacy of covid19 should be for humanity overall, should be, that humanity is closer to each other, but in doing so , they should recognize their Creator as well . This is something that we always pray for and hope for, that they realize that they have a Creator and they turn to Him. 

SW: Insha’Allah, Insha’Allah! Thank you so much for talking to us. Its been an absolute pleasure. Dr Fariha Khan, Sadr Lajna Imaillah UK, thank you so much. I hope that your work continues and both in your professional capacity and your capacity as Sadr Lajna and I wish you all the best. JazakAllah for speaking to us today.

SS: JazakAllah!

SW: Assalamo Alaikum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuhu.