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 and down."

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 Islamic women.

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 Muslim women."

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 identity."


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 every Friday."

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 what's right."

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 anti-Islamic.

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 Islamic Response."

"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 women.

"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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