In conversation with Durriyah Ben A. S.
Foreword and Illustration Fatema
Durriyah Ben is the Senior Executive at a renowned publishing house- and a lover of all things duck. She already knows the title of her book- “I think I’ll be a duck!” The first thing she does in the morning is hug her husband (although she doesn’t want you imagining it). A power she wish she had would be to do Maula’s Qadambosi whenever she wanted. Though not a wearer of the seat-belt, she is more careful now since she has to be on the best behavior for her beloved granddaughter. Her most prized possession in her wardrobe would be a pair of bangles Burhanuddin Maula (RA) gave her. Her favorite word- perspective. Her worst fear- driving off from the petrol pump station with the hose still attached to her car. Her legacy- continuing love and khidmat of Ahlul Bayt (AS) and their Duat Mutlaqeen.
Driving under the twinkling evening lights of the Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai is when I properly got to know Durriyah Ben. It is there she taught me that success is not zero sum. That you don’t have to sacrifice being one thing to attain success in another. That being the Executive of a company which educates children did not come at the cost of teaching her own. Attending seminars spanning the world did not warrant an absence at Ashara. This eloquent speaker on the stage who could silence the entire room with her words, could also enthusiastically tell me about the art of creating flowers with carrots.
Often we delude ourselves into believing in our life as the constant choosing between dichotomies. That it has to be one over the other, or one before the other.
Except, it doesn’t. They can both exist at the same time.
“I used to dream of being a duck. That was my dream. I used to practice my quack and my waddle very very seriously.”
Give us a brief glimpse into your childhood? What was it like growing up? Your dreams and aspirations? Hobbies?
Ever since I was a very small child, my belief was that you can grow up to be any animal you want to be- I used to dream of being a duck. That was my dream. I used to practice my quack and my waddle very very seriously. Some people say I still haven’t lost my waddle. I just thought they were cute.
When I think about it today as an adult, I think it was fortuitous. When we think about the zikr of Maulana Ali’s shahadat, as he is leaving, he is saying goodbye to the ducks and he is telling Umme Kulsum- “a bezubaan jaanwar na daana paani no khayal raakhjo”
I have always done araz to Aqa Maula that aap mara daana paani no khayal raakho cho. I feel like the little duck that Maulana Ali has left in the care of duaat. And I feel much looked after.
Beyond that I have always wanted to be involved in some kind of writing. Something to do with words. I have been very fortunate in the way life worked out in the end.
In terms of hobbies it was reading. It was always reading. I loved reading. A lot.
We looked you up, and you have so many degrees! You are clearly very passionate about education. What do you think is the role of education?
Rather than what I think the role of education is, we should look at what Mohammed Burhanuddin Maula has said about education. He says that sometimes, we go about what we think education is but in the end we question – am I a Muslim or not? One doesn’t know. I would think that the objective of education is not to figure out who we are but when we are starting on the process, we should know who we are and then get educated. The purpose of education is really to make yourself a better person. Not just for this world, but to prepare you for aakherat. Otherwise, it’s not good enough. That’s a personal view.
Professionally, I always say that all of us in education are optimists. We have to believe that tomorrow is going to be a better world and that we have a role to play in it. Otherwise, why bother to educate?
Similarly we have to believe that aakherat is a better world for us otherwise why bother to prepare for it.
To me, you cannot have identities. Primarily my identity is of a mumina. And that defines who I am as a woman, as a mother, as a professional.
Being a wife, mother, grandmother, and mumina– how do those identities intertwine for you?
It’s not about “identities.” To me, you cannot have identities. You have a singular identity which then helps you understand and get through each situation and role that you play. Otherwise it would be like you are one person at home, one person in the office and another person wherever else.
Identity is related to values- you can’t have different values, right? You have to have the same values. It’s what Najmuddin saheb said, you can’t be living out of two suitcases.
Primarily my identity is of a mumina. And that defines who I am as a woman, as a mother, as a professional.
The conflict arises in how we negotiate situations. Often we are conflicted, not because we have different identities, but because the identity we perceive we need to present is different from who we are. That’s when we are conflicted. Am I going to be seen as less hip if I am in a rida?
What do you believe is the role of a woman in the society?
(Citing Aqa Taher Saifuddin Maula’s address at Zahira College)–
Women have a very central and important role in society. Whether or not- we often think oh are we treated as equal, are we oppressed are we suppressed, but I think that we take the easy way out.
Women have a role- but first they have to understand and live up to that role before expecting that people will pave the way for them. Women have a very important role, fundamentally because they have the role of a mother. Biologically a man cannot be a mother. In all his wisdom, Allah created it that way. Men have been disadvantaged so to speak. Leading on from that role of being somebody who is a nurturer, somebody who is the center of life for the people around them.
When we think about equality, we have to think about equity. Khuda taala is equitable.
Feminism has warped into something it was never meant to be. What are your thoughts on that?
I think we have all gone through this time of rebellion, thinking of the injustices of the world. I think there was a time when I felt ‘oh we all need to be equal’. Why are us women disadvantaged! Again to go back to something syedi Yusufbhai Najmuddin, the former Ameer al Jamea al Muqaddas Syedi Yusuf bhaisaheb Najmuddin, said:
“Women and men- khuda ta’ala has created them equal. There is no doubt about it.
