Posted on Aug 02, 2019
Chances are you’ve never met a person like Eman el-Badawi, a sheep farmer working to make sure (among other things) that the udhiya (sacrifice) that happens in conjunction with Eid ul Adha is done ethically and morally. Aside from managing her farm and being a mom of six, Eman is also an active member of her local community. She ran and won the Democratic Primary for her city’s township committee (while wearing HH, no less!), and is set to run in the general elections this November insha'Allah!
I first met Eman at our Changemakers event in Princeton, NJ. Right before Melanie's talk, we all went around the circle and introduced ourselves to the group; when it was Eman's turn, she revealed she was a sheep farmer! Needless to say, we all did a double take! It was the coolest thing ever! She went on to share how ironic it was that she became a sheep farmer, given her mother's history. Her mother was raised in a farm town and was the first woman in her village to get a college degree and went on to become a dentist! And then her daughter got a science degree and became … a farmer!
Needless to say, Eman has since become a legend at our Haute Hijab office, and with Eid ul Adha around the corner, we wanted to further understand her experience in running a sheep farm and how it's changed her as a person and inspired her to get more involved in her community as well as understanding the prophetic way of doing udhiya.
While Eman embodies humility (something she says running her farm taught her), masha'Allah she's also a force to be reckoned with! There is nothing ordinary about Eman, as much as she would disagree with that statement. I recently chatted with her about how she got into farming, what she’s learned through her experiences, her community engagement and so much more!
I remember when we first met at the first Changemakers event, and you introduced yourself as a sheep farmer. That was definitely NOT something I expected to hear! What got you into sheep farming? What did you and your husband do before?
I am not a farmer by training. My degree is in chemistry and biology, and I ultimately wanted to go to medical school. My husband is a physician - a glaucoma surgeon. We lived in Piscataway, NJ in a starter home, and we had five children in that home – definitely outgrew it. We looked for many years for another home and finally found one in Cranbury, NJ. The problem was it was a rundown home but had beautiful six acres of land. The person we bought the house from was a tree farmer, so it made sense to maintain that farm.
It took us many years to rebuild the home. And to keep the land's status as a farm with the city, we were compelled to continue farming. We tried planting corn one year on one of the six acres. It was a lot of work, but when the inspector came by, he said we needed to farm all six acres of the land for it to be considered farmland. He said, "I don't care what you do, even if you pasture animals, but it's the NJ rules now."
Our only problem was that we're not living here yet.
When he said pasture animals, we did a little bit of research. We just needed one animal per acre. Horses? Cows? Too high maintenance and intimidating. Goats? Manageable but naughty. What about sheep? They turned out to be a very docile and easy animal that didn't need much human interaction.
We started off just like that with absolutely no training but an interest to succeed. We were still not living on the farm, and we carried gallons of water from Piscataway to Cranbury every day for two years so we could feed the sheep. (The water supply wasn't there yet.)
Every year, we added more animals. Then, we did our first Eid Udhiya with customers five years ago, after we officially moved into the farm. We started with five customers, then 10, then 20, and this year insha'Allah we have about 30 customers who will be coming on Eid.
What feedback do you get from people who come to your farm? What are the experiences they share with you?
They come knowing that they will be slaughtering their own animals. They know the sunnah, the Prophetic way of doing it, and in general the feedback has been pretty cool. The animals are happy until the last minute. They're not stopped from eating or drinking until the last minute. They never see or hear any other animal get slaughtered – the rest of the sheep are far away, and we also hang up a sheet to block anything from their sight.
It's also very clean. The sheep are slaughtered on the ground. Any bodily fluids just get put in a hole and buried. It's not like a typical slaughterhouse where it's wet, dirty, smelly and the animals are stressed. It is peaceful.
We had a gentleman last year come from Princeton University; he was a Ph.D. student studying cultural slaughter practices. He had been to slaughterhouses and hunting grounds, and then he came here. I thought he would disappear within an hour. He stayed for NINE hours. He said it was calmer and cleaner and more peaceful than any of the slaughterhouses he's been to. He had a really good experience, and I was grateful for the input because it was something we are trying to provide: To be as close to the sunnah as possible.
There had been many times where a customer would come, say, Bismillahir Rahman al Raheem and the animal would completely submit and put its head on the ground!
What goes into sheep farming? I imagine it changes you as a person - living on a farm, herding sheep, putting your whole heart into creating something with nature, ethics and sunnah in mind.
There's a very prophetic aspect to sheep herding. I understand why [all the prophets] took up this job at one point or another. It's very humbling, very educational, very spiritual. There's nothing that teaches you to trust in the unknown than raising these sheep. There is a lot of tawakkul in this.
I think it's made me less arrogant. It's very humbling to know that I am not in control of nature, and any time we go against nature, we lose. It's a total submission. As a parent, that's a lesson too, that we're not in total control of our children or their lives (to an extent of course). I've learned a lot of patience, and that I can also be a farmer and part of society. We all think that if you become a farmer, that's all you do. But really anyone can tap into their inner farmer.
When I'm very confused and have very difficult decisions to make, I work on the farm for an hour. I get a lot of clarity. I've developed a respect for life, and I'm 100 percent less wasteful than I used to be. I work very hard to make sure that the entire animal finds someone who wants it, which is very hard to do. But I don't throw anything away.
My husband and I have learned to be very scrappy and make do with everything we have. One day we were picking up animals from a farm, and our enclosure fell apart (the goat kept ramming into it and collapsed it) on the highway. But we pulled over and took out everything in the trunk of the car, and we used spare tires and bungee cords to hold up the wall. Your survival instincts kick in, which is such a great lesson in life. We've also learned how to use our time very efficiently.
