Noha Al Shugairi is a marriage and family therapist and Certified Positive Discipline Associate. She regularly gives parenting classes and has been invited to speak at many large conferences and other events on topics such as divorce in the American Muslim community, parent and child relationships, the intertwining of faith and culture in the American Muslim community, youth identity development, and the impact of changing women roles on the family unit. We asked Noha to give us some insight on some common issues and what her advice is in these areas.
| 1. How did you get started in this field?
Honestly, it feels like it was meant to be but it did take me a long time to get where I am today. As a fresh graduate from high school, I was thinking about going into psychology because I loved to listen to people, reflect on what’s going on with them, and try and help them with their problems. My uncle, who was a physician, talked to me about how psychology wasn’t a successful career and if I wanted to do therapy I might as well go all the way and become a psychiatrist And so I did. I started medical school in Jordan and ended up getting married in my fourth year. I moved to the US with my husband, and got my BA in zoology. Then I had my children and decided to put my career on hold until my children were older and in school. After my children had all started school, I decided to try teaching. I taught for five years and was the principal of a school for one year. However, teaching wasn’t really my thing so I decided to take a year off. Then in passing, one of my friends was telling me about a program at a local university that offered a masters in counseling which allowed you to go into marital counseling. I truly feel that Allah sent her to me as a messenger to help me find my way. I am truly happy and blessed to be doing something I enjoy with the natural talents that Allah has given me.
| 2. What do you do now?
I got my license two years ago and I work in an office with four other psychologists. I am the only one who is Muslim in the office. I also teach parenting classes and speak at different events. I feel very strongly about helping people. I also co-hosted a radio show for three years called family connection with Munira Ezzeldine.
| 3. Do you ever feel in any way that there might be some aspects to your job that might put you in a situation that is contradicting to Islam?
The greatest myth about counseling and therapy is that we give our opinion or our advice. Ethically, we are prohibited from doing that. I believe that everyone is the master of their own destiny. What I do is provide a safe haven for people to think about the issues they are struggling with and shed light on matters that might be overlooked and allow the person to process their problems. The client ultimately decides what needs to be done.As for being in situations that contradict Islam, my job is not to condone or judge. All of my clients know what is right or wrong. It’s not the case that someone who had an affair, for example, is ignorant of the Islamic ruling. They know! So preaching to them about what is right or wrong does not solve the problem. The way I help my clients is by facilitating the discussion over why did the affair happen, what do they think about it, how is it impacting their emotional and spiritual self, and so on. It is such a discussion that would help resolve issues surrounding the problem.
| 4. Since you have worked extensively with the Muslim community, what do you feel is a great area of need in our communities?
Regular parenting classes. I truly believe in the power of parenting classes, and not just people to attend but apply what they learn. It saddens me that many problems are preventative problems that arise from parents nottaking an active role in learning how to parent well. It is very easy to be swept into the business of their daily lives and they don’t sense that something is wrong until its somewhat late. There are so many missed opportunities. I believe that parenting classes can solve so many issues.
| 5. What recommendations do you have for new parents?
I would advise them to think about long-term goals for their parenting. Long term goals will necessitate a different way of interacting with your children, than short term goals. An example of this is a 2 year old who likes to open closets and throw everything out. Someone who is only thinking of the now, short term goals, will think that the child is being disruptive and making a mess and might scream at the child or spank them so they can learn that they shouldn’t open the closet. However, this is normal behavior for a 2 year old and that reaction can be negative and damaging. The child will not understand that you are mad about the closet and will think that they are not loved or that they are bad. If your thinking long term, you will know that this is normal behavior and you will change the environment. For example, you may choose some closets that are accessible and can be opened and safely played with by the child while making other more dangerous closets, like the one with cleaning supplies, inaccessible. Such an approach will empower the child to feel capable while being loved and safe.
I also recommend having routines. Routines are so important for a child because they provide safetyand predictability. Kids need to know what is coming next. Routines need to be established early on.
