MANY MUSLIM WOMEN IN U.S. FEEL EMPOWERED
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The mosque -- or masjid in Davis, Calif., had
become too small for the city's growing Muslim population, and a
thorny debate arose over how to rectify the problem.
The all-male mosque board was riven with politics, and when her
husband quit, Dr. Shereen Zakauddin Vera volunteered to take his place.
Vera quickly spoke up -- when the men talked of building a second
story where the women and children could pray, she argued, "Why do we
have to pray upstairs? We have old women who have trouble getting up
Her concerns were heard, and she took a key role in raising the
$650,000 needed to tear down the old mosque and build a larger,
4,000-square-foot house of worship.
Instead of hiding behind tradition, a growing number of American
Muslim women such as Vera are looking inward, re-examining their role
in Islam and stepping up as community leaders.
Since 9/11, in particular, the women "are finding their voice and
trying to reconcile their love and passion for Islam with universal
principles of democracy and freedom," said Madhavi Sunder, a
University of California, Davis, law professor writing a book on
What the attack on New York City's twin towers did was bring American
Muslims from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa together, Sunder
said. "It certainly was a galvanizing event. Among young people
there's been a revolt against the stereotype of the silent, victimized
Rather than rejecting their traditions, women are digging in deeper,
beyond extremism, to a level of individual activism that reflects a
more moderate Islam. "You do not see them rejecting Islam," Sunder
said. "But you're seeing them in the upper echelons of leadership,
even in the mosque, increasingly calling attention to the Islamic
principles of equality and democracy."
This awakening can be seen from coast to coast, said Mohamed Nimer,
research director for the Council on American Islamic Relations, the
nation's leading Muslim civil rights group.
"The profile of women in America is totally different than in many
majority Muslim countries," Nimer said. "They are more highly
educated, a lot more likely to be part of a two-income household, they
make money and contribute to community institutions, so they have more
voice. Since 9/11, Muslims have been discussing many things, not just
women's roles but the very definition and nature of American Muslim
STANDING UP FOR THE FAITH
Women are leaders in CAIR chapters in places including Los Angeles and
the San Francisco bay area.
Safaa Ibrahim, executive director of the Bay Area chapter, said that
before 9-11, "I wasn't very religious, I didn't make it to the mosque
But, "Because the people who carried out the attack called themselves
Muslim, it made me need to explain that these people were
misinterpreting the faith."
Not only did she "dive into becoming more informed about Islam,"
Ibrahim said she chose to wear her hijab "to show pride in my faith
rather than allow the faces of terrorists to represent the faith."
While Muslim women wearing the hijab "end up receiving the worst
discrimination out there," because of their visibility, Ibrahim said,
"American Muslim women were always much more involved in the community
than men -- they're the mothers, the teachers. In my household my
husband's the breadwinner, which allows me to go out and fight for
Vera, the Davis activist, and other Muslim women are assuming
leadership roles in civil rights organizations, schools and mosques
long dominated by men -- using their posts to condemn terrorists as
Some are choosing to pray in "moderate" mosques that don't segregate
women behind walls or partitions, while others still prefer to
concentrate on prayer without being watched or distracted by men.
"The obvious misconception is Muslim women are subjugated or
oppressed, when in reality they're at the forefront of our society,
including social and political work," said Sawsan Morrar, a
21-year-old woman who is president of the 200-member Muslim Student
Association at UC Davis.
Othman Alsoud, 37, president of the Davis mosque, said several men did
object to Vera taking a leadership role typically filled by men. "They
said she can't be a leader -- it's against Islam," said Alsoud, who
refuted that argument with the help of several Muslim scholars. In
fact, he nominated Vera, a neonatologist, to the board without her
knowledge. She got the second-highest number of votes. "It has made a
huge difference -- now our sisters have a voice," Alsoud said.
"They're much more involved in fundraising."
Vera sets a positive example, Alsoud said, not only for other Muslim
women, but for their Davis neighbors and city officials not used to
dealing with Muslims, or Muslim women.
Nearly 400 residents attended the mosque's recent open house and saw
Vera in action: "They came to see a lady -- they see Muslims are not
terrorists, they are not oppressing women," said Alsoud, a computer
engineer from Jordan who attended UC Davis.
Vera said she got involved in the building project partly because
there was talk of banning women and children from the old Davis mosque
to make room for 100 more men -- under Islam, men, not women, are
required to attend group prayer. Such a ban was enacted in Lodi, in a
community of Muslims from rural northern Pakistan.
