Editorial note: All this month we are focusing on the stories of Muslim women working in charity, whether as the head of some charitable organization, doing volunteer work or anything in between. We want to explore what drives these women to give of themselves to others, how they balance that in their lives and what advice they have to encourage others to take up work to help those in need.
is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the dignity of divorced and widowed women by empowering these women with education. With a focus on providing scholarships and grants to an oft forgotten Muslim women demographic who are stigmatized and at a high risk for poverty, Ikram’s work in the Muslim community is incredibly transformative. The dynamic duo behind this work are Executive Director Somayyah Gharian and Program Director Saman Quraeshi.
The first time I met these ladies, they both struck me as incredibly sincere, hard-working and determined to make a change in the Muslim community, and they have done just that for a number of years. I worked them on the #FundHerFuture campaign
in October, which is domestic violence awareness month, and recently spoke with them about the importance of empowering women, who inspires them to do this important work, and why future generations should invest in helping women in need.
Your work for women in the community is so impactful. What makes you so passionate about this work?
Saman: The reason why I am literally standing today as the Program Director of Ikram as well as a therapist is because I had a community around me that invested in my growth. I came to the Ikram Foundation first as a client. As a newly divorced single mother I was overwhelmed with pain and had very little confidence. I remember meeting with the former executive director Mariam and telling her sheepishly about what I wanted to do, and she didn’t hesitate and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
Through my own educational journey, I was able to see how my situation changed, how my mental health improved and how I became excited about my future. That and many other experiences gave me the blueprint to continue working with a population whom I deeply care for and relate to.
Somayyah: Women empowerment is such a powerful concept. Having the privilege of working at Ikram Foundation for the past four years has allowed me to see firsthand the ripple effect of community building through women. The women we work with are strong, resilient and inspiring individuals who, despite the challenges they are facing, are still pushing through and giving back to their children and their own communities.
The passion for the work we do at Ikram Foundation is renewed every single time we have a new application come through, and we get to really step into the lives of each and every one of our clients. Being in a position where you can see empowerment play out through the journey of education not only renews our passion but makes it even stronger.
Saman and Somayyah Ghariani with some Ikram Foundation recipients at a community gathering.
Can you describe a turning point in your life when you knew you wanted to be committed to community work?
Saman: I have been working in the nonprofit sector since I was a teenager. My mother at a very early age made a huge impact on how I saw myself and my role in community work. However, it was not until my own lived experiences that [I gained] the focus and calling for working specifically with women. Interestingly, Somayyah and I were colleagues at another Muslim nonprofit, and she was a huge support for me during my divorce. Our professional and personal lives have intertwined and have informed the work we do as women building community and supporting other women.
Somayyah: Community work always seemed to find me, and I once believed that this would be a part-time commitment or a transitional phase for me in my career development. Ten years later of being in the nonprofit sector, I feel privileged to be where I am. One of the most beautiful parts of this work is that we get to see that impact almost instantly. There’s an element of empathy and relationship building that happens in these spaces that is beyond fulfilling.
Saman and I always reflect on our journeys in this field, and a big part of why we are here is the encouragement from our loved ones and the many leaders in our own community who laid the foundation for us to grow in this field and continue what they started. Community work allows us to continuously challenge ourselves, our worldviews and how systems work. It’s a space that allows us to grow and expand our perspectives and learn from each other. There’s a weight that we carry without a doubt; but despite that, the privilege of being in this line of work is beautiful and inspiring.
On the left, Iman Al-Shingiethi, one of the founders and the first executive director of Ikram Foundation.
Who inspires you? Why is that person so important to you?
Saman: Women in the field of advocating for women and their needs are my biggest inspiration.
The women who came before me [and] did the hard work of creating spaces and laying down the groundwork for many of the women-focused organizations that exist today. There are so many women who have done so much, including our founder. The most important lesson I have learned is that women's leadership differs very much from traditional male leadership models. The women in these fields are not looking for accolades or recognition. They are not competing but [rather] collaborating and care about getting the work done.
Somayyah: My biggest inspiration are the women who came before us and set these powerful foundations for us to carry out this work. We have so many examples in our community and our founders – Dr. Iham Altalib and Iman Al-Shingieti (Allah yerhamha) are two examples of visionary leaders who saw an overlooked need in the community and set out to address it through education.
Women who did not wait for anyone else to get the job done but rather took matters into their own hands and, with the will of Allah (S), made a lasting impact. We are also inspired by our clients, who time and time again remind us of the strength of women and how there’s truly no limit to what we are capable of.
Can you share a success story of a woman who benefited greatly from your work?
I am a proud alumni of Ikram Foundation, I went through a part-time Masters Program in Social Work, which took me four years to complete! I was working two jobs, going to evening classes and parenting my kids. There were so many times that I didn't think that I could manage, however Ikram Foundation
was invested in me, and they continued to encourage and support my educational journey. When everything seemed like it was against me, at Ikram I felt celebrated and valued.
My struggles were seen and validated, and somehow semester after semester I made it through. As a direct result of my education I went from being in a shelter to being a case manager at a shelter; from [seeing] a therapist to help process my trauma to being a therapist who now works with survivors.
From left to right: Saman, Sumaira (Ikram graduate, LLM degree from the American University) and Somayyah celebrating Sumaira's graduation.
Somayyah: Our program director, Saman, is a beautiful and inspiring example of a success story! Saman’s perseverance and resilience to stay committed to her workload, her school and being a loving and caring single mom is still an inspiration for us to witness at Ikram every single day!
We are so blessed to have provided over 100 grants to women from all across the country, who are giving back in a wide array of fields, many of whom are single mothers and many also are survivors of domestic violence. Each client is a ray of light in her own way and we are so humbled to witness their success.
What do you hope your legacy will be? What do you wish for the next generation of women working in your line of work?
Saman: I hope that we can recognize our collective strength and own our power as women. I hope to continue to speak about issues that affect our communities and to push back against domestic violence, poverty, spiritual abuse and cultural stigmas that continue to affect women on a daily basis. My hope for the next generation is that they have a supportive network of professionals who they can be seamlessly connected with so that there is a collaborative safety net for [their] needs.
Somayyah: I hope to see the impact of educating women lead the way for the next generation to connect, inspire and learn from one another. We know the importance of this work and we hope that the community continues to uplift and empower this demographic of women. Empathy is powerful. I hope that we realize that we don't have to experience something first hand in order to uplift others.
When you educate a woman, she is carrying that to her children and her community. It’s an investment in building a brighter future for the community as a whole. Together, we rise and can make a lasting impact.