“Ready … here we go!”
“Nine … eight … seven …”
It was really happening!
“Six … five … four …”
I’m really going…
The space shuttle took off. Anousheh Ansari giggled like a schoolgirl at the sight of flying objects. Peeping through her tiny porthole, her laughter stopped as tears welled in her eyes when she saw Earth for the first time…from space.
“I could not catch my breath,” wrote Ansari in her book My Dream of Stars: From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer. “My beautiful planet, under the warm rays of the sun, turned gracefully beneath me. I was entranced.”
On September 18, 2006, Ansari became the first Muslim private space explorer. She earned a place in history as the fourth private explorer to visit space and the first astronaut of Iranian descent.
Born in 1966 in Iran, Ansari immigrated to the US as a teenager. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University, followed by a master’s degree in electrical engineering. She has an honorary doctorate from the International Space University. She is co-founder and chairman of Prodea Systems and the first Space Ambassador to create public awareness and stimulate grassroots enthusiasm about the virtues of space exploration. She now lives in Plano, Texas with her husband Hamid Ansari.
MuslimGirl had the pleasure of speaking with Ansari about her thoughts on Muslim women’s empowerment as well as her aspirations and motivations. Here’s what she had to say:
MG: These are very difficult times for Muslims, especially with politicians and the media negatively associating Muslims to terrorism. As a space ambassador aiming to promote peace and understanding, what do you say to Muslim women who are discouraged by all these events?
AA: People in general have a negative view because of the media, and of Muslim women because of what they represent or portray, which is far from reality. We have to be vocal and express that we are appalled by all horrific crimes that happen in the name of Islam.
Only by being proactive and vocal can we really establish the true face of Muslims around the world. Sometimes we get bitter about what we hear in the media and pull away. But I think now is not the time to pull away. In fact, we need to go to the front lines and be vocal and active in participating and stopping terrorist acts around the world.
This is not isolated to Muslims. Terrorist acts happen around the world by people of different genders, colors, and religious beliefs. But sometimes the size and magnitude of what happens grabs the global media’s attention. We can turn this from being against Muslims to opportunities that demonstrate and show the true face of Islam.
MG: You’ve established two companies, you became the world’s first Muslim woman in space using your own funds, and you’re a space ambassador. You’re such a role model for Muslim women. How do you feel about that and what message do you send to Muslim women?
AA: All I hope to do is to set an example to live my life in a way that can inspire and help other women in different parts of the world see their possibilities. Women must not let anyone tell them that they’re not supposed to do certain things, or that they’re different or incapable of doing things. Sometimes others try to discourage us. Then we start to tell ourselves the same things – and that’s what limits what we can do or achieve. I just hope my life serves as an example to inspire others to go after their dreams fully and wholeheartedly.
MG: What are some of the cultural and family restrictions you think that hinder Muslim women’s progress?
AA: Depending on which societies you talk about, you see different rates of women’s participation. I think that even in societies where the opportunities are limited there are women who push the boundaries and demonstrate that they can be very active participants.
Many studies, time after time, show that the whole community improves when women are active members in the job market. The economic wheels that turn the country improve from their participation, increasing the socioeconomic levels of women. This is data that can’t be ignored. If the country and the people benefit – if the society benefits – then there are arguments that say, “why shouldn’t they be more involved?”
I go back to the fact that sometimes the way we’re brought up teaches us things which may or may not be true. We start believing in what a Muslim woman should and should not do – and that’s when we come short of being able to do what we really want to do in life. I don’t think any one or anything should stop us from achieving greatness.
There is nothing, not in our religious beliefs, or in any scripture that will tell us we cannot be active participants in our societies and be independent living our lives the way we want to. So I think those are important points that every woman should take to heart and use in deciding what’s right for her.
MG: In what ways do you think Muslim women can overcome cultural barriers in order to believe in themselves and succeed?
AA: They must have the courage to ask questions. By questioning, you will face opposition and difficulties – especially in very closed societies. You might have to get into an argument with your father, your brother, your husband – people you love and respect, which makes it difficult. The outcome is definitely different for each individual.
Each situation is different, but if you have someone who really loves you then they want what’s best for you and your happiness. So if there’s something that you want to do and your father is preventing you from doing it because it is not what is expected of his daughter, then you need to push the boundary; you need to educate; you need to try to show why things are important.
We see examples of how family quarrels turn into educational experiences. Fathers have become the ambassador of change, not only for their daughters, but for the rest of women. It’s hard to achieve, but once you do it, it impacts a lot of women.
Look at Malala Yousafzai’s father. He has become a voice for other fathers to stand up and support their daughters’ education. So even sometimes from tragedy you have a silver lining that leads to change.
MG: What keeps you motivated?
AA: The fact that life is short. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to learn, and so much to achieve. Life is short and you don’t know how long you’re going to be on this planet. We need to take everyday and moment and make the most of it – that’s my biggest motivation.
MG: What is your favorite quote?
AA: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” by Mahatma Ghandi. If there is something I don’t like, I don’t complain about it. I try to change it. I think if everyone lived their lives like that and became change makers we’d have a better world.
MG: Can you tell us about your future plans?
AA: I’m very active right now as the CEO of my own company, busy running and making it grow. We use technology to bring about positive change in people’s lives. Recently we achieved a great partnership with Tata Trusts to bring technology to rural India in remote locations in order to bring services that will greatly benefit women and children.
I also continue to be a big advocate for space and women in technology and science, as well as for education in general. I want to make sure that girls and women benefit from education so they can pursue their entrepreneurial desires.