How Do You Set Your Table?: Universal Lessons from a Muslim-American Woman

Last December I had the pleasure of attending Women in the World at the St. Anthony Hotel. The program is presented by Tina Brown Live Media in association with The New York Times.

Let me first say: this post encompasses some difficult subjects. Yet, these difficult subjects are reality for mothers and every individual walking this green earth. As mothers, we have the difficult task of introducing this reality to our children in an age-appropriate manner as they start to learn about the world around them. I believe and hope that this post transcends the ideological spectrum and helps us think about ideas that bring us together.

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I was able to attend Women in the World in 2014 as well, and the 2015 program was definitely a bit more somber and sobering but no less powerful. There were three big reasons for the timely, serious tone: the terrorist attacks in Paris, the heightened media attention on the Syrian refugee crisis, and the comments made by Donald Trump stating that the United States should ban all Muslims from entering the country. All of these happened weeks or even days before the event and were referred to during the program.

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Women Fighting the Terror Crisis panel: (L to R) Moderator Lara Logan, Emma Sky, Farah Pandith, Juliette Kayyem

The first panel of the day, entitled “Women Fighting the Terror Crisis,” was moderated by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan. Among the panelists was Farah Pandith. The next presentation included a young woman who escaped North Korea and is now speaking out against its abuse of human rights. The third panel, moderated by Maria Hinojosa of Latino USA and which included actress America Ferrera, discussed the tens of thousands of refugees from Central America who risk their lives to escape even more dangerous situations in their home countries. The final two presentations were a bit more upbeat: Toyota Mother of Invention and military hero William McRaven interviewed by Tina Brown. Like I said, a sobering program. But all the women I talked to afterwards thought it was well worth it. You can find a recap, more photos, and video clips of the San Antonio program here.

At the conclusion of the panels, a fellow ACMB team member coordinated the opportunity for me to interview Farah Pandith, former Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the U.S. Department of State appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June 2009. She is now an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She was born in India and raised Muslim. When she was a child her family moved to the United States, and she grew up in Massachusetts. While not a mother herself, Pandith opened up about her own childhood and relationship with her mother as my line of questions mostly dealt with what we as mothers can do to teach and comfort our children through these difficult current events.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from that interview. They are my favorite because Pandith herself takes these uncomfortable subjects and explains them in a manner that we can all understand.

“Don’t listen to the loudest voices.”

Pandith described some of the extremist groups as having the loudest voices but also asserted that these voices are not the majority. They are just the ones spreading their message the most feverishly through social media and other means. At a local level, the loudest voices could be the bullies in school or any other individuals creating an environment of “Us versus Them.” She then followed up with

“We must outpace with counter narratives.”

That is, we must tell the other side of the story to compete with and quiet the loudest voices. But what is the other story? Well, if the extremists are spreading words of hate, it is our responsibility to spread words of love and friendship. If the loudest voices are not the majority, then what does the majority say? This, she says, is how we can all add our voice to the counter narrative. Oftentimes we stay silent in the face of bullies and extremists. The idea is not to be confrontational but to advocate for a better way.

“How do you set your table at home? The way you set the table matters.”

This metaphor seemed so simple and so relatable, especially for us as mothers. We’ve just wrapped up the holiday season when many of us were probably preoccupied at some point with how to set the table just right so that our special holiday meal was even more perfect. For some of us, setting our actual (not metaphorical) table may even be a daily occurrence. But how often do we also think about that metaphorical table we are setting? This metaphor Ms. Pandith shared with me is such a great way to illustrate the idea that it all starts at home and that the foundation we lay for our children sets them on a path of which we should always remain conscious.

“A mother is a child’s first teacher.”

Of course! We teach our newborns how to latch and our teenagers how to prepare to leave the nest. Everything we do is teaching them something about how to be or not be. What are the values and lessons we instill and model for our children? Pandith shared that her mother was a physician whose goal was to give dignity to all of her patients. Her mother instilled the values of dignity, respect, and kindness in her. Her mother also did not believe in hierarchy and taught her the importance of being part of a community.

“The smartphone is the great equalizer.”

Huh? I know. Not quite as eloquent as the previous quotes. Plus, we often talk about all the ways smartphones can be problematic in relationships, parenting, what have you. Well, this quote was part of Ms. Pandith’s response to my question “what can a local mom do about the world abroad? How can we teach our children about what lies beyond?”

As she reached for her phone and held it in front of me, Pandith said, “This is a tool.” It’s true. These days there are fewer and fewer people without access to a smartphone and therefore access to the internet and a wealth of information at our fingertips. Just as easily as we pull up games and other apps, she recommended sitting with your kids and pulling up a video on any one of the different religions of the world. Learn not just about Islam, but all religions. She made the point that the average person probably knows as little about Hinduism as he/she does about Islam. Of course she also suggested programs on PBS and other educational outlets. The main idea is that we must educate ourselves about what we don’t know, and the smartphone makes it even easier for us to do so.

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I ended our conversation at the beginning, asking how she got started on this path of foreign relations and politics. Pandith, a foreign relations major at Smith College in Massachusetts, was giving a speech on diversity during her senior year. In the audience sat then-First Lady Barbara Bush. After the speech, Pandith was given the message that Mrs. Bush was so impressed by the speech that she wanted a copy for herself. Then, she told me with a smile as she and I walked out of the green room, “And the rest is history.” Wow. You can read her full bio here.

While the themes of diversity and tolerance were not blatantly called out in any of her responses, they were the underlying tones I took away from our conversation. My son turns three years old on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. So far in his little life I’ve tried to expose him to diverse experiences, cultures, and communities. When he gets a little older I look forward to telling him about my interview with Farah Pandith and the lessons I learned from our conversation.

On that note, here’s an article that came across my social media feed the other day that seems to fit nicely with this post (I have to admit, it’s the word “doughnuts” that drew me to click the link. Wouldn’t you?):

Fear is powerful. So are doughnuts. Here’s how one woman is using them. (an Upworthy article about a Muslim woman in Massachusetts offering donuts in exchange for questions and conversation)

It’s a big world out there, with so much to learn, so let’s be creative in how we think. Let us challenge ourselves to never stop learning, especially about the things we may fear.

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