Highlighting Local Heroes (Part 1) – Two Sisters-in-Law Serving Their Community Together
Posted on Dec 27, 2019
Editor's note: What does it mean to "wear it like you mean it?" We know this coming year may be hard for Muslims, especially visibly Muslim women, and we invite you (and ourselves) to renew our intentions and reflect on what our hijab (and faith) mean to us. Throughout the month we are sharing stories of what this means to women around the U.S. as well as highlighting local heroes who are quietly doing good and hard work in their communities.
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
One of the great things about the work I do as a journalist is connecting with Muslims doing great things. Over the years, I have noticed an increasing interest to highlight Muslim women (especially ones in hijab) in both mainstream and Muslim-centered media. To be sure, the heightened media attention provides representation that helps to dispel cultural generalizations about Muslim women, but it has also constructed expectations that to be seen and appreciated, Muslim women need to engage in “important” experiences.
While it’s fantastic to spotlight such Muslim women, it’s also commendable that many create or involve themselves in less “sexy” initiatives that may not garner headlines but are just as important to the development of their families, communities and broader society. These women (I call them "Layla's Local Heroes") doing unrecognized good work are essential communal assets and active at many levels to promote social growth.
Halima Ornella (left) and Najia Partap (right)
With this in mind and in the spirit of this month’s “Wear it Like You Mean” it campaign at Haute Hijab, I am honored to tell you about two of my local heroes in this first post of a two-part series – Halima Ornella and Najia Partap, who provide support for Muslims women new to the faith as well as those moving into our community. The sisters-in-law also lead It’s Personal, a local initiative that furnishes hygiene kits to local homeless women and support a project that gives new shahadah kits containing essentials for new Muslims as they enter the faith.
Halima is a college student and Najia is a married mother of two. I recently spoke with them about what motivates their work.
Helping New Muslim Women
Many new Muslims can benefit from support when entering the faith. Moving into an area and familiarizing oneself with co-adherents in the new community may also require support. When learning about a new shahadah or Muslim woman new to the community, local leaders contact Halima and Najia to connect.
“The imam reaches out to us and says, ‘As-salam alaykum. I have a new sister. Is it okay to give her your number?’” explains Halima. “They’ll [then] call or text us.
“I try to get a little background and connect with them to see where they are in life. I tell them about our community and the services our masjid offers. I leave the door open to contact me if they need anything.New Muslims especially don’t always have someone who can relate to them and support their new journey,” she adds.
“New Muslims often talk with us about what they’re going through with their families,” says Najia.
“I share my background with them, so they know I can relate,” explains Halima. “I know what it’s like to have people turn their backs [on you] because of the decision to become Muslim. I try to show them that they’re not alone. I had sisters who helped me along the way, and I want to be that for somebody else.”
Halima and Najia expressed the importance of having someone to talk to in a new faith and social setting.
“Probably, besides learning about Islam, it is very important to make social connections [with other Muslims],” says Halima. “Without it, I don’t know if a person can survive. You just have a disconnect from the deen if you don’t have that.”
Najia Partap (left) and Halima Ornella (right) giving meals and dawah material.
Najia explains why it is often critical for new Muslims to make connections. “There could be little things that you experience. [For example,] if [new Muslims] try to go to the masjid on their own, they might experience something small that impacts them and affects their wanting to continue their journey in Islam – whether they just became Muslim or want to strengthen their faith. You just want to make sure they have a good experience. Some people are rejected within the community. We want to protect them and take them under our wings,” she says.
When asked what local communities can do to help new Muslims and those moving into the area, Najia suggests more resources. “There needs to be more opportunities for Muslims to meet."
“It’s difficult,” says Halima. “Muslims tend to be socially-restrictive, only interacting with those sharing certain aspects of their background. We are a diverse community, but it is obvious that South Asians mainly socialize with other South Asians. Arabs do the same. It can be off-putting for people to come into a masjid and see that level of social segregation. Our community needs to follow the sunnah more and not cultural practices.”
Every Woman Deserves to Feel Clean
Najia spearheads two projects with members of the Islamic Center of Mastic-Shirley in New York. After reading an article highlighting the struggle homeless women go through to acquire feminine hygiene products, she launched the It’s Personal initiative and garnered community support.
“Every woman deserves to feel clean and have the basic necessities to attain that feeling,” says Najia. “It’s something we take for granted.”
“It’s a necessity,” says Halima. “There is no way women can make themselves stop getting their period. There shouldn’t be a pink tax, and resources should be readily available.”
The women began raising money during Ramadan in 2017, and since then the project has provided 200 kits over two years through donations from local Muslims. Says Halima, “I was surprised by the amount of money we raised so quickly. We were able to fund the project for two years.”
The project furnishes kits for a local homeless shelter serving women and children across backgrounds. “We all go through this,” she adds.
How Shahadah Kits Help New Muslims
Becoming Muslim can be a very unique experience. The reasons for becoming Muslim, reactions from family and friends, and entering a new faith community can be daunting. Najia and Halima organizes for our local masjid to provide kits for new shahadahs in the Mastic-Shirley and New York areas as well as in nearby prisons. Through the kits, they help provide valuable basics for people new to the faith.
“A lot of new Muslims don’t know where to get a prayer rug or resources to learn how to make wudu, pray and things that are part of our everyday lives as Muslims,” says Halima. “The kits have a hijab (kufi for men), prayer rug and the book Welcome to Islam, with a lot of useful information that a new Muslim should know.”
“You don’t always have someone to talk to and ask questions,” says Najia. “Some [people] may not even feel comfortable asking questions, so the kits are something nice to give to new Muslims to help them start their journeys.”
Managing it All
Najia, a mother of two, and Halima, a college student, continue to work with their Muslim community on these projects despite high demands on their time. “We know our community needs it,” says Halima. “We set aside the time, and we have a team from the community and non-Muslim family members who help us. We’re not on our own.”
Says Najia, “It doesn’t feel like a burden because I know I’m helping.”
Halima points out that community projects like It’s Personal give people who aren't Muslim the opportunity to see beyond headlines about Muslims. “Non-Muslims can see how important it is for us to give back. Hopefully, that will shed a different light on what they usually see about Muslims. [They'll come to know that] there are people who care about humans. Their faith doesn’t matter.”