While’s Daisy Khan’s life is fascinating and her work is admirable, her memoir is alienating and reads more like a résumé than a biography.
Born in Kashmir, Daisy Khan moved to the US in high school to study design. She went on to found WISE, the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, an organization that works for women’s rights. Born with Wings is her memoir and first book.
The book tells Khan’s life story chronologically, with each chapter focusing on one event in her life: a specific problem she overcame or an issue she explored. Interspersed between the chapters are snippets that highlight specific initiatives of her own or of other women. For example, one snippet tells the story of Misbah, a Pakistani beautician who helps the survivors of acid attacks receive medical and cosmetic treatment and regain their confidence.
This repetitive format didn’t work for me. While the early part of the book is a fascinating look into her childhood, as soon as she arrives in the US, the narrative reads like a curated list of her accomplishments, with each chapter representing another challenge, idea, or initiative in her life. Her beautiful story is reduced to a 350-page résumé.
Despite my dislike of the structure in general, Khan’s story is engaging and her perspective is unique. Here are some quotes that showcase her writing and ideas:
My identity was still in formation. I was no longer just a Kashmiri. I was also an Indian and an American, a New Yorker and a Muslim. As a designer, I understood that colors individually are crystalline and clear, but when you mix the, their essence can be enhanced, diluted, or lost, depending on the proportions. Mix yellow and blue together, and you can have a myriad of greens. Red and yellow can produce a sherbet orange or a fiery coral. But if you blend shade upon shade upon shade, the color wheel fails you, and you end up with shades of gray or black.
I am a living example of how Muslim women can balance faith with modernity.
The more we share our stories, the more we open ourselves to one another, the more respect and even love can flow between us. Once we see ourselves in the faces of others, we can stand side by side on the basis of our human identity, as Westerners or Easterners, as religious or not, as black, white, yellow, or brown. With layers of our identity nested within a larger sense of identity—”out of many, one,” in a single space.
Khan’s thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the way many of us manage our myriad identities was a definite strong point in this book for me. Another strong point was her struggle with her spirituality. While I was able to relate to those parts of the book, I found other parts alienating.
One unfortunate motif in this book is the woman-starstruck-by-knowledgeable-and-prestigious-Muslim-man-leader motif. For example, Khan talks about being a modern woman, but she repeats (at least 6 times) the fact that she is an imam’s wife. Here is an especially worrying passage (not counted in the six times): “Here I was, living in the most powerful country in the world; I was empowered by all the men in my family; I was married to an imam of global influence. That made me, by association, an influential woman. And what was I doing in the fight for women’s rights? If not me, then who?” I understand that she references the men in her life as a way of acknowledging her privilege. But I find it problematic that she sees their support of her as the most empowering thing in her life, instead of the God-given talent and personal ambition that she so obviously has.
Later, she says, “I was increasingly feeling the responsibility of what it meant to be a Muslim woman—an educated Muslim woman who had been empowered by all the men in her family and was heavily involved in the work of her husband, a religious leader.” In terms of responsibility, the fact that she’s “a Muslim woman” is enough. Why the focus on the men in her life?
Yet another example of this is when Khan is interested in the idea of women calling the adhan. She gives her father-in-law, who is a scholar, a demonstration. Afterwards, “[he] stood, kissed my forehead, and proclaimed it one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard. His approbation was both a spiritual and cultural milestone for me.” While I understand that she wants her father-in-law’s “approbation” because she respects his status as a religious scholar, these kinds of scenes irritate me because Khan never shows similar scenes with women that she respects and admires.
Us and Them
In 2014, Khan and a group of women planned an Eid celebration. About the green lights lighting up the top of the Empire State Building in commemoration of Eid, “one mother told her son, ‘See how much they love us? They lit up the Empire State Building just for us!’ ” Khan includes this anecdote as proof that the Muslims at the event enjoyed themselves, and I believe she wants to show that Muslims want to love and be loved by everyone. But this specific quote veers too close to an open-armed embrace of white savior complex for my personal taste.
And finally, here’s one last thing that really bothered me. When she discovers that Egypt has women mazoonas (marriage registry officials), she says, “The thought that Egypt was ahead of the United States in advancing women’s roles in Islam was disconcerting.” Why is that disconcerting? Because Egypt is backward and the US is so good at women’s rights? Khan insists in this book that Islam gave women human rights 1400 years ago. So I’m not sure why it’s surprising for her to see a Muslim-majority country upholding some of those rights.
While I deeply admire Khan and the work that she’s doing for women’s rights and for peace, this memoir missed the mark for me.
Thank you to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.