Annie Qaiser always dreamed of becoming an author.
Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., as one of the few young women of color and an even smaller group of Muslim children, Annie didn’t have many spaces where she felt that she could express herself freely.
A quiet girl with a self-described “cautious personality,” Annie turned to writing to explore her identities. The blank page was a place of zero judgment, zero misunderstanding. Pen in hand, she was unfettered and free to work through her complicated, sometimes messy thoughts about who she was and where she came from.
Today, Annie isn’t a New York Times bestselling author - yet - but she is proud of her accomplishments as a published writer and researcher. She has written four books about American history, which she studied at the University of Toronto, in addition to her communications major.
For Annie, history is another means of connecting with her identities. The classic question of “Where are you from?” - often aimed at people of color or anyone else perceived as existing outside of normative American identity - threw her for a loop for a long time.
“What defines that question? Is it a geography question, a culture question, a religion question?” She could answer it so many different ways. Born in Karachi, Pakistan and raised in Kansas City, Annie moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada for university and finally settled in Rosemount, Minn., to start a family. But as for where she’s from and where she belongs, her focus on studying history provided a glimpse into her past and her present, her family’s and her faith’s roots.
“As human beings and as spiritual people, our roots are our background,” Annie firmly believes. “Our history is what makes us who we are. Anything I am, anything you are, it’s because of our ancestors.”
The winding road of history led Annie down uncharted paths as she explored her ancestry, her culture and her religion. When she became a mother, she was especially interested in herbal medicine and other alternatives to mass-produced personal care products, and she began researching ancient Islamic healing and wellness traditions.
“I questioned what was going into our bodies and the adverse effects, so I researched and started making products for myself with herbal ingredients,” Annie says. She didn’t know it yet, but this knowledge of traditional healing systems and Islamic/prophetic medicine, along with the requisite home remedies of every South Asian household, would soon morph into an idea to create her own halal skincare and wellness line.
Soon, her family and friends were asking for the deodorants, lotion bars and face masks that she originally created for her own use. For years, she gave them as gifts, until the demand made it clear: She had stumbled upon an untapped market, where her community was eager for products based in the principles that she practiced.
Annie, of course, understood that need. Growing up in Kansas City, there were no restaurants where her family could eat halal food, no stores where they could buy halal products. They were one of very few Muslim families in the city that observed halal practice, meaning that they followed a lifestyle in accordance with Islamic law. Halal is the Arabic word for “permissible” and contrasts with haram, which means “forbidden” and refers to anything prohibited in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
Adhering to practices of purity and sanctity are especially important when Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In order to cross the pilgrimage boundary into this holy city, they must be in the sacred state of ihram, which prohibits any scents on the body. For those preparing to embark on Hajj, the major pilgrimage, or Umrah, the minor pilgrimage, searching for soaps and other products without scents is a part of the journey.
As any Muslim will tell you, these products can be tricky to track down. Halal denotes a holistic Islamic lifestyle and applies to everything - good business practices, ethical transactions, environmental protections, social and moral accountability and more. And though halal is a wide-ranging concept, it’s a word often attached to food, and the method of slaughter used for meat products is a key consideration for Muslims. To avoid consuming something haram, Muslims often avoid anything - from meals to beauty products - that contains animal products.
So when Annie launched her skincare business, Silk Road Wellness, which features her signature Hajj and Umrah Kit, she had an enthusiastic customer base at the ready. Her commitment to relying solely on natural, organic, vegan ingredients attracts many - both Muslim and not. After all, Muslims aren’t the only ones who abstain from consuming animal products or who might prefer traditional herbal healing methods.
“We aspire to be accessible to everyone. I want Silk Road to be known as a Muslim business with Islamic principles and to use my family’s skills as a way of representing our faith, but I don’t want to isolate our customer base to only Muslims,” she says. And whether or not she’s selling to another Muslim, her business enables Annie to put her faith principles into practice.
“If you create a moment of ease for any person, Allah [Arabic for God] is going to help you when you need help,” Annie says. “By reading the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we know that these natural ingredients are powerful, so if they can help others, I think that just makes it sweeter.”
And even sweeter when you consider how personal Silk Road products are to Annie. The culmination of years of research, experimentation and creativity, each neatly packaged lotion bar is a “representation of myself,” she says. “Down to the font choice.”
Take a look at the little label on the back, for instance. “The amount of work that goes into that is incredible. I’ve had to research what order the ingredients need to be listed, what information needs to be included,” she says. Like its giant corporate counterparts, Silk Road Wellness must adhere to strict FDA regulations around cosmetic labeling.
And as a perfectionist with high standards for the ethics and the aesthetics of her brand, Annie remakes any product that she feels doesn’t live up to its name. Her background as a writer and researcher gives her the confidence to grow exponentially as a new entrepreneur. “You can never ask too many questions,” she says. “Questions lead to answers, which lead to more questions - it's a beautiful, never-ending cycle.”
She spends most evenings - and many late nights - after her day job as a medical copyeditor preparing products and packages to be sent out. Thankfully, she’s got an entire team behind her - her husband, her children and their cat. Her husband, who owns an IT business, is the technological and financial expert who keeps the business's website running and their finances in order. A behind-the-scenes hero, he offers emotional support and encouragement, and helps the team stay focused, Annie says.
Not to be outdone, her children help out with counting, labeling and often coming up with new ideas, whether it’s for Silk Road Wellness or their own future business endeavors.
“My kids have developed an entrepreneurial streak - they have amazing ideas about making their future mark as Muslim business people. They are already brainstorming business ideas, cards, advertising, brochures,” Annie smiles with pride. “Just the other day, I overheard them talking about what kind of services they want to offer in their respective businesses.”
Annie’s children aren’t the only ones who are inspired. When we see the beautiful success that she’s brought to her business and her family, we’re reminded of the creativity, curiosity and power of the Muslim sisterhood.
Pursuing a radically nontraditional career path and making her own space in the business world has opened Annie up to scrutiny, however. But every day, she’s growing as a businesswoman, a Muslim, a writer, researcher and as a deep thinker. “Creating new boundaries as a Muslim woman by choosing to take a different path, while balancing faith, culture and life is an acceptable goal — and an attainable one,” she says.
“What you do with faith in mind will work out,” she wants her sisters to know. “It will always work out.”
Wherever our own interests and passions may lead, Annie's journey serves as a guiding light, sparking courage and conviction to keep going, no matter the odds. And that makes her a Muslim Shero of Minnesota.
As Lead Storyteller at Reviving Sisterhood, Sarah Gruidl writes for the Muslim Sheroes of Minnesota storytelling project, centering the lived experiences and the diverse accomplishments of female trailblazers and change-makers.
In collaboration with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), we’ve shared a range of stories about Muslim Sheroes in Minnesota – women who are making a difference in their community without waiting for permission. Get inspired by their stories.
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In a city rocked by anti-immigrant activism, Muslim Shero Ayan Omar strives to build a bridge of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in St. Cloud, Minn. Discover more about her efforts.