Saying “No” at Masjidullah

In the spring of 2019, I went to a Ramadan celebration at a big mosque called Masjidullah in Philadelphia. There was a relationship between my synagogue Mishkan Shalom and the mosque.

We were seated at large round tables and introduced ourselves to one another. A beautifully attired woman sat across from me. I felt drawn to her and eventually made my way to sit next to her. I learned that she makes all her own clothes. I felt great admiration for the design of her outfit and its beautiful material. We talked further and learned that we were both social workers and we were both aware of the isolation experienced by older women in America. In fact, I ran a group called Overcoming Isolation and she, Emilie Rafiqa Abdul-Rasheed Harris, had created an organization called the Jewels of Islam to address this concern.

We chatted a while further and I proposed that I could offer a workshop. Ms. Emilie liked the sound of the workshop, “When I say ‘No,’ I feel Guilty.”

On September 8, 2019 I offered that workshop to twenty-five members of the Jewels of Islam. The topic seemed to be very relevant to these older women, mothers and grandmothers, wives and daughters. Many demands come their way and they have difficulty saying, “No,” even when they feel over-extended.

One woman shared a poignant story of how she did, in fact, say “No” to her adult daughter, when her daughter asked her to give her children more gifts.

Before she began, she said that this was the first time she was talking about her (recent) experience with her daughter and that she could not have opened up if the other women had not spoken first and made her feel safe.

She said that she often gave her grandchildren gifts of value: bikes, computers, trips to here and there. This time, she said no because she was caring for her dying husband and paying for lots of expensive medical interventions. Upon hearing this’ no,’ her daughter turned away from her mother and even told her own children not to contact their grandmother. This woman was in a lot of pain from this situation and it highlighted what many of the women said they were afraid of: losing the love of people if they were to say “no.”

This lead into the second part of the workshop: how to say “no,” effectively.

The first suggestion I made was to check deeply into one’s heart, and being, to see what the right response is, and then follow that direction. I acknowledged that saying “no” can be very difficult because we do not want to hurt or get hurt in the transaction. I said that saying ‘yes’ when your inside voice says ‘no’ is harmful to both yourself and the other person. It creates resentment and can result in a lack of growth on the part of the individual who did the asking. “We cannot get hand-outs all our lives!”

I suggested honoring the request by saying something like, “I hear you would like me to give you money for a new dining room table. I understand your wish…and at this time, it does not seem like the right thing for me to do. I love you and you will need to find another way to get that table.”

I have practiced this method of communicating with my own daughter. It has sometimes brought anger but it has also brought about growth and independence, which I wanted to help develop.

Saying “No” is not easy for anyone, of any age, or religion, or gender and it can be the more honest answer.  As one member of the Jewels of Islam said, “When you say “Yes” but feel “No,” it is a hypocritical action and not one that Allah would feel good about.”

Her words made me feel that I had learned something of moral value from being part of the Jewels of Islam for the afternoon. The afternoon was a time of a deep and beautiful sharing; one we plan on having again.

It is through the gift of these kinds of exchanges that so-called enemies can be friends and allies in life.