Mosque's Daisy Khan Not Backing Down

Daisy Khan has been hailed as a healer, a link between moderate Islam and the West, and a force for equality for Muslim women. But since she and her husband proposed building an Islamic center near ground zero, Khan has been under siege.

By Suzanna Andrews
Photograph: Martin Schoeller

If Khan triggers so many conflicting emotions in people, it may be because so much of her life has been made up of conflicting parts. Born in 1958, in Srinagar, the capital of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Khan was raised in a prosperous Muslim family that was both traditional and remarkably progressive. Her grandmothers, she says, wore the burka; her paternal grandparents were wed, in an arranged marriage, when they were nine and 12. Daisy—whose given name is Farhat—was her parents’ third daughter, and her birth, she says, “was not welcomed by everyone.” One of her sisters had already been given away, adopted by Daisy’s maternal grandmother, who wanted to spare her child, Daisy’s mother, the social ostracism that was meted out to women who bore too many daughters. And Daisy, too, might have been given away—or worse—if it hadn’t been for her father’s father, ­Ghulam Hassan Khan.

The extended Khan family all lived in his home. Daisy was born there, so prematurely that her grandmother dressed the house in mourning and left her alone to die. As Khan has told the story, it was her grandfather who, on arriving home from work, demanded to know what was going on, then ran into the baby’s room, picked her up and said she was a “gift from God.”

A powerful force in Daisy’s life, ­Ghulam Khan was a man with his feet planted in two seemingly opposite worlds. The chief engineer for the state of Kashmir, he was married to a woman with no education. He was an Islamic scholar and a devout Muslim. But he also went to Harvard in the 1920s, where he studied engineering. And he sent all his children to college in the United States, including Daisy’s father, Nazir, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and became Kashmir’s director of transportation. “My grandfather was always regaling us with tales of America,” Khan recalls. “He just felt it was one of the greatest nations on earth.” In some ways, his was an idealized vision of ­America—a land whose people were tolerant, charitable, honest and hardworking, with a strong sense of civic responsibility. He raised his family with the belief, says Khan, that “Islam was practiced in the highest way in America.”

In those early years, though, Islam did not play much of a role in Daisy’s life. The Khans, who revered education, sent her to a Catholic school, Presentation Convent, “because it was the best in Srinagar,” she says. It was run by missionary Irish nuns, which meant that although most of the students were Muslims, there was daily chapel service, carols at Christmas and a huge celebration on St. Patrick’s Day. Daisy did well academically and socially. “I was like the Pied Piper: Everyone followed me,” she says. The only problem was that she didn’t want to take the road that had been mapped out for her. In India in the 1970s, there were only two respectable professions for an educated Kashmiri woman: doctor and teacher. But Daisy wanted to study art. “I started drawing at a very young age,” she says. “I used to draw murals on the walls, which almost looked like Picasso. Very abstract stuff.” Faced with their daughter’s adamancy, her parents decided to send Daisy to live with an uncle on Long Island, where she could finish high school and then study art and design in college.

“Everybody wanted to go to America,” she says. “Are you kidding? The guitar, the daisies, the peace signs. I couldn’t wait.”

First Published January 18, 2011

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Comments

Donna Cavanagh06.21.2011

This was an excellent article. I am from NYC, and I think maybe the center will shed light on the peaceful aspects of religions. Maybe it might de-demonize Islam. Let it be a healing place and not a place of hate. I admire greatly this woman.

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