Words by Fatima Lee Garsi
Photography by Keemya Parsa
Meet Asmaa Hussein:
Ruqaya’s Bookshelf lady! That’s what I’ve been calling Asmaa since I’ve been acquainted with her through my circle of friends. I think merging her with the name of her indie publishing company reflects my impression of her. She has built a strong and authentic identity and is someone truly focused on her work. She doesn’t waste her time with activities that do not serve her or her goals. She’s dedicated and it shows.
So, I’m glad she agreed to do a fun interview with me!
She actually told me that she usually turns down requests for interviews because she’d rather focus on writing. One short picture book takes at least one year to produce. An entrepreneur, a single mom, a devoted Muslim, and a highly focused individual is how I see Asmaa.
Loss, Grief, and Paving New Paths: The Birth of Ruqaya’s Bookshelf
After the sudden loss of her husband in 2013, Asmaa began writing posts on Facebook to help cope with her grief and trauma. Beautifully weaved into her posts were reminders of Islam, God, and the power of faith. Her posts were not only healing to her, but to her followers as well. After receiving many requests to compile these posts into a book for her followers, she realized she had a genuine audience who really benefited and appreciated her content.
This inspired her to write her first book, A Temporary Gift, a memoir of her reflections as she went through the intense trials of loss and grief. After sending her book to several publishing outlets, she made the decision to self-publish. Publishers who were interested in her work wanted to change her narrative to suit their ideal audience – they wanted to tone it down and make it less political.
This didn’t sit well with Asmaa. She wanted to write freely and honestly. It dawned on her that the only way to maintain full autonomy of her writing was to take control of the process from start to finish. She would self-publish her book – a task that would take an incredible amount of time and energy, but when protecting the integrity of your identity and your narrative is a priority, you do what you gotta do! Asmaa created her own publishing company and released her first book.
Since its release, A Temporary Gift has reached readers around the world and continues to bring solace to wounded hearts. The follow-up to this memoir, A Place of Refuge, was released last year, and offers essays on the theme of resilience and the continued journey of coping and healing.
Ruqaya’s Bookshelf is named after her daughter – Ruqaya! Asmaa noticed that children’s books lacked Muslim representation. She really wanted her daughter to experience relating to Muslim characters and narratives as part of healthy identity building.
The company now fills a void in the publishing industry – both mainstream and Muslim-focussed – for quality children’s stories that feature fun, vibrant, and meaningful stories for kids.
Ruqaya’s Bookshelf has published over 20 children’s books and has become a household staple for Muslims around the world.
What I learned:
Focus, reflect, and write for yourself.
Asmaa started writing with the intention of processing her own emotions. She wrote for herself. When you write for yourself, your authenticity is at the centre of your work. Being so authentic from the start made it possible for Asmaa to recognize that her audience was genuine; if they were connecting to her work, they were connecting with the authenticity that was at the core of her work. Asmaa’s writing was real. If you are real from the start, a lot of the work will already be done for you in terms of finding your audience and feeling free.
Share your message with weight.
If you want to make an impact in your writing, it should have some weight to it. Your writing should not seek to please everyone – it should communicate a strong message. Asmaa’s writing certainly has that. Asmaa shares her opinion through a dedicated blog section on her website. The topics are varied, from social justice (responding to “All Lives Matter”), lifestyle (such as why she stopped plucking her eyebrows), parenting (tips on encouraging your kids to read), and cultural (why Muslims should stop asking for discounts – I couldn’t agree more!). She’s very intellectually opinionated and doesn’t craft her pieces to appease anyone…except for herself. Her opinions are very firm and felt and that is what makes it so good.
Prioritize your own mental health.
Asmaa uses writing to process her emotions – she is openly vulnerable. The deliberate practice of vulnerability serves her first and foremost. If other people are able to benefit from this practice, then that’s a bonus! But ultimately, her work serves her own heart. She doesn’t think about what others want to read about or what might be palatable in the online world. She expresses what she thinks and feels. She knows that people will send criticism – in her words it “comes with the territory.” By putting herself first, it inspires others to do the same.
Why is Asmaa a leader?
Asmaa has the realness, the vision, and the self-motivation that inspires a world-wide audience. Her relentless pursuit of creating a platform that embraces and builds an authentic Muslim identity creates a sense of existential security and affirmation that we all need as humans for our well-being. It sounds so simple, but it takes a tremendous amount of dedication, strength, and faith.
Having a strong Muslim identity can make others uncomfortable. That’s why so many of us are insecure about taking up space and asking for representation. Asmaa is a leader because she’s doing the hard, deep work and making the fruits of that work publicly accessible for us to benefit and learn from.
She also doesn’t publish things to appease Muslims either. She writes about complex and divisive issues in the community that often lack the nuanced attention they require – social media influencers taking off their hijabs, Muslims who write “all lives matter,” and the preference of birthing boys just to name a few.
Building an Authentic Identity
People often think that working in the Muslim community is a major opportunity, but within the community there are many, many smaller communities and schools of thought, sects, and cultures that all inform each other. They also clash. You must have firm roots in your Islamic belief to guide you to creating your own niche and community. This is a key aspect of building an authentic identity.
Asmaa Hussein does this and she does it so well.
Although her perspective and opinions in Islam are very different from mine, I can admire her steadfastness and apply it to my own pursuits.
Studying Asmaa has made me really think about why pursuing something so key to our well-being – the building of an authentic identity – is so hard to do.
Taking up space feels uncomfortable because other people have to contend with your identity and might project how they feel about it onto you. Sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not.
It’s a risk that is worth taking; it’s a risk that you MUST take if you are a real leader.
What are your thoughts on building an authentic identity? Follow us on Instagram and let us know!
Watch FLG’s interview with Asmaa Hussein on YouTube or listen on-the-go on The Leadership Identity Podcast available on Spreaker, Spotify, and iTunes! You can catch up on past Leadership Identity Episodes by visiting our blog.