Equal- but different.”
Equal is not the same as same. Equal is equal. But it would be ridiculous and unfair to give everybody the exact same thing. Because they may not need it.
This was a paper I was writing recently about equality and equity. Equality is everybody has the exact same thing. Equity means everybody has the same opportunity. Khuda taala is equitable. So for example physiologically we are not the same as men. Imagine if Allah gave men the capacity to breastfeed. Would that be equitable? I mean men could say that right? We find it ridiculous, but men could say “Oh I’m not equal. This is injustice.” Or if I was giving people money and I’d say- ok I am going to give everybody the same amount of money. Whether you are in Europe, Indonesia or in America, I’ll give you all a 100,000 Indonesian rupiah. What is the guy in Europe or the US going to do with that money?
So when we think about equality, we have to think about equity. Where equality is required, we have that equality. For example, seeking of knowledge is compulsory for men and women – it is equally compulsory – not in degrees or parts.
Giving them (children) the gift of imagination- it’s the best chance of success at life.
As an Executive in a publishing house what importance do you feel books should play in a child’s life?
As we like to say- Readers are leaders. Giving children access to books is the single most important thing we can do. Giving them the ability to read, to enjoy good books, the access to information, the gift of imagination- it’s the best chance of success at life. There is no replacement for that.
What are some must reads?
The very hungry caterpillar. Right now the book I enjoy reading with Insiya (her granddaughter) is Silly Billy- it’s about a goat that runs into the backyard and eats up all the laundry. Most days I am silly Billy and she makes me eat all this furnishing around.
There’re many different books that you enjoy at different points in life. But a book I love going back to is certainly Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Middlemarch is good
Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf.
I enjoyed reading Anna Karenina.
And Dickens, I love reading Dickens
Which fictional character do you relate to the most? Or you wished you could be?
Elisa Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She’s so smart and very articulate. She’s her own woman. She has her own sense of what’s right and wrong. I love the fact that she’s her father’s favorite daughter. And the fact that she gets Darcy in the end.
What is the one thing plaguing the world right now?
Ignorance. It’s ignorance and these assumptions. We don’t take the time to think deeply about things. We are so exposed to information from everywhere that we are just consuming it without really connecting dots in a meaningful way. If people thought of it more, then we probably wouldn’t have the problems in the world.
What challenges are women facing today?
Themselves. To me that’s the biggest issue. You have to decide- if you want to be independent, then be independent. You can’t be both. If you want to sit at the table, then be prepared to take the heat.
Historical figure you are inspired by- be it within Islam or even otherwise.
It can’t be a single figure, many different people, and again at different points in life. Overwhelmingly, the person that would inspire me the most would be Mohammed Burhanuddin Maula (RA). We have been so close to him, we have seen things unfold. In the same way Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin Maula (TUS) also inspires us, I mean he just takes our breath away. How could you do this? How is this even possible?
You can dream big. You should just have the courage and the faith of your conviction to then see that reality.
Busaheba herself is somebody that inspires me a lot when I think about what she does for daawat and yet nothing is too small or insignificant as far as her family is concerned for her to give her personal attention to and that is awesome.
My mum inspires me a lot too. She’s a figure that I continually think off, and tell my husband that don’t expect me to be like this, I’m not even half the person she is. It’s awesome isn’t it to have a mother that you think oh my and every day you learn something more about her. She inspires me a lot.
And I’m thinking- wow did that just happen? That’s something I will always treasure.
Your favorite memory of Maula?
I don’t know. It’s so difficult. There are so many.
This memory of Mufaddal Maula, before he was Mansoos even. On 100th milad, we were in Burhanpur. I was fortunate enough to be there for some khidmat I was doing. I was walking out because Maula ni Ziyarat hati and I was going towards there, and Aali Qadr Maula was also going from his residence for Ziyarat. He saw me coming from a distance. You know how you become aware when somebody has stopped for you? He was just waiting there for me. I was frozen. When I reached, I was a blabbering mess. But he said, “How are you? Is everything ok? Are you comfortable?” And then he went on to do Ziyarat. And I’m thinking- wow did that just happen? That’s something I will always treasure.
Aziz uncle once told me about an encounter you had with a principal of a school who refused to let you conduct a lecture because of what you were wearing. How did that make you feel and what was your response? Is it something you have to face often?
To be very honest, it is not something I have to face very often. There have been occasions on and off but I don’t think we should give them a significance in our lives. You have to put things into perspective. There will always be people who don’t understand. I wasn’t bothered by his reaction to me personally. What I was bothered by was that he was the principal of a school. He was leading, molding young minds. The fact that he had this attitude. Your values are your values, they will be reflected in the things you do and the words you use. Implicitly, he is passing on these values to kids. And that disturbed me the most. At the end of the day, I just thought, he is the person with the problem, not me. You just take it in your stride. And keep a sense of perspective on what’s important and move on. There used to be times, no more, when we used to go to the polyclinic and because you’re wearing a rida people assumed you are uneducated. The pharmacist would explain the medication to Aziz (her husband) in English. He would just say, “You can talk to her, she’s got a Masters in English.”
You just take it in your stride.