Another recommendation is to spend good quality time with your children. That means not just taking care of their needs and calling it quality time. Listen to them, play with them, and be a large part of their lives. You will find that the more you put into your relationship with your children, the more you will get out of it and the more they will be willing to help you around the house and care for you. It becomes a reciprocal relationship.
| 6. In speaking about families and raising children, how do you feel women’s role should be defined in our society, particularly in the Muslim community?
In the Muslim community, there are still so many unresolved and differing opinions, ideas and interpretations in terms of women’s issues. Here is my personal opinion. For a long time, we were told we are not supposed to do so many things. But when you study our history, we learn that Muslim women did so much more than we know. For example, Nusayba bint Kaab was actually carrying a sword alongside the Prophet ﷺ during the battle of Uhud. She was not merely tending to the wounded or working in the tents and he never told her that her place is not there fighting. When you read the Sirrah you discover that there was normal natural interactions between the men and women during the Prophet’s ﷺ time. I suggest three things.
First of all, we really need to go back and access our understanding because we are going to discover a lot of freedom. Second, we are going to find that there are a lot of gray areas for many topics such as work and staying home and other topics and we should not expect there to be one uniform answer that will fit everyone. There are going to be different interpretations and we need to respect the different choices. As long as the needs of the family members are taken care of, every woman needs to find something that works for her. For example, I wanted to be there for my kids but that was my personal choice. Before I had my eldest son, I was telling my husband that I will stay home with the baby for the first six months and then ill go back to school; I wanted to do my PhD. After I gave birth, I could not imagine myself leaving him with someone else and I decided to stay home. I have never regretted it and that was my choice alone.
The third thing is in regards to our situation as women, we need to educate ourselves about what Islam tells us we need to be and not depend on others . We need to stand up for our rights and not accept something that is cultural in the name of Islam. I am not saying to be rebels, but to not to be passive. Change happens step by step.
I believe that both women and men need to go back and really access our perceptions and understanding of women in our society. There is a beautiful book that I highly recommend. It is called Tahreer Al Maraa fe Asr Al Resala by AbdelHaleem Mahmoud Abu Shaka. Unfortunately it is only in Arabic but it is a wonderful compilation of all instances and stories of women during the Prophet’s ﷺ time. This author was actually researching another topic for his book but during his research he kept on finding all these stories of the women in Islam. He was so struck by the differences of what he thought women should be and what the hadith and stories were saying about them that he decided to write his book about this topic because he felt that everyone needs to know about these stories.
| 7. Every Muslim community is now struggling with the problem of their youth. What is your take on this issue and what advice do you have on resolving youth issues?
The problem with the youth is a phenomenon all over the world. It is not restricted to Muslim families in the West. Muslim majority countries are also struggling with youth issues. For us in the US, it becomes a more critical issue because the larger society does not hold the same values or traditions we would like our youth to hold. But when we talk about these issues it is crucial to distinguish between values based on ethnic traditions vs. values stemming from Faith. If parents were to focus on the Islamic values some of their struggle with the youth will be alleviated. Islam will fit in any time or place and the rigidity that some feel from Islam is stemming form an ethnic cultural interpretation. Whenever, Islam is presented through a very narrow lens, our youth feel alienated or threatened and cause them to move away from the Muslim community. The youth themselves need to educate themselves about the pure Islam and know that it is very flexible. They need to read and understand it and expose themselves to differences of opinions. This will help them be proud of being a Muslim. As a therapist, I have observed that people who have really internalized being a Muslim as a way of life, did not struggle as much in their lives. What I mean by internalizing is applying the existential values of Islam in your daily life: how to deal with hard times, how to approach money, how to deal with people, etc.
| 8. What advice do you have to other Muslim women who are interested in going into this field?
The number one thing I advise is that you really need to like it and you honestly wouldn’t know that until you actually try it. This is basically a job where you use your self and you need to be 100% present when you are with your clients. Even after you have gone through the program, don’t be upset if you end up not liking it because you would have learned more about yourself in the process.
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