Would you ever go back to the days you weren't a farmer?
When I'm very tired, I think about it. But then I rest for the day and come back and love it.
The last time I saw you, you mentioned that you were running in your city's elections! What inspired you to run for local office, and has being a farmer played any role in your desire to be politically active?
The farming stuff is great – I love being a mom, wife and farmer. I have also started a modest little political career. Part of my reason for attending the HH event was I wanted to buy a nice polished scarf for my first political debut. I wore it, and I gave my speech and won the election that night, alhamdulillah! It's so myopic, to expect our farmers to just be farmers. I think farming has invited me to want to be something in my town an to affect decisions. The farm has opened that door for dialogue, because people always want to talk about the farm.
And, the hard work dealing with the farm and seven people at home has all been very good training. Our town, by the way, has no one that looks like us. No hijabis. So them voting me in was a very, very big deal.
I have always volunteered in this town. If you're a part of the town, you should be an active part of the town; being an active and relevant and useful part of my community is a core principle of my religion, family and farm values. So, running for office was just a natural progression. Now, I just have a title that goes along with the work I've been already doing. The farm allowed me the confidence to run. If I can get through the farm work, I can get through the township work.
I love that you said being a useful part of your community is an Islamic principle – it truly is! How do you instill that in your children? Do they play a role at the farm?
It's funny because a couple of years ago I approached their school about Career Day and said, "I'd like to present myself as a sheep farmer." They hesitated but said, “let's try it.” Every year there are engineers and doctors, etc., and I thought this would be different. My session was packed. Every seat was full, and I had four completely full sessions. It's different. I think wherever I go that's why it stands out.
I have six children, and they are all part of the farm process. Unless there is something that is physically hard or dangerous for them to do, they are part of the process.
They were very excited in the beginning, as children usually are when it comes to animals. Now they're a little indifferent. But they are very helpful when I need them. They can put out the hay and water and go and count the flock. There are foxes that get in from time to time, coyotes in the area, etc. so it's important to always keep count of the flock. They can tell me if one animal doesn't look well.
Eid day is always a full-on family event because I have one child taking care of the parking, one child who will walk the customers from parking to the farm, two children in charge of matching the animals with the customer (tag the animal, bags, etc). The night before all six of them sit around and make the tags and prepare everything. Everything is homemade. I don't want to be a wasteful member of the farm, so we reuse everything that we can.
It must be a busy time for you now, with Eid ul Adha right around the corner!
I usually only supply for Eid. We have about 15 sheep now and they will all be mating within the next month, so I expect 150 percent growth by spring. It'll be about 35-40 sheep. As a farmer, you reduce your flock as you get into the fall. So from the flock that I raise and the babies they have, we select the ones that will be the right age and size for this. We do this so they don't inbreed because then you'll get a very stunted population. So, you actually MUST move the animals from the farm. One month before Eid, we pick up our new animals, and I make sure they are healthy and content. I don't slaughter animals that are any other way.
Are there any funny stories you can share with me?
There's one story I learned so much from. I had one female that gave birth and wasn't well. We took her baby and bottle-fed her for two months. The mom was dying, but I didn't have the heart to put her down. I kept trying to save her life. I tried everything, and nothing was working. I had the option of calling a vet or I could go online on farm forums, which don't necessarily provide science knowledge – it's more experience and practice. One farmer talked about how when he had a sheep not doing well, he would give it a dark brew beer. I had tried everything and at that point, I myself just had a baby, so I said you know what, God, I'm going to buy a beer for this animal.
I had to go to a liquor store with my baby in one hand and a toddler in another had, and I'm in full hijab. The person that saw me there fell off his chair and was so confused. He asked me if I was in the right place, and I told him I need just one bottle of dark brew beer. He said what are you doing with it? I told him it's for an animal and he was even more confused. He had the most befuddled look on his face!
Anyway, I went home and started this beer treatment. I gave the sheep the beer a few times that day. By the end of the night, an animal that couldn't raise her head or move her jaw to eat was lifting her head! I was so amazed that it worked, so I delved into my science background to try and figure out why. I realized the benefit and healing properties of the beer for sheep.
Being ruminants, sheep have four compartments to their stomach, and the food eaten is periodically regurgitated, chewed again and passed through the various compartments. Yeast is essential to keep the normal functioning of the rumen. Beer is made up of yeast, fermented grains, sugar and liquid, which was this magical potion that kickstarted the sheep's digestive system, offered it an abundance of calories and hydrated it all at once! Since then, I've learned that I can make a homemade yeast-malt brew to avoid purchasing the alcoholic beer.
My mom and my family were landowners in Egypt. She was telling me of a drink, a brew they made, that was called booza. They would ferment yeast and some kind of sugar, and this would be a drink they gave to people with dietary issues or stomach problems. I figured out how to make it for myself, and it's now a liquid I can give to my sheep. There was something medicinal to it, and I figured it out. make it myself the "halal way" ;) Science is just so amazing and so weird!
I also have lots of stories of lambs that are born and orphaned, so we feed them and they follow us around thinking they're people just like us!
And there you have it – Eman el-Badawi, wife, mom, sheep farmer and town civil servant extraordinaire! We love seeing Muslim women take such non-traditional paths and do work with such ihsan, masha'Allah! Do you have any questions for Eman? Ask them below, and we'll be sure to pass them along to her :)