You have been named as one of the most influential Muslims in the world, which projects earned you this recognition?
There are a lot of reasons, but to name a few, I was running one of the largest foundations and the grants that we were giving affected a lot of people. We were very strategic in the way we gave money and we wanted to ensure there was long-term change. So there were a lot of endowments and sustainable income centres. We took on one of the biggest issues that we were facing back then (10 years ago), which was Islamophobia. We looked at ways of combating it by setting up Islamic centres in the best universities like Harvard, Georgetown, and Cambridge, to help the West overcome these fears. We also wanted to create some understanding of the US in the Middle East so people would know what they were dealing with. I was also the first person who wore Hijab on a non-religious TV show and that was a pioneering step.
How have your travels influenced your unique perspective on the world?
I’ve lived in the US, Middle East and Far East. Therefore I got to see how different people think about things and perceive the same things differently. Being exposed to different cultures at an early age allowed me to see things in a pluralistic way rather than going for the “my way or the high way” approach.
But of course, you need to adapt very quickly to different systems, different ways of expressions, and presentations to survive. Thus, I have become extremely flexible. So now, I can live anywhere.
You “wear many hats” as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, thought leader, and TV personality, but which title do you most identify with?
Most people know me from TV and therefore for them I’ll always be a TV personality. But I think of myself as a teacher — somebody who likes to help people achieve their potential and somebody who likes to give information. The way I used to do it was by teaching in the universities and creating educational programmes and now I am doing it through television by using my segments on the show to communicate ideas through media.
My career path may not be as contrasting as you might think. Like I said, I like to give people information and I do it in different ways and through different media. So it basically was different tools for the same mission.
You’ve influenced and inspired a lot of people in the region. Who has your inspiration been?
My father. He is an Islamic thinker. A Ph.D graduate in international relations, he is somebody who has devoted his life in trying to help the Uma (Muslim community) achieve a better place. He wrote the book Crisis of the Muslim Mind and other books that look at education and family and creating a way of life that is modern, Islamic, productive, progressive, and dignified.
Ms Anne, who was Helen Keller’s teacher, is another person who has influenced me. Ofcourse, Helen Keller is an exceptional woman who achieved great things inspite of being handicapped, however, her handicap would not have been overcome if it wasn’t for this one teacher who got through to her. And therefore, Ms Anne, the person who helped another to tap into themselves and overcome their obstacles will always remain the person who has resonated with me the most.
What is your motto in life?
I have a lot of mottos in life. They include “With every hardship comes ease,” “Take it easy,” and “Put your faith in God and do your best”.
What do you feel is the biggest problem currently being faced by the Middle East?
There are a lot of problems that are being faced by the Middle East. I think the biggest problem is that of education. We all know that the problem exists but no one is doing anything to fix it. Selecting better teachers, giving them good salaries, and respecting them would be a good place to start if we want to address the issue and solve them. Basically, getting the best to do the most important job should be the biggest priority.
Another major problem that we are facing is that we don’t question the things that are lacking in our system. Such as asking, what do we need to lead a dignified life? How can we ensure that people have employment or access to good and affordable health care, and can they meet the basic needs of their families without having to rely on the government or wasta or other forms of corruption. I also think that we have failed in creating reliable institutions.
How is the Middle East faring when it comes to entrepreneurship and digital media?
I think the Middle East is very entrepreneurial. There are a lot of people who have interesting ideas and are ready to do stuff. But we need a better system of helping them. And the digital age is changing that and making the environment favourable.
What have been the specific challenges you faced as an Arab woman?
There is a lack of respect. There is also the “token woman” concept. We are still lacking in giving women their Islamic rights of full citizenship. When it comes to divorce and inheritance, we know that the rules exist but we don’t enforce it. And even if it is enforced there is a stigma of shame attached when the woman asks for these rights. I do realise that Islamic systems look at male-female relations in a very different way. We look at sex within marriage, clean living, creating strong families, and strong value systems. But just because a woman is going to give birth, doesn’t mean that she should be penalised on all of her other decisions.
Another challenge women face especially while working in a mixed environment is that there is a social side that has to be more conservative. Since people are not used to seeing women reaching the very top, you need to suppress your other natural traits such as your fun or inquisitive side. You have to look at how you position yourself as an authority. So when people see me on TV or watch my interviews they think my life is just about work. However, I also do other things. I travel a lot. I spend time with my kids. I like visiting art galleries. So the challenge is how you create a balance between your human and social elements and your authoritative side.
Also, since women are seen as nurturers, sometimes people tend to abuse that. So people at work ask for days off and ask for a lot of considerations and women feel obliged to give in. I feel that there needs to be some formality between the boss (female) and the subordinates as unfortunately we haven’t reached that stage at work where people wouldn’t take advantage of your nature.
What advice would you like to give to Arab women who aspire to greatness?
You need to believe in yourself and understand what you want. If you just want to be famous, there are ways to do that, but that’s never been my interest. My interest lies in trying to find out how I can be the best version of myself.
You need to look at who you are as a person, as a Muslim, as a woman. You need to understand what are the values you hold and what you’re good at. And if you don’t know what that is yet, then try to discover it and work towards developing it. Also, it is very important for a woman to choose the right person to get married to. Earlier, it was all about creating a family, but now you need someone who understands your value system and somebody you can communicate with. In every area of your life, look for solutions and don’t look for problems. Everything has a solution, even if you don’t like it.