Dr. Marwa Azab is a professor of neuroscience who focuses on understanding human behavior by intersecting different fields of biology and psychology. She believes that all different fields of science and human nature must be taken into account when analyzing human behavior. In addition to lecturing in universities, Dr. Azab also lectures in the Muslim community and write for many publications.
| 1. Tell me about yourself and your background.
I am a mother of three children, two of which are in middle school and one in KG. I have been married for 15 years. My family is my number one priority, and I had to sculpt a career that ensured that. I like to write, think, read, and bake. I cannot be sitting in one place from 9-5, or squeeze my crazy ideas in one job, so I work on many projects. I have taught for three different departments: psychology, human development, and biology. I do public speaking on a variety of topics and I blog for HuffingtonPost, Elephant Journal, and other places. I am also a life-coach, either one-on-one, or for couples and small groups.
I have always been out of cohort and deeply reject traditional life trajectories. I got my first masters in counseling psychology, my second one in research psychology, and while writing my second master’s thesis, I got a fully supported stipend to do my PhD. Because I have always been interested in understanding human behavior ever since I was a young, I wanted to do my PhD in a different field, one that would give me a better perspective on why humans are this strange way. There were some questions I could not find answers to in psychology. There were also some answers in psychology that were not convincing to me. I know I had blind spots, having studied psychology for about a decade! So, I decided to get my PhD in Biological Sciences, with emphasis on Neuroscience. Understanding the brain, chemicals, hormones, and how they affect the way humans act, react, and emote has answered/corrected some questions I had. Most importantly, having a more holistic understanding made me ask some new questions. I cannot say that I am a 100% satisfied or that I now understand why humans do what they do, but I certainly understand a bit more than before.
| 2. What are some of the most common issues that you see in the American Muslim community?
I think the number one problem is how we select/support our leaders. For example, some of our Imams have been resigning and leaving the mosque to seek a third space. The constant issue of Imam vs. Board in so many masjids—we ought to find a solution to this repeated problem. In the current era of Islamophobia, we need to provide an encouraging and comfortable space for our Imams, so they can continue to spiritually motivate the community and help preserve our deen.
Second, we need to provide a space for religious leaders and social scientists to have conversations. This is not my innovative idea, but that is how it used to be just a few centuries ago.
| 3. You gave a recent talk about the biological and psychological differences between males and females. Can you give us a quick summary of that talk and why you think that topic is important?
In this talk, I discussed the psychological & biological differences between men and women and what that means. The major point is that men and women have different hormones, brains, psychology, and some genetic differences, therefore they are different. To say that men and women are the same is to say that they are not equal. Success narratives have to start coming in different sizes, and must take the person’s unique biology and psychology into account. The other point is that radical feminism has hurt our boys. We as a society have to allow boys to be boys; otherwise many will struggle to graduate into manhood.
I am actually writing a book called A Manual to Womanhood that addresses similar points. I just had my first chapter reviewed by a couple of professors in that field. Alhamdulillah, it was well received. The main thesis of the book is: Commendable efforts by feminists were made to provide equal opportunities for women. However, the opportunities came in one size that does not necessarily fit all! Society established a success narrative that is based on manhood. Then, someone convinced women that they too would fit in the same uniform; well, the uniform was loose and long. So, women lost their femininity in its looseness, and they tripped over its lengthy requirements.
Instead, I wish efforts were made to make the world accept different versions of success narratives, ones that respects women’s unique biology and psychological makeup. Sameness to men without considering established biological, genetic, and psychological sex-related differences is actually anti-, and not pro-, feminist. I argue in this book that in order for any movement to really advance women’s rights, it must consider our unique biology, hormonal systems, psychology and brain wiring. Equality is defined as freedom to choose from well-informed options; the list of options has to be compatible with our biology, genetics and psychology. We should not be chained by the desire for an identical list delineated and best suited for men and their biology. We are too stuck for too long in the sameness game that we have diverted from equality. In the book, I will be reviewing some of the most recent findings on sex differences in the fields of psychology, genetics, biology, and neuroscience. I hope that when women take time to learn about how their system works, they will start making choices better suited for their make-up.
| 4. You gave a great talk on women’s health and its relationship with the brain. What are ways we can increase awareness for women’s health among the Muslim community?
The main point in my TEDx talk was that “you are the expert on you.” Women should be aware of their choices and empowered to select the ones they are most comfortable with. At the same time, every choice comes as a package, and thus strength is required to carry this package.
Women have to take their health seriously because they are typically the caregivers. You cannot pour out of an empty cup. You can wish to be generous, but if your soul is bankrupt, you end up borrowing and feeling guilty over your inability to give. And the more you feel guilty, the more you empty whatever little soul power you have left.
Every masjid should have structured groups for women. These groups should be educational, therapeutic, and spiritual. Safe spaces like that would make fertile grounds for healthy women to prosper and grow; and a healthy woman means an excellent mother, which means a brighter tomorrow. A healthy woman means healthy families, and healthy families mean stable communities.
| 5. What advice do you have for young girls going into scientific fields?
Go for it girl! Before starting, make your intention that this knowledge is collected to strengthen your iman, community, and yourself. Learn your deen before diving into science. Sometimes, young people with little background in Islam get so infatuated by the illusion that science is perfect and can answer all life questions, and they end up leaving Islam. I would tell the youth to find a spiritual mentor in addition to an academic one.
| 6. As someone who deals with mental health in the Muslim community, do you feel like there is now more awareness of mental health or do we still have a ways to go?
We need to have a talk on why we desperately need to be a community, how to be a community, and the benefits it brings. It is so sad that some of the people in your community are suffering from depression, struggling with children with learning disability, or contemplating suicide and cannot find anyone in the community to confide in. Have we forgotten how to have phone conversations because it is easier to have a one-way conversation via text? Have we become so self-sufficient that we think we will never need anybody and therefore we decided to never help anybody? Have we grown suspicious of every leader and every speaker because we think we can do it better, or that we deserve better? We have stopped just knocking on a friend’s door because we have not scheduled an appointment. We will NEVER be healthy people if we don’t build healthy communities. Organizers, please please please have this theme for the next conferences. Please forgive me for freaking out, I receive too many messages from people who are really suffering internally and they cannot think of a person in the community to chitchat with, so they end up messaging a stranger like me. I end up feeling guilty for not being able to provide what these people need, which is just to chitchat with someone who cares. I am sad and concerned from my beloved community.
My dream is to have a huge one-weekend conference on mental health from an Islamic perspective.
I think every mosque should have a mental health professional available for consultation, monthly community psychoeducational/motivational lectures, and training the Imam sessions. OR, even have a talk show style, where an imam and a scientist chitchat.
| 7. What role do you feel hijab plays in your life?
Hijab is a part of my identity, of who I am as a Muslim woman. For me it is a way of being truly equal to man, because I am presenting my thoughts a la carte. My beauty is not getting in the way of presenting my ideas. It gives me control over where, when, and with whom to share my femininity. Hijab frames my brain; it allows ideas the flexibility to transcend the limiting pressures from our society to always look sexy.
From my experience, struggling with hijab is rarely about hijab, it is usually about a much larger issue. Corner yourself and really get to the bottom of it. Once you are there, which will involve tremendous amount of tears but also courage, you will slap that monster in the face, deflating the emptiness inside its fragile shell. The journey might require professional help, having an honest conversation with a trustworthy mentor.
Marwa’s TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryNjSP5VVI8
She will also be giving another TEDx talk on April 9th.