Last year Sherin Khankan received a Global Hope Award from UNESCO in New York. The next day she flew home to her 4 children, who are all under the age of 15. This is how a typical week can look like for a woman that breaks down female suppressive structures and combats radicalization.
Summer has arrived in the North. The sun is mild and mellow, and the daisies cover the fields of Sherin’s back yard. Sherin stands by her door with her yellow skirt fluttering in the warm yet fresh wind. Her home filled with color and books. Through the windows, you’ll see the neighbor’s horses running around, one black and one white. No television in sight, just peaceful silence. But it isn’t always this quiet around miss Khankan. There is no time for horse watching for the CEO of the Exitcircle, an NGO that works with people subjected to psychological abuse and religious as well as social control. The phone is buzzing and ringing every hour. The emails are piling up one by one. You’ll hear Sherin’s signature phrase: “Hello dear” multiple times a day, whether it is her answering the phone or greeting colleagues, members of the support groups or somebody who wants to interview the face of an essential NGO. But how does a busy woman keep getting busier and busier, and still keep her cool?
The Danish gender equality advocacy organization, Danner, published a report called Violence against immigrant women in Denmark. The report stated that 41% of women at crises centers across Denmark were immigrants. The explanation is language barriers, lack of information, isolation, and the lack of legal rights. Sherin is currently working on a project which develops better dialogue and information on the rights of Muslim women who enter into or dissolve one religious marriage. And yes, she just added yet another big-time task to her already fully booked schedule.
“I do not consider my work as work. I see it more as a passion, that is why I work so much”, she says and laughs. “I cannot not do the things I do. I worked without pay for many years after facilitating the first groups,“ she continues. Years before establishing the NGO, Sherin started counseling groups called Face to Face for young girls with a Muslim background. She afterwards realized that 80% of their problems were connected to psychological violence, which was “absolutely remarkable“, she adds. “So, these girls were hungry for more than just counseling, and they seemed even more lonely when they left the sessions. This is where I decided to take this project to new levels,“ she explains. She realized that psychological violence is something that needed to be taken care of: “It’s a plague“, she says. “It is within any religion, culture and society. You’ll find people subjected to it in the ghetto and in the upper class.“
“I always loved communities, and I really think that being a part of a healthy community can make a positive impact on your life. It is so important to have the opportunity of sharing your story and mirroring yourself in what others have experienced. I know this first hand since I also have been a victim of psychological violence in a former relationship as a very young woman,” Sherin tells. There was an undeniable urge for self-help groups in Denmark that Sherin couldn’t ignore any longer. What started as a “small” project ended up becoming bigger than she could imagine: The NGO has since it was founded in 2014 spread to 5 different cities around Denmark with 7 self-help groups and is run by 44 people, 41 who are volunteers. Starting from square one and ending up here has been a challenge, but it has grown into ‘something life-changing’, as Sherin says.
Sherin grew up with her sister, Nathalie, her Muslim political refuge father from Syria and her Christian immigrant mother from Finland. A life filled with love and acceptance: Sharing and making Iftar in the months of Ramadan and singing Danish Christmas songs around the Christmas tree. The Khankan family knew how to combine different languages, religions, and beliefs peacefully, but as Sherin grew older, so did the Islamophobia around the world.
“It all starts in the childhood. My spirituality definitely did start within my family and how I was raised. Which books do the parents read for their children? What events do we attend? My sister teaches Arabic and is a poet. She actually just published her first poetry collection at Berkeley University, and my father published his first novel in Damascus before fleeing to Denmark decades ago,” she says while sitting in her golden rococo chair.
“A perfect man is a woman”
Sherin chose to believe in religion because of many reasons. Mostly because religion to her is a spiritual search and a way of activism: “a search for something greater. I was already on a spiritual path, but I needed to dig deeper and understand more than just the essence of religion.“ Sherin, therefore, started studying the science of religion and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. Throughout her studies, she stumbled upon a scholar named Ibn Arabi, who is one of the founders of Sufism. Arabi once quoted that “the perfect man is a woman,” a quote Sherin uses in all of her speeches. “The statement goes beyond gender and is about equality,“ she says. Sherin continued reading more of his work, which includes mysticism in religion. “I had no doubt in my body; this is where I wanted to be, where I needed to be,” she says and places her hand on her chest.
What once started out as a peaceful spiritual journey for Sherin, ended up becoming a struggle within Islam as well as outside Islam. On one side, Sherins work as a female imam has shakened the patriarchal structures within religious institutions and triggered the patriarchal members of Islamic communities to act against her. On the other hand, her role as a Danish public figure and the CEO of a Danish NGO has some non-Muslim Danes generalizing her with radical Islamists. This has taken its toll on her family, and on her work with the Exitcircle.
Sherin loves her children dearly, and they are indeed a source of energy and motivation for her. Managing a household alone with 4 children from the age of 8 to 14 is a lot of work. But the real struggle lays in her role as a public figure. “My children are very aware of the importance of activism and justice,“ she says. “They understand most of the aspects of psychological violence and religious/social control. I taught them the magic of self-help groups and my job as an Imam, so they know that me sometimes being absent doesn’t mean that I care less about them, it just means that I also care about others”, she adds with a slight sadness in her eyes. “Me being an imam is, on the other hand, a bit harder to comprehend.“ Sherins’ 14-year-old daughter’s school showed The Reformist, a documentary which covers Sherins’ journey as a female Imam. The documentary was shown to all of the 8th grade-classes except for her daughters’ class. “My daughter felt [that] it came to close to her private life. She just wasn’t ready for the exposure,“ Sherin reveals.
“Why can’t you just be a normal mother?”
“She told me that she was proud of me, and I know she means it. But I understand how difficult it must be to be in the middle of such dramatic changes. Changes that have so much impact nationally and internationally. One question that really haunts me is; “why can’t you just be a normal mother?” But I do my best. I really do,” Sherin comments with a lowered voice. The documentary was never shown in her classroom. Sherin stands tall and proud when it comes to her role as an Imam. It takes strength and thick skin to ignore and overcome the racist and sexist obstacles she meets daily, but Sherin is not stressed, she is just where she wants to be; in the present. And she is changing the face of future leaders.
Advice from Sherin:
“Always take your inner child with you, because children are the greatest teachers. They live in the present, they forgive and they are curious. they are fearless. I realized that the art of daring losing control and being present were the most important factors in my journey. A good leader has to be able to believe in the whole team as one.”
“Want to know more about the Exitcircle? Contakt us firstname.lastname@example.org (DK). The Exitcircle is Denmark’s first conversation group self-help NGO for mentally abused women and men. We help our participants break toxic circles of violence and social/religious control.”
– The Exit team.