"I'm still just one voice in a whole community of men," said Vera, a
Pakistani immigrant who said she fought stereotypes to become a doctor.
Vera, Morrar and others acknowledge that some Muslim immigrants come
from regions where culture is used to control women. In Afghanistan,
for example, during Taliban rule, men forbade women from being
educated and cut off the fingers of women who wore nail polish.
Dina El-Nakhal, who attended UC Davis in 1993, said the Muslim Student
Association was divided because older students wanted the sexes
segregated while younger ones wanted to be together. "Eventually there
was a coup d'etat and the younger group took over," she said.
A woman's role in society can depend on where a Muslim family's roots
are, said Mohammad Armitti, a board member of Masjid Annur, a large
mosque located in south Sacramento.
In parts of Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, supposedly
for their own safety, said Armitti, a businessman from Jordan.
But despite the driving restriction, Saudi Arabian women are free to
pursue education and careers, the same as women in Lebanon, Jordan and
Egypt, he said.
"Not everything is 100 percent hunky dory -- there are some cultural
clashes, and it's hard to leave tradition behind," Armitti said. "For
example, a man will say the woman 'should obey me at all times, either
my way or the highway, this is Islam' -- but this is ignorant. Women's
rights are protected under Islamic law. If you read the Koran, the
man's duty is to provide while the woman has a more important role, to
raise the family."
Masjid Annur, which attracts as many as 700 worshippers to the noon
Friday prayer, is known as a more traditional mosque where men and
women pray in separate rooms.
There are no women on the mosque board, but the principal of Annur's
Islamic school is a woman, Badiaa Wardany.
Wardany, an Egyptian immigrant who taught high school in Kuwait, got
her master's degree from California State University, Sacramento, and
wrote her thesis on "Perceptions of Religion Among Feminists and the
"People need to know the difference between cultural Islam -- which
most of the time does not really represent the faith -- and Islam
itself," said Wardany. "We always look at Islam as liberating women.
Before Islam, they were chattel, bought and sold as slaves and inherited."
Even the hijab is optional, and intended to keep men from objectifying
"Islam 1,400 years ago gave women the right to choose her own husband,
have her own business and finances, the right to ask for divorce and
control her own body," Wardany said.
Education is the key to liberation, Wardany said. Women who are
financially dependent are more likely to tolerate injustice than
educated women, she said.
While some Muslim immigrant women "with cultural baggage may be
expected to be slaves to their in-laws, be submissive and don't argue,
when you come to America your personality changes," Wardany said.
Imam Mohamed Kamel of Masjid Annur observes: "Muslim women are using
Islam to empower themselves and to battle their parents -- they are
more educated in Islamic law then their parents are," and can quote
the Koran to support female equality.
The question of prayer barriers between men and women heated up in San
Francisco, when the city's largest mosque tore down the 8-foot partition.
While some women loathed the wall because they felt like second-class
citizens and couldn't hear clearly the Imam's sermon or prayer
directions, others of both sexes said they wanted the wall back.
Even one of California's most colorful and best-known Muslim women,
Afghan lawyer Wazhma Mojaddidi, doesn't have a problem being
segregated, as long as she can hear the imam. "If I have men on either
side of me or behind me, I'm obviously going to be self-conscious
about the movements I make in prayer," said Mojaddidi, who defended
terrorism suspect Hamid Hayat in federal court in Sacramento.
"You're bending down and it is inappropriate for a man to stand behind
you and watch you do that," Mojaddidi said. "And I don't want to see
the backs of men praying in front of me, either."
Mojaddidi, who has represented immigrant Muslim women who say they're
victims of spousal and in-law abuse, says too much energy is being
wasted fighting for co-ed prayer spaces. "These types of fights are a
waste of time and inappropriate -- there are so many things where you
should try to push for equality and try to advance women."
Women ought to be on mosque boards and civil rights organizations,
Mojaddidi says, and focusing on causes such as creating a shelter
that's culturally appropriate for battered or abused Muslim women.
Not every American Muslim woman wants to leave her home for a
leadership position in the community. This spring, Kulsoum Zahir of
West Sacramento tested out her new driver's license, driving to the
supermarket after 40 years of staying at home.
"I'm happy," said Zahir, who wears heart-shaped earrings. "My husband
never stopped me from taking a job. I take care of my home and family
because I feel I need to. My husband fulfills our financial needs and
this is my way of paying him back."
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